Born in the Grave. A Classic Sermon.
April 18, 2004
Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulcher, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them. And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulcher. And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, "Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen. Remember how he spoke unto you when he was yet in Galilee, saying, 'The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.'"
And they remembered his words, and returned from the sepulcher, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest. It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles. And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not. Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulcher; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.
Read also: Luke 15:11-32
Reading from Swedenborg
When we are being reformed and becoming spiritual, the deadness in us is, so to speak, buried, and the newness that is alive rises again. So instead of the night in us--that is, instead of darkness and cold--morning breaks, bringing its light and warmth. For angels, . . . instead of the human idea of burial, there is the idea of resurrection and new life. (Arcana Coelestia #2955)
Why seek ye the living among the dead? (Luke 24:5)
Here is a deep, searching question with more than local or temporary significance. It was spoken by "two men in shining garments" to the women who had come to the sepulcher seeking the body of Jesus. So they heard the glad news of the Resurrection. Death had not been able to hold him who was the Lord of life. Because of his victory, our Christian faith in the worth and meaning of every human life in his sight, and our confidence that it does not end at the grave, is now secure.
Were heaven, then, able to make itself articulate, and could it make us feel its reality and nearness despite our lack of response--to all who sorrow without hope over the loss of their dear ones; to all who live in the past with the forlorn memories of their dead, it would still ask the same question: "Why seek ye the living among the dead?"
Easter does open to us another world, and yet, a world not far away if it is a world of human persons; a world in which we ourselves already live here and now in our deepest life. Easter opens our eyes to the fact that we have bodies for a time; but that in reality we are souls, spiritual beings in perfect human form, forever; and that our true life, that of our heart and mind, is lived on a range of realities that physical death cannot reach. So far as our true self is concerned, there is no death. Life goes right on. Neither do we lose our dear ones when we are deprived of their physical companionship. Our closeness to them and their nearness to us remains unimpaired if it is a nearness of the heart and mind. They are as near to us as the bonds of mutual affection will allow.
It is one of the glories of Easter that it illumines and confirms our human hope for immortality, whose origin extends far beyond the beginnings of history. It is part of the divine love our Lord came to reveal that we should have this comfort. Through him, that hope became a certainty and a faith to live by. But the meaning of Easter still is far more profound than the assurance that it gives of life's continuance. It is more than easy comfort about ourselves, or needed solace about those we love. It is far less concerned with the unending length of life than with the quality that makes it worth going on.
Easter is the joyous and triumphant proclamation not merely of the fact that Christ still lives, as do our dear ones, but of the fact of what Christ is--and of what by his living within us, we in our turn can become alive to eternally. It is the disclosure of what that deathless life is, or should he, that he came to reveal, and to make his own the power to give.
When all is said and done, one who has learned not to be afraid to die as to the physical body has not learned very much. Even the most depraved of men can do that and have done it. Human life is always cheap, including one's own, when it has no spiritual contents. But what should count is, rather, our learning not to be afraid to live, despite the death of the body. What should count is to make life count in the true sense--our learning to live it to the full here, now, and always.
For this reason, our Easter gladness does not consist in glorying about otherworldly knowledge in itself, nor in the contemplation of "compensations" beyond the grave, nor in any postponements of a happy life; but in the whole kindling joy of what we are seeking, loving, thinking, and doing now, with an increasing sense of our Lord's indwelling in our hearts.
"Why seek ye the living among the dead?" Is it not one of life's greatest tragedies that--like our Lord's early followers when they came to the grave--for so long before we awake to life's real significance, we should so fretfully seek the right thing in the wrong place? We are, all of us, seeking life--the man who is "hell-bent" just as much as the one who is ""heaven-bound."" Yet many of us at first, like the prodigal, seek life where only death can be found.
A life of undisciplined living and self-indulgence is a living death. Until we come to ourselves, the far-away country may seem just as real to us and just as alluring as the greatest adventure. But when we do, as sooner or later we must, then we realize that we are feeding on husks, and that we are not meant for a merely animal existence. When we do, we realize also that the Bible is right in calling life and death something else than the span and end of man's biological experience. There is such a thing as not being alive to life's true worth. So the father in the parable speaks to his elder son and says, "This, thy brother was dead and is alive again." So John also writes in one of his Epistles, "We have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren" (1 John 3:14). And Paul in his turn specifies, "For to be carnally minded is death. But to be spiritually minded is life and peace" (Romans 8:6).
Nevertheless, this tendency of ours to seek life where it can never be found is so deeply rooted in our nature that death in the midst of life--and such a death as we should profoundly fear--still keeps dogging our footsteps even in the later stages of our spiritual advancement. It does so even in the disguise of spiritual gain, often hiding under the appearance of goodness or masquerading in the garments of piety.
