A Day Without Death

A Sermon for Easter Sunday

Day Without DeathWe begin today with a quiz for all you history buffs out there. What happened on April 11, 1954?

Actually, that’s a trick question. NOTHING happened on April 11, 1954, at least nothing historically significant according to a scientist at Cambridge University who developed a search engine to discover the most lackluster day in modern history. After sifting through billions of bits of data, the researcher concluded that April day, which was Palm Sunday in 1954, was the most boring day ever recorded. Nothing historically significant happened that day (unless you count an election in Belgium); nobody famous was born that day or died that day. Next time your kids complain that they are bored on break, remind them—it could be worse. You could have been around on April 11, 1954!

It’s interesting to think about a day in which no one significant was born or died. Now, I’m guessing that plenty of insignificant people were born and died that day—people who were famous to their families or to their communities, but not to the rest of the world. In fact, we know that there hasn’t been a day in the whole history of the world where someone somewhere hasn’t died. Of all the things in human life we’re certain of, it’s that death is always on the move, even on the most boring and mundane of days.

claviusA few weeks ago we took our youth group to see the movie Risen, which initially looked to be yet another of the myriad of Jesus movies Hollywood tends to release around the Easter season. This one was different, however, in that it is the story of Easter told through the eyes of a fictional Roman tribune named Clavius, played by Joseph Fiennes. Clavius is a battle-hardened Roman veteran who supervises the crucifixion of Jesus and arranges the guard to be put over the tomb after Pilate hears the rumors that some have claimed that this would-be Messiah would rise from the dead. Clavius carries out his orders without passion or prejudice—he has seen enough of the daily march of death to be numb to it.

In a poignant scene after the crucifixion, however, Clavius wearily slides into a Roman bath in Jerusalem across from Pontius Pilate, who asks him what his career goals are. Clavius is a typical Roman of upper class rank—he has ambitions for power and glory back in Rome, just like every other man of his position, but on the other hand his desires are simpler. What does he really want? He tells Pilate—“a place in the country and a day without death.”

I was struck by that line—a day without death. Imagine a day when the newspapers and CNN reported that no one at all died that day; a day when there were no battle deaths anywhere in the world, no hospitals reported any deaths, no funeral homes were holding services; day that you knew for sure that no one close to you would die; day you could live completely free of the fear of death. That would be something, wouldn’t it?

It’s hard to imagine it, conditioned as we are to death. Indeed, we are even less conditioned to it than the people of the first century where there were no funeral homes to care for the dead. It was up to the family to do the job of preparing bodies for burial. They knew death up close and personal, and the idea of a day without death was really nothing more than a faint future hope. The Romans, like Clavius and Pilate, believed in a murky underworld from which no one returned. The Jews, on the other hand, believed in the resurrection of the body, but that was a hope for the distant future.

tomb and bonesIt was a typical Sunday in Jerusalem, a day that held no historical significance to anyone in the Roman empire, when the women came to the tomb of Jesus bringing spices to anoint the body—something they had been unable to do because of the lateness of the day on Friday and the Sabbath on Saturday. They had likely done this work many times before for other relatives and friends—wrapping and anointing the body, waiting a year, and then coming back to collect the bones and put them in a stone box for permanent storage in the back of the tomb. The slab on which the body was laid would be used for someone else. Maybe even for themselves one day.

They came to the tomb that day expecting the familiar sights and smells of death, but what they found was a rolled away stone and an empty tomb. That didn’t usually happen. In the entire history of the world to that point, those who were dead tended to stay dead—especially those who were executed by the Romans. They were experts at it. But here was evidence that something else had happened—a real anomaly. Grave robbery wasn’t uncommon in the ancient world, but usually it involved stealing the personal effects of the deceased and not the body itself unless it was to be held for ransom. The Jewish leaders were afraid that the body of Jesus might be stolen by his disciples, thus the Roman guard, but they were in no shape to do so, demoralized and hiding as they were from the authorities.

It didn’t make any sense, but then there were suddenly two men standing beside them in bright clothing—angels of a sort—who ask the women a curious question. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” It seems at first a rebuke, but of course they were looking for the dead among the dead—that’s how it has always been! But the two angels then tell them to “Remember”—“Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

women at the tombWe can’t fault them for forgetting. On one of the occasions Jesus said something like this, Peter himself couldn’t listen past the word “crucified.” That was a word that struck terror into every person in the ancient world. That was something from which no one came back. But here was an empty tomb, here were two angels telling them what had happened, and the women remembered.

Like the women and the disciples, we tend to only remember hearing about death. Because it’s so prevalent in human life, death marks us even when we’re alive. The death of a loved one leaves a scar of memory on us that is impossible to eradicate. We can vividly remember where we were when we heard about it; the feel of the casket; the smell of the flowers; the sound of weeping. The memories come instantly flooding back to us. Gathered at the tomb that morning, the women would have remembered what happened on Friday—the gruesome torture of crucifixion; the labored, gasping breaths; the blood and the screams; the barking orders of the Roman legionnaires and their mocking laughter. Their memories of death were still fresh.

