Is this all there is?
Lectionary blog for April 6, 2014
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130;
Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
By Delmer Chilton
“Ten minutes after you’re dead, where will you be?” That was the first line of the first sermon preached in his first parish by James Insight, newly ordained in the Church of England. In his mail on his first day in that church, Father Insight found an advertisement for a sermon service that promised to send him, for a modest fee, a fresh sermon every week, written by a “veteran” preacher, and based on the week’s Gospel lesson. They helpfully included a “sample” sermon, already printed out and ready to preach. The young pastor virtuously wadded it up and threw it in the trash-can.
All week he struggled to find the time to write a sermon as well as struggling with the fact that he really didn’t know how. Finally, on Saturday night, he plunged into the trash can, recovered the trial sermon, smoothed it out, and promised himself, “just this once.” So, “Ten minutes after you’re dead, where will you be?” he thundered. It certainly caught the congregation’s attention. As a sermon, it was not full of mercy, but it was mercifully short.
For Evening Prayer the vestry had scheduled a guest preacher, a man who had been a classmate of Father Insight, a man who had been the star of the class, who took all the prizes in Greek and Hebrew and Theology. The guest preacher went into the pulpit, fiddled with his notes, adjusted his vestments, pulled his glasses down to the end of his nose and, glaring over them at the congregation, bellowed: “Ten minutes after you’re dead, where will you be?” and proceeded to preach the exact same sermon, with the exact same gestures, that Father Insight had preached that morning. (James Insight in his memoir, “I Turned My Collar ‘Round”)
The question is an important one, isn’t it? Where will we be 10 minutes after we’re dead?
What does life after death hold for us? Is this all there is, or is there something more to follow? And, if there is, what difference does it make? Is the promise of life after death just pie in the sky, bye-and-bye? Or, does an awareness of God’s power to overcome death make a difference in how we live our lives? Here. And now.
Each of our Scripture lessons deals with these matters of life and death and life eternal. Ezekiel looks out over a valley of dry bones and hears God ask: “Son of man, can these bones live?” St. Paul writes to the church in Rome and says: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” And the Gospel Lesson is the story of the raising of Lazarus, a story containing much talk of life and death, and the startling sign of Jesus bringing a dead man back to the world of the living.
Lazarus is the one man who could have told us much about what effect a second chance at life might have. Unfortunately, the Bible is mostly silent about what happened to Lazarus after he walked out of the tomb, merely noting his presence at dinner with Jesus six days before the Passover.
In 1821, a boy was born into a well-to-do St. Petersburg, Russia, family. After graduation from the Imperial Military Academy, the young man found that he was more interested in writing than fighting, and so he became a journalist and a novelist, writing about the life of the well-to-do in Czarist Russia. He also spent much time discussing politics with other young writers, whiling away the afternoons in bars and cafes, filling the time with coffee and communism, rum and revolution.
Czar Nikolas the First quickly learned of the young radicals group and decided to teach them a lesson. He had them arrested and tried and sentenced to death by firing squad. They were dressed in white death gowns and led to a public square where the military detail awaited them. Blind-folded, dressed in burial clothes, hands bound tightly behind their backs, they were paraded before a jeering crowd and then tied to posts. The order “ready, aim” was shouted. The rifles were cocked and — at just that moment a horseman rode up with a message from the Czar: Sentence was to be commuted to four years hard labor.
Fyodor Dostoevsky never fully recovered from this experience. He had peered into the jaws of death, and from that moment life became for him precious beyond calculation. “Now my life will change,” he said, “I shall be born again in a new form.” In his life after that there were two signs of that profound born again-ness. One was faith in Christ. As he boarded the convict train for Siberia, a devout woman handed him a New Testament, the only book allowed in prison. He read the Gospels over and over again while he was in prison and emerged with an unshakable confidence and belief in Christ.
The other was that he came out of prison a different type of writer. His naïve views on the inherent goodness of humanity were shattered on the hard rock of the gigantic evil he found in his cellmates. Yet, over time, he glimpsed the image of God in even the lowest of prisoners. He came to believe that only through being loved is a human being capable of love. Out of this transition came his great and moving novels of sin and repentance, forgiveness and grace; “Crime and Punishment,” “The Brothers Karamazov” and “The Idiot.”
Those of us who baptize infants by sprinkling and pouring sometimes miss one of the great messages of Baptism, a message fully evident in the immersing of an adult convert completely beneath the water. In Baptism we “die and rise with Christ.” Listen to the words of the Lutheran funeral service, “When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 280)
“. . . . we too might live a new life.” The message of the Gospel is that “10 minutes after we’re dead” we will be safe in the arms of God’s love. Our most important death has already taken place, our death to sin and the devil. We live each day as new creatures in Christ and death no longer holds any threat for us. Poet/priest John Donne said, “Death be not proud.” Why should death not be proud? Because death cannot win, indeed, death has already lost.
Our calling today is to live each day as people for whom death holds no fear. As messengers of the unbelievable good news that God’s love is more powerful than anything this world can do to us, we are called to spread the word that dry bones can indeed live. “Prophesy to the bones, People! Prophesy to the bones!” Amen.
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.