Monday, April 30, 2007

Crossing the Lines: Between Life and Death

(A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter based on Acts 9:36-43, Revelation 7:9-17, & John 10:22-30)

We’re talking during this Easter season about “Crossing the Lines.” Last time I preached about crossing the between who Jesus is and who we are. I said that through the empowering presence of the Spirit of God in our lives we are able to be the body of Christ in the world. Today I want us to think about crossing the line between life and death.

Jesus crossed that line when he was raised from the dead. In fact, he obliterated the line between life and death. God has always been present in this world, of course. But Jesus came into the world as a full frontal intrusion into the earthly sphere. In Jesus, God walked among us. And when Jesus was resurrected, the life that God gives came crashing into history. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we know that death has been conquered and eternal life has been made possible and available. Jesus was in the tomb from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning. On that Sunday morning, all heaven broke loose and for believers in Christ the world has never been the same. The line between death and life had been breached and that way has been open ever since.

For now, though, we still live in this world. When we think of eternal life we naturally think of it as being lived in heaven. That’s not wrong-headed thinking; it is just not broad enough. Still, heaven is what we’re headed for and we should look forward to it with great anticipation. Never have more comforting and thrilling words been penned than these:
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
The sun sill not strike them,
Nor any scorching heat;
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
And he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
(Revelation 7:16-17)
That is the promise of God to those who trust in Christ and who follow him faithfully to the end. The promise of Revelation has to do specifically with those who die as martyrs for their faith, but the promise can rightly be extended to all Christians who live the Christian life regardless of what it costs them. We will one day experience that life outside of time that will be tainted by no human sin and detracted from by no human burdens. We will one day awaken and blink our eyes in the bright light of our eternal God and we will be impressed with how ineffective were our earthly imaginations. And we will be free.

Stephen Hawking is a world-class mathematician who teaches at Cambridge. He has done important research on black holes and on the origins of the universe. His book A Brief History of Time was a best-seller. Hawking also has ALS, which is usually referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He is in a wheelchair and he can make only small motions with his face. He communicates via a special computer. Last Thursday, Hawking was placed on the floor of a specially equipped airplane that is operated by the Zero Gravity Corporation. The airplane creates a situation of microgravity by making plunges over the Atlantic Ocean. Hawking experienced weightlessness for a few seconds at a time as the plane made those maneuvers. Imagine, now, being bound to a wheelchair with no use of your arms and legs and voice, but suddenly feeling the exhilaration of weightlessness. How thrilling and freeing that must have been! But how it must pale in comparison to what we will experience when we find ourselves in heaven with absolutely no limitations on us. How we will praise him there! What joy we will know as we join with the throng that has gone before us in praising and worshiping our Savior!

So the line between life and death has been crossed in this way: when we pass from life to death we will actually pass from life to greater life, a life free from sickness, sin, and suffering. Here and now, though, we have to live here and now. We live knowing that we will die and for some that knowledge is a heavy burden and a terrible anxiety. The truth is that in Christ eternal life breaks into this present life and that gives us the ability really to live. We know Jesus and he knows us. We belong to him. He gives us eternal life. So here is another way in which the line between life and death has been crossed: the eternal life that God gives has broken into this world that is haunted by death and into these lives that are shadowed by death. That eternal life breaks into our lives when we come to know Jesus Christ as our Savior. We come to know and to understand that we are held safely in his hands and that he always loves us and protects us. Therefore, we can live this life without fear. Indeed, we can live it knowing that our loving Savior is going to give us real life in the here and now and everlasting life in the world to come.

So far we have said that the line between life and death has been crossed in two ways. First, it has been crossed in that when we cross from life to death we actually pass to greater life. Second, it has been crossed in that the eternal life given to us in Jesus Christ has already broken into this world and into our lives so that we can really and fully live. There is a third and final way that the line between life and death has been crossed: we who belong to Christ have become dispensers of life rather than dispensers of death. Now, some of you are thinking, and understandably so, that you have never been a dispenser of death; you have never killed anybody and you have probably never even wanted to kill somebody.

Think, though, of those things that happen in life that bite off pieces of people’s lives bit by bit. There is sickness and suffering all along the way and then, finally, there is death itself. Again, you and I have never intentionally made someone sick and likely have seldom if ever contributed directly to someone’s suffering in any form. But, without the love and salvation and life of Christ in our lives, how much would we do to help? And, I suspect that some of us who are Christians need to think about how much we are helping. You see, when we become the children of God and disciples of Christ, we become dealers in life rather than dealers in death. Peter was a disciple. He knew the love and grace of God; no doubt he reveled in it. But when Tabitha died, Peter did not keep God’s grace and love to himself; he let it flow through him so that she could be given life.

That’s how we disciples are to function in this world of death: we are to have the life that God gives flow through us to other people. We do that when we pray for someone who is sick. We do that when we show love to someone who is dying. We do that when we do all that we can to alleviate the suffering in this world and to work to eliminate the causes of it. And we certainly do it when we share the love and grace of God with someone who is lost and floundering; we share the good news of life with people through our words and actions.

Sickness and suffering are not the only realities that take the life from people. Hate and prejudice take it away, too, and maybe in even worse fashion. And so we are told that Peter, through whom the life of God had just flowed into Tabitha and into her grieving friends, stayed in the home of a tanner named Simon. The orthodox of that day would have considered Simon unclean and would have refused to eat or to stay with him. But the inclusive gospel of Jesus Christ had been working on Peter and there he was, staying with a tanner. In so doing, Peter crossed another line: he crossed the line that separated the clean from the unclean, the “good enough” from the “not good enough,” and the insiders from the outsiders. Friends, there’s a lot hate and prejudice in this old world of ours, and it is to our discredit when we participate in it or precipitate it. The line between death and life is crossed when the love and grace of God flow through us to anybody and everybody; it is crossed when we, motivated by love and grace, refuse to tear down but insist on building up.

In Christ, the line between death and life has been permanently crossed. We have been made fully and truly alive! Because death has no hold on us we can live like God wants us to live. Are you experiencing that kind of life? Are you living in the power of the life that God wants you to have? And if you are, have you been sharing it with those around you?

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