“One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”
John Donne, Divine Sonnet Ten, “Death, Be Not Proud”
I Cor. 15:50 I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55″Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?” 56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
Over the door of a church nursery, where volunteers watch infants and toddlers during the Sunday morning worship service, in what otherwise is called a “crying room,” was posted a placard with the words of I Corinthians 15:51: “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” Cute, but I don’t think that babies, nurseries and diapers are what today’s passage is about.
On the other hand, the whole point of today’s Bible passage, indeed, of First Corinthians, can be summed up as “Grow up.” Or even, “Staying as we are is not an option; ‘We shall be changed;’ God has something better in mind for us.” So, will we cooperate with God’s great growing up project for us? Or will we have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the maturity of our immortality? Or worse, will we refuse and resist it all together?
Which means we’ll have to learn to leave behind two immature things as we make the transition from the perishable and corruptible, to our future state of immortality and incorruptibility. One of which is the controlling and enslaving fear of death. If anything, from where we stand now, after the resurrection of Jesus, we can see what its like when death will have lost its sting. So the fear of death does not have to drive all our actions, nor limit all our options.
The second matter, related to the enslaving fear of death, is to outgrow and leave behind a childish sense of irresponsibility, futility and irrelevance, the idea that, if death always has the last word over our lives and our labors, then nothing we do really matters all that much, that we’re not really responsible for much, that our choices in life are basically frivolous and unimportant. Rather, Paul assures us, “our labor in the Lord is not in vain.” Choices do matter, now and forever.
About the first lesson in maturity, breaking free from the enslaving fear of death: Paul does not say that death has no sting anymore. Death hurts. Grief is the other side of the coin from love. The more we have loved someone, the more we grieve their absence when they die. If we love life, and others, as I hope, then of course its sad and hard to think about them leaving us, or of us leaving them, even if we trust that something better is coming.
During times of war, people who have lost friends to battle and bombings, combat veterans and civilians, report that they often learned to withhold themselves from forming friendships, making connections or commitments, or loving. That was to keep from having to do the hard work of grieving over and over, should the death machine of war take other persons, again. After the war, with the resumption of peace and safety, sometimes they said it was hard to relearn how to love, make commitments, and relate. Shutting down our capacities to take risks on love: that’s one of the many ways in which death enslaves us and keeps us immature.
When Paul asks, “Death, where is your sting?” and “O grave, where is your victory?” he’s not saying death now has no more sting for believers. He’s saying that one day, death will have no more sting. He’s quoting the prophets, especially Isaiah 25, and the promise that one day “God will swallow up death,” deliver us from the reproach of our mortality, and wipe all tears from our faces. That obviously hasn’t happened yet. We trust that it will, but for now Paul is only speaking from the perspective of the future, saying that the time will come when we shall be able to say, “Oh death, where is your sting,” and “O grave, where is your victory?”
I say this because I sometimes hear from fellow Christians that we feel perplexed and confused and even a little bit ashamed when we grieve the loss of a loved one. Or when grief takes time to work through, sometimes, years. As though grief shows how little faith we have. I think, rather, that it shows how much love we have. In a world of one hundred percent mortality, what a courageous thing it is to love, and to love deeply. I ask if we believe that the day will come when we will be able to rejoice and to say, from experience, “Death, where is your victory?” and “O Grave, where is your sting?” and the honest answer often is, “I believe, Lord, but help my unbelief.” And that’s okay; that prayer will be answered on the day of our great resurrection reunion.
Death still does have a sting, but not for keeps. We do grieve, but “not as those who have no hope.” If we were in France, we would say, at every graveside service, “Au revoir”–see you again—and not, “Adieu,” which is what you say when you expect to never see each other again. So no love is ever wasted. And that’s the second point to which this passage is leading. In fact, I’d call it the main point of this whole chapter, when Paul says, “Your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” So we can “give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord,” trusting that God will see to the results and fruits of our labors, in this life or the next. “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done,” says Jesus, in the last chapter of the Bible. And when it comes to rewards, he will be no one’s debtor.
We need to hear that all the more, because the most important works to which we are called can feel like an endless round of futility in a world like this. Like trying to empty the ocean with a thimble. Or the reality of death can make them feel pointless. But today’s words about the next life call us to persevere in this one.
