Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’m sure I’ve said this a dozen-or-more times from this pulpit, but I’ll keep repeating it, because it’s one of those hobby-horses I have: we live in a death-denying culture. We can shield ourselves from the reality of death to a certain degree, and we can even convince ourselves that we can avoid it. I wonder if all the exercise equipment and quasi-medical products we can see advertised and all of the elective plastic surgery so many of us undergo prey on our inability to accept the fact that, in the absolute best case scenario, we will all grow old and die.

Over the last few days I’ve been struck by the contrast between how those mature in the faith deal with death and how the broader culture does. Many of you know that I buried two of our beloved sisters in Christ this last week–Beverly McCoy and Leah Richardson. I was impressed with both of them and with their families, not just as the funerals were planned and undertaken, but the faith, hope, and spiritual maturity all involved had over the last several months in my regular visits with them. Here were two women and two whole groups of family and friends who seemed to “get it”, for which I remain grateful.

In stark contrast to this, Annie and I had the opportunity to see the Cincinnati Opera’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata on Friday evening. The opera concludes with a tragic death, tragic not because it was unexpected but because of the character’s inability to move beyond her dissolute moral life, even at the very end. That said, the director of this particular production either completely misunderstood or (more likely) intentionally contradicted the entire point of the opera through various production tricks, attempting to turn the story into a celebration of self-determination, “found family”, and solidarity in moral license. He turned a rather straightforward morality tale into a celebration of post-modern, egocentric, pseudo-spirituality, in order to both engage in death-denial, and in a rather self-contradictory fashion, to scrape up some meaning in death from the perspective of a post-modernity in which God no longer exists. What as shame that beautiful musical performances from both the cast and the orchestra was marred by such an unfortunate deconstruction.

Ultimately, I think this come from a profound discomfort with death, which even Christians are not immune to. Secular reimaginings of opera aside, when it comes to those within or at least nominally friendly to the faith, this comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of death, and the Christian understanding that it is both bane and blessing, depending on how we understand God’s purpose for it.

On the one hand death was initially an aberration. It was not part of God’s original plan for humanity, and that means that we shouldn’t berate ourselves when we find it too much to handle. Listen again to what the writer of Wisdom said: “God did not make death and he does not delight in the death of the living…through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” In this sense, death is an evil, an effect of the fact that we live in a fallen world. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” God’s will is for life, and not only for life but for life abundant, a life fully lived in His ways. Death came later, and fights against God’s plan to an extent.

And yet death is inescapable because of our condition, because of the reality of evil and of original sin. Death is not illusory; it’s not a trick to test our faith, to see if we really believe in the resurrection. I remember one day in seminary when our systematic theology professor said something which became scandalous to my classmates, I think because many of us weren’t really listening to what he was saying. He said, just this directly, “when you’re dead, you’re dead.” There was scandal because some of my classmates thought that our professor was denying the resurrection. Quite to the contrary, he was trying to help us understand how profound and wonderful the resurrection of the dead really is. There’s not something about us inherently which makes our souls immortal. The Christian view is not that we are essentially disembodied ghosts which after death keep on living just as before. That’s not actually the traditional Christian view, that was Plato’s view and it became popular much, much later in Church history. That view does ultimately deny the reality of death and turns it into an illusion.

Conversely, the traditional Christian view is that death is very real. That the whole of us—body, mind, and spirit—experiences death, and there’s nothing about the way we’ve been created which permits us to avoid that. Far from denying the resurrection, this makes its truth all the more wonderful. When we are dead it is not our own nature but God’s power and grace which brings us to new life. The resurrection is not something we do automatically, it is something which God brings about.

Today’s Gospel reading makes this point. Jairus’ daughter was dead. Not merely dead, but really most sincerely dead. Yet Jesus knew that because of the promise of God, death was like sleep for her. Jairus’ daughter was no less dead, but her death was a period of rest and expectation. It was not the expectation of an automatic transmigration of her soul to some different sphere of being, but that God in Christ would literally bring her to life. And this He did, and this is our own hope for ourselves and our loved ones. While the dead rest in peace, and while we too will enter into that sleep, we have assurance that Christ will bring us back to life fully, not as disembodied ghosts, but as whole, holy, incorruptible people, with minds, spirits, and bodies. When at morning prayer or baptisms or in our own private prayer lives we recite the Apostle’s Creed and proclaim “I believe…in the resurrection of the body” we’re not speaking in metaphors, as I remember I said on the Sunday after Easter. The Church really does teach that there will be a bodily, physical, literal resurrection, and this is so much more comforting than the idea of “pie in the sky when we die, by and bye.” It’s comforting and exciting. It means that the life of the world to come is not contingent on anything we do, but on the grace and creative power of God, or to use the language of Wisdom “the generative forces of the world [which] are wholesome” because God creates and controls them.

And so, knowing that death is real but not the end we can over time come to terms with it. We are called to embrace death in a sense. We are commanded to love our enemies, and death is an enemy we’re called to love, as strange and difficult as that might sound. We are called to love and embrace the reality of death because we do know that it is only through death that we are born to eternal life. For even the evil of this world, death being part of it, can be transformed in such a way that it accords with the ends God intends. All that we need to do is trust God, and keep alive a robust hope in the resurrection.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.