Wednesday, March 6, 2013
I Am the Resurrection and the Life
The scripture referred to is John 11:17-27.
In my experience as a nurse, most people die peacefully. In 30 years I've only seen 2 people die in distress or pain. Part of this is due to a change of attitudes on the part of doctors. In the early 1980s, I had a patient dying of brain cancer and the pain meds we were giving her just weren't working anymore. So I went to her primary doctor and asked if we couldn't give her anything stronger. The doctor said he was afraid she might become addicted. I was dumbfounded. The woman would be dead in 2 or 3 weeks! Addiction to painkillers was the last thing we needed to worry about! Today pain is considered the 5th vital sign and doctors are supposed to take it into account and treat it. The other part of the change is due to the increasing use of hospices, which specialize in end of life care. One of the first things they do is get an order for a powerful painkiller to have on hand should the patient start to experience severe pain.
But there is one pain associated with death for which there is no good way to protect oneself: the universal pain of the loss of a loved one. Even Jesus experienced it, as recorded in John just a few verses after our reading. Surrounded by the grieving sisters and friends of his friend Lazarus, we are told, in the Bible's shortest and perhaps most profound verse, "Jesus wept." I don't know if he was flashing back to when Joseph died but Jesus felt the pain of loss, the hole in one's life left by death. And Jesus reacted in this way, this very human way, despite the fact that he knew what he was about to do.
In the Old Testament, there is very little talk of the afterlife. At first, it just says people die. Later they are said to sleep with their ancestors. In Genesis 37, we first hear the word "Sheol." Variously translated as "death," "the grave," "the pit," "corruption," "destruction," or even "hell," Sheol is a shadowy place of some kind of consciousness after death. It seems gloomy and unpleasant. Later on in Job and Hosea, it seems to encompass a place from which the righteous may be rescued.
But resurrection is a very rare subject in the Hebrew Bible. In Ezekiel 37 and Hosea 6, it seems to be merely a metaphor for the restoration of the nation after exile. However, Isaiah 26:19 says, "Your dead will come back to life; your corpses will rise up. Wake up and shout joyfully, you who live in the ground." This sounds awfully specific for a metaphor. And in Daniel 12:2, it explicitly says, "Many of those who sleep in the dusty ground will awake--some to everlasting life and others to shame and everlasting contempt."
By the time of the Maccabees, between the 2 Testaments of the Bible, the doctrine of the resurrection is better defined. In 2 Maccabees 7, a family of brothers are being tortured and killed for their beliefs. One Jewish martyr says to the evil king Antiochus, "You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life…" Another speaks of cherishing "the hope God gives of being raised again by him." However, addressing the king, he says, "But for you there will be no resurrection to life!" Slightly later, Jewish writings speak of a general resurrection with a judgment of the righteous and the wicked.
In Jesus' time, belief in a general resurrection was widespread. The Sadducees, the priestly class, did not believe in the resurrection, probably because it is not mentioned in the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible, the only authoritative scriptures to their way of thinking. But the Pharisees and most Jews believed in the resurrection of the dead. And as we see in Martha's response in our gospel, this resurrection was to take place at the end of the present evil age and the beginning of the Messianic age of the kingdom. The idea of a prior resurrection of an individual is unheard of.
Martha's assertion that Lazarus will rise along with everyone else some time in the future prompts Jesus to say, "I am the resurrection and the life." What does that mean? How can a person be an event?
The idea of the summer movie blockbuster is traced to Steven Spielberg's Jaws, a film so massively successful that, along with Raiders of the Lost Ark, it became the model on which a lot of big budget action films are based. So if Spielberg were to say, though I doubt he would, "I am the summer blockbuster" people would understand what he meant. He originated and exemplified this modern entertainment event. In the same way, Jesus is the origin and archetype of the resurrection.
But wait! Jesus isn't the first person raised from the dead. Elisha the prophet raises up the son of the widow of Shunem. In 2 Kings 13, a dead man thrown into Elisha's tomb is raised upon touching the prophet's bones. And Jesus himself raises 3 people--a little girl, the son of a widow and Lazarus--before he himself is raised. Yes, and there were hugely successful movies before Jaws, like The Sound of Music, Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur and the Ten Commandments. But Jaws became a cultural phenomenon, not only a must-see film but one people saw again and again. The others were seen as blockbusters in retrospect.
