Last week I took two days off from work to travel to Chattanooga, TN. I lived in Chattanooga for four years as a boarding student at The McCallie School back in the 1980s. And to this day that city and that school remain important places in my spiritual journey. I didn’t go back, however, to reconnect with old friends and familiar places. Instead, I made the 400 mile journey because, just two weeks after her 43rd birthday, my brother’s ex-wife Lara unexpectedly died, leaving behind two shocked and grieving teenage children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. Needless to say, it was a very tough time.
In my role as a priest, I have, of course, attended many visitations and funerals. It’s an important part of a priest’s pastoral role. But it’s never an easy thing to do. We clergy fall in love with the people we serve. That makes it hard to say goodbye and difficult to watch survivors suffer loss and grief. But even with over 10 years of ordained experience with dying and death, receiving the news about Lara stunned me. It was surreal. It was hard to believe that it had actually happened. I don’t think it really hit me until I got to the funeral home. Entering the parlor, I was confronted by a large white coffin adorned with a beautiful spray of flowers. Somehow, seeing that coffin hammered home the reality of this death. It was no longer just a hard-to-believe idea in my mind; it was a solid, unchangeable fact.
In the midst of receiving the tragic news and making the journey to the funeral, I had been following the scripture readings in the Daily Office. The Old Testament readings were from the book of Ecclesiastes. Those ancient words seemed to speak directly to my family’s situation in ways that weren’t exactly comforting. For instance, there was this:
“ … the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the day of disaster” (Eccl. 9:11-12).
And then there was this:
“The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; … never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun” (Eccl. 9:5, 6).
The writer of Ecclesiastes says all of this in a disarmingly calm, matter-of-fact tone. It’s just the way things are: we’re born into this world, we try to enjoy life as best we can, we suffer, eventually we die and are no more, and even our memory gets swept away into the trackless void of time’s passage. So get the most out of life today, because tomorrow it could all be over. It’s a rather Stoic approach that has a certain common sense appeal.
But is that really all there is to say? Are we nothing more than pawns subject to the impersonal forces of “time and chance”? Is death really the end of “all that happens under the sun”?
Such questions tap into something in the human spirit that rebels against “time and chance” having the upper hand. We want tragedy and suffering to have a purpose that gives it meaning and dignity. We want some means by which, in the end, everything that’s messed up is set right, and lives cut short achieve their potential. We yearn for life beyond the grave.
“Never again will [the dead] have any share in all that happens under the sun,” we read in Ecclesiastes. Thanks be to God, the truth of that statement has been turned on its head by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead marks the turning point of history and the sign that our deepest hopes for purpose, justice, and eternal life are grounded in reality. Jesus’ resurrection signals the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. It is the inauguration of a new creation in which not just souls, but also bodies and all of physical creation, are healed and transformed. It is the foundation for a faith that overcomes the changes and chances of this sinful, broken world (cf. 1 John 5:4). The bottom line is that if Jesus has been raised from the dead, then we who have been baptized into his death and resurrection have a different future to look forward to.
The apostle Paul spells out what this looks like in today’s epistle lesson. “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed,” Paul writes, “we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1). And he notes that “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). At first it may sound like Paul is condemning bodily existence. It may sound as though he’s saying we Christians long to die, leaving our bodies behind so that our souls can be in heaven with the Lord. But that’s not what he means. Paul does not long for death; he longs for resurrection. And for Paul and the other New Testament writers, resurrection doesn’t mean leaving the body behind. On the contrary, it means bodily life again after bodily death. It means the transformation and glorification of bodies such that they are no longer subject to death and decay. And more broadly, it means the renewal of all God’s creation.
Paul puts it this way: “We know that if the present mortal body is destroyed, that we have an immortal, deified body from God waiting for us. But in the meantime, we live in a broken world. We live in bodies and in a physical world that suffer the afflictions of sin, sickness, and death. We groan under the burden of this suffering, longing for our mortality to be swallowed up by new, abundant, and eternal life. And so even in the midst of present sufferings, and even though we are vulnerable to the tragic misfortunes of time and chance, we live with joyful confidence. For we who belong to Jesus know that the story of our lives does not end in death” (2 Cor. 5:1-6, paraphrased).
My friends, our present lives are filled with happiness and joy, but also with uncertainty, suffering, loss and grief, and yes, the looming shadow of death. But looking to the future, our faith in Christ shows us a completely different picture. The future is one in which our daily petition “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is finally and decisively answered. That future fulfillment means that resurrection, glory, new and incorruptible bodies, and God’s setting all things right triumph over the forces of sin, sickness, death, and decay.
And so, as the apostle Paul says, “we are always confident” (2 Cor. 5:6). Sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever, we have the ultimate reassurance – God’s reassurance – that no matter what time and chance may throw our way, not even death itself can thwart the new creation launched in the resurrection of Jesus. God’s gracious will shall prevail. For the mystery of faith we proclaim every time we gather at the altar of our Lord is the truth that gives our lives its ultimate meaning and purpose: Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. Christ defines our past, our present, and our future. And because he lives, we, too, shall live (cf. John 14:19).