Eternity Can Be Our Compass
Meditation Delivered By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 04, 2010
I Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18
My sermon title for this morning is, “Eternity Can Be Our Compass.” I intentionally used the word “Can” because celebrating what Jesus showed us -- our eternal nature -- is not a universal understanding among people. One of the questions I have pondered for a long time is: “Does the ignorance of people really matter? In other words, do our faith, beliefs and understanding affect what God created since the beginning of time? (Matthew 25:34b)
In our lesson today there is evidence that the disciples did not understand anything about their eternal nature. As soon as Peter and John saw the empty tomb, they went home. Likewise, Mary Magdalene did not know anything about the possibility of resurrection. She said to the person she presumed was the gardener, “If you have taken his body away, tell me where you have put him and I’ll take care of him.”
My point is that belief by those most intimately connected with Jesus was not necessary for the existence of eternity to be simply another level of reality beyond the small part of creation that we do understand.
The Apostle Paul taught his listeners that God needs nothing from us for reality to be what it is:
Think of what is possible for us when we realize that we are far more than what our constantly changing physical forms tell us. The Apostle Paul wrote, “What we see now is like a dim reflection in a mirror. A time is coming when we will stand in front of truth face to face.” (I Corinthians 13:12f)
John McCardle is a well-known personality to the members of my summer spirituality classes because John was a very insistent atheist in my past--a person I have referenced each year. I conducted his wedding and only reluctantly did he allow his bride to have a scripture read and a prayer offered during their ceremony.
At the time he was a captain in the Prince George’s County Police Department and was extremely protective of his right to believe that any reference or belief in God was absurd. In fact, he would have nothing to do with any thoughts connected with Christianity or any other religion. He felt very strongly that Jesus was a created figure in history – a person invented by the church -- and that Christianity invited people to park their brains at the door as they entered their places of worship.
Within the year, I received a call from John. He was in the CCU at Prince George’s General Hospital following a severe heart attack. He wanted to see me as soon as possible. As soon as I entered his cubicle, he asked me one of those threshold questions that opened the door for me to share with him my spiritual orientation for living. He told me about his experience.
As John was being transported to the operating room for a procedure, he watched a nurse scream for a crash cart when he knew that none was needed. Hospital staff came from every direction. He sat up on his gurney and asked people if they had lost her minds. No one paid any attention to his question.
He watched the nurse rub the lubricated paddles together and shout “clear!” as she reached through his body. As she did so, he was startled and confused. Clearly, he was aware of what he was seeing. He looked behind him and saw his lifeless body still lying on the gurney. When the shock was delivered, John said, “I spun around and fell back with my eyes open. I saw the dots on the acoustical ceiling tile. Dick, I never lost consciousness. I need to know -- what did I experience last Tuesday?”
I said, “John, I don’t understand. God does not exist. Jesus was a figment of the imagination of early believers. Eternal life is nonsense! Don’t tell me that you are now prepared to park your brains at the doorway of what is unknown?” He said, “Dick, I’m being serious. Tell me what you know about what I experienced last Tuesday.” I seized the moment.
What John experienced was like the physical evidence that Thomas needed when he saw and touched Jesus’ wounds. Regardless of what skeptics, naysayers and the doubters say – none of their opinions matter to people who just had all their doubts erased.
Having a near death experience is so profound that people’s attitudes, thoughts and emotions change dramatically. Their priorities are drastically realigned. The aspects of life that were so critically important, no longer are. John McCardle had an awakening that provided him with a compass that gave him direction for the rest of his life.
If all of us had a near death experience, it would propel our spiritual evolution beyond any instruction provided by the Scriptures or by the scores of self-help books that are available. Jesus understood the power of such an experience when he said, “Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who believe and have not seen.”
The Gospel writers clearly wanted readers to use eternity as a compass to teach us about our purpose for living in our physical forms. Today we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but the implications are there for all of us regardless of what we think about the process regarding our eventual transition to life eternal. Since the love of God cannot be earned by anything that we do or believe, all that is left for us is to receive with joy the window provided by Jesus’ resurrection -- a harbinger for what eventually happens to us when it is our turn to transition into the next realm.
Knowing that we are eternal beings having a physical experience helps us to view every aspect of life as a teaching device--instructing us through our own highly personalized curriculum. Learn to look at your problems as finely tailored for your spiritual growth. What bothers you may not bother anyone else. Your mountain may be someone else’s mole hill. Think of the implications of such an insight!
For example, do we greet every heart-rending reversal in life with bitterness or with patience? Do we challenge God to supply us with the reasons why misery has come to us or do we accept what comes as the price of being alive? Do we feed our resentment because our faith no longer delivers what we expected or are we able to create the same responses as those of the Apostle Paul when he encountered life-threatening experiences?
Paul’s newly discovered orientation toward life carried him above all experiences that could have made him doubt his trust in God. His experiences never caused him to waver in his faith and trust in the one who gave him the opportunity to be in his physical form. In one of his letters he wrote:
Five times I was given the thirty-nine lashes by my own people; three times I was whipped by the Romans; and once I was stoned. I have been in three shipwrecks and once I spent twenty-four hours in the water. I have been hungry and thirsty; I have often been without enough food, shelter and clothing. (II Corinthians 11:24f)
A time will come when we will understand the meaning of all things. Right now, we do not need to know the why of anything. What strengthens us is what empowered Jesus during his final week on earth – Trust that God, who gave us the privilege to be born, will deliver us from constantly missing the mark and even from our physical death as well -- all the qualities and aspects of life that remain behind when we exit the experiences of our earthly drama.
Jesus demonstrated that life did not end for him with the death of his physical form on the cross. Regardless of what causes our exit from this life, we will experience the same transformation that was experienced by the thief who hung next to Jesus. The Master said, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
How easy it is, O God, to rise above the gloom of Good Friday when we know how the story of tragedy and injustice ends. We confess that when personalized reversals happen to us, the shadows crossing our path often evoke fear, anxiety and worry. Inspire us, O God, to replace such strong emotions with the permanent understanding of our eternal nature. Teach us that the more we confront our life-challenges with a faith that can move mountains, the more we will experience the fruits of our trust in you. Just as Jesus had confidence that a cross would become his doorway to eternal life, likewise we know that your love will guide and comfort our spirits when it is our turn to leave this world. Amen
Loving and eternally faithful God, we thank you for your inexhaustible patience with our world. We are grateful that your love for us is so all-encompassing that you have provided us with insight through the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, that life is eternal for all of us. There is no greater lesson that provides us with the staying power to persevere even when life appears to be at its worst.
Our thoughts are with our neighbors in Rhode Island who experienced floods that have not happened there for 200 years. Our thoughts are with the people who were caught in the cross-currents of earthquakes, tornadoes and the economic challenges that have caused thousands of breadwinners that still find themselves without work.
Inspire us to recognize that the world is what it is and that all of us are angels in the flesh that are only passing through during a brief phase of its history. Help us never to grow weary of sowing our seeds that demonstrate how better to extend our love to each other. Cause us to remember how fortunate we are to be able to use our lives as vehicles through which your love comes into a world that desperately needs diverse people to embrace collectively what it means to live in community. Help the scales, caused by living in a material world, to fall from our eyes so that we might see the light of eternity all around us. We pray these thoughts through Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .