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The Last Enemy

Sermon - 4/04/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

[Editors Note:  During the Easter service, members of the congregation come forward to place a a flower on a barren cross, transforming it into a flowered cross.  Pictures of this transformation are included below]

1 Corinthians 15:16-26

The text this Easter morning is from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15 verses 16 to 26:

For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death.


A fisherman and his wife went crabbing off the coast when a sneaker wave caught them by surprise, washed the wife overboard. The fisherman dove in after her, but the water was murky, her clothes were heavy, she sank quickly to the bottom and he couldn't find her. After trying for hours and hours in frustration, despair and exhaustion, finally he gave up the search, went back to shore, notified the authorities. Very distraught, he went home.

A couple of days later, a fellow fishermen and that he recognizes, Joe, comes to his door. And Fred, the fisherman, goes to the door and says: "Joe, what is it?". He says, "Fred, I'm sorry to tell you that I have bad news. But I also have good news and great news". Fred says "Well, what's the bad news, Joe?". Joe says, "Fred, we did find your wife. She was tangled up in one of my traps, we pulled her up this morning. I'm so sorry, she meant a lot to all of us". Fred said, "Thank you Joe, I know it's sincere, and I was prepared for the worst".

"So what's the good news?". Joe said "Well, when we pulled her up, she had half a dozen good sized lobster and a dozen snow crabs hanging onto her".

Fred was a little aghast at the crassness of his friend. He asked "What's the great news?".

Joe replied: "We're going to pull her up again tomorrow" :). [Groans from the congregation :)]

Now, if you think I have a warped sense of humor, you should know that I got that from my Dad's wife, who is the administrator of Portland First Christian Church, and she got it from the administrator at Dad's previous church in San Diego. So it's really the warped humor of church administrators, I think :).

Well, Easter is kind of like that. There's bad news, there's good news, and there's great news.

The bad news is for all those who thought they could take care of Jesus and his challenge to the religious and political authorities by nailing him to the cross. The good news is, it didn't work. God vindicated Jesus, and repudiated his enemies, on that Easter morning. The great news is that Easter was just the beginning, says Paul.

Jesus was the first of many more resurrections to come, culminating in the defeat of all worldly powers like those that put him to death. And even death itself, the last enemy to be defeated.

Now, there are two ways that we can take a text like this. We can read it literally, referring to the actual events that will take place in time in history, caught on camera, reported in the news. Or, we can read it metaphorically, referring to those epic struggles between good and evil, be it in actual human affairs or those struggles that go on in the human soul, in the inner work in the psyche.

Both of those are perfectly valid ways to read the text. But there is one way of reading it, and others like it, that I think we have to be absolutely clear is not valid. And that is as justification for armed revolt against the government as one of those worldly powers to be defeated. To take it upon ourselves. There's a reason, you see, that Jesus did not have and never will have a militia. It is counter to the whole concept of bringing the Kingdom of God on earth. And even in the book of Revelation, thoroughly metaphorical, never intended to be read literally, the only human warriors are those who battle against God. Not for God. It's why Jesus told his Disciples to put away their swords when the chance came to fight for him. He didn't need it then and he doesn't need it now. So, Hutaree and other so called Christian militia groups, please take note.

I cringe every time I read in the news, or even hear that term "Christian militia". It's an oxymoron, and it makes me understand how most Muslims feel when they hear the term "Muslim terrorist". Because if you know the Koran, you know that you cannot be a Muslim and be a terrorist. Killing of innocent people is specifically, explicitly, forbidden in the in the Koran.

And so those, who as we've seen just recently in Baghdad once again, take their own lives in killing others, distort their own faith. And the same is true for Christians who form their own private militia. Christians certainly can, and do, serve with honor and distinction in our military forces and they should be thanked for their service to the country. But there is no scriptural basis for Christians to form their own militia. Period.

Now that we've cleared that up, let's move on to the easier matter at hand, resurrection :). Literal or metaphorical? And the simple answer is: yes it is :).

Lisa Miller addresses this question in a forthcoming book on heaven that was excerpted in Newsweek this week. It's the edition on a stands with the iPad on the cover, which if you believe the hype from Apple is a digital manifestation of heaven :). And I'm standing in line. For the metaphorical argument, she cites Boston University religion scholar Steven Prothero (and by the way, those were present at "Theology on Tap" Tuesday night will recognize that name -- that was the review that we read from Dr. Prothero). And he says that it seems fantastic and irrational that we are going to have a body in heaven. But ever since the days of Plato, it has been possible to conceive of the soul apart from the body. And so we have the notion of the immortality of the soul independent of our bodies.

And Paul more or less suggests just that, later on in the same text where he writes: "What his sown perishable is raised imperishable. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body". Thus, the resurrection -- whether we are talking of Jesus or of our own -- can be seen as a metaphor for that transformation from the physical to the spiritual.

Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar NT Wright, however, says that such metaphorical talk is a cheap cop-out. The whole point of Easter, he says, is that the resurrection really happened. That the tomb really was empty. That Jesus' body and spirit came back to life.

Unless we think that such notions of resurrection are solely owned by Christians, Miller cites a Jewish scholar at Harvard Divinity school, John E. Levinson, who says the belief in resurrection is more radical. It's a supernatural event, it's a special act of grace or of kindness on God's part. And so Levinson advocates that Jews reclaim this very Jewish tradition that Paul is drawing upon as the promise of God for all people of faith. And we know of many other religious traditions that make similar claims.

