Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany
The Rev. Ryan Slifka
You might have seen this phrase floating around, or heard it somewhere. But it’s relatively popular. The phrase is this: “it’s about the journey, not the destination.” It’s about the journey, not the destination.
It makes sense in a lot of ways. Our society’s very practical, very utilitarian, very goal-oriented. I think of all the times in University when I told people I was getting an English Degree, and they’d ask something, “so what are you gonna do with that?” But we have a hard time simply enjoying things or appreciating them when we’re in the middle. Everything’s gotta have an outcome, a purpose. So naturally, the idea that we should try to appreciate the path we’re on while we’re on the path makes a lot of sense. Enjoy the scenery. Stop and smell the roses.
Having said all of that, a journey isn’t really a journey without a destination, an end point is it? Someone said the point of traveling is coming home. Even if we wander out in the woods for fun, that’s the goal itself. On a broader level, we human beings are goal-oriented creatures. We need to think that we’re working towards something. Raising children, career success, money, fame, fortune, retirement. Building a house, falling in love. Once we hit a goal we move on to the next. And if we don’t have a goal in life, we tend to flounder.
It’s one thing to enjoy the journey while we’re on it. But if we have a journey without a destination we tend to look at our lives and say “this ain’t goin’ nowhere.” We’re stuck.
And this is more or less the point that the Apostle Paul makes in today’s scripture passage. That without certain future hopes, we ain’t goin’ nowhere. The train will never arrive at the station.
And that future hope he’s talking about is the resurrection of the dead. You’ll remember from last week that some members of Paul’s church in Corinth were denying the resurrection of Jesus. This week, we’re still on the resurrection train. This time, though, Paul’s not reacting to a denial of the resurrection of Jesus, like last week. This week, he’s reacting to a denial of something that’s related: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised,” he says. “If Christ has been raised, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?”
The resurrection of the dead that Paul is talking about is what is often termed as the “general resurrection.” That at the end of time, at the culmination of all history, all human beings will be resurrected, will be raised from the dead. Whereby some will be raised to eternal life, forever with God. Who is raised eternally and who isn’t is a question debated throughout history with a variety of answers. But in this letter, it’s shorthand for the future resurrection. And subsequent life eternal. And that’s what’s being questioned, or denied by the Corinthians.
Now, of course, we need to remember that this language isn’t literalistic, like a video recording of the future sent back from the future via divine DeLorean. But it’s stretching the human imagination and words to try to describe this mystery. But what is clear about this language is that God is faithful even into death and beyond.
We’re not quite sure how they’re denying it, but they are more or less saying that the resurrection is limited to this life. The here and now. It’s all about the journey, not the destination. And of course, this denial of the general resurrection, drives Paul nuts.
“If there’s no resurrection of the dead,” he says, “if there’s no resurrection, it means that Christ hasn’t been raised.” Basically, the idea here, is that if you deny the future resurrection, it means that you’re denying that God has the power to raise people from the dead. Ergo, if God can’t raise people from the dead in the future, then God didn’t raise Jesus from the dead in the past. You can’t have one without the other, Paul says. Jesus’ resurrection, general resurrection. Same deal.
Furthermore, “If Christ has not been raised,” he says, “then your faith is futile, and you’re still in your sins.” If there’s no general resurrection, then “those who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, then we deserve nothing but other people’s pity.”
Okay, so two things here. First, he argues that if there’s no future resurrection, then the members of the community who have died are lost forever. Dead is dead is dead. No future, cuz that’s all she wrote.
And second, Paul’s making a similar point that a mediocre Freddie Mercury song from the 80’s makes: “There must be more to life than this/How do we cope in a world without love/Mending all those broken hearts/And tending to those crying faces.” The world is full of such suffering and pain. As much progress as there has been for humanity, every time we find a solution we’re gifted with a new problem. And so if all we can hope for is a slightly better version of the world as it is, then who cares? We might as well eat, drink, and be merry. For tomorrow we may die. Enjoy the journey, cuz that’s all there is.
If this is all there is. Life is here, then it’s gone. The world is here, then it’s gone. It’s without any deeper meaning, fulfilment, or future. Their denial drives Paul nuts because it means it’s all journey, no ultimate, or final destination. We don’t actually get anywhere. At least not for long.