While he was leading the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, in 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., received on the average about 30 death threats a week by mail or telephone. Not all of them were idle. Two bombs landed on his porch, one of which went off and did considerable damage. The voice of one of the callers began to grow familiar. His hateful harangue was nearly a daily event. This was before the day of caller ID. But King refused to react or retaliate with the same kinds of words. After months of this daily abuse, one day the caller asked King a question, and finally, King got some words in for a change. They were gracious, peaceful words that made a winsome case for racial justice. The conversation ended with the caller saying, “Thank you, Dr. King, and you know, I can almost see myself agreeing with you one day.” That was the last time Dr. King heard that particular voice.
King got that far by persistence. But his persistence did not depend upon everyone converting to his cause and agreeing with him. In fact, he knew that many people never would. In fact, in the last speech of his life, he seemed to have foreseen that his work would outlive him, and that he would not survive to see the results of his prayers and labors. During that last night of his life, King said, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” Less than twenty-four hours later, Dr. King entered the pages of our nation’s history, felled by an assassin’s bullet.
King always knew that he faced that risk. But that didn’t deter him from his God-given task. Because he knew that he only played a part in God’s work of the world’s redemption and recreation. He called himself, “a drum major for justice,” not the composer nor the conductor. After he was gone, the band kept going and growing. What kept Dr. King going was not a sense that his dream depended upon him alone achieving it, but that his dream was not just a dream. It was reality, more real than the racist delusions that he was up against. For, as he often put it, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The peace that King felt that last night of his life, when he shared his presentiment of approaching death, is justified and validated by a voice heard once in heaven by John of Patmos. In his Revelation, chapter 14, he records, “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’
“‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.'”
Here is assurance, from heaven itself, that our deeds in the Lord will follow us, at least into the New Jerusalem, if not always here. Maybe those are what the gold paving stones and the precious jewels that we read of on the walls and gates of the New Jerusalem are all about: the infinite and priceless value of our words and works of love. Here and in this life, they may seem inconsequential, without weight or substance. They often have to be sustained and repeated, daily or more often. And then there’s no guarantee in this life that they will always have the effect we intend. So, we may feel like that character in an ancient Greek myth, Sysiphus. He was condemned in the after-life to roll a giant stone up a hill. But every time he’d get it anywhere near the top, it would slip from his grasp and roll back downhill. He could never stop his labor, because he never could complete it. For some of us, that may sound like aspects of our life’s work.
That sense of futility could lead to irresponsibility. If we believe that all our labors might ultimately lead nowhere, or just finally to a dead end wall of death, then we might very well be tempted to just give up, drop out, sell out and tune out from life’s highest and greatest calling: love. And that would doom us to a life-long, state of spiritual and moral infantilism.
But if its true that “our works shall follow us,” and “that our labors in the Lord are not in vain,” and that they have something to do with the shape of the world and the life to come, even, that they are foretastes and care packages from the world to come, then that’s not just something to wait for in “the sweet bye and bye.” It does not only affect the life to come. The future shapes the here and now. We can either be a pathetic people, who are mired in passivity and immaturity by the fear of death, or we can be a prophetic people, who mock death by investing boldly in this life, and the one to come. I see us as a prophetic people, who do not only foresee the future which God has promised the world, who do not only preach and teach that promised future, we ourselves are signposts and demonstration plots of that promised future, we are even living prophecies, through our lives, our loves and our labors.
And if that seems far-fetched and hard to believe at times, there is one other way in which we know that our labor is not in vain. That is in the effect of our words and works of love on ourselves, at least. If it looks like no one else and nothing else is changed for the better by our efforts, then at least we are. If our labors seem not to have had the grand and glorious effect on others or the world that we had hoped for, they will still have done something to shape ourselves. When the moment arrives that we stand before the One to whom all things are known and no secrets are hidden, the One who knows us and loves us better than we do ourselves, and when we know as we are known, then the full effect of our words and works of love upon ourselves will be seen in what we will have become, in how well we reflect back the image of the One who formed us in his image. And thus all secrets will be known. They will be visible in what we will have become, all throughout our lives. Maybe we are the precious stones and jewels on the walls and gates of the New Jerusalem. In that way, Paul’s words are coming true: we are being changed, even now, as we “give [ourselves] fully to the work of the Lord.” The image of the immortal Christ is formed in us through what Thomas Merton called, “a long obedience in the same direction.” No one and nothing will be able to take that away from us.
Not even death.