The Dean’s Sermon for Easter Sunday 2016
There is an American company with agents in the UK which offers to sell you immortality by freezing your body after death. The process is called ‘Cryonics’. For around £100,000, they promise to get to you within a couple of hours after you die, with ice packs and big syringes to pump you full of preservative chemicals. Then they’ll put you on the first plane to their headquarters in the United States, where you’ll be drained of blood, filled with glycerol, and hung upside down in liquid nitrogen.
This is done in the hope that whatever you die of will be curable in the future, or even that one-day old age and dying will be eliminated entirely. So in the year 2050 or whenever, some scientist will pop you out of your personal fridge and bring you back to supposedly endless life.
There is also a half-price option of getting just your head frozen and flown to the United States – on the assumption that when it’s defrosted it can be put on to a brand new body.
Sometimes the Cryonics process has been called ‘resurrection’. But of course it isn’t. Even if it worked, it’s not resurrection; it’s resuscitation.
When we talk about resurrection we don’t just mean prolonging the sort of life we have now, in the same kind of physical body. (I wouldn’t want this one back anyway).
It’s true that reading some of the Gospel accounts you might be misled into thinking that the resurrection body is just like this one. Clearly
the risen Christ did appear in bodily form. Both Luke and John say he ate food, and the disciples were able to touch him.
Yet at the same time the Gospels also say he could pass through locked doors. When he walked with the disciples on the Emmaus road, they didn’t recognize him until he opened their eyes. Mary Magdalen too doesn’t recognize him at first; and when she does, Jesus tells her not to hold him because he’s about to ascend to the Father.
So Jesus certainly survived death and is objectively there. But the gospels are much less clear about the way in which he’s there. He’s present, but in a different way of being, one that we may or may not recognize, depending on our own spiritual sight.
It’s really St Paul who tackles head on this question of how the resurrection works. In his first letter to the Corinthians he mentions that they had asked him exactly that question: “How are the dead raised? What kind of body do they have?”
In reply Paul tells them straight that of course the resurrection life isn’t the same as this one. “Flesh and blood don’t inherit the kingdom of God”, he says. Our resurrection self is spiritual. But that doesn’t mean it’s unreal, or just a metaphor, or that we’ll be a ghost. We’ll still have real, objective existence, and we’ll still be ourselves; in fact we’ll be much more wonderfully ourselves, since we won’t be tied down by this body.
To explain what he means, Paul says the dead body is like a seed, which is buried in the ground. But then, by God’s power, it’s changed; it springs into life and becomes a plant, which is infinitely more glorious than the seed was, and yet, it has miraculously developed out of it. So, Paul says, our earthly existence will also be changed into an unimaginably fuller existence in the Spirit. But we’ll still be us. We won’t be absorbed into undifferentiated being like the Buddhist idea of Nirvana. We’ll be the persons we are now, but perfected and united with the union of persons in love which is God the Trinity.
To use another example that both Jesus and Paul use, think of the way we came into the world in the first place. When we were a baby in the womb, being born must have felt like dying, and a very violent death at that. After nine months of being cosy and peaceful inside our mothers, suddenly all our life supports were torn away, and we were shoved out of the only existence we knew, with no idea that this trauma was actually the start of an infinitely richer life.
Yet even while we were in the womb we were forming all the faculties we would need for that new life: lungs to breathe and eyes to see and voice to cry. We couldn’t have imagined our new world, even though we were preparing for it; and the cost of entering it was a sort of death… Well – if that’s how it was for us at our beginning, why not at the end?
Even after being born, there are still more deaths. We have to die to childhood, or else remain infantile. We have to leave home and family behind, to form adult relationships and a new family. Even in smaller things like changing jobs or moving house, there is always that wrench from the past, that terror of the future, which is the condition of entering the new and fuller life.
All along the way we have to learn to let go. That’s really what the poor corpses in the Cryonics freezer couldn’t accept. They wanted to stay on here, with the world they knew and the life they understood. But it’s no use. You might as well try to crawl back into the womb, just as Nicodemus thought, when Jesus told him, “You must be born again”. The truth is, we must move on: and rebirth through death is the pattern of all our moving on, from the very start to the very end.
We can’t cheat death. Jesus himself didn’t cheat it: he really died, and in the normal human way, with real pain and real fear. But because he came through the other side of death, we can trust that for us too it won’t be the end, but only the last of so many letting goes – our last Good Friday, before our own Easter Day. Alleluia.