Recently I sat in the plaza and my mind went back through the 60-plus years of our St. Andrew’s history and the hundreds of thousands of people who, in those years right up to the present, have been touched in some way by this ministry. Then I began to envision those yet to come, who in the decades ahead will be part of this faith community. Frankly, my emotions welled up within me of deep gratitude to God that I could have some part in His ministry for the past 47 years, the majority of that time being at St. Andrew’s.
Everything I ever have had to say or ever will say must be embodied in the essence of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and its implications for us.
I’ve been thinking back through these 47 years of ministry, particularly the previous 30 Easter sermons I’ve preached at St. Andrew’s. Just what is the essence of that message if I could only preach it one more time?
Let me share it with you in the most concise, specific way I possibly can. Simply said, the resurrection of Jesus Christ equips us to face the two biggest fears in the world: the fear of dying and the fear of living.
I’m convinced the first of those fears is the fear of dying, and that the second of those fears is the fear of living.
Would you agree with me? Aren’t all the fears of our lives captured by one of these two headings?
Today’s text is found at many places throughout the Bible, particularly in the New Testament. Today we are in 1 Corinthians 15:16-22.
One of the most important facts of the Christian faith is the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are those who can’t quite believe it happened in anything more than a spiritual way. Yet the Bible says the Creator/Sustainer God broke into human history in a supernatural way. He became a human being who was fully God and fully human. He took upon Himself the kind of suffering we experience. This sinless One went to the cross and experienced the very pain of death.
The Bible says He took upon Himself our sins. He died. He rose from the dead. During a six-week period of time, He appeared to more than 500 people. The very existence of the Christian church bears witness to the fact something happened to transform a broken, beaten group of losers into men and women who gave their lives for Jesus Christ, of whom they witnessed in His resurrection power.
Every Sunday bears its own witness to the living Christ. That’s why we no longer worship on the seventh day, the Sabbath. The first day is the day of resurrection. This is the Lord’s Day. Jesus Himself said in His revelation to John: “‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades'” (Revelation 1:17-18).
More than all the factual data we could muster in our endeavor to prove the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ is the fact He, right now, is in the business of changing lives. He is equipping people to die. He is equipping people to live. His words are borne out so beautifully. He said He raised His close friend Lazarus from the dead:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
Then, He added this question, which penetrates so deeply: “Do you believe this?”
I put the same question to you. Do you believe this? Is Jesus Christ risen as far as you are concerned? Does it make a difference to you?
The apostle Paul was overwhelmed with the significance of the resurrection. He took the position that if it is only for this life we have hope in Jesus Christ, we are (of all people) most to be pitied. The Christian faith is not self-delusional nonsense. It is the rugged, tough stuff of being equipped to live in this life, to die and to step into the presence of Jesus Christ, into a life that goes far beyond anything we know in this life. Our Christianity is not just a temporal, ethical system that helps us survive in this world. The fact is Jesus Christ is risen. It makes a tremendous difference!
First, the resurrection of Jesus Christ equips you to die.
We are only equipped to live when we are prepared to die. Have you ever thought that through? I know because of first-hand experience with the death of my 23-year-old daughter, Suzanne, in 1991 that a terminal disease is a terrifying reality. The death of anyone we love is difficult enough. At the same time, we have come to accept the death of elderly parents or a spouse in their 70s, 80s or 90s.
What troubles us is what we see as the premature death of a brother, sister, child or grandchild either by disease, terrorist attack such as in the Twin Towers, or the death of a 20-year-old pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels, who after his first start with the team with six consecutive shut-out innings, the next morning was killed in a traffic accident by a hit-and-run drunken driver.
What we forget is that all of us, right now, are suffering from a terminal disease. Take a good look at the person you love the most. That person may be sitting beside you this morning in church. That person may be far away. Still, the two of you hold one fact in common: You are both in the process of dying. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Granted, statistically speaking it will catch up with some of us sooner than with others. We play the hunches. We bet our turn will come up later. In reality, we are all part of a frantic string of refugees clutching to our few possessions and trying to find a safe place to live.
