St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Trinity, August 28, 2022
“He rose again the third day… he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once... After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.”
WHAT is your greatest fear? I’m not talking about worry: Will I be able to meet expenses? Can I get a job? Does she still love me? Will my daughter survive college? Is that twinge something serious? No. Our greatest fear is not a worry, but a cold, silent hand that touches us, sending us up a wall screaming. For most people, that fear is death. Death come suddenly, dehumanizing death, the plot of mysteries, human dramas, personal tragedies. Many people have never seen their first dead body, and they imagine being scared speechless.
A true story: a police officer I knew was called to the home of a family where they’d discovered their elderly mother dead. He sat in the living room with them, chatting over her life, how she died peacefully. He finally asked where the body was. “Oh, right next to you on the sofa,” they pointed to the woman at his elbow. How he held it together, I don’t know.
Reckless drivers, wild storms, a sudden chest pain: the potential of dying has had humankind running for cover from before history. Yet it’s inevitable, even welcomed when a long life has run its course and now is spent between doctor visits when one’s capacity sinks to nothing. Yet death is a dimly lit forest, an unfamiliar wilderness, and we stay here, unsure of that other country. It’s everyone’s greatest fear.
That fear is instinctive: we are meant to stay alive and to keep ourselves from mortal danger. We take care of ourselves and our loved ones, knowing death may result from one dreadful mistake. Death says what to avoid: don’t smoking, or drink and drive, do wear a seat belt, and lock your doors. We live, and as long as we do, we’re to keep life safe and sacred, and work not to end it prematurely.
For thousands of years, there’s been a hope, a fond belief, an unproved aspiration to live forever, to even live past death, go on in some other world, though back here we’d be thought to be dead. Spiritual worlds are spoken of in hushed tones. This echoes in the Psalms, calls out from the prophets. Life after death. Can it be?
“I know that my Redeemer lives, And He shall stand at last on the earth; And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see for myself, And my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” cried Job, 4,000 years ago. v19:25-27 “My flesh also will rest in hope. For You will not leave my soul in hell, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. You will show me the path of life.” Psalm 16:9-11 “God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, For He shall receive me,” sang David, 1,000 years later. Psalm 49:15 Isaiah wrote, “Your dead shall live; Together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust… the earth shall cast out the dead.” Isaiah 26:19
Others shook heads at these verses, looked sad and wise, pragmatic and knowing: That’s nonsense. There is no life after death. This life is all we have. They were Sadducees, or Stoics. Today, they are men of science. Their vision, though precise and deep in the things in their realm, stops at the edge of creation and disbelieves what lies beyond. Beyond the world is that same unknown that causes men to fear death. Same country, same veil of darkness, same fear.
Then Christ rose from a borrowed tomb, alive as anyone, unafraid, having conquered the grave, having put an end to death for all people forever. His friends and disciples scarcely believed it: they handled Him, heard Him, watched Him eat. It began to make sense now. All He’d said about rising the third day. When the temple veil tore and graves opened. St. Matthew writes that “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.” Matt 27:52-53 Unnerving, but this wasn’t an apparition, not a haunting. These people were alive and holy, good and even joyous. Jesus’ Resurrection had such a force that it caused saints to rise and walk about. I can’t explain it, nor imagine what else went on. It’s the weirdest passage in Scripture.
The reason we’re all here on a Sunday morning ought to be second nature to you. God rested on a Sabbath, Saturday, and He commanded the Jews to observe Saturdays as a holy rest. Sabbath became a day of worship instead of work. Why is Sunday the Christian day of worship? Because Sunday was the day Christ rose from death to everlasting life. If Saturday was the seventh day, when God rested, the Sunday Jesus came forth from Joseph’s tomb was the eighth day of God’s Creation—holier still. Without Christ’s Resurrection, we have nothing to hope for, and everything to fear. But He did rise, and we echo the angels and we say Fear not.
In today’s Epistle, St. Paul tells what the Resurrection means. It is read at burials, expressing our hope and faith in life beyond death. “Christ died for our sins… and he was buried, and he rose again the third day … and he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren… After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.” 1 Cor 15 Paul really understood the Resurrection. In all his Epistles, the only part of Jesus’ life he details are His death and Resurrection. If we get that, we have reason to live, to hope, reason not to fear any more. What can death do? Kill me? But it can’t. I am undying.
St. Paul instructs us that we already died with Christ in Baptism, and now are risen with Him. “Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that … we should no longer be slaves of sin.” Romans 6:4-6“Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God… For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Col 3:1-3
What is a resurrected Christian? If we see these verses as literal truth, and believe that we can’t die, what will we do with the knowledge? I’m not talking about jumping off roofs or wearing tights and capes. Better than Superman, we can know the power of God like never before. We can see what’s wrong here, knowing God sees and cares too, and do something to fix it. We might permit ourselves to be used by His Holy Spirit to do miracles and speak truth where it needs to be spoken.
What do we see instead? People cringing in fear, thinking not so much about death as about social exclusion, unfriending, unemployment, or derisive laughter. Christians don’t write wills very often. Why not? The fear of death; writing a will means you’re going to die. Is that silly, or what? A Christian dying without writing a will or a living trust tells a stark truth: we don’t fully believe in the Resurrection. So, let me tell you once again. It’s not Easter, but every Sunday is Easter.
Jesus was born to a poor couple in a cave at the outskirts of Bethlehem, a hamlet not far from Jerusalem. Its one claim to fame was that King David lived there as a child, but even he transferred his name to his new capital city. Jesus’ mother and her husband knew the secret, that this was really God’s Son, the Savior, Messiah. They dared not speak a word to anyone: but first shepherds, then two old temple prophets, and then eastern wise men found and proclaimed Him. No doubt, this boy grew up special, but we hear no miracle stories until He was about 30. He left Nazareth and spent 3 years with a ragged gang of fishermen and disreputable followers, preaching the kingdom of heaven and making dark predictions of His own death on a cross and a Resurrection the third day after. And it was all just like He said.
But stop there. He died. That’s normal. He died by execution, which is horrible. He was beaten, whipped, pierced, asphyxiated, heartbroken, impaled, and hurriedly buried by nightfall on Friday. The hearts of every one of His disciples were thoroughly broken and their hopes crushed. Nothing would ever be as they’d hoped. God certainly would destroy the world and darkness would follow. In this aching horror they spent the Sabbath hiding. Sunday morning, a few women went out to honor His dead body with spices. They came back shouting, “He’s alive! He spoke to Mary! He’s not dead! He is risen!”
Slow to respond, slow to believe, two Apostles finally came out of hiding to see what these hysterical women were talking about. They came back shouting. “He is risen! The tomb is empty, and He has laid His grave clothes just so.” Two disciples took a walk and a stranger, hearing their talk, began to teach them how the ancient scrolls spoke of just this day. He appeared to the Apostles, in body and soul, alive, to prove He was alive, that death was now and forever dead.
The resurrected life doesn’t wait for our end. It is here, now, today, in you and in me. We may emulate the dead, walk around like zombies, always dying, always afraid to act out, fearful of standing apart and telling what we know. But Christ is alive and we are alive and we shall never die! This is the Christian faith, and exactly what we mean by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It means Good News. The good news is that we get to live forever, from now, and we don’t need to wait for the coroner or the death certificate. That life’s over. We’re living for God already.
Death is a dead dog, a boogey man, an empty sheet we took to be a ghost. Death is a change, nothing more, a change of address, a doorway, a proof of God, a reward for doing this for so many years.
Listen to those angels. Fear not. Christ has indeed risen from the dead, and therefore: so shall we.