"Is Belief The Key To Eternity?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 8, 2007
I Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18
When some people attend church services in very irregular patterns, the Gospel message concerning Jesus’ resurrection is a compelling story. Even for severe skeptics and doubters, there is a narrow bandwidth capacity of listening to which they are open. They hear the message with some interest but they may not believe it. That is okay.
When we read the Gospel accounts, none of the characters in the various stories were prepared emotionally, intellectually or spirituality for what they experienced. In a number of the episodes women were coming to the tomb to anoint the body. They did not know about the resurrection. In John’s account, Mary Magdalene ran to Peter and John saying, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb.” Neither Mary nor the disciples knew anything about this event. The possibility, however, for Jesus’ resurrection existed.
Disbelief, surprise and doubt flourished among the followers of Jesus. The two men who were walking to Emmaus were describing to a stranger the experience that had taken place in Jerusalem that had everyone mystified. They said, “Some women of our group surprised us; they went at dawn to the tomb, but could not find his body. They told of a vision of angels who told them that he is alive.” The disciples did not believe until they had seen. Of course, the story of doubting Thomas is legendary.
Is belief necessary in order for us to experience eternity? The answer is “No.” God’s created order with its enormous complexity does not depend or rely on our thoughts and beliefs for it to exist. Germs and viruses were present in our world long before we had microscopes. Everything that we discovered was part of creation before we found it. With that said, however, understanding and knowledge empower our living in every field of endeavor. When we have work around the house to be done or surgery to be performed, we want the highest skilled person we can find.
Skills of spirit can help us navigate in life far better than people who only use the learned responses from their childhood. In every vocation, some people are experts at their craft while others just get by. People do not greet life’s experiences with the same values, skills and perceptive abilities. Even though this is so, it does not diminish the fact that much greater realities exist.
For example, last week I was on a ladder and walking on the top of a friend’s fence pruning a large crape myrtle. He does not know how to do it and he does not appear to be interested in learning so I do it for him each year. His wife came home as I was standing on the fence and she said, “We have our gardener back again.” I said, “Yes you do.”
She said something that I was unable to compute right away. She asked, “Dick, why don’t you cut it down?” I said, “These do look pretty unsightly in the winter time with their barren pale branches but eventually they will grow the most gorgeous flowers.” She said, “I don’t like any shrub that produces flowers.” Perhaps there were allergies or asthma attacks in her background that made her fearful of what flowers produce. Something had turned off her switch to flowers.
We are totally free to develop our preferences, to grow our beliefs, to appreciate beauty and art, to attend concerts and operas and to thrill at the skill of various musicians. We are also free to focus our energies on a host of other alternatives that may be of equal value to some of us. My point is that what we believe about flowers will not change their presence in our world. It is we who are in the process of evolving here, not the infinite inheritance God created for us when we transition from our physical forms.
There have been a dozen or so people in my 40 years of ministry who left their bodies during surgery. In fact, a person who regularly attends our services had such an experience less than a month ago. As she hugged me one Sunday morning she whispered, “I had one of those out of the body experiences. Sometime I want to tell you about it. It was awesome.”
The most dramatic spiritual awakenings happen to people who believe that when you die, that is it. There is nothing else that follows. These are the people who frequently believe that you have to fill life with many experiences of every variety because, as a television commercial said years ago, “You only go around once in life and you had better grab all the gusto you can.”
For these people their experience is identical to the one Paul had on the road to Damascus. As it happened to the disciples after they encountered the resurrected Jesus, matters of belief immediately transcend to the reality of an experience. We no longer believe in the possibility of resurrection; now we know it. No matter how many persuasive counterpoints can be launched, no one can take away from other people something that they have experienced, particularly when they have left their bodies and could accurately hear and see everything being done by the surgical team from a vantage point above the operating table.
Again, belief is not necessary for eternity to exist. With this said, think of all the possibilities that belong to those who do believe and know that life goes on. Perhaps we would not think about financial security as much if we valued more the qualities of our character. One we leave behind and the other we take with us.
Perhaps we would not concentrate so much on our physical appearance if we spent more time refining the quality of the spirit we use to communicate. Perhaps we would not harbor in our hearts all the hurts, pains and perceived mistreatments locked away in our past if we learned how to focus more on the memories that have inspired our confidence and peace.
Jesus once said, “Do you believe because you have seen me? How blessed are those who believe who have not seen.” Eternity will be the experience of all people and belief in its existence is not a requirement. When we understand that this life is just a fragment of an infinite sojourn of spiritual evolution, we are able to live every moment of it with the assurance that even something as frightening and destructive as a crucifixion cannot snuff out the light that God bestowed in us.
At the close of our Good Friday service the congregation sang the final hymn, “What Wondrous Love Is This.” The last verse reveals a truth Jesus wanted to leave with us, “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing and joyful be and through eternity, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on, and through eternity, I’ll sing on.”
Why wait for the moment when we transition from our solid forms before we learn that we could have been singing everyday during our physical lives? If Jesus were here he would tell us in 21st Century language, “People, get with the program. Harness all your timeless energy and skills of spirit while you are here. They are inside of you. Develop them. Express them. God would not have put you here only to abandon you to your own decision-making as you have been taught. God’s love is beyond your greatest comprehension and far more creative than that. In my Father’s house there is room for all of you. I would not tell you this if it were not so.”
Today, we celebrate that truth. Now get out there in the world and let your eternal qualities show. Celebrate Easter every day.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving God, how often we confess our resurrection faith but exhibit the doubts of Thomas in our daily behavior. Like the disciples of old, we hear the words, “He is risen!” but our thoughts are fixed on our day to day routines. Inspire us on this Easter morning to walk away from the tombs that often imprison us: hearts that cannot forgive, hurts that confine us to events in our past, work environments that remain toxic, habits that erode our health and life styles that do not honor you. Help us understand that resurrection is also for the living. Our lives can turn corners. We can develop new thought patterns that increase our skills of spirit. Jesus left his tomb and bid us to follow him. Today, inspire us to find the courage to trust you and honor his invitation. Amen.