A. “He that was dead sat up and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother.”
1. Imagine a graveside burial at which the gospel scene is replayed. All are processing to the grave with the casket. Someone walks up and touches it. The casket door opens and the dead person sits up and begins to talk. It would be wonderful. Someone we miss would be back; but it would also be eerie. We expect the dead to remain dead.
2. This is, in fact, the essence of the Christian hope. Christ has conquered death and is coming again to judge the world and raise the dead to life. We should mourn at a funeral precisely because we want this dead person to “rise and walk” and we know we have to wait a while longer before it will be so. We mourn, not merely our loss, but the current absence of the fullness of our hope. We “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” And we want it now.
3. This hope is expressed in what we say as we commit the body to the ground:
Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the ground;…in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself (BCP 333).
4. We believe the dead in Christ are with him now. But the current intermediate state of the dead is not our final hope. When we mistake the intermediate state for the final state the Christian hope gets watered down into visions of sitting on clouds and playing harps—thing few of us want to do forever.
5. We must avoid thinking of “heaven” as what Fr. Schmemman called “a cosmic cemetery”—a place where souls rest forever. This is why I emend the traditional prayer for the departed in Christ. We pray not only that the souls of the faithful departed may “rest in peace;” we pray also that they may “rise in glory in the resurrection on the last day.” We develop the theological virtue of hope only as we long for the restoration of all things in Christ; the renewal of the creation and the restoration to the fullness of life in the body.
B. The Christian hope of resurrection is foreshadowed in the gospel.
1. The pattern of the resurrection in the gospel corresponds with how the New Testament describes the details of our final resurrection. The key point of correspondence is that resurrection occurs by the command of Jesus. In the gospel Jesus issued the following command: “Young man, I say to thee, Arise.” A similar command was given by Jesus in the two other New Testament resurrections. Jesus said to the brother of Mary and Martha, “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43). Jesus ordered Lazarus out of the tomb. St. Mark describes the raising of the daughter of Jairus in this way, “Taking her by the hand he said to her…”Little girl, I say to you, arise.” (5:41).
2. In a similar way, the New Testament says that the resurrection on the last day will take place at the command of Jesus. In John 5:28-29 Jesus said,
The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear his voice [emphasis added] and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
First Thessalonians says, “The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command [emphasis added], with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise” (4:16).
3. When Jesus comes again in glory to judge the world and raise the dead, he will issue a command to the dead of every age. He will say, “Arise.” The dead will obey him because he is the Son of God and Lord of the whole creation. In the beginning God made all things by his Word. He spoke and it was so. At the end of time he will speak again. The new creation will be completed in the same manner as the first creation.
C. The epistle and in the inner work of God
1. Today’s epistle focuses on the interior work of resurrection.
That God would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (3:16-19).
The life of Christ is planted in us baptism. It is sustained by our ongoing faith or trust in God. As this life becomes established by our habitual spiritual disciplines and the practice of good works, we become “rooted and grounded in love.” This is spiritual horticulture. The “inner man” grows as we persevere in faith, prayer and obedience.
2. Our future outward resurrection will be then natural result or fruit of the current inward work. Second Corinthians says, “even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is renewed day by day” (4:16). Our bodies grow old and die, but the life of God within us becomes more vibrant and strong as we grow in faith, hope, love, humility, perseverance, self control, contentment and generosity. When God has finished his inward cleansing, he will give us bodies that are fitting for his glorious sons and daughter to live in.
D. The necessary gift of sight
1. To persevere in faith through physical trials and bodily death requires the ability see what God is doing within us. Despair results when we focus on outward appearances and circumstances. Faith and hope increase as learn to see what God is doing in and through the outward circumstances. As we perceive God’s present work within us, we grow in our future hope of its outward fulfillment.
2. The ability to perceive God’s work is especially important in our time. Our civilization is in decline. There is a looming apocalyptic sense that we are experiencing the end of an age. It is tempting to see the outward decline as evidence that God is absent. We must pray for eyes of faith to see what God is doing within us and to understand that the kingdom of God exists apart from all earthly civilizations. Just as our interior growth occurs in spite of physical aging, so the kingdom of God advances despite the rise and fall of nations.
3. This is why the epistle contains what is essentially a prayer for vision:
That you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height and to know the love of Christ that passes knowledge.
Our perception of our lives and of the state of the world depends upon how we see and comprehend the world around us. Two people experience similar trying circumstances; one is filled with faith and hope, while the other is filled with fear, anxiety and despair. One can see what God is doing, and the other can only see the visible trial or failure. The difference is not the circumstances but the way the circumstances are understood. Do we see what God is doing? Or are we blind?
4. The epistle tells us that “God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think according the power that works in us.” In other words, God thinks big but we tend to think small. We focus on temporal success, while God is preparing us for his eternal kingdom. We aim at a pain free life, while God works through our pain to form new virtues. We try to feel good right now at all costs, while God does things that will bring us lasting peace and joy. We ask for mere comfort, while God is raising us from the dead.
5. We come to church to remember and further the work of the kingdom of God within us and in the world. We gather as citizens of the eternal kingdom to feed on eternal food that nourishes the life within us and prepares us for our own resurrection and the life of the world to come. As Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54).