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1 Corinthians 15:19-26

“Easter Promises the Death of Death and Dying”

Life, and especially, death has a way of entering into the normal events of our living. Last fall I found myself making accommodations for one of my students whose grandfather had passed away. I also thought about my own grandson. He is nearing his second birthday and is just beginning to learn about life. Recently he discovered snow. As he watched the strange white stuff fall, he asked his parents if it was raining.

One motivating factor I have in spending time with him is to create memories so that he will remember me. How this ties into my student’s situation is that I asked her how old her grandfather was. It turned out that he was the same age as me. While his granddaughter was in her twenties my grandson will only be two by the time this lectionary is published. It is unfortunate that her grandfather passed away at what I would consider a relatively young age. At the same time, he was blessed by living and knowing her into her twenties. For me, I only hope I will still be alive when my grandson sits in a college class. The specter of death hangs over all of us but this situation with my student brought the reality of death even closer. Certainly, death is the prime enemy of humanity. Paul speaks to the issue and holds out a promise when he wrote “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (NRSV, 26)

The lectionary passage for Easter, I Corinthians 15: 19-26, focuses upon conquering death as central to the Christian understanding of salvation. Paul’s initial comments put the matter rather bluntly but accurately, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (19) The preceding verses make the argument that faith cannot exist apart from the resurrection of Christ, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”(17) Perhaps as important he went on to write, “Then those also who have died in Christ have perished” (18) if Christ had not been raised from the dead. Christ’s death on the cross only resulted in our forgiveness when his resurrection defeated death, the penalty of sin.

Easter promises the death of death and dying.

The resurrection is more central to our understanding of Jesus than we sometimes allow. Because he is the son of God, we may not always see death being directly tied to his existence. We may view it instead as a possible option of his humanity. We may have to realize that how Christ died may not be more important than that he died.

His incarnation meant that in becoming human he would face death. His entire existence pointed towards the ending of his existence as does ours. While death may be a central feature of his humanity, the source of his resurrection does not lie in his own nature, human or divine.

Paul points to the source of his resurrection: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” (20) The resurrection of Jesus did not spring from him being God or part of the trinity. His death is real. He did not self-raise himself to a new life. In some ways the line from the Easter hymn is half right: “Up from the grave he arose.”

Actually, “up from the grave he was raised” by the Father. Paul rightly claims that “Christ has been raised from the dead.” He did not create his own resurrection; instead, the Father raised him as he does us. Certainly, we are aware that our humanity ends only in death.

We have nothing inside of us that generates a new existence; instead, we too depend upon the Father to raise us to new life as he did the Son. A conversation with a New Testament colleague caused me to think about Jesus’ reaction to the death of Lazarus. John tells us that “Jesus wept” [John 11:35] when he saw Mary and the Jews weeping. Was Jesus angry at what death had done? Was Jesus thinking about his own death? He had not prevented Lazarus from dying and his raising of him did not prevent his later death but then Lazarus would have hope of the resurrection. Certainly, Jesus more than anyone had to be aware of the affects of death and dying. Later at Gethsemene, he prays about the matter. Yet, the price of his being born meant that he would have to die. At least he would have to die and be raised from the dead if we were to have redemption from death.

While death awaits us all, the process of dying affects us at nearly every turn in our human existence. Death does more than end our life. Sin diminishes the quality of our living as people treat us as less than human. People cheat and harm us. Death brings disease into our world that diminishes our quality of existence. Treatment for many diseases brings suffering and anxiety. Certain physical conditions resulting from the imperfection of birth make our living difficult. Death brings the aging process. I am grateful for hearing aids and glasses but it complicates living. Think even more of the diminishing of life when an individual begins to lose their memory and no longer recognizes their loved ones.

Death and dying has brought a temporal quality to our existence. Other religions recognize the impermanence of life. Buddhism illustrates this when a Buddhist Monk spends days making a mandala or a sand art work containing symbols of the Buddhist faith, only to destroy it to illustrate the impermanent nature of all existence. The difference in Christianity is that we see Jesus, the Christ, as the one who defeats dying through his own resurrection from the dead.

Easter brings the promise of the ending of the dying or impermanent nature of life as we now know it. Paul writes, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (26) Death and sin has also brought division within our world. If we want to live in Christ’s new world, it might mean that we should work to build bridges with those with whom we differ. While Christians celebrate Easter on April 17, Jews and Muslims will also have religious Jews celebrate God’s liberation in the Exodus event. Some Muslims celebrate Laylat al Barat. As a night of forgiveness, some Muslims pray all night that God will forgive their sins. Many Muslims understand this special night as a preparation for celebration of Ramadan that begins two weeks later. {;] If we have Muslim or Jewish friends we can at least be aware that during this Easter season we all are looking to God for forgiveness and liberation. While we may not agree with each other as to what constitutes truth we can respect each other.

The lectionary passage may also indicate that the resurrection means a restoration of life for both the world and individuals. Paul writes, “Then comes the end when he hands over the kingdom of God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” Certainly death and dying is built into the entire fabric of our world. Should we see anything that destroys the quality of life as enemies? Could the scripture imply that the entire world will be saved as well as the individuals in it? If so, could this mean that we have a role to play now if we are part of his new creation? Perhaps this might mean we should concern ourselves with big issues like climate change and ecology. Do we have a responsibility to care for the world? Should we be sensitive to the affects of death and the aging process that impacts us all? Should we work to enable all people to have quality of living? This might include caring that all people have health care or housing. Can we also try to understand and show love to Jews and Muslims as well as to people of other faiths or to those who do not have faith? Should we work now to help those for whom Christ’s resurrection on Easter offers a new existence without death and dying?