Delivered at St. Ignatius Church, Chestnut Hill, Mass. at the 8am and 12 noon masses.
Now, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Now we say, Alleluia. Now, the tomb is empty and death is defeated. Now wake, O sleepers and arise. Now is the appointed time. Now we begin our eternal lives.
When we hear eternal life, we often think of Heaven. But heaven doesn’t really do it for me. That’s right. The afterlife as we often speak of it—angels and clouds and the like—does not entirely satisfy me. May I be so bold as to say that “eternity with God” is just a little too vague for me—eternity is a long time. I get bored easily. The beatific vision?—too hazy, not clear enough, remote.
What waits for us on the other side? Who will we meet? What will fill the days of our eternal reward? Assuming we all get there, what will we do once we get there? The typical Christian believes that heaven is our eternal reward, and even the average non-Christian would say heaven is one of the most fundamental of Christian doctrines. How many movies, books, TV shows, etc have wondered about the afterlife. How satisfied are you with the answers? How appealing is eternity to you? It’s a heck of a long time. Are you ready for a really, really long—Vacation? Break? Rest? Even vacations get long after a few days.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ has very little to do with what we call heaven: angels on clouds and the rest of our common notions of the afterlife. In fact, I would say the resurrection of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with heaven, and it would be most helpful for us today if we would stop thinking about what happens to us after death. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that nothing happens, I’m merely saying that our popular notions of heaven have very little to do with what actually happens after death. Moreover, I have complete confidence in God’s merciful care for us in life and in death. The resurrection really is about eternal life but not really about heaven.
Today, nearly two thousand years after the resurrection of Christ, it’s hard for us to get back into the shoes of the first disciples who ran to the empty tomb, not really knowing what to make of it’s lonely emptiness. In today’s gospel, Peter and the beloved disciple race to the empty tomb: a race towards a great mystery in which the answers are found only in the discarded burial cloths and the neatly folded cloth that swathed the face of Christ. Those items in the empty tomb really did not answer any questions or put to rest any fears.
These disciples had just witnessed Jesus’ cruel torture and death—it’s possible, if you put yourselves in their place—that the emptiness of the tomb was just another sign, another symbol of the complete defeat of Christ. Perhaps his body had been stolen by those who wished to see Jesus’ humiliation completed. There are no clear answers in the emptiness of the dark lonely tomb.
However, the beloved disciple sees the empty tomb and the discarded burial cloths and he believes. He sees and believes. We, today, are a lot like the beloved disciple for we see and believe—we stare into all manners of empty tombs and yet we believe. Jesus has not appeared in bodily form to any of us, yet we still believe.
But what exactly do we believe? What belief will we pass on to the generations that come after us? How do we prepare our children and their children for the next two thousand years?
We could simply say that we all will share in his resurrected life after our own individual deaths. After life. This seems to be the most common way of talking about the effects of Jesus’ resurrection. Resurrection is for the dead, or resurrection is our own ticket into heaven. In short, if we make it through this valley of tears that is our earthly life, then we will be rewarded. Rewarded after death. After life. It is something to be enjoyed only after all of the trials and tribulations of this life.
However, this is not completely adequate, for it makes very little of this, our life before the afterlife—the life that we live each day. It removes the effects of the resurrection from our daily lives and places it in some far removed, remote “afterplace,” after-life, after we are done and finished here.
But isn’t this just a negotiation with death rather than a defeat of death rather than a complete victory over death. Death gets our life, and afterwards we get an anonymous out of body experience on the other side. Death, in this way of thinking, really does win out. Death, in this way of thinking, really does overshadow all that we do here before the afterlife. But resurrection is more than merely a redescription of death; it’s a complete victory over death. It’s now. Not after anything at all.
The resurrection is much more than the ability to live in some mystical, spiritual way on the other side of the great dark divide that ends our earthly lives. Resurrection is certainly more than merely carrying on in some nameless, remote, and ethereal fashion. Resurrection, in a sense, gets us much more than an afterthought, much more than heaven. Heaven and so much more.
Resurrection, if it’s to mean anything at all, is about our daily lives, not some far off afterplace.
On the contrary, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign that God is working in the world, the world of the living, the world of now. In the resurrection God definitively communicates from God’s lips to our ears that God’s covenantal promises are fulfilled and are being fulfilled in the world of now. It is the ultimate affirmation that creation matters, that embodied human beings matter, that we sitting here today, make a difference in the world, through Christ our Lord.
The resurrection is about us, today, sitting here in this church. It’s about how you will spend the rest of your day, the rest of your life in the now, rather than in some remote afterplace, afterplace, afterdeath. We are now free from the ultimate weapon of tyrants, despots, and those who seek to oppress. Not even the threat of death can stop us on our mission to the world. The many death-dealing experiences of life cannot stop us on our mission in Christ to love the world, to take care of creation, to feed the hungry, to care for the sick, to release the captives, and to unfetter those among us who are bound by the myriad shadows of death.
Now we are on our mission to the whole world. Christianity, because of the resurrection, is about doing things in the now not later. Pilate and other tyrants like him thought he was sending Jesus to his “after”life—but instead God put Jesus squarely among us now. Knowing that you are free from the ultimate destruction of death—free from the anti-creation, anti-human, anti-God forces of death—how will you spend your now.
In other words, it makes no sense to say that we must wait for own deaths before we can taste the fruits of Christ’s own resurrection. They are available to us now in the form of forgiveness, hope, faith, and love. Now is the time to make amends with the estranged, now is the time for families to heal their wounded relationships, now is the time to rise from this place today and love, care, tend, shepherd, guide, and shape this world, now is the time to rise from your seat here today and help God fashion this deep-down fresh creation into the merciful kingdom of God.
We are on a mission. God speaks directly to us through the creation—stop running to the empty tombs of your life, stop waiting for the darkness of the afterlife, but instead enjoy my promise to cherish you, love you, lead you and be with you. God rules the world, not God’s enemy.
Now, wake from the sleeps that keep us fettered, bound, and dead in our angers, hatreds, jealousies, the many sleeps of our anxieties, fears, and terrors. Whatever keeps you asleep to the needs of the world; whatever keeps you dead to the needs of your neighbor; whatever keeps you numbed and dead to the love of Christ in the Spirit; whatever makes the afterlife more appealing than the nowness, newness, freshness of today; cast those things off like so many needless burial clothes. As Ezekiel said in last night’s reading: let your new heart of flesh pound away. The heart of stone is gone for good.
The time is now, to wake from our various little deaths. Rise and wake from the deadly exhaustion of racism, sexism, abuse, and oppression in all its forms. The time is now to wake from death, don’t wait till after life, after death. Now, and for eternity, we leave the empty tombs of injustice, spite, anger, and fear. Now we leave this building, today, fully alive, resurrected in the spirit of the Lord and we make the world a new place—not a far off place—but a new place, kind, intimate, warm, forgiven, childlike, loving, tender. Leave behind the coldness, the loneliness, the darkness of your empty tombs. We can stop pining for afterlives. Feel your heart of flesh beating inside, yearning for love, justice, and life. Now we stop searching for life among the dead. Let today be the first day of your eternal life with God.
Wake, O Sleepers. Rise. Follow the risen Jesus. There is no afterlife, only eternal life. Now Wake. Now Rise. Now Alleluia.
Jeff Johnson, S.J.
Image: Allegory of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ by Patrick Devonas (1965- )
If this is so, what is the meaning of death and the afterlife then? Why do we still die, and what significance does/should heaven hold for our lives here now?
Exceptionally well done.