The First and Last Enemy
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18
“For as through a man death entered the world, so through a man did the Resurrection of the dead, that is, just as in Adam all of us died so in Christ shall we all be made alive again…so the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” — 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 26
The claim of Easter is the most daring affirmation we Christians ever make, an on its truth depends the whole of the faith. The Apostle describes plainly what is at stake today, “For if Christ has not been raised we have been misrepresenting God, because we have been testifying all along that he raised Christ…Furthermore, if Christ has not been raised your faith is futile and you are still subject to death. If our hope in Christ is for this life alone we are the most pathetic people in the world. (1 Corinthians 15:14-19 selections. My own translation).
Today we believers step up to the microphone and announce the answer to the first, last and most abiding question we can ask. Question: “Does death bring an end to everything a human being knows, loves or hopes for?” Answer: “No! Life trumps death, because our creator wills us to live as long as He shall love us, and His love like Himself never ends, so as long as God is there to love us, just so long shall you and I be there to be loved. God has shown us the factual truth of this His power over death, by raising Jesus. “Death is now swallowed up in victory! Where O Death is now your victory? Where O Death is now your sting?” (Isaiah 25:8; Hosea 13:14, quoted by the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 15: 54-55). “In him (Jesus) was Life and the Life was the Light of men. And the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never been able to understand it nor quench it ” (John 1: 4-5, my translation).” So today we step up to announce what we have long known, that Life and Light trump death and darkness and that the raising of Jesus from the grave proves it. Yes, proves it, in a simple, matter-of-fact way.
If you cannot accept the simple truth of this claim you should in conscience depart from the Christian faith. Such a departure could be an honest, even honorable thing to do; too many of us have given up or never accepted this central affirmation of the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead as the proof of God’s power and goodwill towards us, nevertheless we have hung on to fragments of the faith for devious reasons and for the most part been a burden on the Gospel, easily distorting its emphasis and turning it into moral platitudes and conventional “niceness,” and making us “pitiful,” as the Apostle says, in our own eyes and in the eyes of the world.
Recently a reviewer of the posthumous short book on Augustine by the late Henry Chadwick characterizes the Christianity of Julian of Eclanum, Pelagius’ brilliant apologist and Augustine’s interlocutor on grace and freewill as follows: ” …Christ does not need to be more than an exceptionally wise and good man to offer the supreme model of grace and inspiration which is all that Julian speaks of. This is the kind of deeply un-Christian Christianity for which the Russian Church condemned Tolstoy as a heretic.” (Lucy Beckett in the Times Literary Supplement, for 04/02/2010). It is precisely this “deeply un-Christian Christianity” that I have in mind here, along with the thoughtless thinkers and immoral moralists that fill our intellectual air with particles of spiritual pollution.
Either Christ is Risen and we are ecstatic with hope and joy, swept up in excitement and relief because what we have always walked in dread of, is not real and will not happen. Or we do not believe that Christ is Risen indeed and in fact and we pitifully propose symbolic solutions to salvage a fragment of encouragement from the shipwreck of hope. Better to walk away ruefully into an honest Stoicism than tarry with a crowd of hypocrites, a “deeply unchristian Christianity.”
It is not only the un-Christian Christians who pathetically manipulate the symbols of confidence by pulling the strings of selfish fantasy, pretending to receive salvation without giving anything for it. The world apart from Christ has always done so, seeking everywhere for ersatz answers to the real question and risk free wagers on life and death. Nevertheless, they cannot avoid asking that question, however ineptly. Let me illustrate this: Recently I revisited the cult movie of 1999 called “The Matrix.” Keanu Reeves wanders perpetually puzzled in a dangerous world, where the machines have taken over and keep the humans in a sort of cyber “fish tank” made possible by a curtain of digital signs, which is the software for this cyber world. This software curtain is the “matrix” and its world is unreal. The real world is a barren post apocalyptic ruin. Nevertheless there is a group of humans who somehow have escaped the matrix and live in the real world, whose real rigors they prefer to the unreal comforts of fantasy. The Oracle has prophesied that one will come to deliver them from the machines and enable a return to reality. Keanu Reeves is he, aptly named Neo, “the new guy,” and he engages the battle, shadowed all the way by a tough woman in black vinyl. Neo is killed in a duel with a machine. As his avatar lies broken somewhere in the matrix, his real self dies in its chair in the human headquarters, Zion. The end? Not at all! We have not been paying enough attention to the babe in black vinyl. She looks lovingly at Neo’s corpse and says: “The Oracle prophesied that I would fall in love with a dead man, and I have. She kisses him on the throat and Voila! The Resurrection of Neo! Brought about by the love of a good woman. (I trust I do not need to point out the romantic lie in this version of the story).
What do we have here, in this path breaker of the emerging culture? The oldest story in the world: human being trapped in fantasy and futility waiting for a savior or liberator to lead them out into the really real; along comes the savior uncertain of his identity and task, but gaining insight with experience; defeated by the powers and principalities (of technology in this case), he is killed; the love of a good woman brings him back to life and he resumes the battle, this time confident that as long as he is loved he is invincible.
This is a “techie romance” rendering of the oldest story ever told, indeed, the only story ever told, namely the quest for life in the face of death. This story structures not only the Matrix, which has become ground zero for the windy fantasies of the “Singularity is Near” crowd, but also the Epic of Gilgamesh, the third millennium BC novel of Gilgamesh’s grief at the death of his male lover Enkidu and his quest to find him and bring him back alive.
The Easter story is this same “one an only” human story told at last not as a poem of longing, or a fiction, forming images of significance in an alternative world, but as a matter-of-fact historical account of the defeat of death. In the Easter story Neo really lives again but not by the love of a good woman but by the love of God, which is the power of new creation; Gilgamesh finds Enkidu alive and brings him home from the frozen wastes where he lost him, not by his own skill and devotion but by the pity of the divine savior, the savior who went into that hell where Gilgamesh lost his way, and brought forth all those who are imprisoned there into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
CS Lewis, the Oxbridge don who wrote pugnacious apologies for the Christian faith tells of a visit from a friend late on Christmas eve. ” Rum thing, rum thing” says the friend sipping Lewis’ sherry (English dons used to speak like that in the forties of last century), “rum thing. It seems that all the fantastic hopes and dreams of all the myths and stories and songs and sagas at last actually happened.” He was thinking of Christmas, but I shall appropriate his comment for Easter. Yes, the hope that the prophets and bards and singers of tales, the truth that the grubbers and diggers of facts and pharmaceuticals, and whatever else there is or has been in the human struggle for meaning in the face of death, have all paid off.
We now know for a fact that life trumps death, and mirabile dictu, that my little life does too, and that I shall live and not die forever. After a brief and mysterious passage He will raise me up as a new creation and I shall enjoy the Life that is the Light of men, that the darkness could neither understand nor snuff out, and has now dazzled the darkness away forever.