By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, April 21, 2019
Reading: Romans 6:3-11; James 4:6-10
This is very much an upside down world, and if you didn’t think that before this week, maybe the events of the last few days prove it. The tragedy at Notre Dame Cathedral, and the destruction of its great spire, which caused people to look upwards to the heavens, came crashing down in flames. This is an upside down world. Or, the Master’s last Sunday, which should be all stability and conservatism, acknowledging the success of a man who rose from the ashes of ignominy to success, it is an upside down world. And, especially when we think that the Leafs are on the brink of winning a series — miracles might happen. This is an upside down world.
As one of my younger colleagues in ministry – and I emphasise younger – came to me and said, “Andrew, your sermon ‘The Upside Down Life’ is it going to be based on the movie Upside Down, which is about twinned worlds with gravities that pull in opposing directions. And one of these, the up top is for the powerful and wealthy, and the down below is for the downtrodden. The story evidently goes (I must confess I’ve never seen it) that the love of Adam and Eden – so biblical – brought these two worlds together and made gravity seem almost unimportant.
We live in an upside down world in the experience that we have of our life, our literature, our folk stories, and our desires. Like our desires moved us last Sunday with hope for a happy ending for Tiger. But when I was thinking of the upside down world, I wasn’t thinking of any of these things. In fact, I’d only been reflecting on our passage from the book of Romans, where the Apostle Paul, in writing to those who were newly-baptised Christians, living under the fear, and persecution of Roman influence, wanted to reaffirm over and over again, as he did in this incredible text: “For if we have been united with Christ in His death, we will certainly be united with Him in His resurrection.” The upside down world and the upside down life.
For the Apostle Paul there was no other greater reality, nothing else that moved him, that animated his whole life, than this belief that if we share in Christ’s death, we also share in His resurrection. This for Paul was life, the true meaning of things, and it was an upside down reality for what others had experienced. For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth changed everything. It does change it, and why is it powerful for us two thousand years later to contemplate the resurrection of a Nazarene? Because it turns upside down our sense of life and death. Paul goes to great lengths to suggest that we share in Christ’s death, that it wasn’t just His death on a cross, but it was our death to sin, and to mortality, our brokenness restored. The cross of Good Friday, the nails, the crown of thorns, and placing Him in a tomb, there goes our life too. He bore it, took it, and if we share in Christ’s death, so our death goes with him as well. That is the power of what Paul was saying.
We cannot, through our own intellect, honestly understand how this can be. One of the best scholars of the New Testament and Apostle Paul in our city, is Professor Ann Jervis at Wycliffe College. In a blog this week, she put it so clearly, and it struck me, in fact, bowled me over, it was so profound. Ann, a great Pauline scholar, said:
I have spent years studying the Apostle Paul. I cannot claim to know intellectually how God sending God’s Son into God’s world, and allowing Him to be tortured and executed defeated the power of sin and sin’s partner, death. And yet I believe, along with Paul, that that action mended what was drastically broken, the circle of love between humanity and God.
Paul’s fundamental desire is that his life be shaped in the form of Christ’s death. For Paul, Christ’s death is the mould in which he shares Christ’s suffering and resurrection. In other words, we do not know, and I cannot say to you how Christ’s death becomes our death, how our death is wedded to His death, but this is our belief, this is our conviction, and I think it makes profound sense in the way in which we experience life. Let’s be honest, let’s put the cards right on the table this morning. When can we be more honest that Easter Sunday? There’s not one of us here who is not aware of the fact that we are going to die, that we are mortal, that our day will come and our life on this earth will be no more. We know it. It is a truth of being human that we are conscious of the fact that we have a demise, that we have an end, and that that end is reinforced over and over and over again in our media, in our reports, in our experience and in our world.
In the booklet that you have are the names of some of the most beautiful people I have ever met, and we remember them today. In your hearts and lives, there are countless numbers who know that death is real. It is reinforced when we turn on our television. This morning, 138 or possibly more Sri Lankan Christians dying in an attack. We notice it when a bus rolls over in Madeira, when a plane crashes in Kenya, when innocent lives are taken in a mosque in Christchurch, when young men are on a bus to a hockey game, and when a woman is simply stabbed in the PATH, right here in Toronto.
We know that mortality and death is real. Paul knew it was real, he saw it for some of those Roman Christians as even being imminent. But for the Apostle Paul this was not the end of the story. We might share in Christ’s death, but in sharing – and this is his great revelation – we also share in His resurrection.
