"Our Imaginations Are Never Enough”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – April 5, 2015

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; John 20:1-18

Easter Sunday

    For Christians everywhere, the resurrection of Jesus is the most spectacular revelation ever provided to humanity.  This morning, I would like for us to consider something even more remarkable -- the incredible transformation that can happen to us when we realize that Jesus was demonstrating what will eventually happen to each of us.

    Wherever the topic of life after death is discussed, the subject matter captures the imagination of even the most steadfast doubters.  Doubters are always welcome to share their understanding.  Doubters can easily discount the validity of numerous Biblical references about Jesus' resurrection because many of the incidents have little in common with each other. 

    For instance, Jesus seemingly walked through solid material when he appeared to the disciples who had huddled together in a room with a locked door.  On another occasion, we find Jesus cooking fish on the beach as he waited for his disciples to come ashore.  He ate with them.

    There are references that indicate that the disciples knew nothing about Jesus' resurrection while others suggest that they did. The disciples refused to believe the women when they told them that they had seen the Master.  (Luke 24:11) There is evidence that Peter decided to go fishing after he discovered the empty tomb. (John 21:3) There is definitely a place for doubters. Often doubting is one of the earliest stepping-stones to achieving a deeper understanding of life.    

    Even doubters become intrigued when they hear the life-transforming experiences from highly credible people—some that had no religious affiliation while others had no belief in the existence of God.  When trusted friends share their experiences of a departed loved one or share a frightening moment during their cardiac arrest while watching their surgical team work feverishly to restore a heartbeat, people listen.  Who can explain the meaning of such things?   People that have had such an experience could care less what others think.

    The thought that life does not end appears to be hardwired into human DNA or our central nervous systems from the very beginning of human existence.  Something in our nature inspires our imaginations to know that life continues even though strangers to this notion cannot explain how or why these thoughts are there.   

    One of the earliest settlements discovered in the Omo Kibish Formation in the Ethiopian Mountains dates back to 195,000 years ago.  Archaeologists have uncovered burial mounds where the deceased were buried with tools, spear points and other artifacts suggesting that life would continue where such items would be needed.  

    It would be fascinating to know something about the beliefs of these ancient people, but they passed their thoughts from one generation to the next only in verbal form.  The earliest records we have are cave drawings that date back to 40,000 BC.  Writing began only in recent times in Mesopotamia around 3,500 BC.

    During our Tuesday morning Lenten Bible Study, we finished with the resurrection of Jesus in the program by Adam Hamilton.  I asked our group if any of them had experienced something quite extraordinary after the death of a loved one.  Every person present had a story to tell.  I shared a number of my personal encounters.

    There was a time when people associated such experiences with flying saucers and alien abductions.  However, today the evidence is overwhelming that our lives continue.  Because of the variety of non-Christian cultures reporting similar experiences from their citizens, there is increasing support for the idea that religious beliefs are not a determining factor.  People go on living once they temporarily leave or shed their material husks.

    We know beyond a shadow of doubt that truth does not depend on what we think or feel about it for something to be true.  We also know that truth is always changing when new evidence surfaces through the acceleration of research programs.  Surviving death just happens, often to the total surprise of even those who never gave afterlife a second thought.

    I had a dear friend who was a pastor in the Unity Denomination.  We frequently went to lunch together where we talked shop.  She had absolutely no belief at all in an afterlife.  She said to me numerous times, "When I die, I want to stay dead."  I used to smile at her theology and say, "Sorry, Amalie, what you think about reality has nothing to do with what comes to us automatically."  Eventually, in 2004 Amalie died at the age of 86.   

    Amalie had told several friends that if she should somehow survive death, she would let them know.  One of these people was the Director and concert pianist of the Congressional Chorus in Washington, D.C., a chorus made up of congressional staff people. 

    Michael was an avid player of Scrabble.  He called me just as I was getting home from work one day. Lois had answered the phone and said, "Michael needs to talk to you right away.  He has some important news." When I got on the phone, this is what he said:

Dick, you are not going to believe this.  Amalie came to me.  This is how she did it.  I had just started to play a game of Scrabble with some friends.  I drew out my seven tiles from those that were scattered all over the top of the table.  Dick, I swear to you, I pulled each tile in this order, A M A L I E F.

Her name was Amalie Frank.  He was so excited, he could hardly contain himself.  He said, "She's alive!  Amalie is alive!"

    A second friend called me during the same week from Muskegon, Michigan to tell me that Amalie had spoken to him early that afternoon.  He said her words came into his head when he was working on a project.  She said, "John, I just want you to know that I am not old anymore.  Be sure to call Dick Stetler.  He will get a kick out of hearing this."

    All of us can think what we wish about these episodes, but none of them really matters.  All the resurrection stories in the Gospels do not matter.  What matters is whether or not our lives can become transformed by the possibility that life continues.  From what I understand from my own personal experiences, our lives in the next realm are well beyond anything our imaginations can conceive.  There are simply no words that can describe it.

    When Jesus was teaching, he never gave his listeners a sense of urgency that his lessons were vital to their spiritual survival.  He knew that countless people would walk away from his teachings.   People want to chart their own way in life by using their pursuit of material rewards to guide them toward remarkable achievements.  Jesus was at peace with whatever choices people make.  He knew that the consequences of people's lives will always depend on the skills of spirit that they bring to each experience.  We can learn what works now or later. 

    Jesus' love for people caused him to remain faithful to his mission.  What was that mission?  He once said, "I was born and came into the world for only one purpose.  I have come to teach people about the truth." (John 18:37c)   This was the time when Pilate responded to Jesus' answer with, "What is truth?"

    Jesus once taught, "Do not invest your energies in the things of this world where they will decay. Rather invest your emotions, intellect and spirit in the qualities that will make your love become visible.  Neither the passing of time nor robbers will succeed in taking those qualities away from you."  (Matthew 6:19f)

    Our imaginations are never enough to comprehend what waits for us with opened arms.   The appearance of Jesus that may communicate the clearest hint of what will follow may be when he appeared to the disciples who were in a room where the doors were locked.  He was teaching that the next realm has no solid forms.

    Try to imagine the skills that we can develop right now that have no attachments to material objects.  The Apostle Paul was able to pierce the veil to see what treasures Jesus was describing.  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul provided his readers with a marvelous listing of those skills.  He wrote, "Your spirit is capable of producing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self control."  (Galatians 5:22.)  We could add to his list many more skills like, letting go, generosity, tolerance and trust.

    We can build all the sand castles we want in this world.  Every one of them will be eroded by the tides of time along with the identity of the ones who built them.  Jesus pointed from his cross and later from his empty tomb that what we take with us are the timeless skills that are not attached to any solid forms.  These will always work in this world and the next. 

    Happy Easter!