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Live Long and Prosper – Easter Sunday

The_Resurrection_of_Jesus_Christ  Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

(The following sermon is adapted from one I wrote for the March-April issue of Homiletics

Christ is risen! 

Christ is risen indeed!

The apostle Paul declares in our text that Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee
of our own. Because he lives, we live. But how long will we live?

Let’s put that in perspective by looking for a few moments at how long we might
expect to live in these temporal bodies. If you live in Japan, there’s a good
chance you could live well past the age of 100.

There’s an old saying in Japan: “Old people are everybody’s treasures.” If that’s
the case, and it should be, then Japan is one of the richest countries in the
world — cars and electronics notwithstanding. 

A 2008 survey revealed that Japan has more centenarians than any country in the
world with 36,000 citizens aged 100 or older. That’s a huge increase from 1963,
the first year the country started recording the number, when there were only
153 people in the centenarian category. Eighty-six percent of Japan’s current
century-club members are women, with the oldest woman in the country being a
113-year-old from the island province of Okinawa. Incidentally, Okinawa has the
largest concentration of centenarians in Japan, at 838 (that’s 61 for every
100,000 people). 

Compared to other nations, Japan’s longevity factor leaves the rest of the
world looking positively sickly by comparison. Out of 1.3 billion people in
China, for example, there are only 18,000 centenarians, while in the United
States the ratio is about 10 per 100,000. Life expectancy in Japan is a full
four years longer than in America.

But is living that long really a good thing? What is the quality of life after
100? After all, who wants to spend his or her golden years tarnishing in a
wheelchair or nursing home? Here, again, is where the Japanese respect for
their elders as “treasures” trumps our obsession with youth and fear of aging.
Turns out that many of these Japanese elders are partying like it’s 1899. 

Take a guy named Tadashi Kozakai, for example, who’s 101. He goes dancing twice
a week, exercises every day and gave up smoking 11 years ago at age 90. Or
consider Masaaki Hatsumi, a relative youngster of 77, who’s one of the world’s
grandmasters of Ninjutsu (in other words, he’s a super Ninja!). Then there’s
Shitsui Hakoishi, who at 92 has been cutting hair for 75 years and still gives
her clients a shave with a straight razor. “When my hands start to shake, I
will have to retire,” she says. These folks aren’t exactly waiting around to
die.

Definitive Japanese cultural traits, good genes and a focus on social activity
and family may have something to do with long life in Japan, but diet appears
to have even more of an impact. Unlike a typical Western diet, the daily
Japanese diet doesn’t contain much meat or sugar. In fact, an average Japanese
person eats 86.2 grams of fat per day, or about half of the 155.4 grams horked
down by the average American. As younger generations in Japan are influenced by
the West, however, some Japanese experts such as Dr. Takako Sodei, who teaches
gerontology at Ochanomizu University, fear that Japan’s edge in longevity will
continue to be nibbled away at like an oversized Twinkie. “The problem is that
among young people, their lifestyle and eating habits are getting just like the
United States,” says Sodei, “so in the future I am not sure that Japanese
people can keep living longer and longer.” 

Now, it isn’t as if we Americans don’t know that eating too much fat can
shorten one’s life span, or that spending too much time on the couch may
require a larger coffin sooner rather than later. We’ve been told over and over
that just four things are needed to live a basic healthy lifestyle: Be a
nonsmoker, exercise at least 30 minutes a day five or more days a week, eat
five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day and maintain a healthy weight.
Yet, a 2005 Michigan State study revealed that only three percent of Americans
do all these things. What gives?


Well, besides the fact that fatty foods taste good and that exercising requires
sweating, our drift toward a shorter life span may have as much to do with
ancient Greek philosophy as it does with pork rinds. It’s a philosophy that
Paul confronts in this section of his first letter to the Corinthians. He
writes to people who have come to believe in Christ but who still hold on to
some ancient assumptions about the body — assumptions that many Westerners
(even church folk) still hold today. 

You could argue that the idea originated with Plato, somewhere around the
fourth or fifth century B.C., who postulated a dualism between the body and the
soul. Speaking in general terms, Plato believed the body to be the enemy of the
soul primarily because the body engages the world through its senses, which can
deceive a person’s view of reality. For Plato, the real world was the world of
eternal and universal ideas that can be seen only with the mind’s eye and can
be known by humans only after death (or before birth, as human souls were
thought to be pre-existent). 