However, Jesus is not merely the most notable and defining example of resurrection. He is the source of resurrection. As God, he is the cause of all resurrections, both preceding and following his own. And evidence of this is that in all other cases, either Jesus or Elisha caused another person to rise again. But in Jesus' case, no one touches him or verbally commands him to rise. As he says in John 10, Jesus lays down his life and he takes it up again. So when Jesus says, "I am the resurrection" he means it in the sense that all resurrection comes through him. All resurrections originate and draw their power through him.
And this parallels his calling himself "the life." Resurrection restores you to life but what kind of life? It is not mere physical life. We are not to become zombies or vampires. Ultimately the life Jesus gives us is his life. It is analogous to being saved by a vital blood transfusion, so that the donor gives you his lifeblood. Or more to the point, being saved by a heart transplant so that the heart donor gives his life so that you may live. The life Jesus gives us is eternal life. The only one who is eternal is God. So the life we receive is the very life of God in Christ.
When Jesus says he is the resurrection and the life, he is saying that it is he who gives us the life that conquers death. And this is why he is the only source of such life. Just as you cannot ask for our world to have light and heat but to do so without the sun, so you cannot have spiritual life apart from the source of that life. You can grumble that you don't like having to rely on the sun for light and heat, that it's very exclusivist to insist that the sun is the only sufficient source of light and heat for our world but it doesn't change the facts. As C. S. Lewis points out, we can't ask God to give us goodness apart from himself, the source of all goodness.
And you can't somehow get eternal life from anywhere other than the source of that life, Jesus. In our modern world we seem to get things magically, removed from their source or sources. But meat is ultimately animals, and that's its source even if you've never wrung a chicken's neck or butchered a cow. Plastics come from petroleum, and that's their source, even if you don't drill the ground to find it. And your cell phone and laptop are full of rare earth elements, and those are their sources, even if you don't mine them. Certain things come from specific sources and you can't get them from elsewhere. Life eternal comes from Jesus Christ and no amount of wishful thinking came make it come from some other source.
When Jesus says, "I am the resurrection and the life," he's not bragging; he's stating a fact. And it's a hopeful fact. One day we will use up all the oil in this planet. No other source will be found. Some day, probably sooner, the rare earth elements, and gases like helium, will be used up or so hard to extract that their prices will be astronomical. Worse, at the rate the world's population is growing, and with global temperatures rising, we are going to be running out of usable water. Already 1.2 billion people live in areas with inadequate water supply. Another 1.6 billion live in areas where the cost of getting water is not economically feasible. By 2025, 2/3 of the world will live under conditions of water scarcity. As businessinsider.com says, green tech may provide us a solution to the fact that we are past peak oil production. There is no escape from reaching peak water availability.
But Jesus is the infinite source of life eternal. And all it requires of us is to take him up on his offer. We trade in our cramped lives for his abundant life. We trade in our broken relationships for his healing relationship with the Father. We trade in our one-sided loves for his all-encompassing love. And that love and life flows back into our lives and loves.
And the great thing is we don't have to wait until we die to make this life ours. We can have it now. It can begin today. It may start as a small seed within us but if we nurture it and let it grow, it will, like wheat, fill the barren landscapes of our lives with new life, abundant life, eternal life.
The most compelling character in The Princess Bride is Inigo Montoya, who has been searching for the 6-fingered man who first commissioned his father to make a special sword and then killed him with it. When Inigo finds the villain, Count Rugen, he defeats him with the same sword. The count offers him money, power, anything the swordsman wants to spare him. "I want my father back…" says Inigo as he skewers his killer. That, of course, is the one thing the count cannot do.
But Jesus can. He tells Martha, "The one who trusts in me will live even if he dies, and the one who lives and trusts in me will never die." And then he returns her beloved brother to her and her sister. We cannot count on that kind of special intervention in this life. But when we die, we are with Christ and on the last day he will raise us and in our new bodies we will live with our loved ones in the new creation. Or as the Rev. John Polkinghorne, physicist and Anglican priest puts it, God will put our software, debugged, into new hardware.
And that changes our mourning. Yes, we will miss our loved ones who die. But they will not be gone forever. It will be like seeing them off on a long journey, one that makes us sad but which is for them the start of a glorious adventure and new life. And so we can grieve, but not like those who have no hope, as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4. "We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him." That's the great promise. Not nothingness, not a shadowy ethereal existence, but to be reintegrated, body and soul, whole one more, with lips to kiss and arms to hold those who have gone before, and dare I say,even our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, who is the resurrection and the life.