Fictional heroes rarely die. Or stay dead. It used to be different. Beowulf dies fighting a dragon. King Arthur dies at the battle of Camlann. Robin Hood dies and is buried where his arrow falls. Hercule Poirot dies. The notable exception is Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was sick of his creation and thought Holmes kept him from being recognized for his more serious works. Holmes had been saved before by the author's mother. But with her passing, Doyle felt he could finally put an end to the Master Detective and did so in the story The Final Problem. It is said that British readers wore black arm bands showing that they were in mourning for Sherlock Holmes. Ten years later, Doyle had a great story in mind which he could not get to work. Then he realized it would be a perfect story for Holmes and Watson. He dated it before Holmes' demise but the publication of the Hound of the Baskervilles renewed public clamor for more stories about the sleuth of Baker Street. So Doyle resumed the adventures. Originally, he had written Holmes' death so that it wasn't so much witnessed as deduced by Watson. Using that loophole he resurrected Sherlock Holmes and the game was afoot once more.
Since then it's been popular to kill off or appear to kill and then resurrect pop culture heroes. James Bond, Mr. Spock, Magnum P.I., Neo, and every comicbook superhero from Superman to the majority of the X-Men have died or seemed to and come back again. For the titular character of Doctor Who, it's part of his DNA. As a Time Lord, the Doctor can regenerate after an otherwise fatal injury up to 12 times. We just found out that the Eleventh Doctor will die and regenerate on this year's Christmas special. Look for the writers to figure out a way to get past that number 12 when the next actor decides to move on.
The reason modern day heroes get resurrected is the same reason Doyle brought his creation back—popularity and money. But the idea of resurrecting a hero probably goes back to Jesus.
Before Jesus, there is no religion that posits bodily resurrection. The early Jews' concept of the afterlife was shadowy Sheol, where all the dead go. Even in Jesus' day, not all Jews believed in resurrection. Hinduism does have reincarnation but that is not a joyful concept. It is karma. If you come back it's not a reward but an ordeal you have to undergo to be a better person. You want to be a good Hindu so that you can progress upward through the cycle of death and rebirth until you achieve Nirvana, literally the “blowing out” of the flame of life, at least as an individual. You are absorbed into the world soul. Be a good Buddhist and you can skip reincarnation altogether and get to Nirvana in one lifetime. Exceptional Norse warriors who died in battle were selected by the Valkyrie to go to Valhalla so they can fight in a doomed attempt to prevent the deaths of Odin, Thor and all the major gods at the end of the world at Ragnarok. In all of these religions you ultimately end up dead forever.
But with Jesus, things change. The afterlife is not just being a memory and a name to your descendants or some shadowy existence as a disembodied ghost. God will bring you back completely in a new and improved body, as he did with Jesus. Theologians disagree as to whether we sleep or are awake in our interim state but in either case the faithful are with God up to the time of their resurrection. (Nowhere in the Bible are the dead depicted as having wings and halos or walking about on clouds, playing harps.)
Resurrection does have at least 3 major implications. First, it affirms God's power. Secondly, it affirms God's nature. Thirdly, it affirms the goodness of creation. Let's examine these as we look at our Old Testament and Gospel readings.
Our passage from 1 Kings 17 picks up in the middle of a contest between Yahweh, the God of Israel, and Baal, the Phoenician god of fertility, rain and storms. Ahab has come to the throne of the northern kingdom of Israel. He built a temple to Baal in Samaria, the political and religious capital of Israel. Child sacrifice is being practiced in Israel. This is probably due to the influence of Ahab's wife Jezebel, daughter of the pagan king of Sidon. We find out in the next chapter that she is systematically killing off the prophets of Israel's true God.
So through Elijah, whose name means “Yahweh is my God,” the Lord issues a challenge. He will bring a drought upon the land. No rain shall fall for 3 years. In other words, God will negate the power of the storm and fertility god, Baal. To protect him from Jezebel, God tells Elijah to hide in the Kerith Ravine, where he can drink from the brook and obtain food from the ravens. We're not sure if the ravens brought food directly to Elijah or if he simply observed where they hid their food in the rocky crags of the ravine. The arrangement works until the drought causes the brook to run dry. So God sends Elijah to the last place you'd expect him to be: a Phoenician town belonging to Sidon, Jezebel's hometown! God is bearding Baal in his own den, so to speak.
Ezekiel comes to Zarephath and as he approaches the town gate, he sees a widow gathering sticks. He can tell she is poor by the fact that she is gathering sticks not under trees but in the gate, where they must have fallen from the bundles others were bringing in. He asks her to bring him water, a normal request according to the customs of hospitality. But when he asks for bread, the widow bursts out with the information that she only has a handful of flour and a dollop of olive oil, evidence of the drought. She was going to make a last meal for her and her son. Elijah assures her that God will not let her and her son starve but will stretch her food supplies till the drought ends.
Elijah stays in an upper room and this arrangement works until the widow's son gets gravely ill. When the boy could no longer breathe, the widow takes this for some kind of divine punishment. Elijah asks for the boy and takes him up to his room.
