I Corinthians 15:12-14, 35-44
May 8, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Many years ago, I read of a man who was a student of the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The student said that he entered college as an atheist but eventually he came to so admire Niebuhr’s philosophy about social interactions, justice, and ethics that he converted to Christianity.
“Without God,” the student said, “Niebuhr’s whole philosophy fell apart but his philosophy made so much sense of what was happening in society at that time that I decided to choose God in order to be able to keep Niebuhr.”
Paul says a similar thing to us about Jesus: if we want the ethics and the social justice and the incarnation of love that we see in Christ — if we want the kind of Christian hope that makes sense of our experience — we also have to accept the reality of Christ’s resurrection, the reality that Jesus’ compassion, power, personality, will, and spirit didn’t stop when he died but continued beyond death in a real and personal way. It is the resurrection that gives us hope; because resurrection, Paul says, is what makes Jesus more than just an ancient brave martyr. Resurrection is what makes him Christ, the continuing conduit of God’s presence for us here in the 21st century. If we want to believe that Christ is still present among us, guiding us, strengthening us, and working through us to further God’s work right here in Alfred 2000 years after Jesus’ body was put into a tomb, we have to believe in resurrection. We have to believe that even if his body died, Jesus’ “self” continued.
And Paul says, furthermore that to believe in resurrection is to believe that just as God raised Jesus to life again so too God will bring us through death into new life, a life that is different from the life we experienced during our mortal days, but is real life in a real and meaningful way. To believe in resurrection for ourselves is to believe that this perishable body will one day put on imperishability. It is to believe that we who have physical bodies also have spiritual bodies. It is to believe that there is a post-mortem experience waiting for us and for those we love and that though our mortal bodies may return to the dust from which we came, somehow we will continue to exist in a vital and dynamic way, still living out the purposes for which God created us. If we don’t believe in resurrection, if we don’t believe in a continuing life beyond the grave, Paul said, the whole Christian enterprise falls apart.
But what does that life which comes after death look like? I want to talk today about the nature of eternal life. Admittedly, to talk about the afterlife is to enter into an area of total speculation because even those who have had near death experiences or experiences of the presence of loved ones who died are still working with a very limited amount of information, glimpses at best, or in the case of a near death experience, a few minutes of time. Eternity, on the other hand, is forever, and forever is a very long time. When we begin to think about “forever”, our imaginations fail us. It is beyond our brain’s capacity to imagine “forever.” In fact, it is so hard to imagine ‘forever’ that some people reject the idea of an afterlife, no matter how appealing it may be, simply because they cannot get their heads around going on and on and on and on and on and ..… you get the picture. We can’t picture it.
The rebuttal to that, however, is that if we try to imagine the opposite, if we try to imagine ourselves ceasing to be completely — to not know anything anymore, to not care that we don’t know anything anymore because we’re not there to care, to not even know that we don’t care that we don’t know anything anymore because the person who we are no longer exists to know or to care or to think or to feel; we can’t do that either. As difficult as an unending eternity is to imagine, it is equally impossible to imagine what it would feel like to cease to exist because the very imagination that we use to try to imagine it would be extinguished as well.
In other words, we can’t get our heads around eternity, but we can’t get our heads around the total annihilation of the self either. In other words, if we want to know anything about the nature of the afterlife, we cannot depend on our imaginations to tell us, because our imaginations are insufficient to the task.
What about science: can science tell us anything about life after death and the post mortem experience? Whatever we choose to believe has to be at least consistent with what we know from science because we don’t want to hang our faith on scientific falsehoods. To do so would be to make our faith as obsolete as the faith of those who insisted that the earth was flat. If our faith is to be lasting and helpful, it has to be consistent with what is intellectually knowable. Before then, we talk about what we believe about life after death, we should ask, “What does science know about life after death?”
I recently heard an interview with a biologist who wanted to know just what happens when a caterpillar turns into a moth. We all learn as children that caterpillars spin a cocoon and become a chrysalis from which one day they emerge as a newly born moth or butterfly, but have you ever thought about what goes on inside of that chrysalis during the transformation? Once the caterpillar spins its cocoon, it begins releasing enzymes that literally digest its own body, leaving behind what looks to us like undifferentiated goop. And then from that goop, a butterfly or a moth is formed. That in itself is pretty remarkable but Martha Weiss, evolutionary biologist, discovered an even more amazing fact. She took a bunch of caterpillars that were just minding their own business and subjected them to mild electric shocks. Every time she shocked them, she released ethyl acetate, a harmless but odorous substance, and quickly, the caterpillars learned to associate the smell of ethyl acetate with the shock. Given the choice between crawling toward ethyl acetate and crawling toward clean air, they would choose the clean air.
