Title: The Resurrection of the Dead
Date: November 9, 2008
Texts: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Psalm 78:1-7, I Thess. 4:13-18, Matt. 25:1-13
Preacher: Julian Forth
Almost one thousand years ago, during the Medieval period, was born a theologian by the name of Peter Damian. He was born in Italy and in his late twenties he entered a Benedictine monastery. He gained quite a reputation through his writings—reforming the monastery and eventually being named a Doctor of the Church. I came across his ideas during my readings and, though he is relatively unknown, he is intriguing to say the least. Among his many ideas, he asked a very important question that is quite a mind-bender so please bear with me as I try to explain it. In accordance with classical theology of his time, he understood God to be all-powerful and truly omnipotent. Not only this, but he believed that God was beyond all time and resided in eternity. From that vantage point, God could see all time at once; past, present, and future were all the same to God who lived in an eternal now. Additionally, many believe that God is able to change the future—this is why we pray petitions for healing, for protection, for averting danger, for blessings, and for many other things. With all these points in mind, St. Damian asked this question: “Is God able to change the past as well?” If God is truly omnipotent and beyond all time, God should be able to change the past with as much ease as God can change the future. Can God make something that has happened, to not have happened at all? And so, just as one can say, “Maybe my car will start tomorrow and maybe it won’t”, we might have to say the same thing about the past. “Maybe Rome was founded and maybe it was not,” “Maybe there a Civil War in 1861 and maybe there was not.” Can God change the past?
This might all seem nonsensical and whatever the conclusions are about the matter, Peter Damian does bring up a very good point. How does God deal with the past? While asking this question, St. Damian had in mind sins and evils are committed in the past and the nature of forgiveness. Is God able to undo the past and make it so that we did not sin at all? Is God able to remake the past so that injustices did not happen either?
I believe our Scripture text addresses the very same question. In its infancy, the early church eagerly waited for Christ’s return which they expected at any moment. However, time went on and Christ did not returned and some of their members began to die. What would happen to those who had died when Christ returns? Christ would have come too late for those who have died would remain lost to the past forever. In this letter, Paul comforts them by declaring “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope…For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (4:13, 16-18). Paul comforts the early Christians in their concern about the death of loved ones; he declares that God is able to give life to the past in the form of a corporate resurrection. Therefore, though someone has died in the past, they might yet live again.
In all honesty, I do not know what the resurrection of the dead looks like. But what this text does show us is that, in a sense, Peter Damian was right—at least, he was on to something. To God, nothing is fixed, nothing is set in stone, nothing is final—all things are able to be recreated and transformed. And, through the resurrection of the dead, even the past is able to be undone. Just as God was able to give life to the body of Jesus who had died three days earlier, God promises to give life to all of the dead. Our God will make new what time and the earth have swallow up.
Just as God did not forget the injustice of the cross, God will not forget the other injustices of history: hunger and poverty, the bloodshed of colonialism and racism. Like Abel’s blood, the blood of those from Auschwitz and the shores of Africa, the blood of those in Palestine, the blood of innumerable women who have died under patriarchy’s grip and of those who have died in our violently homophobic society—like Abel, their blood cries out to God from the earth. Each individual, each face, and each cry of pain calls out to God to be remembered and to be redeemed. And God’s promise of resurrection assures us that they will not be ignored. God will hear their cry; God sees the evils and the misery of the past and will answer them by giving life to their dead bodies. Mourning will be transformed into rejoicing, the water of tears will be transformed into wine for celebration.
Our faith is one that looks forward to God’s good future—where every hair on every head will be counted, and every tear numbered, and every face made new. We are a people of the future, who look forward to and long for what is to come. As the Church, we have gathered around this faith. We live in hope of something that is not, but might one day might be. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead—and not just our dead, but the dead of the whole world. Though Jesus has already come, we still expect the unpredictable future coming of the Messiah like the five bridesmaids in the Gospel who waited ready with oils and lamps.
In the Church, this community of hope, we hear much about serving, loving, and being Christ to one another. But how do we serve, love and be Christ to the dead? As we live into the resurrection life today, how do we give life to those who have died? As Peter Damian proposed, how we do we begin to “undo” the injustices of the past, so to speak?
I suggest that this is done through memory. By memory, I do not simply mean looking backward to a distant time, rather I mean remembering in such a way that it will disrupt and affect our present lives. Though we cannot resurrect their bodies, through remembrance we give life to their suffering and we give voice to those who can no longer speak. And it’s not enough to remember the events, but the individuals themselves. However, memory demands a lot from us. 1) It demands that we are not so infatuated with the present circumstances, that we forget to make time to remember. We must not idolize the present so much that we give history no room to speak because the present can never compensate for any of the evils of the past. 2) Also, it is not simply a matter of remembering, but of reminding each other. We are not only called to remember, but keep each other from forgetting the dead and their stories. We should pass them on to our children like the Law of the Lord in our Psalms, so “that the next generation might know them.” And so, if we are to participate in the resurrection of the dead today, we must make space for history to talk and to change the way we live.
We can think of this in light of the election this past week. In all honesty, I am excited about Barak Obama’s election as president. It is in no way an understatement to say that this is an historic event, not just for African Americans but for the whole nation—and it has ramifications beyond this nation’s borders. And though there is much to celebrate, excitement can easily turn into delusion. An obsession with the present can cause us to forget the past—the many who have died for whom this event has come a little too late.
For example, Jesse Washington, who was lynched and burned in Waco, Texas in 1916. For him, and for the thousands of other black people who were murdered, this day of celebration seems to have come too late. Or for Martin Luther King Jr., whom Isaac referenced in his sermon a few weeks ago, who did not get to see a day that, in some respects, is more hopeful than his own. For him, didn’t this day come a little too late as well? Their blood still cries out from the earth of the past and speaks to us today. Their haunting voices sober us in the midst of our excitement. Their voice reminds us that justice still has yet to come and there is much work to be done.
And not just the voice of past African Americans, but also the voices of those who have died in this ongoing war—both U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians. For them, too, this has day has come a little too late. Though Obama plans to withdraw troops from Iraqi, like the Christians of 1 Thessalonians, we might ask “what about the sons and daughters of our neighbors who have died? What about the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have already passed away?” What can be said to grieving mothers and fathers? Obama’s election does not compensate or make up for the violence of the past. If we are going to love, serve, and be Christ to the dead, then we have to be willing to remember those who have died—even to remember them by name.
If we are going to give room for these voices to speak to us today, to resurrect those who have died, then we must allow their stories to sober us at this point in history. The fact that they are still awaiting their resurrection means that there remains work to be done. Our world is filled with open wounds, our history is permeated with cites of despair, and God still has work to do in answering the injustices of our past. And as long as God has work to do, so do we as God’s hands in the world. We have the work of remembering and of reminding each other, of allowing ourselves to be disrupted by the past and engaging the present with sobriety and discernment. Like the resurrected body of Christ, these figures of the past must let their scares be shown to us today.
However we feel about this past election, let it be tempered with patience and with attentiveness to their whispers. Do not forget the tragedies, do not forget the cries of pain, do not ignore the scars, do not let those who have died be silenced by the novelty of today. Rather, let us tend to the spilt blood that has not ceased to cry out for redemption. Let us remind each other about the dead and tell their stories to our children and to their children. At the trumpet blast, Christ will arrive and the dead will be resurrected. But if we can let the dead speak to us and pass their stories on to future generation, then maybe they will begin to obtain a resurrection today. If we lovingly and carefully remember the dead, then maybe, in a sense, we begin to “undo” the past.