Now, for her part, Miller remains rather skeptical of the whole idea of resurrection. However, she says "I to leave the door open for radical acts of grace and kindness and for humbling ourselves before all we don't understand".

I and have a hunch that many if not most of us can relate to that view. We don't always understand. And Easter is one of those events that is hard to understand. The details are a little fuzzy -- John reports one thing, Matthew another, who is at the tomb, who saw what, when, it varies according to which gospel you read. Paul has an entirely different chronology than the Gospels of what occurred. And Paul says that his experience of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus was no different than anyone else's. And certainly his was not that same kind of experience of the body of Christ.

Well, we may not be certain about that. Likewise, we don't always have much of a clue on what happens after death. But it's pretty clear, if you believe those who report their experiences of being brought back to life, that our bodies are not part of that experience, whatever it may be.

Regardless of any of that, or how much of the Easter story we take literally and how much we take metaphorically, we all recognize the power of Easter to transform something as vile and ugly as death by crucifixion into something as beautiful as that cross. We know there is more to this life than can be known in the physical realm. We believe that death does not have the last word. Otherwise, why do so many people come to church on Easter? Is it not to be touched by that spirit? Is it not to behold that beauty of transformation? Is it not to hear a word of hope in all of our lives?

We had a beautiful service on Good Friday, that April and our choir led. It was an intimate service. That's preacher-talk for "OK, it was small" :). But that's OK, I get that. I mean, who wants to go to a movie when you know that the hero is going to die in the end? And we all have too many Good Fridays in our own lives. Painful stories to remember, suffering we have endured, mortality we have confronted, grief we have known. And those are hard places to revisit. Going back to Golgotha can be a hard thing. No one likes to face death. Indeed, the only thing that makes it bearable in the end is knowing that Friday is not the end of the story.

If you read the Register Guard, you know that Bob Welch has revealed that Rick Dancer has gone public, has joined that club that no man wants to be a part of, and is being treated for prostate cancer. I was shocked when I read the story -- not because of the prostate cancer (being part of that club, it's a very close-knit group and we hear about those things, so I knew about Rick's cancer before it was in the paper) -- I was shocked to learn that Rick is five years younger than I am! Have you seen the guy? Even when he was still doing his news bit, he had way more gray hair than I do! Running for secretary of state and all that, and here he is five years younger than me. I mean I was shocked :).

As you know, four years ago I went public with my own prostate cancer. And among the several things that helped me to endure, to face that with hope, was the encouragement that my physician gave when they diagnosed me. He said "Our goal is not just to treat you, our goal is to cure you". And indeed that has been the case, thanks to God and to those doctors. There is more to that resurrection story, but we're not going to go there this morning :).

The point of Easter is not to postpone death, but to defeat it. How? As the vision of Revelation makes clear, through the metaphor of the new Jerusalem where humanity will dwell with God on earth in peace, death is defeated when & where evil is defeated. Martin Luther King Jr. understood that, and he knew that defeating evil would not be done by killing the evildoers, but only by following the example of Jesus. The way of love that overcomes evil with good, fear with hope, war with peace. And so, on April 4, 1967, 43 years ago today, at the Riverside Church in New York City, he made public his opposition to the Vietnam War. And said in response to those who questioned why civil rights leader would come out publicly on on a foreign policy issue, he said the Nobel Peace Prize gave him a calling beyond national allegiances. But even if it were not present, he said, "I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I'm speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all people? For communist and capitalist? For their children and ours? For black and for white? For revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?".

Exactly 1 year later on April 4, 1968, 42 years ago today, King died for that message. And even as we remember that Good Friday story, we celebrate the ways in which his life and message continues to live and to change us for the better. So we celebrate how evil is defeated by Jesus through people like Martin Luther King, just as evil was defeated by God through Jesus. The evil of crucifixion, the symbol of Roman war and oppression, was defeated on that Easter morning when the Disciples discovered that the power and presence of God they had before known only through Jesus was now available to them.

New Testament scholar Walter Wink says that's what makes Easter so important. It's not the change that occurred to Jesus that morning, but the change that occurred to those Disciples because of Jesus. That his power and presence was so real, so tangible, it altered not just their lives, it changed the world. And so Wink says in their struggles with the powers that be, the Disciples knew that whatever their doubts, losses, or sufferings, the final victory was God's, because Jesus had conquered death and the fear of death, and led them out of that captivity. The resurrection was real--something happened to God, something happened to Jesus, something happened to the Disciples. It may not be an datum of public record, but divine transformative power overcoming the powers of death.

This is the good news: Jesus has defeated death. And the great news: we can too.

Whether your understanding is more like that of N.T. Wright (more literal), or that a Walter Wink (more metaphorical), the transformative power of Easter is the same.

Is is the power that brings life out of death.

It is the power that turns grief into joy.

It is the power that changes the ugly into something beautiful.

It is the power that overcomes evil with good.

It is the power that overcomes war with peace.

It is the power that speaks to us from the cross of God's love for every person.

It is the power just as available to us this day, as any day.

It is the power of Easter, that we claim this day. Praise be to God. Hallelujah! He is risen!



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