But the angels call them to another memory—a memory of life, of hope, of promise. Biblically speaking, the word “remember” isn’t just a matter of recalling the past, it’s also a way of bringing the past into the present and future. Staring at the empty tomb, the echoes of the angel’s words still in their ears, these women would now have a completely different memory from this day forward. They would remember a day without death—not just as a thing that happened long ago on a Sunday, but as a new reality in the present and a promise for the future.

This is Paul’s point in our New Testament reading from 1 Corinthians 15, where the apostle proclaims that the day Jesus rose from the dead was the day that death itself was put on notice that it would come to an end—that a day without death is not only Jesus’ past, but our future. “The trumpet will blast,” says Paul, “and the dead will be raised with bodies that won’t decay…and when that rotting body has been clothed with what can’t decay, and the dying body has been clothed with what can’t die, then this statement in Scripture will happen: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where is your victory, Death? Where is your sting, Death?” Thanks be to God who gives us the victory in Jesus Christ!”

A day without Death? How about an eternity without it! The one who was fully human and fully divine has taken on the powers of Sin and Death directly and defeated them, opening the door to a deathless future for all who follow him. We read earlier from Isaiah and the vision of the peaceable kingdom—a vision of a world without death. The last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, describes it this way: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no more mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ Then the one seated on the throne said, ‘Look! I am making all things new!’” (Revelation 21:1-5a).

Notice the movement here. We’re not simply talking about our souls going to heaven when we die, enjoying a future of drifting on clouds and plunking on harps. That’s a boring caricature of the biblical hope. When I was a kid in Sunday School, one of my classmates asked our teacher what heaven would be like. She brightened up and said, “Oh, it will be like being in church—forever!” I wondered what the alternative might be!

No, what we’re talking about here is life without death, not simply passing on to a different life altogether. We’ve been doing a series during Lent on the Nicene Creed and Christians often forget the truth the Creed proclaims at the end. “We look for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” We look for renewed bodies in God’s renewed creation, where heaven and earth come together and life is lived fully without fear and without death. We look for a day when we will live fully in God’s presence, experiencing life as it was meant to be from the beginning. We will enjoy the best of what heaven and earth have to offer because the crucified and risen Christ has torn the veil that separated them. If April 11, 1954 was the most boring day in history, Easter reminds us that a day is coming when we will experience life to the full.

But here’s the thing—we don’t have to wait until that day to begin living that resurrection life. We can begin to live fully in the present because we know that a day without death is possible. The empty tomb is our prompt to remember that reality. We don’t have to give into death, simply accepting it as the way of the world. We can live knowing it has been defeated. Every time we feed those who are hungry, provide a healing touch to the hurting, give our attention to the outcast, refuse to kill and destroy our enemies, challenge the principalities and powers, and give our lives humbly and passionately in sacrificial service to others, we are proclaiming that a day without death is our hope and the hope of the world. When we not only take in the words of Jesus, but actually do what he did, we’re living the resurrection already. As Paul puts it, “As a result of [the resurrection], my loved brothers and sisters, you must stand firm, unshakeable, always excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that your labor isn’t going to be for nothing in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58). ash-wednesday-new

We began the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday, applying ashes to our foreheads and saying the words that are as true today as they were on that Sunday morning as the women went to the tomb. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Someone will die today, and tomorrow, and the next day. You and I will, too, one day unless the risen Christ returns in the interim. The day we die may not be historically significant to the world, but it will be to us and our loved ones. And it will be especially significant to God.

But we end this season of Lent with the joy of Easter. Because of Easter we need not live in fear of that day of death. A day without death is coming for all who believe, for all who live this deathless, fearless life of a disciple of Jesus in the present. God will make all things new, taking our dust and making us whole again. I pray that you will remember that above all things today—to call that reality into your present and future; to live as people without fear and to give your lives to cause of life!

Jesus-2At the end of the movie Risen, the Roman tribune Clavius finds himself in a conversation with the risen Jesus. He had been searching to find the truth of what happened to Jesus and what he found was Jesus himself. Clavius confesses, “When you died, I was present.” Jesus gently puts his hand on Clavius’s shoulder and says, “I know.” It is a powerful moment—a moment that all of us can inhabit. Jesus came to a world of death and the sin, our sin, that causes it. And yet he came not to condemn, but to forgive. He knows what we have done and loves us anyway.

“I cannot reconcile all this with the world that I know,” Clavius says to Jesus. That’s because the world that he knew was a world of violence and death. The resurrected Jesus revealed an alternative world. A world without violence, without death.

“What do you seek?” Jesus asks Clavius. “A day without death?”

What have you come to seek today? Tradition? A taste of spring? A familiar story?

Don’t settle for this being just another Easter Sunday.

A day without death is at hand!

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