Psychiatrists tell us that we aren’t really mature until we confront the inevitability of our own death. Our modern existence can put a smooth veneer over this reality. There are many ways in which we blind ourselves to this inevitable fact.
I remember reading a book in 1975 by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross titled On Death and Dying. It’s now a classic. For many years, she studied the reactions of people confronting terminal illness. She concluded there are five stages a person goes through when he or she confronts the reality of impending death. The fact that an increasing number of people are dying of prolonged illnesses such as cancer has stimulated intense psychological studies into the effect the knowledge of dying has on a terminally ill person.
The first stage is denial. The average person refuses to admit this is the end. “It can happen to others. It is not going to happen to me. Somehow I’m different. That preacher is trying to scare me. He can use that threat as a manipulative device. Certainly there are some here who soon will die, but not me. Yes, some day, but way in the future.”
Somehow the stark reality of a doctor’s clinical result zeroes into our consciousness. Denial is forced to give way to fact. Our society denies death. We don’t hear much talk about it, do we? In fact, we may be uncomfortable hearing such confrontational conversation from the pulpit. Billy Graham once said the previous generation was afraid to talk about sex. Our generation talks freely about sex. Rather, our culture is afraid to talk about death.
The second stage is anger. Resentfully, we shake our fists in the face of life, in the face of God, in the face of all that crowds in upon us. We shout, “I don’t want to die! It’s not fair!” We need time to let the facts settle into our thoughts.
Anne and I experienced our share of anger at the death of our daughter, Suzanne. It just didn’t seem fair that a 23-year-old woman who loved life so much, who took friendships so seriously, who applied herself to her studies so well, who thought deep thoughts, who had high ideals, should succumb to cancer and die on the threshold of adulthood, never having had an opportunity to experience marriage, child-rearing and making the kind of professional contribution she was well-qualified to make. I never will get to attend her wedding, hold her children—my grandchildren. That makes me angry.
The third stage is bargaining. “OK, God, I guess I’m going to die. However, if You heal me, I promise to serve You faithfully. I’m willing to begin tithing and have my son or daughter go into ministry.” There are no atheists in foxholes. Many pledges have been made to God when a person confronts the possibility of death and would rather avoid it.
Kübler-Ross said of one terminally ill woman who did her bit of bargaining. She pled to live until her daughter’s wedding. She made it through. Back for a checkup, her doctor observed, “You have obtained your wish. You attended your daughter’s wedding.” To this she responded, “Doctor, I have another daughter!” The bargaining continues.
Stage four is depression. A gloom, a melancholy settles on the terminally ill person. She crawls into herself. Her thoughts are introspective. Reality is winning the day. It is a part of responsible coping with the reality of death. We have had our share and continue to have it.
The fifth stage is acceptance. The facts settle in as reality. The person finally accommodates one’s self. He is going to die. There’s nothing he can do about it. Death becomes the one sure fact of life. We lived in that constant reality once the doctors declared Suzanne had four to six weeks to live. We experienced our denial. We lashed out in anger at God and each other. We made our vain attempts at bargaining. We experienced depression. Suzanne was the first of us to come to acceptance. She continued to battle the cancer. She didn’t like the idea of death. She wanted to live. She settled in with the truth earlier than we did that she would die. She wrote in her journal about it.
I must be honest to say not only Christians come to this fifth state of acceptance. Many people experience an ultimate acceptance, and in some cases a serenity in the face of death.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead releases us from having to deny the reality of death. In fact, it equips us to die, because God’s Word tells us some things about the future. It doesn’t tell us everything. Let’s not make the Bible say what it doesn’t say, but it does share three specific promises, which will equip us to die.
One: God promises there is life beyond this life.
Jesus said just before His death: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going” (John 14:1-4).
The apostle Paul refers to Jesus as being “the first fruits of them that are dead.” His resurrection stands as evidence that life does not end with death. Christ is Victor.
Two: God promises hope.The apostle Paul wrote these words to the church in Thessalonica:
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).
The Christian need not be bogged down with sorrow as those who have no hope. We must be careful to say clearly that Paul is not saying we need not sorrow. He is describing two kinds of sorrow. One is the hopelessness surrounding the death of a nonbeliever. Dying becomes such an orgy that denies the reality that the loved one has departed. A fetish is made of the remains with an expensive casket and elaborate banks of flowers with fortunes spent on a lovely final resting place.