To put it another way, Plato saw the body, although beautiful and worthy of art
and sculpture, to be a kind of prison: something to be sloughed off at death so
the soul could move to a higher plane of knowledge and existence. 

It’s interesting to note how this philosophical idea has permeated Western
culture and, perhaps most tellingly, much of Christian theology and thought.
The idea of an eternal and blissful heaven as the realm of the soul at death is
a vision that many Christians and even nonreligious people believe to be true.
In this view, the body has no ultimate use or value in comparison to a
disembodied spiritual life lived on clouds behind pearly gates where souls have
wings and plunk on harps all day long. It’s the kind of philosophical view
that’s even expressed in our hymnody in lyrics such as “Some glad morning when
this life is o’er, I’ll fly away.” 

 I see this a lot in the funerals
I’ve done as well. The focus on a disembodied spiritual existence in a faraway
heaven dominates the worldview of most people, even those who aren’t Christian.
At funerals, people often want to spiritualize things to the point that the
death of this person lying there (or increasingly more so not lying there) is
merely a passage to a new kind of better existence where the body doesn’t
matter. The assumption also is that heaven is our actual home and that we’re
just passing through here—a very Greek idea. I heard a pastor once preaching at
the funeral of a young woman who loved horses and was killed by a drunk driver
say that God “needed her in heaven to help get the four horses ready to ride
across the sky on judgment day”—death as the answer to a heavenly labor
shortage—Yikes! Or there’s the inevitable eulogy from a guy who will get up and
say something like, “Yup, Jimmy’s no doubt up in heaven right now havin’ a beer
and laughin’ at all this,” forgetting, of course, the old polka song—in heaven
there is no beer, that’s why we drink it here!

 Then there’s a poem that’s become
more popular that people want read at funerals—a Mary Elizabeth Frye poem that
goes:

 Do not stand at my grave and weep,


I am not there, I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain…

 

Nothing like adding a little pantheism
to your Platonism!

 

Point is that if most people believe even unconsciously that their bodies
are simply destined for the ground anyway while their souls will experience
heavenly bliss, what incentive is there to care for the body in the present?
Why live a long life on earth when eternity in heaven is waiting? Why not “eat,
drink and be merry” in the present body, because tomorrow we’ll die (1
Corinthians 15:32, quoting Isaiah 22:13)?

These may have very well been the questions the first-century Corinthians were
asking, having been culturally steeped in Hellenistic philosophy and living in
a prosperous cosmopolitan city where there were plenty of opportunities to eat,
drink and make merry in many self-indulgent and salacious ways. When Paul thus
came to Corinth and preached a gospel centered on the resurrection of Jesus’ bod yas the “first fruits” of the
general resurrection of human bodies at
the end of time (v. 23), it’s no wonder that some of them scoffed at his
message (v. 12). Bodies coming out of tombs may be a wonderful spiritual
metaphor, but for many of them, like some Christians even today, believing it
to be literally true was spiritually and intellectually repugnant. 

Paul insisted, however, that
resurrection was anything but a metaphor. The empty tomb on Easter morning was
the linchpin for the whole Christian movement and the only hope for all of
creation. If Easter hadn’t really happened, if the tomb wasn’t really empty
because Jesus hadn’t literally risen from the dead, then the consequences for
Paul and the church were staggering. Without it, Paul’s preaching ministry
would have been useless (v. 14) and deceitful (v. 15), and his life of constant
risk and danger on behalf of the gospel would have been in vain (vv.
31-32). 

For the Corinthians and other Christians then and now, the consequences were perhaps
even more dire. Without resurrection, Paul says, “[Y]our faith is futile and
you are still in your sins” (v. 17) and those who have died before are simply
dead (v. 18). Notice the lack of happy visions of a disembodied spiritual
heaven for them as a consolation prize; no Platonist parachute to save them
from death. 

