I Corinthians 15:1-18
“Dead is Dead – Or Is It?”
March 31, 2013
I’ll soon be coming up on twenty-five years in full-time ministry, and have been taking inventory. During that time I have presided at a funeral or memorial service for over 200 people. Some of them have been memorable.
The first was on my twenty-fourth birthday, for a man named Walter whose last name was unknown. He died in a state hospital in Delaware and was buried there. Six people were present, counting a couple of the nurses and the gravediggers. At the other extreme was a former Philadelphia Captain of Police, where the viewing had to be extended three hours because of the crowd.
There was one where the funeral director took the body to the wrong church and so the man really was late to his own funeral.
At one, we buried a six-month-old who died of HIV-related complications. At another, we recalled what was going on when the woman was born and James Garfield was president.
There was a poet in Allentown who ended up having three different memorial services: one for family, one for friends, and one for the writers and artists who only realized what had happened three months later.
There was the woman whom we laid to rest exactly 365 days after we had commended her husband to the Lord’s care.
There was the man who was so heavy that an extra-wide, reinforced casket had to be ordered.
There was the woman who had her ashes taken to Hawaii to be scattered because she thought her grandson worked too hard, and that was her ultimate way of forcing him to take a vacation.
I could go on.
In many of these instances, I was present along with the family at the very strange, holy second when someone entered eternity. I’ll tell you now not to be afraid of that, and to realize that time itself seems to change in those moments. That’s one reason we should never judge people and stand in humility when it comes to speaking of someone’s eternal destiny. None of us know the fullness of what transpires between God and the soul in those moments.
One thing I can say about all of these people, however, with total certainty, is that none of them have returned from the grave. So why should I believe that Jesus did? How do I know that the women who went to his tomb to embalm his body and not only found it gone but weren’t imagining things or making it all up? Anybody who thinks that is in good company. Luke says, that even Jesus’ closest followers thought so.
“Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” [Luke 24:10-11]
The thing is that they changed their minds.
What happened was that they saw him for themselves. It wasn’t a matter of him not being in the grave. After all, someone could just have removed his body – and that was a suspicion that the gospels also record. But instead, Jesus began appearing all over the place. It became a matter of him actively being at large in the world.
“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” [I Corinthians 15:3-8]
I cannot make anybody believe that. I can only bear witness to it. There are all sorts of arguments for the resurrection, but none of them are as strong as the argument that dead is dead. So I won’t waste my time on them.
It is no waste of time, though, to say that there have been millions of people whom you couldn’t make not believe, because they also have encountered a risen Jesus, and their stories are worth hearing.
They have met him, some of them, in visions when they’ve been afraid or grieving or troubled, and he has appeared to them and called them by name and they have known sudden, unexpected, irrational peace.
They have met him, some of them, speaking through the gospels. They have caught a voice that speaks of the kingdom of God, where the captive are freed and the world is fair; where war has been replaced by peace, and violence by nurture, and hatred by love.
They have met him, as he said they would, in the hungry and the sick and the lonely, when in serving someone else and recognizing the image of God in every human being, they have seen the image of the most human one of all, the one who got every aspect of being human right.
They have met him in moments of intense joy, when their souls cry out, “Alleluia!” They have met him in moments of forgiveness, given and received, when old anger or old guilt has fallen away – or, more accurately, has been lifted off of them by someone who has said, “Here, let me take that for you.”
They have met him when they were wrestling with difficult questions and asked for guidance. They have met him when they were struggling to do what they already knew to be right but just didn’t have the strength to follow through on until that strength suddenly appeared out of nowhere, like the apostle Paul who wrote of his changed life,
“I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” [I Corinthians 15:9-10]
There is no end to the ways in which Jesus, risen from the dead, makes himself known.
So when I think about all the people whose souls I, with others, have commended into his care, I feel confidence that he is able to take charge of them, and I will go so far on this Easter morning to invite you, here and now, whatever is going on in your life or not going on in your life, to hear the words of the funeral service that I have read over and over and over:
“Help us by day and by night,
at all times and in all places,
to commit ourselves and those whom we love
to your never-failing care in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
I invite you to commit yourself to the one who died and rose and who lives. I invite you to make his life part of your own, here and now, to join the adventure of faith with those tale-telling women and the people who did not believe them until they knew for themselves, firsthand, in their hearts, that Christ is risen and goes before us in life and in death and in life beyond death.