Tears stream at the funeral of a believer and a nonbeliever. Yet, they are two different kinds of tears. One accompanies the moans of those who have no hope. Their confidence is not in Christ. The other tears come from those of us who remain. We sob out of hearts throbbing with pain that we will not see our loved ones for awhile. It is so final in this life. We cry for ourselves, for no longer will we have the earthly presence of our loved one who is now in the presence of Jesus Christ.
Let’s not try to protect our children from the realities of death. They confront it regularly in school, on the street, in the media and in the normal flow of family life.
Although I’d heard about death, it was distant to me until as an 8-year-old living in Boston, Mass., word came that my Grandfather Oscar Bricker, my mother’s father, had died. He was a very special person to me. He was a farmer who owned a 180-acre spread in Yale, Michigan. I only got to see him once a year for a few days, but I loved him very much. A few months before his death, he had sold the farm; he and my grandmother, Della, moved in with my Aunt Beulah, recently widowed, and my cousins, Janet and Nancy.
I can’t remember whether we drove or flew—I think we drove—from Boston to Port Huron. What I do remember is the overwhelming grief I experienced as I walked into that funeral parlor and saw the casket surrounded by my grieving relatives and their friends. Literally, I walked toward it, and when I thought no one was looking, I reached forward and brushed my fingers against his cheek and his folded hands. That body, once so alive, pulsating with the energy of a hardworking farmer, a devout servant of Jesus Christ and a loving family man, was dead. Those calloused but soft hands that so often reached out to me, picked me up, held me close, felt like cardboard. I suddenly realized something had changed, and this life never would be the same again. My grandfather was gone. He had died at the age I am now.
What I began to realize existentially was that for a person of faith, death is simply a transition into the presence of Jesus Christ for eternity. Our family grieved. There were tears of sorrow. At the same time, there was an underlying sense of hope that someday we would be united with him in heaven. There also was some laughter as the family joked in the years to come about how punctual he always had been when it came to leaving for church on Sunday morning.
Grandfather Oscar, in his early horse-and-buggy decades, hooked up in front of the farmhouse, and in later days cranked up his Model T Ford. He would call out to Della, my grandmother, who always was finishing the last few chores before getting the family off to church. She outlived him by 25 years. The family joke at her memorial service in the mid-70s was that his first words to her when she arrived in heaven were, “Late again, Della!”
Jesus promised we will be with Him, united with our loved ones in heaven. We are promised new bodies. They will be recognizable. We don’t know much about our future state or existence. We do know we will be with Jesus, reunited with our brothers and sisters in the faith. It will be a different existence than here on earth. It will be free from the pain and sorrow we know here. Our hope is of a reunion with our Savior. We will see Him face to face and experience joy and quality of life that goes beyond anything we can imagine.
Three: God promises we need not face the specter of hell.
Jesus died to set us free from that ominous alienation from God Almighty. We can try to blind ourselves to the facts and deny the reality of hell, but built into the human psyche is a fear of death—that moment of accountability for all we have done wrong. There are some who can dull themselves with the narcotic of disbelief and cynicism, but the same Bible that promises heaven to those who put their trust in Jesus Christ says there is a hell, an eternal alienation and separation from God.
Those who refuse God’s love, those who are unwilling to repent of sin, turning down the free gift of salvation, run the risk of standing separated forever from God who loves them and went to the cross for them. To deny the fact of hell doesn’t make hell any less of a fact. The resurrection of Jesus assures us a place in heaven with our Savior. The sting of death is removed. The notion of punishment, of condemnation, which is universal to the human existence, is cancelled by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. This eternity in His presence will have purpose, as we will be kingdom-builders with Him in a new heaven and a new earth!
Second: The resurrection of Jesus equips us to live.
It has cataclysmic implications for our existence right now in this world. I know some people who would rather die than live. Suicide is an increasingly talked about reality for many contemporary men and women.
The facts are the Christian is one who is prepared to die and to live. The apostle Paul wrestled with this as he struggled with his own desire to die to be with Jesus, and on the other hand to remain here to serve his Lord.