We do "seek the living among the dead" when we separate our religion from life, and evaluate our gains in terms of financial figures and possessions rather than by character, by the pleasure we take in being of service to others, by the strength and patience and courage we share, by the trust in God and man and life we show. We do so, too, when we make salvation to consist in creeds and theologies, in rituals and organizations, forgetting that our knowledge of the Lord in the sense of our inner experience of him is far more important than the truest statements about him.
The same false principle is seen at the basis of our present social order and international relations. There, our policies are conceived in terms of group selfishness and greed, and disregard of the total common good. So we rely on force and threats of destruction rather than on the assumption of human brotherhood. We still treat the world as an organization, and seek to keep it on an even keel through a balance of power and an armament race, forgetting that it has become an organism, and that we stand or fall together--even with whomsoever we assume to be our potential enemies.
How long, in all these areas of life, shall we stand between two worlds, one dead and the other, not powerless to be born, because there is still the promise of Easter, but so strangely slow in coming into being? How long shall tragedy and hope fight each other in ourselves and in the world around us, alternating, and yet without a thorough victory on the part of either? As long as we, and the rest of mankind, "seek the living among the dead." As long as we shut ourselves from our real, spiritual inheritance because we will not look beyond our foreground. As long as we keep loving ourselves even in the God we think we have lost, and do not make ready to receive from him a new kind of life. As long as we will not avail ourselves of the fruit of his victory, let him open our eyes to another order of reality, let him empower us with new light and motives, and fashion us into his image and likeness. His alone is the power to do this.
In one of his books Paul Tillich tells the grim story of a witness at the Nuremburg war crime trials who for a time had lived in a grave in a Jewish cemetery in Wilna, Poland. This was the only place where he and several others could live while in hiding after they had escaped the gas chamber. During that time, to keep himself from losing his sanity, this man wrote poetry. One of his poems is the description of a birth. For in another grave nearby, assisted by the eighty-year-old gravedigger, a young woman had given birth to a boy, and wrapped him in a linen shroud.
Then, as the newborn babe was uttering his first cry, the old man prayed, "Great God, hast thou finally sent the Messiah to us? For who else than the Messiah himself can he born in a grave?" After three days, however, the poet saw the little child sucking his mother's tears because she had no milk for him. Shortly afterwards, when the infant died, the hope of the aged Jew was frustrated once more, as it had been so many times before.
Yet the insight of our Christian faith is that it was not frustrated. And "who else than the Messiah himself can be born in a grave?" Do not these words describe most exactly, though in a different context, the pathos and glory of Easter? Was it not essential that the Jesus of history should die in order to become the Christ of experience? And that the grave of the son of Mary should become the cradle of the God-Man, henceforth making it possible for him to be born anew in the hearts and minds of all who will make themselves hospitable to him, and let him fashion them into the full stature of a manhood like his?
The death he died was far more than physical death. Throughout his whole earthly life, every tendency to evil and selfishness in the nature he had assumed was resisted, opposed, and annihilated in internal and moral combat. "He glorified his humanity"--made it divine. And when we, by his power, die to our selfishness, the very grave of our old self becomes the cradle of a new being, risen with him. When, in conflict with our lower nature, we have won our faith in him and the life he gives; when we have won our trust in him through hard battle with opposing circumstances; when in responsive love to him we commit ourselves and our all to the seeking and doing of his will, we are made partakers of his Resurrection.
He lives! And if you would know it beyond a doubt, search the secret places of your own life. Recall the story of what you have known, and been, and borne, from the beginning. Seek out the roots of your patience, the hiding places of your self-denial, the inmost source of your courage. Find out what has kept you from falling in the face of dire and manifold temptations, or made it possible for you to hope through your tears, to forgive despite revilings, to keep on loving even when love was not returned. Then you will see that an infinite love, his love, has lain about your life like a guiding light all the way, and that underneath, there have been "everlasting arms," unfailing, patient, tender, and unspeakably compassionate. Moreover, there will be no question in your mind that when life in this world is done, the same love will be found, awaiting you, on the other side of the veil.
"In him we live, and move, and have our being." In him, we too can conquer death--not that of our bodily shape, but the only death we need fear. And if while we live in this world we will live above it also, by living in him, then when the time comes for us to leave the body behind as a garment that has fulfilled its use, we shall surrender nothing that can be called living in the true sense. But we shall find him coming closer still, gathering us to himself and to all who love him, renewing our strength, and filling us evermore with the ineffable joy of his presence.
"Who else than the Messiah himself can be born in a grave?" As he is born in us, so for all of us there is no other way to be born. Amen.
O Lord our God, at times it feels as if we are living in a grave--that life is meaningless, empty, and dead. Yet you showed us that the grave is only a doorway to new life. Show us that our deadness, too, is only the prelude to the next cycle of life. Open up the door of our own inner tomb, and lift us up from death into life. From the love that is your being, infuse us with eternal life. Amen.
Rev. Antony Regamey