For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus was absolutely vital because it validated
the essential goodness of God’s creation. Resurrection meant that God wasn’t
abandoning the creation project that he had been working on since Genesis,
despite humanity’s desire to engage its own failed self-indulgent and
self-destructive project. In the resurrection of Jesus, Paul says, God was
doing nothing less than beginning to reverse the curse of sin and death that
entered the world through human sin. “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 will all be made alive in Christ” (vv. 21-22). The
resurrection of Jesus was thus a prototype and the beginning of the
resurrection to come for all of us in “the end” when Jesus returns, destroying
the forces of evil, and God sets his good creation right in the way that it had
always been intended (vv. 23-25). 

Unlike Platonism, the resurrection of Jesus wasn’t a means of circumventing
death or simply seeing it as a transition to a better, more spiritual
existence. On Easter, death itself had been placed on notice that its reign of
terror was nearing an end. For Paul, the body is not the enemy, as it was for
Plato, but death is! (v.
26). The goal of life isn’t a ticket to heaven but a renewed body in a renewed
creation. Paul will spend the rest of the chapter spinning out how that works.

The point of Easter isn’t merely that it’s a nice metaphor for some kind of new
life (often symbolized by eggs, bunnies, green plastic Easter grass and all
that). Nor is it just evidence that Jesus was divine but eventually went back
to heaven and, if we just happen to pray the right prayer and/or do the right
things, we’ll get to go be with him there someday in spirit (and, if we don’t,
we’ll get “left behind”). 

No, the point of Easter is that this world, God’s good creation, matters. What
we do and how we live, as people created in God’s image in his good creation,
has ultimate significance when we understand ourselves to be part of God’s
mission of a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We care for ourselves, we
care for each other and we care for the earth because we know that God has not
and will not abandon this creation project but will ultimately make it whole
again. As we await that great day, we are to spend our lives not giving into
death but embracing the goodness of life. The point of the gospel isn’t that we
go to heaven to be with God but that God comes here to be with us: “Your
kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

What we do in the present matters. It’s like that Russell Crowe movie
Gladiator, when Crowe’s character, a Roman commander, pumps up his troops before
a battle by shouting to them, “What we do in life, echoes into eternity!”
Spoken by a pagan warrior who meant something different by it, but it’s
theologically true.

 One of the images I have become
fond of using to illustrate how this works is borrowed from Anglican Bishop
N.T. Wright, who invites us to think about a guild of 11th century
stonemasons at work on a cathedral. Each has been given a block of limestone or
marble and has been given the task of carving out some shape or figure or
ornamentation. The mason doesn’t know where it all fits. Depending on his
outlook, he might say either “I’m carving a rock” or “I’m building a
cathedral.” He chisels away at his block, while many others do the same, none
of them really knowing the full vision of the master builder.

 But then comes the day, perhaps
after decades and maybe even a generation or two, when the cathedral is
finished. And on that day, the master builder takes the stonemasons on a tour
through the magnificent building, pointing out to each mason—that’s your piece,
you did that, this is yours over here…see how they fit together…each is vital
and generations to come will see it’s beauty. You built a cathedral!

 Wright says that this is what it
will be like for us when God brings forth the new creation and we are
resurrected to enjoy it and finally to embrace it. Each of us is given a
lifetime, a piece of time, a block of life, to work at and sculpt. Some might
look at that block of life as their own carving, their own doing…others,
however, might realize that we are carving out our lives as part of the
ultimate structure of God’s coming Kingdom. Our piece may not be the most
central or visible, but it is vital to the whole. Everything we do for God,
every act of mercy, every sacrificial act, every work for justice, every
prayer, every visit to the sick, every word of comfort, every little thing we
do out of love for God and God’s creation—all of it is part of the process of
building the Kingdom.

 On that final day, when it is
finished, God will tour us through the Kingdom and show us our piece, our block
of life, and how it contributed to the whole. Imagine God saying, “Your prayer
did that, your care for that hurting person did this, your teaching your
children about my love did this…” We all have a block. How will we use it?

So why not “live long and
prosper”? Whether we are 10 or 110, each day we live is another opportunity to
advance the coming kingdom of God on earth and to bring the day of death’s
ultimate defeat that much closer. 

 The resurrection of Jesus’ body is a sign for our own
bodies, too, and those of our neighbors. May we not be so focused on heaven
that we do no earthly good, and may we remember that resurrection makes all
things new!