St James Fordham • Proper 27a • Tobias Haller BSG
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.+
Out in the hot, dry, Arizona desert, there are 27 dead people waiting for resurrection. They aren’t the inhabitants of a Christian cemetery, waiting as all the faithful departed do for the coming of that great day when the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible. No, these are 27 people who have had themselves put into a deep-freeze of liquid nitrogen in the hope that science will one day find a cure for whatever it was that ailed them, as well as a way to restore their frozen tissue without irreparable damage.
Such is their hope. And the cost? They’ve paid a pretty penny for this deep-freeze, $120,000 each — except for a few of them who decided to save a bit, and took the option, for a mere $50,000, to have had only their heads frozen. Talk about cut-rate pricing! If I want a brain freeze I can just drink a Mickey D milkshake too fast. I suppose these particular blockheads — I think it’s no insult to call them that now, is it? — I suppose they were the most optimistic among the “frozen people” since they expect science will be able to grow them new bodies or build them one like Robocop.
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Saint Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Now, the frozen people in Arizona clearly had hope before they died and were deposited into their giant Thermos flasks. They had the hope that they would one day be thawed, healed or repaired, and live again.
But what a foolish hope, and what a pointless promise. Even if they could be thawed, reanimated, and healed, how much longer do they imagine they could live after that? Bodies may live a long time, but they don’t preserve the vigor of youth. However well we care for our bodies, they weaken and fail. There’s a lesson in the fable of the man who was granted his wish of eternal life but forgot to add eternal youth and was cursed to become a dried up husk of a creature scuttling about the passageways of his great-great-grandchildren’s palace. Until, the legend tells us, the gods took pity on him and transformed him: and that’s where the grasshopper came from! A long life without the health to enjoy it is not a blessing, but a curse.
And even beyond that, even if these newly thawed-out bodies could be kept young forever, what does “forever” mean? After all, the world is going to end someday! And I don’t just mean in a biblical sense based on ancient prophecy, but in cold simple scientific fact. Some day our sun, and every sun that shines in every corner of the universe will either explode or cool down to a cinder. Some day billions of years in the distant future, science assures us, the whole universe will die in the cold embrace of entropy, as all energy drains away and even the atoms that make up everything in the physical universe collapse from sheer exhaustion and decay into the virtual nothingness of a cold, absolute zero. Those who hope for immortality in the physical world through science are cheated of eternal life by that very science: they may live a long, long time, but not for ever. Nothing physical lasts forever — all matter is corruptible, and all flesh is as the grass of the field — and flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven — and those whose hope for immortality is based simply on the survival of their physical bodies are doomed in their ignorance. Haven’t they ever seen a zombie movie — dead bodies walking, but falling apart even as they walk?
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Saint Paul counsels us, “We do not want you to be uninformed about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Our hope, hope for ourselves as well as all our beloved who have died before us, our hope does not rest upon the some-day maybe-if-we’re-lucky promises of science but on the eternal, absolute and make-no-mistake-about-it assurance of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. What does the old song say? “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness!” The one we hope in doesn’t wear a white lab-coat, but a crown of thorns, and Jesus Christ doesn’t just offer us opinions and options and possibilities but a sure and certain hope — and all other grounds are sinking sand.
Jesus Christ is our secure hope. Because he’s been there. Jesus descended to the dead and rose again the third day. He knows what it is like to feel life drain from him, with the blood he shed on Calvary. This was no near-death experience. Jesus didn’t just come near death. He died! He was buried, and lay in the tomb for a sabbath rest, until by God’s power he was raised from the dead.
Because we share in his death through Baptism, we will also share with him in his resurrection; which is not the reanimation of a corpse, but a whole new creation in the resurrection body, the body that is more than flesh, full of the eternal power of the Spirit, alive with the life that comes from above.
Saint Paul describes the scenario, and whether it happens next week, next year, in a hundred or a thousand or a billion years, this is how it will happen. The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, and the trumpet shall sound, and those who have died in Christ will rise, and those who are alive will join them, caught up into the mystery of the new life, transformed into his likeness without ever even having had to leave the old one behind.
“The Lord will descend with a cry of command.” And do you know what his command will be? Can you guess? Don’t you think it will be, “WAKE UP!” Christ will call to life all those who have died, and call those who live to new life in him. “Wake up!” will be the watchword, and the trumpet blast and the cry of his voice will be loud enough to wake the dead, literally! As was said to me recently, “On that great day there’s gonna be a whole lot of earth turned up at Woodlawn!”
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Our hope as Christians is not that we will simply be thawed out, simply be mended to walk about as reanimated corpses, but that we will be given new spiritual bodies, spiritual bodies that can live for eternity long after the merely physical universe decays into the thin gray neutrino soup that scientists foresee billions of years from now. Long after this universe has dissolved, what is eternal shall remain, God and his children, wakened at the sound of the trumpet, and at the call of his Son, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
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Winston Churchill saw his nation through the terrible war years when he was at an age at which most people are happily retired. In addition to being a statesman and world leader and amateur oil-painter, he was also a devoted churchman and staunch believer in the promises of our faith. There is a persistent unverified rumor — which I have done nothing to discourage! — that his mother, Jennie Jerome, whose father used to live across the road now known as Jerome Avenue in his memory, was baptized here at Saint James Church!
Churchill’s faith and hope were reflected in the funeral service he planned for himself. It took place in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, which had stood throughout the Battle of Britain and the Blitz as a testimony to the church’s presence in a world gone mad, its great dome rising above London’s flames and smoke, defying Hitler’s bombers and rockets. Churchill, as befits a military man, arranged that as his funeral neared its end, a lone bugler high in the dome of the cathedra would begin to play the universal signal for day’s end, the tune we know as “Taps.” I’m sure that melody brought tears to many eyes that day, as it has in so many other places and times.
But old Sir Winston had a more profound message to convey in his funeral. Before the last notes of Taps had faded, another bugler at the opposite side of the dome began another tune, another melody with a very different message: the other bugler played “Reveille”!
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Our hope, and the hope of countless Christians who have gone before us, all the saints, prophets, apostles and martyrs, all our dear beloved friends and family in Christ, our hope is that at the end the last melody will not be Taps. It will be Reveille! Those who have fallen asleep will wake at the trumpet blast. Those who have died will rise. And, as Saint Paul wrote, those “who are left will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
When He shall come with trumpet sound,
O may I then in Him be found;
Dressed in His righteousness alone
Faultless to stand before His throne.
On Christ the solid Rock I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand —
All other ground is sinking sand. +