Of course, one criticism of Christianity is often that the existence of some reality after death makes this world unimportant. Might as well let this world crash and burn because we have an escape hatch. That slaves should be good do what masters say in this life for the promise of “pie in the sky when you die,” as one example. You might say it’s in danger of becoming all destination, no journey.
It’s a danger, yes. We can be, as in the words of a Johnny Cash song, “so heavenly minded, that we’re no earthly good.” But, properly understood, resurrection is something of a blending of the two. That this life, and eternity are intertwined, connected with each other. That a thread runs through past, present and future. Journey and destination are one cohesive whole. The little sentence at the end of our reading provides a clue:
“But in fact,” Paul says. “But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. The first fruits of those who have died.”
“First fruits.” The “first fruits” are the very beginning of a season’s harvest. Here Paul’s saying that Christ’s resurrection is just the beginning. It’s just the beginning of a greater yield to come. It’s the tip of the iceberg. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we’ve received a revelation, a call from the future. In him, we see get a glimpse, a foretaste, a sneak preview, of the eternal destiny that belongs to all of us. In it we see that thread running back through billions of years of history, and forward past the horizon of infinity.
In his book, Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life, the Catholic theologian John Haught writes about the immense suffering, death, and loss that’s taken place over the billions of years of history and the process of evolution. So many creatures, great and small, mass extinctions, countless instances of human suffering, war and abuse. If this is all there is, Haught says, history, and human life, by extension has no meaning. “Our faith is in vain,” as Paul says. But if there’s some sort of a consummation, some sort of an end point, an eternal destiny, then nothing is in vain, because nothing is ultimately lost.
“The power of God,” he writes. “The power of God to redeem all of life from death can be justified not by intellectual effort but only by trust in the love and fidelity of God made manifest in Jesus Christ. But, if as Jesus promised, the hairs of our head are numbered, and if, as the psalmist earlier proclaimed, all our tears flow into God’s flask, then somehow every perishing life and every past event is preserved eternally in God.[i]”
Though all of life comes to an end, past, present, and future are all knit together by a love that can not be vanquished by anything, not even death. Meaning that life’s not just a series of events, some joyful, some painful, a journey that turns to the dust with the death of the sun. But it’s a journey that’s heading somewhere.
A couple months ago, my wife, Cheyenne, was driving in the car with Bram, our five year old son. And kids, of course, come out with strange questions, sometimes morbid ones. His strange question on this drive was this: “Will you get a tombstone shaped like me when I die?” I mean, not just “will you get a tombstone,” but one shaped like him. I think you call it a monument at that point. Talk about ego.
But Cheyenne then told him that she probably wouldn’t have anything to do with choosing his tombstone. It probably wouldn’t happen for a long time, but she said that she’d probably die before him. So no say over his grave markings.
He said, “oh, okay.” And then was quiet for a bit. Then he started up again. “Where are you going to bury me, Mummy?”
And she reminded him. Again, “I probably won’t have anything to do with that, because I'll probably die before you.”
“But,” he said. “But sometimes kids die before in accidents.”
“That’s true,” she said. “And that would make me so so sad. I don’t even really want to think about it. The only thing that would make it a little okay would be...” and just as she was about to finish that sentence, he finished it for her.
“That God would be loving me and taking care of me?”
“Yes,” she said. “That God would be loving you and taking care of you.”
And that, really, is the promise of the gospel. Not that there’s a place called heaven. Not just that there’s life after death. But that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have beheld the love at the heart of the cosmos. A love that is so great, so powerful, so overwhelming that death can not, will not ever shake us, or anything from its grasp.
It will not immediately erase the ache of death, and the suffering of this life. But it gives us hope. Hope that can make it “a little okay.” Because every single moment, every single action, every single relationship matters in the end, because it’s part of the greater story of God’s grace. That all of our hurt and pain, and every single life and every single loss will one day be healed and redeemed, every tear wiped away, every trace of darkness in us burned away by the fire of God’s mercy.
Brothers and sisters. If Christ hasn’t been raised, we are still in our sins. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then those who have died have perished forever. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then this world as it is is all we can ever hope for. But if Christ has been raised. If Christ is the first fruits of resurrection, of New Creation, then this life is not only a journey. It’s a journey fixed toward the most beautiful destination: the eternity of God’s never ending love.
May we hold steadfast to this good news. And hope in the Lord whose day will come, the dawn of “making all things new.”
[i] John F. Haught, Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 106.