Resurrection is life where death means nothing
Sermon by Andy Wurm, Pentecost 22, 10th November 2019
Today’s gospel story about Jesus being challenged by a group of Sadducees, with their dilemma about what happens in the afterlife, shows they have no idea what they’re talking about. In response to their question Jesus shows that for God, death is not what it is for us, but we have access to what it is for God.
Is resurrection just to do with life after death? If so, then Jesus’ appearances after death were to prove God could overcome death and there was life after death. It would seem not, though, because God could have achieved the same result simply by raising from death ordinary people who had died. No crucifixion complicating things. However, before looking at an alternative, if this were the case, that Jesus’ resurrection was God’s way of showing us he could overcome death and make us alive again, then it would imply a particular meaning to his statement that ‘those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who believes in me will never die’. What Jesus would mean by that would be that people who give their assent to me, will get life after death. Those who vote for me, those who join my team, those who agree I am the Saviour etc., will be raised to life after they die.
There are two flaws in this thinking. The first is to do with what belief is in John’s Gospel. Belief, in John’s Gospel doesn’t mean holding to an idea, e.g. that Jesus is the Saviour of the world, or that a particular snake is not venomous. Belief, in that case, would involve something like patting the snake on the head. Belief in Jesus means committing oneself to follow him, in the sense of being like him, doing what he does. Similarly, when Jesus says he is the way, the truth and the life – he doesn’t mean truth in the Greek sense, of what’s correct and can be objectively verified, such as ‘Steven Marshall is the Premier of South Australia’, but truth in the sense of something which is gives true life and can only be verified by giving yourself to it.
This is reflected in our eucharistic prayer when the priest recites the words of Jesus to ‘do this in remembrance of me’. Jesus didn’t just mean solemnly break some bread and lift up a cup to re-enact what he once did, although doing so is part of it. What he means is do what I do, be like me, with your whole life. We are being invited into his life, even to become our own version of him – Jesuses, or Jesi.
This also happens to be the path to knowing God, for when people asked him to show God to them, he said just look at me, and if you really want to be close to God, be like me. That’s why philosophizing about God will only get you so far. You can discuss all sorts of theories, but the best way to know God is to mimic Jesus by loving others. The way to God is to love, more than assenting to propositions.
If we take believing in Jesus to mean living like him, in love for others and so on, then it gives a different interpretation to what I mentioned before, to say that those who believe in Jesus will never die, but will experience resurrection. That makes resurrection something that happens now, or at least something that can happen now, rather than something that only happens after you die.
I said there were two flaws in thinking that believing Jesus is your Saviour is just about gaining life after death. The second flaw is to do with death. God didn’t overcome death in raising Jesus to life from the tomb. He didn’t conquer death, because that implies God is more powerful than death. For that to be the case, death would have to be something that God has to do something about, because death gets in the way of God doing his thing. Death would therefore be something which challenges God, competes with God. If not, why would God have to do anything about it? Why would God have to overcome it? And in fact, that’s what death is like for us. Death is a challenge, a problem, it does get in the way of us doing our thing, such as living. So of course we assume that by raising Jesus from death, God is doing what we would do, if we could. God is making Jesus alive, so he’s no longer dead, which from our point of view is a much better situation to be in. However, remember I said before that if God merely wanted to show he could give people another life, God would have raised a variety of people from the dead. So there’s more going on here.
Jesus taught that death was not a problem for God, but knew the only way for his disciples to understand what he meant, was for him to go through it. When he came back from death though, what had occurred was so profound that it took most of them awhile to comprehend it. While it would have been remarkable if Jesus had simply been resuscitated so he was back as his old self again, his disciples would have understood that – it would have meant God had overcame death. Great news for all of us, because one day we’ll die too. But Jesus came back with all his wounds remaining – the wounds which killed him. In other words, he came back as a dead person – a walking dead person. If that were written as a Monty Python script, people would have said to Jesus ‘you’re back , you’re alive, and yet you’ve got all your wounds still’ and Jesus would have said something like, ‘oh, yes that’s just death, don’t worry about that, it’s nothing. What’s for morning tea?’
The only way a dead person could be fully alive is if death was nothing to the One who raised him, which is the case. For God, death is not a threat, a challenge, not something which competes, or gets in the way. That’s what’s behind Jesus’ description of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as being alive to God (in the gospel story). Death is nothing to God.
What does that mean for us then? Especially when we think of our own death, or the death of someone close to us? That’s something for you to think about. I’m not sure Jesus actually says a lot about that, because he was more concerned with life before death than life after death. ‘Those who believe will live’ then, means those who live like Jesus will be fully alive and will know God, NOW. And if God is with us now and when we die, then what happens to us later must be something similar. In other words, we can infer something of life after death from whatever being fully alive now involves.
There are a number of people in the gospel stories who get this, but only one who gets it before Jesus dies and that’s Lazarus’ sister, Mary. When Jesus raised Lazarus from death, he was demonstrating that death was nothing for God. Mary didn’t get it, until he returns a few days later, when she’s worked it out, so she anoints him with expensive perfume, as an act of extravagant love. She has come to realise that in Jesus there is a presence of life-giving love, so unique that it transcends everything. It is utterly profound in that nothing threatens it, nothing competes with it, nothing can ever take it away. Soon she will see that even death will mean nothing to it. But for now, in its presence, she can only respond to it in one way, which is with lavish love, for love is the best response to love.
This life-giving love is here with us now, calling us to follow, to become like it, to live it and so to know it as our Source, holding everything together. I see that love in people, who transcend the death that judgment brings by not excluding people from their friendship. I see that love in those who do not fear the death of their worth by a lack of other’s approval. I see that love when people forgive, when people don’t have to be right, or be best, or have things their way. They don’t have to conquer anything or anyone, because they know that nothing really dies when things don’t go their way, or others aren’t what they want them to be. That is resurrection from death, here and now. Those who believe, those who mimic Jesus, have life now.