The right experience of death, and therefore life, comes from a Christ who has the power to tell death, “I’m boss of you!”
A sermon preached on 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 by Pastor Jonathan Werre at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, SD, on November 22, 2020.
Two verses in our second lesson are used in our Catechism for Christ’s office as King. Since this is Christ the King Sunday, let us consider our second lesson, and especially these two verses: “For Christ must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
So I am standing at the most shattering spot in the whole world—an open grave. This was just three weeks ago, at the committal service of one of my dearest friends. And as the cold wind whips around the dozen of us gathered there, death once again becomes more than just a word. Death has become very real. My friend, who loved our Lord and his pure Word and Sacraments, is dead. And a voice whispers in my own mind, “And you, too, shall die.”
And an odd thing happens. It is at this moment that I get the sense, as has happened at other committal services, of what a great power can come from a right experience of death, death which makes it so clear that you are utterly powerless.
And the right experience of death comes from having the right King, the one who is King over death. “For Christ must reign (like a King) until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” The right experience of death comes when you grasp the reality of the incredible power your King has over death, right now, as you live your life. Not a power that was handed to him on a silver platter, but a power he earned by his ordinary, sometimes subtle, sometimes tricky work of being nothing but perfect love to everyone. The power over death that he earned by his blood, sweat, and tears, as God took out the baseball bat of his anger and beat on Christ and beat on Christ until he beat out every last bit of his wrath for our sin, on Christ on the cross, instead of us. The power he earned but busting out of the grave on the 3rd day like it was a walk in the park. The right experience of death comes when you grasp the reality that you have a King who has earned the power to tell death, “I’m the boss of you! You do not get to have the final word. I do. And my Word is the word of life, the word of resurrection, the word of a marriage feast and streets paved with gold and music beyond description, the word of forever-life because I have overcome death.”
But that’s just where this becomes confusing. Because, at this moment, as I stand at the open grave of my friend, and the cold wind whips us, our powerful King appears to be an absentee King. It appears to me that Death has won. For the fact is, no matter where I go in this universe, I cannot touch my friend’s face, hear his voice, or tell him one of my corny jokes and hear him laugh…well, kinda laugh.
It is at this critical point that I must be very careful not to draw the wrong conclusion. My five senses tell me that Death has won, that my friend is gone, and nothing will change that. But what I am actually experiencing is the truth of this passage, “For Christ must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Death has not yet been destroyed. It has been defeated by Christ our King, yes. Overcome by Christ our King, yes. Had its deadly stinger ripped out by Christ our King, yes (I Cor. 15:55ff). This Christ did by his own atoning death on the cross and his own victorious resurrection from the dead. Death has been defeated. But destroyed? No. Not yet.
That’s why I am standing by the open grave of my friend who is lying in a grey and chrome casket which is very cold when I place my hand on it. Death has not yet been destroyed, this is true. But it is also true that one day soon, when Christ returns on the Last Day, death will be destroyed by our powerful King who has already defeated death. And I will once again see the face that I know so well, and hear his voice that I know so well, and I will tell him a corny joke and he will laugh.
That’s what the word “firstfruits” that the Holy Spirit specifically chose to use in this section is trying to tell us. “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
Firstfruits does not mean that Jesus was the first person who was ever came back from the dead. Because he was not. Do you know who the first person in the history of the world was who came back from the dead? Quick history of dead people coming back to life:
The very first person that was raised from the dead, as far as we know, happened somewhere around 865 BC, give or take. It happened to a boy. The son of a poor single mom who lived in Zarephath. A single mom whom God asked to share her food with the prophet Elijah, and she did, and her jug of oil and jar of flour never ran out. When her son died, God through Elijah raised him from the dead. (I Kings 17) Later, the prophet Elisha would do the same for a Shunammite woman’s son. (2 Kings 4) Later, Jesus would raise the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11 ff), Jairus’ 12 year old daughter (Luke 8:40ff), not to mention the dramatic raising from the dead of Lazarus who had been in the grave three days. These all were raised from the dead before Jesus. But they are never called the firstfruits. They are not called the firstfruits for the simple reason that they died again. They were not so much raised back to life as raised to simply die a little while later.
But the Holy Spirit specifically calls Christ “the firstfruits.” “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
Firstfruits. You who garden, you know how wondrous the first red, juicy tomato from the garden is. After an entire winter of eating those cardboard Roma tomatoes from the store, the first fresh, home-grown tomato is so good. But it’s not just that it tastes so good. It’s more than that. It’s the promise that comes with that first ripe tomato. It tells you, there’s more to come. There’s so many more beautiful ripe tomatoes to come.
That’s what Christ’s resurrection promises, too. There’s so many more resurrections to come. “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Because Christ rose never to die again. He rose to live and keep on living. And that power of living and keeping on living he shares, as a gift, to every sinner who is on a collision course with the nightmare of hell. This power to live and keep on living is a gift he gives to each sinner whom the Holy Spirit moves to daily repent and daily trust in Christ and his Word of forgiveness. The power to live and keep on living is a gift given to sinners who listen to his Word of forgiveness given in the Absolution, given in the Gospel, given already at your Baptism. For he is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
I am thinking of these things, as my brother and I are the last ones left standing by the grey and chrome coffin. I am being careful not to draw the wrong conclusion. My five senses tell me that Death has won. But what I am actually experiencing is the truth of this passage, “For Christ must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” And so now I have to wait. Now I am waiting for that moment when Christ my King, who has defeated Death by his own death and resurrection, comes on the Last Day and destroys Death. And my friend, who had been tired and sick and had so much trouble breathing, wakes up refreshed, made new, breathing like an athlete. And to see him feeling so very, very good once again will make me so very, very happy.
My brother, in a great act of understanding, finishes his goodbye and walks back to his car and lets me have one last time alone with my friend. In this moment I sense what great power can emerge from a right experience of death. I think of how small so many things become. Things that have kept me up at night and things that caused misunderstandings. How small they become. And then I feel a kind of energy, I think of how I want to live, all the things I want to do yet, while I still have the time, and that passage from the Wisdom literature in the Bible comes to my mind, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (Eccl. 9:10), from the book that Pastor Johnson is currently going through with us in his Facebook daily devotion. And as I finish my long goodbye, and begin to walk to my brother’s car, I look back one more time at that cold, grey coffin and the freshly dug grave and I think, “I must have cornflakes for brains to ever let anything get in the way of me and my daily devotions or my Sunday worship.” Because one day I will be in that coffin, by a freshly dug grave. And I am powerless to stop it. I need to stay close to the one who is King over death, to the one who changes death into the doorway to eternal life, as he promised me already at my baptism, just like he did for everyone who believes and is baptized.
And when I make it back to the car and grab the car door handle, it occurs to me, “There must be a lot of people at committal services today, just like me. A lot of people who do not know that Jesus Christ is King over death. A lot of people for whom death is the doorway to an unending nightmare.” I think, “I cannot save them all. But I can reach out to a few, with the gospel, while there’s still time.”
And that’s just what I mean to do. How about you? Amen.