The Final Say
Yesterday in the car I was theologically outmaneuvered by a 10 year old. It began with some offhanded, irreverent comments about death being bandied around the back seat, and me gently interjecting that death was serious, and not something to joke about.
One of them responded, “Why? What’s the big deal?”
And I said, “Because death is final; people don’t come back from that.”
At which point my doctrinally astute nephew piped up, “Not always. Sometimes people do come back from the dead. I mean, other than Jesus, even.”
He then went on to tell a detailed account of his preschool teacher, who, at one point in her life, had been a missionary in another country, teaching in a school, when a bomb went off, and she died. “And God brought her back from the dead. She even has scars on her head from it.” He cheerfully announced.
“Cool.” Owen declared.
(And incidentally, I happen to know this was all true, having heard the same account from my sister years before, just after having met this very teacher at my nephew’s preschool).
Before I could respond, they’d moved on to the kid from Heaven is for Real, who also came back from the dead, and from there things kind of barreled out of reach until the next thing I knew, my whole argument was pointless, and I sat helplessly listening as they reached some kind of comfortable conclusion about death’s non-finality because, Hey, sometimes people come back!
This letter to the Corinthians that we’ve been making our way through all summer is one of the earliest writings in the New Testament, dated a mere 25 years or so after Jesus’ death, and a good couple of decades before any of the gospels. But already, despite widely circulated letters and reports, established creedal statements, and shared hymns, and even despite still living people’s eye-witness accounts of the risen Jesus, this community of believers, in contrast to the kids in my car, were apparently already struggling with the idea of death’s non-finality.
What does it mean that Jesus came back from the dead? Was it “real?,” a physical resurrection of the physically dead Jesus? Or could it be some kind of spiritual resurrection? And what does that mean about us? What about our bodies and death and all that?
As Paul writes them a letter dealing with all manner of instructions and corrections about their faith and daily life together, he saves this part for last, as though to say, if you remember anything, you guys, remember this. This part is super important; the whole thing falls apart without it: Resurrection is real. And it matters a lot that it’s real.
A few years back, a religious website, Patheos, would run a “100 word or less” feature around Easter. They’d ask a few people to answer something related to the Resurrection, in 100 words or less.
One year it was “Why do you need the Resurrection?” the next year it was, “Is the Resurrection for real?”
I’m not going to lie; Paul would have really struggled with the 100 words or less thing. But these two questions are the very questions he spends this whole chapter of 1 Corinthians 15 answering.
So, to get us started with the second question first, I’ve taken the liberty of distilling Paul’s answer down to exactly 100 words – (all of them Paul’s). Here is Paul, from 1 Cor. 15:12-26, on the question, “Is the Resurrection for Real?”
If Christ has not been raised;
then our proclamation, and your faith, have been in vain.
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ,
we are, of all people, most to be pitied.
If Christ has not been raised,
your faith is futile,
you’re still in your sins,
and those who’ve died in Christ have perished.
For since death came through a human being,
the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;
for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
It matters that Jesus was raised from the dead, Paul says.
It means something that he was really raised, because he really died.
His death was not figurative or conceptual; it was real. And that matters because we really die, more than a “spiritual” death.
Death also has a hold on us that is something beyond simply breathing our last. It has the power to separate, to destroy, to end. There is, indeed, a finality to it.
If I had been prepared to press the argument with my philosophical passengers I might have said, ‘Hey kids, guess what is the one thing all those resurrected people you were talking about have in common? You know, the ones who come back from the dead like Lazarus, and your preschool teacher, and the kid from Heaven is for Real… other than dying and coming back, I mean? Can you guess? They die again. Because we all do. That’s how it ends. Death gets us all eventually.’
Boom. Final word. (Who’s the smart one now, huh)?
We all die. And because we die, because death has such a hold over us, a figurative resurrection simply is not enough. Is the Resurrection for real?
Here, in 100 words, is my answer:
It had better be real.
As real as the contractions that ripped new life from my body.
As real as the rattle that strangled life out of his.
I’ve no use for a spiritual resurrection.
for the drowned, damaged, disfigured, disowned,
is emotional ease,
if the pain of flesh and bones
is answered with mystical comfort,
if Guns are stronger than god,
then count me out.
But tell me that Death Loses,
tell me that Life Prevails,
and not in the abstract,
but in pulsing blood, flowing tears, thumping heart,
then the Resurrection
for us all.
The Bible, and our Christian faith, is full of paradoxes – Jesus is both completely human and completely God, God is One God who is at the same time simultaneously Father, Son and Spirit. We are a vast variety of uncontrollably different people, and yet we are also somehow one body, suffering and rejoicing with each other. And this biggie, that the Corinthians were having a hard time getting their head around: we die – our lives end, but also, death is not the end.