How does the resurrection of Jesus equip you and me to live?
One: God promises us meaning.
Are you aware that grief is not a word restricted to the dying process? Grief in its ultimate sense involves the loss of meaning. Therefore, bereavement is a crisis of meaning. Grief is an expression of an exhausting effort to reintegrate the jumbled pieces of life’s puzzle into a picture that makes sense—as much emotional as practical.
It describes what a nation goes through in times of economic, political and international crises. It’s what we experienced in the wake of 9/11, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the various political and social upheavals, the economic meltdown. The plethora of home foreclosures is enough in itself to scare the savviest of investors. Then comes Bernard Madoff and his ponzi scheme that deceived some of the brightest and the best. Just who can you trust when you see life fortunes that have been put together carefully through decades decreased by close to 50 percent and in some cases completely evaporate?
Some of us avoid the immediate lack of meaning by reverting to the past. We become extra conservative, pretending to live in a bygone era that we are determined to resurrect into the present. I have a friend who is ultra-conservative. He recently was complaining, “Even nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.” Some of us are radicals who project into the future a new day, a new order that has meaning.
Some of us Christians become preoccupied with eschatology. All we talk about is the second coming of Jesus Christ, avoiding His call to live in the present, occupying ourselves until He comes. The answer is not clinging to assumptions that deny the reality of change, being extra conservative or prescribing radical alternatives that deny the present. Jesus Christ offers an integration of the best of the past with the inevitable change which is producing the future. Jesus Christ wants to walk with us in the present.
A friend recently described his life before he came to Jesus Christ as one in which “I was going around in circles, circles of emptiness, with me at the center!”
I am convinced Jesus Christ is the missing piece in the puzzle called life. Without Him, you almost can get it back together, but then it shatters into the confusion of a million pieces. Jesus said, “‘I am come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.'” He knows best how you are to live. He should—He is the One who created you!
Two: God promises you authentic forgiveness.
Have you ever done anything you shouldn’t have done? Be honest. Have you ever left undone anything you should have done? Be honest. Some of us live with a lot of guilt. Some of us have anesthetized ourselves to guilt, pretending there is no such thing as sin.
Sometime ago, the New York Times Magazine included in its lead headline—an article about crime—these words: “Intellectuals Do Not Wish to Be Caught Saying Anything Uncomplimentary About Humankind. But Wicked People Exist.”
The resurrection of Jesus Christ potentially takes the wickedness out of you.
A friend has a son who is allergic to bee stings. If a bee were to sting him, it would kill the boy. One day, a bee circled the two them. It landed on the boy. The father stood there petrified. Suddenly, the bee flew and stung the father’s arm. Then the bee flew back to the boy, yet nothing happened. Why? Because nothing could happen: The father had taken the sting out of the bee and rendered it harmless.
What is the sting of death? What makes death painful? Paul raised these questions when he declared, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:56-57).
The resurrection of Jesus Christ takes the sting out of death and exposes us to the freeing catharsis of confession. Your guilt is removed. You have acknowledged you are a sinner who needs forgiveness. There is nothing you have done that cannot be forgiven. The Bible says in 1 John 1:8-9: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Three: God promises you strength.
Jesus said we will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon us. Divine energy is yours. You have the strength to live. You are not alone. You are no accident. You are special to God. He wants to help you. His guidance is available. His direction is with you. Yours is not a faith of a good person who lived a perfect example and then died a martyr’s death on the cross. Your confidence is in the risen Lord, who wills to walk with you as an intimate Friend!
Four: God promises you a job.
Dr. N.T. Wright, the former Bishop of Durham, warns us that in our preaching of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we should not focus simply on God’s forgiveness in this life and heaven in the life to come. Salvation by grace not by works was the important theological truth that brought about the Protestant Reformation, but we live in danger of putting so much of a concentration on God’s grace that we forget we are saved for a purpose.
We are called to a joint enterprise with God in building His kingdom here on earth. Instead of clutching a one-way ticket to heaven, which is ours, we are privileged to be empowered by His Holy Spirit to change in positive ways the culture in which we live. The resurrected Christ could translate us straight to heaven after we repent and receive His grace. He doesn’t. He makes us His emissaries, His ambassadors here on earth to do His work in the most creative ways possible.