Once the caterpillars had been trained, so to speak, they were allowed to do their cocoon thing and when they emerged as moths, Weiss tested them again. Though they had dissolved into microcellular goo and been reconstituted into moths, their memories of their caterpillar lives remained and the moths steered clear of anything that smelled of ethyl acetate. (“Retention of Memory through Metamorphosis: Can a Moth Remember What It Learned As a Caterpillar?”Douglas J. Blackiston, Elena Silva Casey, Martha R. Weiss, Published: March 5, 2008http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0001736)
The experiences of the caterpillar lived on in the moth; and though the caterpillar-moth transformation is more dramatic than anything we experience, we know intuitively as well that our identity — our selfhood — cannot be completely defined by our physical existence because as we grow, we are constantly changing. Think about your two year old self. What about you today is the same physically as that two year old person was? You are taller, heavier, and hairier. The cells in that two year old body have died and been replaced many times over. Your physical self has gone through hormonal changes and your neural networks have developed, some connections being added while others have been pruned back. Your body is completely different, your memories are different, your thoughts and emotions and skills are all different from the person that you were at two, and yet somehow “you” as you persists. Where is the you that is you contained in that physical body? What part of you made it through all of those transformations to retain your identity?
Recently, some scientists have argued that quantum physics suggests that our identities could be etched into the quantum field allowing us to exist as both body and soul at the same time, and allowing us to persist through physical changes and even after the physical body dies. And that’s all that I’m going to say about that because once we get into quantum physics, I can’t even pretend to know what I’m talking about. The point is, however, that science suggests there may be ways in which our personal identities can endure beyond the demise of our mortal bodies. To believe in an afterlife is consistent with some scientific thinking.
Unfortunately, when it comes to describing the nature of that post-mortem experience, science is no better at that task than our imaginations are and so finally, we turn to faith to tell us what we can expect of the life that is to come.
The Bible declares over and over again that God remains steadfastly present throughout the trials of the people, Paul insists that love never ends, and the gospel writers’ tell us that Christ continued to work in the community and in the world through the work of the Holy Spirit — Christ’s Spirit. What we discover in the Biblical testimony about the life to come is that the life to come may not be a lot different from the life we are experiencing now.
After Christ was resurrected, what does the Bible say he did? He walked among the disciples healing them and comforting them. He was more spirit than body now, but his love was the same, and his work remained. Paul said, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his…” Just as Jesus was resurrected, Paul says, so too will we be resurrected; whatever life Jesus went on to live, so too we will live. In other words, the life that we have after this one will be a living life, in the active verb sense. Our love will continue to extend itself to the hearts of others and to shape their experiences, our spirits will be engaged in God’s continuing work for justice and healing; we will learn and give, and strive to better our hearts and our service just as we do today.
We can’t know exactly what shape our self will take; nor do we know exactly how we will experience the life that is to come — those specifics are ultimately unknowable — but Paul tells us that just as Christ stepped out of the tomb to continue the work he had begun, so too our next life will be continuous with this one. There will still be work to finish. There will still be growing to do. There will still be love to share.
E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, wrote about his wife’s great love of gardening, and in the introduction of a book of essays she wrote about gardens, he talked lovingly about the last autumn of her life when in spite of a terminal illness, she still spent her evenings plotting out her spring planting.
“There was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion — the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.” (E.B. White, from the Introduction to Onward and Upward In the Garden, by Katharine S. White)
Paul said that love never ends, and we who have given ourselves to Christ to be shaped in love and to live in love, will continue to persist even after our mortal bodies have turned to dust, not in some metaphorical way but in a real tangible way that has meaning and purpose. Maybe we will live as spirits moving on the earth, or maybe we will move into a new realm of experience, or maybe our selves will exist at some quantum level that we don’t even have the capacity to imagine: when it comes down to it, I have failed the promise of the opening of my sermon because I can’t really tell you what eternity looks like. No one can.
But the Bible promises that who you are, the very real you who loves and forges connections in that love to other people, who seeks justice and works for righteousness, who heals and serves and laughs with others in their joys and dries the tears of the grieving — that you will be preserved by God because it is the best of who you are and God will not give it up. There is so much more for you to experience and so much more for you to learn. Death will prune away what doesn’t matter and it will set free what does and you will set forth on a continuing journey of discovery and service.
“When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory….
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”