The paradox starts with something Paul wants us to recognize about death: Death is two different things at the same time. On the one hand, it is the inevitable and natural end of earthly life, the cessation of breathing and heartbeat and brain activity. Part of living on the earth means we die – this reality is shared by all creatures, plants animals and humans. That is one meaning of death.
But that is not the sting of death. The sting of death is sin. It is separation. Separation from God, separation from those we love, separation from our true connection and fullness, from all the beauty and joy of living, from the ongoing creativity and unfolding projects we are just in the middle of, from the time that isn’t long enough, and the relationships that are just getting going. Separation, division, destruction.
Sin means death reaches into all of life, wreaking havoc on the earth, inside us, between us. Death as separation brings anguish, despair and torment. It lurks in our weak and perishable bodies, clinging to our mortality and frailty, feeding our shame and judgment.
It preys on our fears, whispering that these things can keep us from one another, can keep us from God, can keep us from love, prevent us from being worthy of receiving love, or capable of giving love. From all that is real and good and true and essential to our being, sin gives death the authority to regularly, ultimately and permanently separate us.
But here is the good news, Paul says (in many, many words): Jesus Christ defeated death.
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
And then he says,
For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality…then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
Death doesn’t have the power to separate us forever – and the separation we experience now with death is frightening and real, but temporary and restricted, because resurrection exists in Christ’s body, and one day will in us too.
Christ has come from outside death, from the time when all will live, into this time when all will die. God has broken through that barrier of immortality and imperishability and taken onto Godself mortality and weakness, joining us inside this whole dying kind of living thing.
And now that that Christ has died, with us and for us, and has risen, bodily, from the dead, he brings us with him out of this time that all die, into the time when all live, the time of resurrection and new life. We perishable beings will put on imperishability; we mortal beings will put on immortality.
In the very, very end, life - unbroken connection to God and love and each other - is what triumphs. Death’s reign is broken, and our kids’ baptism mantra, that guarded them from nightmares in their younger years, is powerful and true, “Death can’t get me because Jesus has got me.”
And it also means death as the natural part of living, when we wear out and stop breathing and being, in the way we understand being to be, while the end of our human journey here on earth, is simply a transition from one chapter to the next, a shift to the new way of being, moving us from the time that all die to the time when all live. Death dies, Life lasts.
And this life after death is not hypothetical or spiritual, it is real and bodily and true, and it embraces and transforms the whole of us, not just some disembodied soul part that separates from the rest of us and floats off. And this eternal life is for more than just us; it is for the whole earth, the ravaged oceans and decimated mountains and flooded valleys. It is for the stolen children and the grieving parents, and the abused generations and war-torn nations, the broken promises and broken hearts. In the very, very end all things will be redeemed and made new.
Biblical scholar Richard Carlson describes “…the ultimate theological question for Paul is not: “What happens to us when we die?” Rather, the ultimate theological question is, “Who has final say regarding the existence of everything in the cosmos, Death or God?” Paul’s answer is clear: At Christ’s [second coming] the final victory will belong to God as humanity marked by Christ will be raised; Christ will destroy all that stands in opposition to God; and Christ will hand over everything he has liberated back to God so that God will be the everything in everything (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).
God has the final say. Not death; Life. And if that is true, and we are banking it all on the trust that it is, then thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
Because nothing is futile or wasted, nothing is hopeless or lost.
All the things that separate and divide, degrade and destroy, their power is temporary; their end is ensured. But every act, and word, and prayer, and thought, that comes from love, returns to love. It is part of what endures forever. Every moment of forgiveness and connection, every building up and reaching out, each experience of devotion and care remains eternally, because love never fails.
So Paul’s words to the Corinthians are to us too: Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
The true hope of death’s non-finality, is not that some people here and there might escape death to come back for a few more years before succumbing again. (sorry, kids).
And it’s not that we have cracked the mystery of what happens after each of us dies, or have been given a spiritual comfort in figurative ideas to get us through life.
The hope of the resurrection is that the question of who has the final say over the whole cosmos has been settled, once and for all. And nothing matters more than that.
So, why do I need the resurrection? Here’s my 100-word answer:
I need the Resurrection
because this week
my foster niece came back with a broken arm,
and last night my daughter learned
that not all Amber Alerts have happy endings.
I need the Resurrection
because Marty’s on his way and we can’t stop it,
and little Omran’s brother didn’t survive the blast after all.
Because I’ve detonated rage
and watched their sweet faces harden and close to me.
Because evil is pervasive
and I participate.
I need the Resurrection
because it promises
that in the end
all wrongs are made right.
And Life and Love
And here, in 100 words, from his letter to the Romans (8:31-40), is Paul’s answer:
What then are we to say about these things?
If God is for us, who’s against us?
Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will hardship, distress, persecution?
Will famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
No, in all these things
we are more than conquerors
through him who loved us.
For I’m convinced
that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.