We don’t earn salvation by feeding the hungry; clothing the naked; giving a glass of clean, cold water to a thirsty person; visiting prisoners; taking care of the widowed and orphaned; or telling people Jesus loves them and inviting them to receive His salvation. This is our privilege. This is our opportunity. Each one of us needs a job, and He’s given us the greatest job of all.
Bishop Wright reminds us that as we come to faith in Jesus Christ, we have a big job to do. In his book Surprised by Hope, he tells us that we have three specific tasks as we build the kingdom of God here on earth. We are to see beyond our own vested selfish interests. With the interests of others, we must engage ourselves in justice for all people, not just for ourselves. He describes the tremendous social reforms brought about by the 18th century Quaker John Woolman and the British Parliamentarian William Wilberforce. We need more similar stories today.
He goes on to call us to more thoughtful care of our environment, giving attention to beauty, as we are stewards of God’s creation. We must dedicate ourselves to evangelism, sharing the good news of what God has done for us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is not something to selfishly hold on to and not share. He puts it in these words:
“The mission of the church must therefore reflect, and be shaped by, the future hope as the New Testament presents it. I believe that if we take these three areas—justice, beauty and evangelism—in terms of the anticipation of God’s eventual setting to rights of the whole world, we will find that they dovetail together and in fact that they are all part of the same larger whole, which is the message of hope and new life that comes with the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.”
Frankly, I dread that chapter of life called retirement. I’ve been gainfully employed since age 9. As the clock moves toward my retirement, I find myself resisting that reality. I know it’s time for St. Andrew’s to have a new pastor. I know it’s time for me to move into a new era of my life; but I’ll tell you, I don’t want to spend the rest of it just playing golf and walking the dogs.
I was getting sort of depressed about this whole thing when I received an email the other day. It was from a theological seminary inviting me to come for five days next year and be an adjunct professor. I was stunned at the impact that email and subsequent phone conversation had on my whole attitude toward life. Here I was, imagining being gainfully employed in purposeful work between ages 9 and 70, dreading the day when suddenly it would end.
As a young pastor in Key Biscayne, Fla., I often played golf with a number of hardworking executives from the northeast who vacationed in Florida. They would sit around after golf, dreaming about the day they could retire in Florida, playing golf every day, enjoying warm weather, the sunshine and the beach. Then, I observed as several of them did retire, move to Florida, play golf every day, bored to tears, spending their time drinking too much at the 19th hole and wistfully reminiscing about “the good old days at the office up north.” Two or three of them died within two or three years of receiving their gold watches.
People who I’ve admired the most are the ones who never expected to retire in the classical terms of retirement. Oh yes, there are stages to life, but one knows he or she was created to be a child of God, always participating in building the kingdom of God—in this life and the life to come. I could give you story after story of men and women here, part of St. Andrew’s, who have discovered the jobs God have for them in building His kingdom. These are men and women of all ages, all stages of life, all economic backgrounds, who see the tremendous privilege of teaching Sunday School, tutoring a child at Shalimar, doing special projects around the church, helping a neighbor in need, working with the mentally ill, giving of professional time and energy at no charge to someone who can’t afford to pay their professional services, and the list continues. I could put names and faces to each of these and many more categories. You get the message, don’t you?
If you have received Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, I affirm you in the way He has equipped you to face the two biggest fears in the world: the fear of dying and the fear of living. If you’ve wandered away from Him, after once knowing His provision, I invite you to come back to Him, reestablishing your relationship with Him that will reaffirm His provision.
If you’re on the outside looking in—perhaps you came to church as a guest of someone, because of the uncertainties in this time of economic meltdown, some dramatic crisis in your life or some sense of spiritual malaise—I invite you right now to receive Jesus Christ as your Savior and your Lord. I invite you to open your heart to Him, admitting you’re not perfect, asking His forgiveness for your sins, welcoming Him into your life. Today can be the most important day of your life if you say yes to God’s invitation!
What a joy to know that because of His resurrection we can face the two biggest fears in the world: the fear of dying and the fear of living!