The Christian hope rests entirely upon the resurrection. And yet, paradoxically, the disciples greeted the risen Christ with fear and hesitation.
Jesus saw it immediately. He greets them with words of peace and then asks them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:37)
Why indeed? Why did they take an emotional step back when they saw the risen Christ?
To be honest, we have to ask the same questions about ourselves. And the answer is clear.
Resurrection is more than they bargained for. Resurrection is more than we bargained for.
Eternal life, you see, is not about merely enjoying the mortal life we have now forever and ever. God is transforming this mortal life into a new kind of life. As we follow Jesus in our daily routines, his presence in our lives is changing who we are at our very core.
It is this prospect of transformation that gave those disciples pause. And our own spiritual heartburn arises from the realization that our relationship with Jesus is stretching and molding and recreating us all along the way.
At this point you may be scratching your head, wondering what on earth I’m talking about. After all, you are deeply comforted by the idea of a secure afterlife. But what I’m trying to convey to you is precisely this. If you have been thinking about resurrection solely in terms of the afterlife, you may be keeping the risen Christ at arm’s length.
The word “afterlife” is inadequate to the Christian teaching about the resurrection. Death is for us the entrance way into greater life. In the resurrection we inhabit a life defined by the uninterrupted presence of God and full reconciliation with all of God’s children.
Instead of referring to this fuller life as the afterlife, consider referring to it as life. Simply life. So, the existence we enjoy in time and space—the existence within which we are born and die, grow up and grow old—might be called the seeds of life. What we experience now is the potential, the preparatory stages, of what we are becoming in Christ.
Think about this notion of life on analogy with the relationship between an acorn and the oak tree. Acorns are good in themselves, for what they are at the present time. However, their very essence even as an acorn is derived from what they are not yet, from what they can become. Acorns find their completion—they find their perfection—in becoming something more. They become oak trees.
This life is like an acorn. Each instant of our lives is endowed with infinite value. Our loves and our losses, our graceful turns and our regrettable missteps, the moments that bring a smile to our lips and those that set our teeth on edge. All of this is laced with the Creator’s goodness just as it is.
And it is all seeds for eternal life. These twists and turns are good for what they are so long as we truly recognize what they are. Seeds must be placed in the ground and die in order to become what God designed them to be.
Seeds cannot simply grow on their own. They grow only as a result of nutrients in the soil, water, and sunlight. They are dependent upon gifts from beyond themselves to become their true, actualized self.
The same is true for our eternal life. We cannot raise ourselves to eternal life. Only God in Christ can do that for us.
The risen Christ shows us what we will become. What he is making us.
After our biological death, God will give us a wholly new bodily existence.
In Luke’s account, Jesus made of a point of showing the disciples that he was not a ghost, not a disembodied spirit. He invited them not only to see him but to touch him. He was made of flesh and bone. And he ate with them.
Even though Jesus is flesh and bone, it is not the same sort of flesh and bone that you and I have. Our flesh will decay and our bones will grow brittle with time. Jesus’ resurrection body is not susceptible to any kind of deterioration.
God did not merely reassemble Jesus’ body. Neither did he miraculously heal it. Instead, God raised Jesus with a new body, what the apostle Paul calls a spiritual body.
By spiritual Paul did not mean that this body was somehow ghostly or ethereal. Instead, like any body, it has substance and draws its sustenance from beyond itself. But the substance of this body can inhabit space and time without being limited by their normal constraints.
Jesus can vanish, appear instantly, walk through walls. Jesus eats but not from the sort of hunger we experience. He draws his sustenance entirely from his relationship with the Father. He eats from enjoyment and not biological necessity.
This is probably the afterlife that so many of us imagine. Admittedly, some think of the afterlife as the immortality of a disembodied soul. However, most Christians realize that we believe in the resurrection of the body.
If the resurrection were solely about the existence of body and soul after biological death, then I suspect that neither the disciples nor the rest of us would respond in fear and doubt to the risen Christ. And frankly, that’s why so many readers may find the disciples’ response to the risen Christ puzzling. This seems like great news.
But the resurrection is more than they bargained for. The resurrection is more than we bargained for.
Before our heart beats its last and our EEG goes flat, we will face deaths of another sort. We’ll call them smaller deaths, but mind you, this can be misleading. They are not small in the sense of being insignificant. They can rock and even fracture the life we know.
Our bodies will not falter, but our small deaths will be real just the same. And in those moments, we can also receive a foretaste of the eternal life that we will know in its fullness only after our bodies are lowered into the grave.
Some of these small deaths simply come upon us. A loved one dies or betrays us for another or drifts into dementia. We lose a limb or a job. Unfounded gossip destroys our reputation or our genetic endowment saddles us with a withering disease.
God gives us a new life, but we must let go of the old life. Regret, remorse, resentment. These are our ways of clinging to what is now our own corpse. As long as we insist on having an old life or an old dream of what life could have been, we cannot take hold of God’s gift of new life. To live, we have to die.
Some of these small deaths we must consciously choose. Even work to achieve. You see, eternal life is, at its core, being perpetually saturated by God’s presence and being in perfect harmony with all of God’s children.
To put that another way, eternal life means to hold nothing of our ourselves back from God and to embrace everything about our neighbor without reserve.
Strictly speaking, there is only one thing that stands in the way of this. Ourselves. Our egos.
Our prejudices, our emphasis upon material comfort and social status, our lust for power and our addiction to success, our condescension toward those who are different, our devotion to achievement and competition, our indifference to the dehumanizing circumstances that ensnare so many people.
To receive eternal life, to be caught up in the resurrection, we have to die. To all of these things. To the self that we know.
That’s what made the disciples stammer and gulp and shuffle their feet. That’s what makes us do the same sheepish two-step.
Resurrection is more than we bargained for.
It’s sort of scary. It seems terribly risky. And it is infinitely good. Resurrection is what we were created for.
This sermon was preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Abbeville, Louisiana.