Elijah is upset as well. He asks God why is he letting this disaster come upon his landlady. Then he does something odd by modern standards. He lays himself out at full length upon the child 3 times. The prophet's successor, Elisha, does the same thing and we get a fuller description of the procedure: he lays mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes and hand to hand with the dead child. It was believed that demons entered people that way and the prophet may have been trying to drive them out by transferring his vitality or the Holy Spirit to the child. This would be akin to sympathetic magic except for the prayers Elijah cries to God to bring the boy back. When the boy is alive again, the widow recognizes the power of the Lord. Again God bests Baal, the fertility god, in his own territory.
In Luke 7, Jesus deals with a more severe case with a lot less drama. He is going to Nain, a town a couple of miles south of Nazareth. As he approaches the gate of this town, he sees a widow following the bier carrying her only son to be buried. Jesus has compassion on her (wasn't his own mother a widow by now?) and tells her not to weep. Then he touches the bier, making himself ritually unclean for at least a day, a week if he actually touched the corpse. He says to the body, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” And the man sits up and talks. And Jesus gives him to his mother. The people are awe-struck and praise God.
Let's look at the 3 things we mentioned earlier in the light of these events. Resurrection affirms God's power. We speak of the power of life and death belonging to God. But it's bringing people back to life impresses others as the work of God and causes them to praise him. It's not like it happens very often. The Elijah account is the first in the Bible that depicts someone coming back to life. In 66 books the Bible only records 10 instances of people being raised to life: this one with Elijah, 2 attributed to his protege Elisha, 3 people raised by Jesus, and 1 each attributed to Peter and to Paul. That leaves the events of Holy Week. Matthew mentions that “the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” Just how many and who we aren't told. And God raised Jesus, of course. Each of these are displays of the power of God. Only God can give life, especially after death. I've performed CPR on a patient—unsuccessfully I might add. Statistically, between 2 and 30% of those receiving CPR are revived, with the variations depending on the underlying health and age of the victim, the cause of their cardiac or respiratory arrest, the elapsed time between arrest and the start of CPR and the technique of the person giving CPR. Averaging them all out, only 8% survive. It's better than 0% but it shows that we have not yet mastered death.
Only God gives life. And that speaks to the nature of God. God gives us good things. Life is the first gift, the gift one must have to enjoy all of his other gifts. God is generous, giving this gift to all. But he expects us to use it in the spirit in which it was given: to make creation better, more beautiful, to make our relationships and communities more loving, more reflective of his nature. He sent Jesus that we might have life and have it more abundantly.
By raising Jesus from the dead, God not only vindicates what Jesus is and says but he also shows the importance he places on life. He is not fixated on death or only on the immaterial. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, contrary to what some people think, God likes bodies and matter and this world. He invented them. He doesn't want to abandon the material world for the spiritual but to wed the 2, to bring them together, so that the material gives form to the spiritual and so that the spiritual gives meaning to the material. Mostly, as he did with his battered, abused, and dead son, he wants to resurrect this broken world. He wants to redeem and restore the planet he created as a paradise and the people he created to take care of it.
We've anticipated the third thing that resurrection implies: that creation, all the creatures that inhabit it, and our bodies, which were created good and pronounced to be such by our Creator, are still valued by him. So much so, that he sent his son to redeem them at the cost of his life. And in Jesus' resurrection, God reveals how he will do that. Paul tells us that we need to die with Christ in baptism to be raised with him. And that's what God will do with his ailing creation. Some people get hung up on the end of the world stuff in the Bible. But it's no more the end than Jesus' death was the end. Things will get bad, we are told in the gospels and the Book of Revelation, but the point is that God's will for us cannot be thwarted. He can take the worst we can do to his world, to each other and to ourselves and give it new life. The end result of his salvation: a new creation--a new heaven and a new earth populated by his people made new.
I mentioned that Paul saw in baptism, where we become dead to sin and alive in the Spirit, a parallel to Christ's death and resurrection. Nor is it merely a metaphor. Just as Jesus physically died and rose again to new physical life (or perhaps we should say, physical life Plus!) we really die spiritually to sin and its consequences when we let Christ into our lives and really find ourselves come alive spiritually. As Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “ I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” If I receive a new heart, both I and the donor must die. My diseased heart is removed and only when the new heart is implanted and hooked up and started up, do I begin to really live again. Jesus died to give us his life, life eternal, so we may live like him, alive to God and in God.
It's weird but many heart transplant recipients report picking up the habits and interests of their donors, like music, art, vegetarianism, and career choice. A 47 year old man who received the heart of a 14 year old girl now giggles as she did. A seven month old who received the heart of a 16 month old walked up to a strange man at church, hugged him and called him daddy. It was the donor's father whom he had never met. A 56 year old college professor who received the heart of a 34 year old police officer has vivid dreams of a flash of light in his face and then seeing Jesus. The officer was killed when he was shot in the face. With Christ's Spirit within us, our lives also change and his interests and qualities become ours.
And we know that in the end God will make everything right. No one who seeks him will be lost, no one who asks for him will be unanswered, no one who knocks will be barred from the kingdom. Whatever is beautiful, though it be destroyed, will be restored; whatever is true, though it be shouted down, will be heard; and whoever relies on God totally, though he dies, yet he will live again.
The resurrection of Jesus says that ultimately nothing and no one can kill those God loves. And if you are in Christ, that includes you.