Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 15:19-26
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The following is my original sermon manuscript.
In his book Surprised by Hope New Testament scholar and bishop in the Church of England N.T. Wright complains that we Christians, in general, don’t celebrate Easter properly. He writes, “I regard it as absurd and unjustifiable that we should spend forty days keeping Lent, pondering what it means, preaching about self-denial, being at least a little gloomy, and then bringing it all to a peak with Holy Week, which in turn climaxes in Maundy Thursday and Good Friday… and then… we have a single day of celebration.”
He believes that Easter, the high point of the Christian calendar, ought to mark the beginning of a celebration that lasts for days—including champagne breakfasts at church! O.K., I’ve never had champagne for breakfast, and I’m pretty sure that a church that uses the “pure, unfermented juice of the grape” in Holy Communion would frown upon it. But I get his point.
Think about what Easter means: In today’s scripture, Paul gives us one way of thinking about it by comparing Adam, the first human with Jesus. He writes, “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” In other words, God came into the world through Jesus, assumed all the vulnerability and limitations of being fully human; faced all the trials and temptations human beings face; but instead of giving into the temptation to sin as Adam did, however, Jesus remained obedient to his Father, despite all the obstacles, even though this obedience meant a violent and brutal death on a cross.
On the cross, Jesus endured the worst the world had to offer—all of its injustice, all of its hatred, all of its fear, all of its violence, all of its evil—all the while refusing to return blow for blow, violence for violence, evil for evil, sin for sin. And by refusing to do so, Jesus broke this seemingly endless chain of evil, suffering, and death once and for all. The forces of evil did their very worst on the cross, yet Jesus remained faithful.
Some of you remember or have read or seen film about the “Rumble in the Jungle”—the boxing match from the early ’70s between Muhammad Ali and then-heavyweight champ George Foreman. The fight took place in the Congo. The young Foreman, in stark contrast to his lovable and gentle public persona today, was fierce, lean, and explosively strong. He was heavily favored to beat Ali—who was considered past his prime, over the hill, a little paunchy… Ali adopted what became known as the “rope-a-dope” strategy—let Foreman force him against the ropes and punch him relentlessly until Foreman’s strength was sapped, his energy spent. Then when Foreman was worn out, Ali could finish him off. It was costly to Ali, and probably contributed to his Parkinson’s, but it was effective. On the cross, Jesus was at least a little like a defiant and seemingly overmatched boxer in the ring, taking the worst punishment his opponent could mete out, saying, “Is that all you got?” Before long his opponent’s strength was gone.
In reality of course, Jesus wasn’t overmatched at all—Satan was overmatched; evil was overmatched; sin was overmatched.
Jesus won a victory over the forces of evil on the cross, but that victory wasn’t apparent on Good Friday. Even to his closest disciples, it looked like a defeat. On Good Friday it must have seemed like sin, evil, and death had the last word. It must have seemed like evil triumphed once again and good was defeated. It must have seemed like this Jesus of Nazareth, in whom so many people placed such great faith and hope, was just another charismatic, well-meaning, but ultimately misguided would-be Messiah.
But then Easter Sunday happened: Just as Adam’s disobedience brought death into the world, Paul writes, so Christ’s obedience reversed this cycle of death and brought new and eternal life.
Through his life, death, and resurrection, therefore, Jesus becomes for those who unite with him in faith and baptism that fully human person that we were meant to be but could never become on our own.
What do I mean by “fully human”? I like what one of my theology professors said: “We can know that Jesus was God because he’s the only human being who ever lived who didn’t act like God.” We often excuse or exonerate people’s flaws, faults, or sins by saying things like, “Awww… He’s only human.” But that’s exactly wrong: To be only human is to be like Jesus, who shows us how to be human. Since that first sin in the Garden, in which we were tempted to “become like God, knowing good from evil,” we’ve been getting it wrong! We’ve been striving in vain not to be human but to be god—and all of human history tells the sad and sorry tale of where that’s gotten us.
Easter means it doesn’t have to be that way anymore. Death has been defeated! The image of God within us, so badly tainted, corrupted, or distorted by sin, has been restored! Could there be any better news than this? Is this not worthy of the greatest celebration of all? Because do you know what it means for us who are united with Christ in faith and baptism? It means death is not the end. Even more, it means resurrection—or, if you insist on calling it this, it means heaven.
Heaven has sort of gotten a bad rap over the years, first from skeptics and atheists—who think of it as “pie in the sky,” escapism from the “real” world, or as Karl Marx said, a kind of drug that helps people cope with living lives of misery in this world. And sometimes we in the church don’t like talking about it so much because we don’t heaven to be a kind of bribe for living a virtuous life in this world.
But that’s such a shallow understanding of heaven. Heaven means nothing less than fulfillment, completion, and perfection of everything we are on this side of death and resurrection. Last week I saw this dumb but funny movie called Hot Tub Time Machine. Rob Corddry plays a middle-aged character who is considered a hopeless loser by most people, a ne’er-do-well, a failure—in fact he thinks of himself as a loser. He attempts to kills himself but fails and ends up in the hospital. Two of his old friends, who feel guilty for distancing themselves from him over the years meet him at the hospital. Motivated by their guilt, and to help cheer their old friend up, they go back to an old ski resort they used to visit when they were younger. Through a ridiculous turn of events, they accidentally go back in time—to 1986, when they were young and in their prime.
Corddry starts to see his life through a different lens. And the experience teaches him that he doesn’t have to be this person who constantly fails and makes bad choices. He doesn’t have to be a loser. He’s capable of doing and being more. He gets another chance at life, and in so doing, he finally realizes his true potential. Heaven is a little like that: it isn’t about simply starting over, but it is about realizing our true potential, unencumbered by the sin and evil that hold us back on this side of resurrection. Heaven answers our life’s deepest longings. It meets our deepest needs!
C.S. Lewis writes about heaven in his book The Problem of Pain.
There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else. You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all…†
He goes on to describe that same elusive thread connecting your love of art, your hobbies, your lifelong friendships.
You never had it [i.e., this thing you deeply desire]. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’ We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our [spouses] or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows [spouse] or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.
Heaven is the “echo that does not die away” but instead swells into the sound itself. Heaven is the thing we were made for but can never quite attain. Heaven is the substance and shape of that void in our souls that longs to be filled up. And through the resurrection of Jesus, heaven becomes ours.
It’s not very clear from our English translations, but Paul uses military language here to describe Christ’s victory. Now, I’m not suggesting that any of you are old by asking this question, O.K.? But do any of you remember V-J day—when Japan surrendered and World War II was finally over? Do any of you remember what that felt like? Have any of you talked to parents or grandparents or others who were alive then? Whether we were alive or old enough to remember that day or not, most of us have seen this picture, right? A sailor in Times Square, overcome with exuberant joy upon hearing President Truman announce the end of the war, grabs this woman whom he doesn’t even know, and plants this giant kiss on her. So much joy! Have you ever seen a happier picture? May our Easter celebration be a little like that! (Minus the kissing of strangers, of course!)
So… Uncork the champagne, if that’s how you celebrate happy occasions! This day is bigger than New Year’s Eve or a birthday or even Christmas! Celebrate it with everything you’ve got. Let your life be changed now, in the present, knowing what’s waiting in your future.
We anticipate this future when we come to the Lord’s Table for Holy Communion…
† C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 150-151.