A sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter at the 8am service
Easter is a season about life. We have the promise of resurrection realized and experienced in Christ. Jesus comes back to us from death, defeating death, to teach us, to inspire us, to fill us with hope. The hope of the resurrection is what makes Easter, and it is this hope that we experience throughout this season. But the gospel today, which in many ways is an Easter gospel in the vein of what has preceded and what is still to come in this season, is not about the hope in life we experience, at least not in the mortal, one-time experience of life of the here and now. This gospel today is an Easter gospel because it is about our death. And in our death, the hope that Easter brings. Hope that we must know. Hope that we must share. Hope that is our faith in the resurrected savior, Jesus Christ.
We often avoid conversation of death until it is unavoidable. There is so much joy in this world, in our lives, that death is not something which we want to dwell too much on. Even when there is a lack of joy in our lives, death still is not talked about, death still remains taboo. It’s because we should be happy in this world, with our lives, regardless of whether we actually are happy or not, we should be, or at least that is what we’re often led to believe. And because of this, we celebrate life. We celebrate the occasion of our births with great joy over the fact that we’re still alive, at least for another year. And we mourn deaths. We mourn loss. We mourn the fact that we are reminded that we are in fact mortal, regardless of how immortal we may feel. And because mourning is not a joyous occasion, we try to avoid it as much as possible. We try to avoid death, in any real sense, as much as possible.
It is because of our insistence on avoiding death that it is in fact hard to handle death when we are forced to come face-to-face with it. But in particular, we are greatest at avoiding any notions of our own mortality until it is too late. I’m a healthy young (or for some of you, youngish) person, you think to yourself, what sort of use do I have for a will (apart from the fact that you have dependents, a spouse, one or more children, to think of)? We avoid our own mortality by making death fantastical and ridiculous. We see this in film and television where regardless of it being a drama, a horror movie, or a comedy, death plays a character with which we interact, failing to acknowledge it as a reality in our real lives. We deal with death in a relatively safe manner, but still keeping it at arm’s length. Still protecting ourselves from the reality that supposedly comes with death.
This avoidance of death is compounded in part by the societal desire, and often pressure, to measure our lives, to make sure that we have lived what others may deem a “good life.” A life that was full of every experience possible. We checked off every item from the bucket list, for once that’s done than surely we’ll be ready to die. We have made sure that we have not missed out. And it is here that we begin to lose the point of Easter. We begin to lose ourselves in a pursuit that forgets what Christ has done before us, the promise that has been fulfilled for us, the life that is awaiting us after this life.
But, what if we took this life, acknowledging the very real presence of death at the end of that life, and saw the life we have been given as an opportunity to prepare. What if, instead of seeing life as something that must be lived to the fullest, as seen through skydiving, swimming with dolphins, and climbing Mt. Rainier, we thought of a life lived to its fullest wherein we worked to better the lives of others, we worked to protect God’s creation in all its forms, we worked to bring about the kingdom of God, we worked to prepare ourselves for our deaths. When Thomas asks Jesus, how can we know the way, he is asking a question that is asking Christ to quantify how we can measurably follow Christ, measure whether or not we have achieved the standards of a good life so as to be rewarded in the end.
If we are truly living a life in Christ, how could we not know the way? If we are truly living a life in Christ, following the way, the truth, the life, we can begin to answer the question of what is really important to measure a life well-lived. For there is a pretty clear answer as to what makes a “good” life, when it is a life lived in Christ.
A “good” life in Christ is one where we see the hungry and give them food, the thirsty and give them something to drink. A “good” life in Christ is one where we see a stranger and welcome them in, be they Christian, Muslim, Jew, or any of the myriad of faiths in this world, be they Atheist or Agnostic, be they immigrant, refugee, or illegal alien. A “good” life in Christ is one where we see the naked and give them clothing, simply give it to them, with no qualifications. A “good” life in Christ is one where we see the sick and take care of them, regardless of how much money they have, regardless of how good of medical insurance they can (or can’t) afford, regardless of how they choose to live their life, the choices they have made in that life. A “good” life in Christ is one where we see the imprisoned, imprisoned by cruel and unusual mandatory sentencing laws, imprisoned for minor drug infractions, imprisoned for doing what they had to do to survive in a society that only works to keep them down, imprisoned for committing the same crime as a rich white college kid but being black so parole and community service were never going to be offered, and visit them, see them as human beings and not as thugs and criminals, stripping away their very humanity.
If we begin to understand the measure of a “good” life in Christ, and the stark difference it strikes with the measure of a “good” life in society, then we can begin to understand Jesus when he says do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me. The place where Jesus goes, to prepare a dwelling place for us, enables us to re-define death. Death becomes for us not death, but life. Death becomes for us a new birth, where we will be with the Father and the Son. When we acknowledge this reality of death, that it does not hover over us like a reaper, waiting to harvest our souls, we can change our understanding of this life that we have been gifted with. When we begin to see death in the light of Easter, the light of resurrection, we see death as our reward for a life well lived in Christ.
And, you know the way. You know the truth. You know the life that is in Christ. We simply have to acknowledge and celebrate this fact. We have to celebrate that what society might deem a good life is not a standard that we need to be beholden to. We have to celebrate that we have been given this one life to do as much good in this world as we can manage, taking up the mantle as a follower of Christ, creating good. And when that one life comes to an end, whether it be at the end of a long life or a short life, we will be rewarded with a dwelling place in the father’s house.
When we gather for funerals in this church (often hearing this very gospel in the service), when we acknowledge the deaths of our friends and family every Sunday, we say that we mourn the death and celebrate the life lived. It is important that we be given space to mourn for these deaths, it is hard to say goodbye to someone we hold near and dear to us. It is especially hard when it feels like that person’s time with this life, in this place, was cut short. It is important to mourn, because it is in our mourning that we acknowledge that the world is losing someone who put good into the world. And, it is hard for us to accept that their good will no longer be actively created. But, we also celebrate their life because we are resurrection people, and in this gospel today we know that through Christ, there is life.
We know that through Christ, the good that has been created in this world will beget more good as we celebrate the life of those who die, by carrying on, supporting, the good they created when they were with us. Christ is the way, the truth, the life, and because of this, we cannot help but celebrate a life well lived, we cannot help but be comforted by the fact that our loved ones go to the dwelling places, and one day we too will be amongst them in a new life, a new life experienced because of Christ’s salvific act on the cross and his subsequent resurrection, defeating death for the final time.