I was reading just this week that three out of four people make up seventy-five percent of the world’s population. That’s pretty impressive when you think about it. It makes me wonder, though, if the folks who have presented us with this datum, aren’t also the kind of folk we could ask, “Do you walk to school, or do you take your lunch?” Or, “Do you feel more like you do now than you did before?” But here’s a bit of information that I made up all by myself: in less than one hundred years, all of us sitting here this morning are going to be dead. If Thomaston Baptist Church lives for another one hundred years, none of us will be here. A whole new group of people will have replaced us, and while it is exciting to think about all those new people listening for what God has in store for them, it is not so exciting to realize that we won’t be a part of it. And that is because we really don’t like to think about death. We don’t want to think about the deaths of our loved ones, and we don’t want to think about our own, eventual deaths. And, as we have all too lately observed here in our own congregation, death is an ever present part of our lives. With the possible exception of a couple of characters from out of the Bible who did not have to suffer the indignity of death, the death rate is still one per person for most of us. Although, once again, another handful of characters from out of the Bible have the dubious distinction of having passed that way twice. Two times they had to die because some faithful person like Elijah, or Jesus, or Paul brought them back from the dead.
And so let’s put death to death this morning, and start talking about resurrection instead. But first, a bit of a caveat and a bit of a warning. While it is true that we do not like to think about death and talk about death, it is probably also true that we would rather not talk about or think about resurrection. And that is because resurrection is far less real to us than is death. Death is our companion. We are well acquainted with death. We are convinced that we understand death. Resurrection, on the other hand, is not our companion. We have not met. We are unacquainted with resurrection. Death is present with us, resurrection has not yet come to us.
And we have all of these feelings in common with the folks who once lived in the church at Corinth. They knew, like we do, that grief doesn’t ever go away. The sting of death is always there. It is just that the swelling goes down a bit, and the pain becomes tolerable and manageable, but it is always there. We will shed tears of grief for loved ones who’ve gone on before us, until the day when our loved ones shed tears of grief over us.
And God certainly understands this. God knows that our loved ones will be a permanent part of us for as long as we are alive. God never, ever trivializes our experience of grief. God is a griever himself. He grieves when we grieve. He grieves when we are bent over in sorrow; God had to stand by and watch as his own son suffered and died. God knows grief.
Once a month, as part of our worship, we gather for a memorial service. And when we do, it is the death of Jesus that we remember. And we do this at both our Lord’s invitation and at his command. And we remember the suffering that our Lord endured. We call to mind the broken body and the shed blood of Jesus. When the Apostle Paul wrote about this service of remembrance, he said that as often as we eat this bread and drink from this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. (1 Cor 11:26)
And in that, there is a shining beacon of hope. Each time we observe this memorial service, each time we remember the death of our Lord, and each time we recall the death of a loved one, our hearts are drawn in a new direction, for we do not remember without a purpose. We remember with hearts that are filled with hope. We remind ourselves, over and over again, that death is not permanent. Across the street, at St. John’s, when they celebrate communion, they say to each other, out loud, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again.” They’re a little more up front about it than we are over here. They don’t look back without looking ahead, and neither should we.
But looking ahead is sometimes a very difficult thing to do. Sometimes all that we can do is look around, and we look around at the things that surround us and beset us and confuse us. It takes a sturdy and determined act of the will to look ahead.
And I think that that’s part of the problem that some of the folks in Corinth had. They were really really good at looking around, but they weren’t very good at looking ahead. They could identify everything that was wrong in the “around”, but that was about it. They had become so caught up in the cares and concerns of the present, that they lost sight of some very important things that had been promised, but had not yet come to pass.
Verse 12 sums it up rather nicely. “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” Now I am absolutely certain that in every congregation in every place in Christendom, that there are people who absolutely do not believe in the resurrection of the dead. It is inevitable. And the response to the Apostle Paul’s question is very simple: we say that there is no resurrection from the dead, because there is no resurrection from the dead. Dead is dead. There is nothing beyond the grave. This life is all that there is. It is heaven and hell all wrapped up into one, relatively short experience.
That sounds very rational and very intelligent, and very authoritative. And it is usually voiced by those who truly know. These people speak as if the matter has been settled. That is has been thoroughly and scientifically investigated, and that the inescapable conclusion is that there has never been any resurrection from the dead, that there is not now any resurrection from the dead, and that there never will be any resurrection from the dead.
You know? Those folks don’t trouble me one bit. Some people are not only very zealous in their disbelief, but often they’re quite evangelistic about it. And, they’re always going to be around. They’re everywhere. What troubles me are what I call functional disbelievers. A functional alcoholic is someone who is addicted to drink, but who, for the most part, can function normally in most areas of his or her life. A functional disbeliever, then, is very similar. This is someone who will not accept the irrational claim of resurrection, but who is perfectly comfortable identifying him or herself as a Christian. For these folks, the Christian faith makes sense to them in almost every way, with the exception of resurrection. The teaching is sound, the moral and ethical behaviors of the faith are exemplary, but resurrection just doesn’t cut it. There is no hope beyond the grave.
But, as irrational as it is, resurrection is critically important to the Christian faith. If Jesus is not risen from the dead, then we have built an entire religion around something that is a lie. We are guilty of perpetuating a hoax. And so we need to ask ourselves, why would a group of people create a religion that highly values truthfulness and honesty and integrity, but base the whole thing on a huge, intentionally deceptive lie? And why would those first and earliest Christians have risked their own lives, and sacrificed their own lives for something that they knew, deep down, was nothing more than the lie of a fruitful and active imagination? Nobody in their right mind would give up their life for something that they knew to be a lie; not today, and not 2,000 years ago. 2,000 years ago, if a person chose Christianity, it meant, in many cases, that they had also chosen death. Most of the earliest Christians would have quickly abandoned their faith, if not for their sincere and deep belief that Christ’s resurrection made possible their own resurrections from the dead. It would have been foolish for them to have risked shortening this life, if indeed there was no hope in a life that was yet to come. If there is nothing beyond the grave, why hasten the journey?
Ultimately, there can be no valid Christianity if Jesus is not risen from the dead. If Jesus is dead, our faith in him is dead, and we, though we appear to live and breathe, are dead in our sins, unforgiven and unredeemed, with no hope whatsoever for any kind of future. And if we are dead, then our loved ones who’ve gone on before us are also quite dead. And that is cause for the deepest grief and the deepest sorrow, because it is grief and sorrow that will never be healed or ameliorated. The Apostle Paul says very plainly, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are all people most to be pitied.”
But thanks be to God, who has in fact raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus is alive. We are alive in him. Our hope is in the living Christ, and we will live forever. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ is coming again. This is the mystery and the truth of our faith.