A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, September 20, 2015
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
The Epistle, Ephesians 3:13-21 – The Gospel, St. Luke 7:11-17
A. A connection between the Epistle and the Gospel
Things seem to be turned around in our epistle. St. Paul, who is in prison, comforts those who are not in prison, saying, “I do not want you to lose heart at my suffering for you.” Usually, prison ministry works in the other direction. St. Paul had the vision to see that God was in control, to see bigger picture of what God was doing. Thus, he tells his readers that God “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us.”
Today’s gospel illustrates the truth of this claim. Jesus raised a dead boy to life. No one in the funeral procession would have thought to ask for this. They might have thought to ask Jesus for comfort and provision for the grieving mother. But no one would have said. “Jesus, raise this boy from the dead, right now.”
The gospel scene is wonderful, yet a bit eerie. Imagine yourself at a funeral—at the grave side. Imagine that, just as final rites are being finished, a man walks up out of the blue, touches the coffin and says, “Rise.” Imagine that the person you were just about to bid farewell to, sits up.
B. What we learn from this.
One lesson we could learn from this is that it is good thing to have Jesus on hand for a funeral! But, of course, a continual repeating of this miracle would not solve our problem. Jesus raised this young man, but this young man had another funeral. Jesus also raised the daughter of Jairus and Lazarus. They were both also buried at later dates. If Jesus stopped every funeral and restored every person to mortal life, there would remain the problem of yet another, future funeral—but it would be good for the mortuary business!
What Jesus did for us was to solve the problem of death itself by dying for the sins of the world, rising to new, immortal life, and sharing this new immortal life with us through the gift of the Spirit. The New Testament calls the gift of the Spirit a “down payment” on our own future resurrection. Jesus is not likely to interrupt our funerals for the purpose of giving us few more years, but he promises that our funeral is not the last word. We have a share in his Good Friday, but we also have a share in his Easter.
The New Testament describes the future resurrection of the dead in this way:
First Corinthians says, “The trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (15:52).
First Thessalonians says, “The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ shall rise” (4:16).
Philippians says, “We await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (3:20-21).
Jesus himself said, “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (Jn. 6:40).
What we have in our gospel is an illustration of our future resurrection. At the end of time, the Lord, the Word of God, through whom God created all things in the beginning, will appear in person and speak again. He commanded the son of the widow of Nain to rise, and the boy rose. He will utter a universal command to all of the dead who put their faith in him. He will say, “Rise.” And we will rise to live with him in God’s renewed and redeemed creation. Now, that is exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think!
C. Pie in the sky and fairy tales
Of course, this is precisely what we are criticized for believing. That is, we have this “pie-in-the-sky” future hope. But what does that mean tomorrow? We have to admit, as Christians, that we haven’t always articulated a good answer to that. The main problem is the failure to understand how the future hope connects to the present.
Most Christians tend to separate their future hope from their current lives. The place they think of as heaven only comes to mind when they are faced with death. Until they have some reason to think about that event, their minds are completely caught up in the concerns of time—career, family and other temporal urgencies. This is evidenced by a dearth of prayer. There is no regular connection to what is eternal because what is eternal is not seen as having any connection to today.
However, the Bible teaches us that the resurrection is something that is happening to us right now—not just something that will happen in the future. The epistle say that God is “able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us.” God is raising us from the dead right now. He is working within us, in the midst of the various events of our lives, to change us from weak, sinful, mortal creatures into virtuous, strong, holy and eternal sons and daughters of God. As 2 Corinthians says, “Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. (2 Cor. 4:16).
D. God current work and our prayer
We participate in this work of God through prayer. Our prayer is not primarily about asking God to give us temporal things, or, even, about asking God save us for a future place called heaven. Our prayer is primarily about how we experience God’s transforming presence in all things right now, in this life. Prayer invites God’s presence into our lives. Prayer develops our spiritual vision. It enables us to see how God is doing his work in us through our tribulations.
Many people see prayer primarily as the way we ask God to save us from our pain. However, the Bible is clear that God saves us through pain, not from pain. Good Friday comes before Easter. On Good Friday, God was doing exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think. All we can see on Good Friday is horrible pain and injustice, but pain and injustice were precisely the things God used to create Easter. In the gospel, the tragedy of the funeral was occasion for the miracle of resurrection. Our lives in Christ follow this same pattern. We have afflictions that seem pointless if we only look at the visible pain; but our pain is the purposeful pain of new birth—the birth pangs of God’s new creation. God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask our think according to the power that works in us.
This perspective is hard to embrace in our time. Our culture teaches us to run from our pain. It is, thus, a challenge to hold on to a faith that teaches us that God works out his purpose through our pain; that pain is purposeful; that the goal is not to avoid it but to understand in rightly, and to experience faithfully. As Hebrews says of Jesus, “Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (5:8).
Prayer helps us to narrate our lives in the right way. Through prayer, we ask different questions. Not, “Why is God doing this to me?” But, “What is God doing in me through this?” Not, “How is my life and my prayer making me happy?” But, “How is my life and my prayer making me holy?” Once we shift the focus from time to eternity, we realize how essential it is to pray without ceasing. Without constant prayer, we cannot see or experience what God is doing.
“God is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think.” He will not only raise us from the dead in the future at the end of time. He is also raising us from the dead right now. That is why we come to the altar of God. We come to receive the eternal food that feeds the eternal life within us so that we might experience the power of the resurrection of Jesus right now. As 2 Corinthians says, “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (4:17).