Conquered By Life
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
April 8, 2007
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” –1 Corinthians 15:20
In my recent sermons I have emphasized the centrality of Jesus Christ to our faith, his priority over morals, his complete sufficiency and supremacy; our faith a personal relationship with him. Today we discover the reason for that centrality, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead; and this claim is perhaps even more difficult to accept than all the others. Nevertheless, the logic of our Christian discipleship is that Jesus is the authoritative teacher because God raised him from the dead and returned him to life in this world, and then took him back into himself.
We take this fact to mean that in raising Jesus, God conquered human death and gave us proof that we shall all live forever, in Christ. There are of course many questions to be explored here, but today I want simply to make this central claim and affirmation clear with some side-glances at the challenges of this proclamation to our normal way of thinking. God in fact raised Christ from the dead; he is the first fruit of the great harvest of souls to come. Death has been conquered by life; God has recreated the world. The power of God that transformed the crucified and buried Jesus is the same power as created the world; this rising of Jesus is the first event in a new outburst of this power, the new creation.
These are some theological ways to talk about the Easter message, and they are quite clear and explicit. There are other ways we could talk about the event of the new creation, and right now I am looking for the most direct and matter of fact way possible, so that when we hear it we might know for sure what is involved for us in the claim.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 addresses people who say that the resurrection of the dead is impossible, will not take place. Paul replies that if people cannot be raised then Christ could not have been raised and we who preach him as risen are the most miserable people on earth, because we have staked our hope and our self-understanding on a fantasy. So there were people in Paul’s church at Corinth who disbelieved the message that God has raised Jesus from the dead. There are people in many churches today who similarly disbelieve this claim; for them Jesus is a wise teacher who started a community they like to belong to, and not much more than that. When Jesus was murdered he remained murdered and we too remain dead and gone when that time comes for us. The story of his good life and unfortunate death remains an inspiring source of moral guidance and sentimental pleasure, but God did not raise Jesus from the dead, and God will not raise us, so let’s live lovingly in this world and go gratefully into oblivion to make way for someone else on our overcrowded earth.
This view was more unusual in Corinth in the first century than it is today; then the culture took immortality for granted, now we take oblivion for granted, and even look forward to it as an escape from an increasingly loud and wearisome existence. Our culture is the culture of the closed circle; there is not break-out anywhere; God does not intervene and we do not crossover; there is “no there, there” and no substance here; just the “eat, drink and be merry” that Paul himself quotes in 1 Cor.15: 32: “What do I gain if humanly speaking I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” There is no point to striving for goodness in this world, no point in heroic deeds like Paul’s facing the lions in the arena, no point in honor or decency; luxury is all.
That’s Paul’s opinion, but you may not share it. You may say that there is no need for an eternal life to make sense out of temporal life; we can make sense by ourselves and for ourselves. This is a very popular point of view today, even among church members. What might these people say to Paul? “Cool it little man; what you claim is impossible, just wishful thinking, and not even necessary.” Have you ever said that on Easter day? I have, especially when I contemplate how little difference belief in the message of the Resurrection seems to make to the conduct of us Christians; but let me not be censorious; no one made me a judge of my fellow Christians. Let me rather just bear witness from my own experience.
I attest that this world is not a closed circle. Many times God breaks into, or more often sneaks into, my life, to bring me blessing, indeed, to give me life. To use the title of this sermon, I have often been conquered by life, in the midst of death, by light in the midst of darkness, by joy in the midst of sorrow. The creation renews itself in me daily and the creator holds me in his hands on the way through this vale of temptation, refreshing me with joy, and the beauty of music, art and literature, and above all the loveliness of family and friends; and of course I am not alone in this. If I were there would be no sense at all in the message of the Resurrection; but in fact there is reality and sense there, and many of us recognize its truth, and marvel. The same power of life that brought me and my world into being holds me in being every day; I see that power at its most powerful as it tears Jesus from the jaws of hungry death, and I cherish it as the life that beats within me and within those I love; and I believe that that same life holds our loved ones beyond this circle in life eternally. This circle is not closed but open to the eternal source of life, and into it there streams life, and life abundant, through the breach made by God when he raised Jesus, made by Jesus when he burst the doors of the dark world and led the souls back to life in its fullness.
This is the season of life; look at the flowers and trees and grasses flourishing again; look at the little ones burgeoning and thriving- what is more beautiful than a flower? How about a child? So we know how to celebrate and give thanks for life. All people do, I presume, but I believe and I recommend to you that Jesus is God’s special chosen source of life. In his name and as his disciples we are nearer to the heart of life than anywhere else in the existing reality. Jesus is the one human being through whom the creative force of all life came surging again into the circle of the world, and that happened when God raised him from the dead. It stands to reason does it not the victory of life should take the form of a conquest of death. Death challenged life and death lost. Christ is raised and we are created anew.
We conclude this sermon as I do every Easter sermon with an excerpt from the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom in the Byzantine Liturgy:
Enter then all of you into the joy of your Master…
Let no one weep for his sins; forgiveness is raised from the tomb.
Let no one fear death; the Savior’s death has set us free.
When it held him chained he struck it down.
When he descended to hell he plundered it.
He destroyed it for attacking his flesh , as Isaiah had foretold:
Hell was dismayed at his coming.
It was dismayed because it was trampled on; it was in bitterness because it was deceived.
It had taken hold of a body and was confronted by God.
It had taken hold of the visible and the invisible had routed it.
Death where is thy sting? Where, hell, thy victory?
Christ is raised and thou art brought to nothing.
Christ is raised and the devils are fallen.
Christ is raised and the angels rejoice.
Christ is raised and life has prevailed.
Christ is raised and the dead are delivered from the grave.
For Christ, risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who sleep.
To him be glory and might forever and ever.