You can find video of Matins here. The sermon begins around the 22:00 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’m reading a book called Modern Death. It’s about how technology, and information, and medicine, and science have all combined to make death much more complicated than it may have seemed. We tend to think of death as a simple thing, but when you take into account the medical, and the physical, and the mental, and the spiritual aspects, it’s more complicated than it seems.
At one point in the book, the author says that “it is probable that there likely would have been no religion if there were no death.” It is probable that there likely would have been no religion if there were no death. In other words, humans developed religion as a response to our fear of death, our fear of ceasing to exist. So we came up with ideas about what happens after death, ideas of an “afterlife,” and that’s essentially what religion is for and how it provides comfort.
All of this shows just how intertwined and inseparable are life and death. When we try to define death, we’re also dealing with how we define life; and when we talk about life, we have to talk about death, the end of life. In this creation, we have no understanding of any life that’s not bounded or defined by death. They go together. Even our very cells, which make up our bodily life, have to die and be replaced. Life seems to require death. The author says that the only cells that don’t die in order to replace themselves are cancer cells.
For us, death and life are inseparable and are defined by each other. But the Scriptures, from Moses through the Apostles, don’t know any death that is good or natural. Paul calls it the “last enemy to be destroyed” in 1 Corinthians 15. It is an intrusion into a creation that was meant only to be life. And Jesus says here that the thief comes with the goal of stealing, killing, and destroying. But He has come that we may have life, and have it abundantly, overflowingly, eternally. The thief comes in by other ways than the door, and the goal, whether physically or spiritually, is to tear away the sheep from the Shepherd, to tear away the sheep from their Life. But He has come to give life.
Just before this, He says that He has come into the world for judgment: that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind. The judgment is separation, and it is separation based on Jesus. What does it mean to see? Jesus says earlier in the Gospel that the ones who hear the Word and believe in the One who sent Jesus—and so believe the One He sent—have eternal life and do not come into judgment. They have already passed over from death and into life (5:24). They hear and listen to the voice of the Life which God has sent; they will hear the voice of the Son of God and, hearing, they will live. The dead will hear His voice, and He will call them out of their graves.
The Good Shepherd is the one whose voice gives life to the sheep. He calls to them in the locked courtyard of death, like those disciples locked inside the doors of that upper room, and they hear and follow Him. He is the one who comes in by the door, and who is the door. He comes to give life, and then the sheep have life through Him.
This is a life that is beyond anything we can imagine. The only life we know is one bounded and defined by death. And so we spend all the time, money, and energy we can trying to overcome and conquer death. We deal with it medically, scientifically, technologically. And all we’ve managed to do is prolong and lengthen the amount of time we have to deal with the effects of sin and death in this creation. But Jesus’ life is a life that is not defined by death. He has already physically passed over from death to life. He died, and is now risen, and death no longer has any lordship over Him. All we see is the lordship of death over us. But His life is open-ended, eternal, untouched by death or any of its effects.
It is to that life that He has joined you, hiding you in His crucified and risen Body. Now your life is not the death-defined one, but your life is Christ, who is the Life as Paul reminded us in Colossians. Our Good Shepherd has gone before us, both into life and into death. He calls to us, and we follow Him, because we know His voice. We learn it the same way the apostles learned it after Pentecost: by devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship—the communion—the breaking of the bread, and the prayers. They heard His living voice through the voices of the apostles, as they repeated the Words of eternal life He had given them, as eyewitnesses of His death and resurrection. They shared together in His life by eating His flesh and drinking His blood. They prayed to His Father who had become their Father. And they rejoiced in His continual, daily provision, and shared with others. All of that because they knew they had His eternal life.
They knew what you know: every single one of our mortal and perishable bodies will come to its end. Your body will and mine will. This physical life we know is bounded and defined by death. But our life is not bounded or defined by our death, but by Jesus’ death. And so our death cannot end in the grave. He will call us out of our graves, and these mortal bodies will put on immortality; these perishable bodies will put on the imperishable. And we say now what we will say then: O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law, but thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ, who gives us His victory!
So is it true that our religion is based only on what happens after death, on giving us comfort in the face of death? It certainly does that, but what about this physical life? If God were only concerned about getting us saved, then He might well take us to heaven immediately to wait for the resurrection. But He doesn’t, and St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 tells us what the resurrection means. After proclaiming that Christ’s resurrection is our resurrection, he says, “Therefore.” In light of all this, what? Therefore, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.
Because of the resurrection, the apostles and the others in Acts 2 gave to everyone as they had need. Because of the resurrection, we continue with the work we’ve been given here and now. Because of the resurrection, we do what is good for our neighbor in love. The abundant life that Christ gives overflows and abounds in the work He’s given us to do here. And it is only because of the resurrection that your labor is not in vain; it’s because of the resurrection that your work matters, for the sake of those whose bodies Christ is going to raise on that last and great day.
He has gone before us, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, raising the dead, because all of those things indicate a lack in this creation defined by death. So we serve our neighbors not just in their souls, but also in their bodies; and not just in their bodies, but also in their souls. And we will do both until our Lord leads us out of this creation, out of mortal and perishable bodies that end in the grave, and into the new creation, into immortal and imperishable bodies forever in the life that has no end. He leads us in and leads us out, and we are saved and find pasture, and He leads us to springs of living water, our Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/1/20