Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on Holy Saturday, March 26, 2005
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Sermon preached by
The Rev. Ethan Cole
March 26, 2005
|I want to talk about three verses this
The book of Job might be the most ancient text in the Scriptures of Israel. But the suffering man asks questions that speak right to our time, I think. In the lesson for today, Job asks, "If mortals die, will they live again?" If not as inclusive in its language, perhaps more poignantly the KJV renders it, "If a man die, shall he live again?" Job could be asking that question for any of us. It seems to me a question of profound doubt, tinged almost with desperation. Job seems to be asking, "Is this it? Please let this not be all there is."
People have been dying as long as people have been walking this earth. The veil of death is no more transparent to our unaided eyes than it was to Job. What happens on the other side of death is, to us, a darkness. Those of us who have gone to school in the post-modern era, were subject to our professors deconstructing everything. For many, post-modernity has been a scalpel knife in the hand of one who is not a physician and who has no sutures. In college, and then again in seminary, I saw teachers seem almost to delight in slashing to ribbons-for good or for ill-the cherished beliefs of students. In the face of the deconstruction of everything, we must cry, "Then is this it? If a man die, shall he live again?"
We have gone with the wailing women to the tomb today, and laid Jesus there. Christ is dead, cold. Yes, in a few hours we will proclaim he is risen, Alleluia, but for now, I'd like to let us have our doubt hang in the air. We cannot see the other side of death. We do not know. Job's question can be our question for a time. "If a man die, shall he live again?"
The Second verse I want to speak to is from 1 Peter: "This is the reason that the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does." Even as we let our profound doubt hang in the air, as expressed in Job's question, let us look at an ancient Church teaching about what Christ was doing as his body lay dead. Peter tells us that the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead. On this day, the early Church taught, Hell was harrowed. The gates that held those souls in bondage were wrenched apart, and Christ proclaimed to them the good news.
There is a legend that I learned recently: that the site of the crucifixion is the site of Adam's tomb. The cross opened the way and Christ reached down and pulled the saints of Israel from the grave. This is a wonderfully comforting idea to me. If we think of Christ's death as occurring both then in Palestine, but also in a way, timeless, then any who have died have a chance to hear the gospel proclaimed even after they have died. Scripture tells us there is a Hell, and I believe it, but perhaps because of Christ's preaching to the dead, there need no one be in it.
Christ's preaching is the word of life, and even as Christ preaches to the dead, he preaches to what is dead in us. There are places in our lives that are full of death and decay. It is impossible to live in the world and this not be so. We have all been mortally wounded in some aspects of our lives. Especially in the place of relationships I think this is so. Despite our love, parents have wounded their children, and children the parents. Siblings wound each other, and friends betray friends. We would ourselves unto death to, pursuing to often things that can destroy us. Anyone who has ever known an addict, or been an addict knows this to be true. But if Christ can preach the gospel to the dead, he can preach the gospel to what is dead in us. His power to heal and bind up is greater than any human physician or therapist. There is a balm in Gilead.
Finally, the third verse I want to talk about is not in one of the readings for today, but is something Christ taught his disciples during his earthly ministry. Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." Jesus has fallen into the earth so that his life can bear much fruit-and we can see that it has, we are all here today praying prayers that the fruit of Jesus' life, the Christians, have been praying for centuries. We all have grains of wheat in our lives. Treasures that we cherish and hold on to. They may be gifts we have been given-not physical gifts, but gifts, like being a good teacher, or athlete, or musician or whatever. They may be gifts of good relationships, or of personal strengths-all good things. I think Jesus is teaching us, and showing us with the witness of his own life, that we have to let all these things go. Let them fall away from us, into the earth. We must sit lightly to our skills and virtues. If we hold tightly onto these grains of wheat they will do nothing. We will have our grain for ourselves, and nothing more. But if we dare to turn them over to God, to let them go, to hold not propriety over things that we have every right to call our own-then God can make them grow. These grains of wheat can bear fruit not only for us, but for the whole Christian community that will benefit from the produce of our wheat. If we let it go, when it bears fruit our community will rejoice with us in the seed we had been given that is given back not only to us, but to all a hundred fold. In the same way we rejoice with others in the produce of the grain that God has brought to fruition in their lives.
Easter is in a few hours. Lay in the tomb with Jesus those things that need to be raised with him: Lay there Job's anguished cry, "This cannot be all there is can it?" Lay there the dead places in your life that need the gospel preached to it by Christ himself. Lay there those good gifts you have that God is longing to take and transform into much more for the benefit of all. Christ will take all these things, our doubt, our wounds, and our gifts and give them back to us, conformed to his likeness. Amen.
©2005 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York