The problem with so much of our lives is that we live them anticipating our death, we do not live them anticipating the life to come. Anticipating the life to come transforms and turns upside down the whole way we live. It changes our whole existence if we take it to heart, that our mortality is not the end, that in Christ and in His resurrection there is the life to come. Live, my friends, as if we are living, not as if we are dying.
How does it change it? I love the words of the great Wolfhart Pannenberg, one of my great mentors and a mentor to others. Pannenberg wrote these words: “The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things. First, it is a very unusual event and second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.”
In Greek the word that describes this change, this upside down, is metanoia, and in Hebrew, teshuvah, this turning up of a new life. As Paul says, once we grasp the reality that we are not only united in Christ’s death, we are also united in His resurrection, once we know that, then our lives change; we live, not for ourselves, but we live for God as Christ lived for God. We live not in an egocentric world where we’re continually worried about our own existence, and how important we portray ourselves to others, which in the end means nothing compared to living in the life of God but we live in the true sense that there is a life to come. It changes everything, and more than anything else, it seems to me this Easter profoundly humbles us.
Doctor Hunnisett read beautifully a passage from James, and you might have thought, why are we reading this passage on Easter Sunday when there are so many others? Well, James is talking about putting away sin and deeds of the devil and darkness. It’s those last words, and I must say, I prefer the King James version of the passage – and if you take no other verse with take this: “Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up.” For Paul, this is sharing in the resurrection of Jesus. This is the triumph of the life to come, this is the power of hope in the midst of humility.
Very rarely do I take post-interviews by sportspeople very seriously. Usually they say things, like, “we won and that was good and the other guys didn’t play as well as us, and that’s about it.” But there was an interview done – now I know you're going to get upset with me – by a Montreal Canadien in the last game of the season. In this game there was a rooky, Ryan Poehling was playing his very first game in the NHL. Oh, and he scored four goals! Four goals, including the winner in overtime. When he was interviewed they had just come from a huge loss at an NCAA college game days before, so he didn’t anticipate playing for the Canadiens at all. He thought he would still be in the championship and he was devastated. In the interview this is what Ryan said: “If we ended up winning the NCAA game, I probably wouldn't be here today.” Kind of putting all of that into perspective, he said, “It’s pretty special what God can do in your life, so you've just got to give it to him.” Essentially he was saying what James was saying: “Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up.”
Living as if you are living, not living as if you are dying. Humbling yourself before a Living God, not just floundering in death, profoundly gives us a sense of hope, a sense that there is more in this life, and more in the life to come that can ever be grasped by our imaginations. We live in a cynical world where religious people, whatever their stripe may be, are often put down and persecuted because of what they wear, or how they worship, or what place they may be in. We know that intolerance is in the world, it happens everywhere. We know that people are cynical about religion, and you can understand at times why. There is nothing perfect about the religious. But in the midst of all of this we lose, I believe, the great truth that Paul was trying to get across, that he wanted the Romans to grasp: that we live in God, and we live in God because of the resurrection of Jesus. Life is important and valuable, has meaning and purpose because Christ has lived it with us and Christ has died our death for us, and Christ has raised us to eternal life.
It might seem like a strange to read before an Easter Sunday, but over the last couple of weeks I’ve read the biography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who was the chief rabbi in Jerusalem, of all places. His whole family had been taken from him at Auschwitz. In the beginning of his autobiography he talks about a day not long ago, when he led a worship prayer, the Kiddush prayer for mourners. He did so with the presidents of Israel and of the United States of America present, as well as the leaders of many European countries. It was the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz Birkenau. He said he stood outside in the cold in the ceremony, and he was freezing and shaking, crying, but he had to give a prayer. And so Meir Lau closed his eyes and recited from the Psalms, saying. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, for thou art with me.” From another Psalm, “Thou has delivered my soul from death.” And another psalm, “I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” And he ended with the Kiddush, “Sanctified and magnified by your great name.”
He said, “My eyes were still closed, but what I saw at that moment with my eyes closed was clear. In my mind’s eyes, there were people getting off trains beside me. I saw them as they stood on the platform for selection for another train. One train is those who are going for death and the other train was for those who were going for life. And I just cried. I just cried.”
I fear at times, my friends, that we take life too cheaply, that we take the death of others too cheaply, that we do not honour or understand the value and the importance of each human life. For each human life, Christ has borne the death. For each human life, Christ is raised from death. For each human life there is the life to come, and this, my friends, turns the world upside down.
Not by the rebuilding of a spire of a temple, not by a success story of an athlete, not by the winning of a team, not by a wonderful fiction of a nice, happy ending, but on a cross between two thieves, and an empty tomb in a garden do we see the world turned upside down. For if we are united with Christ in His death, we will be united in His resurrection. Amen.