THE LAST ENEMY

Luke 24:1-12, I Corinthians 15:19-26

Nathan Hosler

The “original” Easter happened once. This was long before Easter became a holiday and got associated with abnormally colored eggs or abnormal bunnies or abnormally colored chicks or perhaps most abnormal of all—little brightly colored chicks made of marshmallow. Of course the “original” Easter was in fact much more unusual than a commercialized packaging of an ostensibly Christian holiday with a few old-school pagan practices mixed in. The “original” Easter marks the resurrection of Jesus. A resurrection from the dead would be notable enough. A resurrection of anyone would be rather surprising. That it is Jesus brings a whole other level to this. For in the Gospel of John chapter 1 we read about Jesus as the “Word.”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Centuries of theology have wrestled with what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God—to be the Word–To be God. But then God is killed on Friday but then God is raised (by God?) on Sunday. There were the haunting words “it is finished” as Jesus “gives up his spirit” on the cross. But then after days of sorrow and the beginning of decomposition something happens. We read, “But on the first day of the week,”

 “at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.” They, meaning the women disciples, (they who, though disciples, are not typically number among the disciples, they who though were the first proclaimers of Jesus’ resurrection are consistently pushed aside because they are women). They, the women disciples, came to the grave site crushed, deflated, filled with trauma and grief. Perhaps, though, there was still a thread of hope. He did speak of these sorts of things—if somewhat cryptically, or what was likely presumed to be metaphorically. They, the disciples who were women, however, went, at “early dawn.” Under the cover of dark…perhaps in fear but perhaps simply to get an early start on the day. Upon arriving”They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,” Presumably they knew there would be such a stone. If we went to a grave site today we would assume that it had been covered and that the body wouldn’t just be lying at the bottom of a hole.

So for some reason they were going to the tomb with things for the body, though they knew that it would be covered. But the stone was moved, and so they went in but “they did not find the body.” It continues, “While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified.”  They were naturally terrified. From the haggard emotional state of the grieving of death and displaced hope to being perplexed and confused by the empty grave to being suddenly confronted by men with dazzling cloths—yeah, terrified, shaken. Confronted by men in dazzling cloths. (dazzling? Really? Like sequins? Perhaps dazzling like—surprising or notable. My mother used to get us Easter outfits. One year when my young brother Phil was maybe 5 his outfit was this sort short pants (maybe called knickers) with tall white socks and suspenders. These may not have been properly dazzling but he thought them notable and was not at all pleased). So these sudden-appearing-men who were potentially wearing sequins or knickers pop in and ask a question that it’s hard not to feel is a bit smart-alecky.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Well, obviously they didn’t know he was living.

“He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” So they had heard this before. Heard it and forgot or heard it and when they saw the finality of death—the actual body—they realized that it was over.  It says, Then they remembered his words,

and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened” But Peter believed—or at least wanted to believe.

People have been describing and reflecting on this one-time event ever since it happened. In the book of Acts we see a bit of the preaching of the early church. In I Corinthians we see early more formal theological reflections—though this is still written in a church context for Christians. These and the innumerable writings since have posited what happened or didn’t happen—both physically with Jesus and spiritually with us. Arguing over what this does or does not mean for us. For followers of Jesus, for those who don’t follow Jesus. Considerations of how this relates to the Old Testament, particularly prophecies that point to a Messiah and the sacrificial system. People saying Jesus replaces the sacrifice but then the question arises did God cause this? Was it a legal or ethical requirement for the sin of humanity that punishment be meted out and that violence be used in this punishment? Does this simply reflect our assumptions about retribution and punishment and violence?

While I am not ready to attempt even an overview of views on what the death and resurrection of Jesus mean (and I imagine you may not be ready for such an exercise either) this is a big important question. The creeds were early concise statements of core theological assertions that one needed to affirm. These emerged out of theological reflection and then were often a common starting point for continued reflection. Brethren, however, did not go the way of the creeds. While not necessarily disagreeing with them they eschewed having them as a sort of entry pass and said “the New Testament is our creed.” And the New Testament is read in community. The New Testament, of course, is fairly long (compared to a creed) and contains several types of writings written in many different contexts for many different communities in many different situations. Additionally, the writers utilize images from both their culture as well as the Hebrew scriptures. In this context a concise statement of the meaning of the death and resurrection is a tricky thing to state. Even in the few short verses from chapter 15 of 1st Corinthians is loaded with potentials for consideration.

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

An Easter of sunshine and flowers may prompt us to try to get past the horror of the days before. Knowing the end of the story we can get through Good Friday and then Saturday. However, as Easter morning breaks, the palms waved on Palm Sunday and the marking of Jesus’ triumphal entry the week before lay drying and will eventually be burned to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday which will start us on Lent which is a reflection toward the coming suffering of Holy Week which brings to the triumph of the resurrection. It is in this resurrection that we read in 1 Corinthians that the “last enemy”—being death—was defeated. However, we will surely experience death in the coming year. If not closely then at least in hearing of it in the news—whether of an unarmed young black man or in a war zone far away, or in an insurgency, or on the border regions crossed by families fleeing violence or the inability to survive, or of a child who is too young to have such a disease or an old person who has built a lifetime of friendships. Indescribably this is the death—the last enemy—that Christ has defeated. I celebrate this. Yet I wonder what this means. Later in this chapter we would read,

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

This past year a refrain in my thinking, a repeated question, was—how do we think about or respond to the levels of crisis around the world? Though Christians affirm the words of victory over death in the resurrection of Jesus, we also struggle between despair and what may sound like an inane “God is good—everything will be fine.”

May we be dazzled by the telling of the resurrected one. May we be filled with the Spirit so that we can say “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” May we feel in our bones that Christ has defeated death. And may we proclaim this hope in our lives lived in the power of Easter morning.

58 Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

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