St. Augustine’s Episcopal Parish, March 27, 2016
to that land on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.
I’ll fly away, O Glory! I’ll fly away (in the morning).
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away.
Songs like this are a part of the American experience from the underside, from the Southern poor and disenfranchised, and they point to a deep truth that Christianity offers to those who suffer—the truth that no matter how horrible life on earth is, God is faithful and holds our lives in love, a love that transcends our ability to fully see and experience it in the here and now.
“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” At first blush, songs like this that emphasize an escape from terrestrial hardship into realms of celestial peace and joy seem consistent with this quote from 1 Corinthians we heard this morning. We are to hope for something beyond “this life only,” and so the obvious place to deposit our hope, it seems, is in the afterlife. There’s “this life,” and there’s “that life,” after all, and never the twain shall meet. God lives peacefully with all God’s friends in “that life,” on some far celestial shore, while we duke it out for positions and possessions over here in “this life.”
Now, I know that the Gospel is good news for all of us, we who are still living and those who have died, but I wonder if this kind of hope is indeed an Easter hope. Is the Resurrection of Christ our ticket to a flight up and away from “this life” toward our final destination in “that life?” Is what we see in the risen Christ an assurance that the far celestial shore is real and that someday we can join him there?
I also wonder if there’s another way to read St. Paul’s language about “this life.” “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” What if “this life” refers not primarily to our biological life on planet Earth, but to the character of our life? Could it refer to the relational realities we inhabit? “This life” as the whole sprawling network of our relationships to positions and possessions, to structures and systems, to people near and far, to the natural world. If we have hoped in Christ only so that he might improve and eternally extend our life as we now live it, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But why is such hope pitiable? What’s wrong with thinking of the risen Christ as an additive for our life as we know it, like something we pour into our gas tank to boost performance and increase longevity, like a caffeinated herbal concoction that promises energy and vitality? Because, St. Paul writes, Christ has been raised not to enhance and extend, but to destroy “this life,” our relational status quo, and to create a radically new kind of life.
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, and not for the New Life Christ brings forth from the death of the status quo, we are of all people most to be pitied. So, I wonder if the distinction that Easter brings into sharp relief is not so much between “this life” and “that life” on some far celestial shore in which we get to keep living an improved version of “this life” for eternity, but between “this life” and the radically New Life of Resurrection.
This distinction seems to resonate with our Easter Gospel this morning. We heard St. John’s narrative about the Resurrection in which the disciple named Mary Magdalene plays a central role. We observe Mary throughout most of the story in a heightened state of distress and anxiety. She is weeping outside the tomb not for grief that Jesus is dead, but for the anguish she feels because his body is missing. The dead body of Jesus is what’s left of her relational connection to her Teacher and Lord, and she is consumed by her need to grasp and possess what remains of that connection. Mary is seeking to preserve what she can of “this life,” of the relational realities she inhabited before the awful events of Good Friday. Tied up and bound by attachments to her positions and possessions, she seeks to grasp some sad semblance of a status quo that is dead and gone.
“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” In this state anxious attachment, Mary is someone most to be pitied.
But then, the story goes, Jesus is there, and when he speaks her name, “Mary!” she realizes that her attachment to his dead body has been misplaced. And in that moment, just as she releases her desire to grasp and possess what is dead and gone, Jesus gives the gentle instruction, “Do not hold on to me,” and prevents her from forging a new attachment. Jesus is on the scene not so much as a representative of “that life” on God’s far celestial shore. Jesus appears to Mary in the radically New Life of the Resurrection, and that New Life cannot be contained or controlled or possessed. It belongs to God.
We see as well that God’s New Life, even though we can’t grasp it or possess it or control it, belongs to us already. Our life has always been and will always be caught up and held lovingly within that New Life. It does not live quietly in some alternate reality far away from our life on planet Earth. The New Life of the Resurrection bursts forth from the midst of hardship and death in this world, recreating the sprawling networks of our relationship to positions and possessions, to structures and systems, to people far and near, to the natural world. In the words of Isaiah, this is God creating “new heavens and a new earth.” This is relational wholeness and peace rising up from the very being of God and permeating a New Creation. We are at home in this New Life because we, through the death and Resurrection of Christ, are also brimming with the divine. We are sisters and brothers of Christ, joint heirs in God’s household and full beneficiaries of this New Easter World.
“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” So let us hope in Christ not for “this life” only. Let us hope in Christ for the New Life of Resurrection. And let us await “some glad morning when this life is o’er” not so that we can “fly away” “to God’s celestial shore,” but so that we may grow and flourish as full members of the New Creation rising from the very life of God in our midst now and for all eternity.