Collect for Trinity I
O GOD, you have assured the human family of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Saviour.
Deliver us from the death of sin and raise us to new life in him, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
1 Kings 17, Vv 8 - 24
Galatians 1, Vv 11 - 24
St Luke 7, Vv 11 - 17
A common theme running through our Propers, our readings, this morning is that of resurrection. The word ‘resurrection’ is often thought only to apply to Jesus on Easter Day, yet the word, which come from the same root as ‘resurge’ simply means, ‘to come back to life again’. Yes, Jesus was resurrected from the tomb on the third day, he did rise from the dead, and his resurrection was unique in one regard. All others in our scriptural accounts who were resurrected, died again, at the end of whatever life they had left. Jesus died once and did not die again – he sits at the right hand of his heavenly Father waiting to welcome to his kingdom those who believe in him.
Our first lesson told us about Elijah the Tishbite, one of the towering figures in the Old Testament. He was the first and perhaps the greatest of all the prophets and lived about 1,000 years before the birth of Christ. Had we heard the earlier verses of the chapter we would have learned that this was a time of famine. Elijah had been told by God to hide himself in the Cherith Wadi, to the east of the River Jordan. By doing so he would have access to the very last of the water supplies. If you know anything about desert life you will know that hiding in a wadi can be a very dangerous practice because they can be subjected to flash floods from rain that may have fallen many miles away. Yet, that was what God commanded him to do. Then we heard God’s next instruction, ‘Go now to Zarephaph’. Here, he was told, a widow would feed him and give him something to drink. We heard the story of the jar of meal that miraculously could never be emptied and the jug that always contained cooking oil. Through Elijah’s visit the widow and her household survived the drought and its attendant hardships.
However, a greater miracle was soon to be seen. The son of the widow became ill and we were told, ‘his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him’. The widow said to Elijah, ‘What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!’ This is a very interesting sentence. The widow was not blaming Elijah for the death of her son, she did, after all, refer to his as, ‘O man of God’. Nor did she think that her son’s death had been caused because she had sinned against God. The words, ‘bring my sins to remembrance,’ do not have the same meaning as her simply remembering her sins. There is an element of what is meant by the Greek word anamnesis. The widow was not just remembering her sins, she was bringing them into a current reality; she was beset with them as though they were part of her present existence. We get the same use of the word anamnesis in the Eucharist when the celebrant refers to Christ’s Words of Institution, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. The words and actions from that long-ago Last Supper are given special meaning and actuality in today’s world; in today’s church; in today’s here-and-now.
Elijah took charge of matters. He carried the lifeless body of the child up into his chamber and, after praying to God, laid himself upon the body three times. Did he, by this action, give the child what we today call CPR, cardio-pulmonary resuscitation? Did he administer the kiss-of-life? Unfortunately we don’t have the details. All we are told is that, ‘the life of the child came into him again, and he revived’. It is interesting to note that, having already called Elijah, ‘O man of God,’ when she has her son restored to her, she said, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God’.
In the Epistle to the Christian Churches in Galatia, Saint Paul was keen to explain his resurrection. His was not a resurrection from the dead, the sort we have come to expect. Paul’s was a resurrection, a resurgence, from an old life to a new one. In this epistle he doesn’t give the details of his conversion on the Damascus road. However, he does explain how, in an earlier life, as it were, he had persecuted the Christian Church. He said, ‘I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors’. Then God revealed his Son to him. Paul makes it quite clear that this revelation did not come through human contact. ‘I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.’ As Jesus is known to have done, from our readings of the gospels, Paul sojourned in the wilderness; in Paul’s case, in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and Syria, as we now call those countries. Thus his resurrection, his new life, encompassed him and he became perhaps the greatest of the apostles.
Saint Luke gives us a wonderful picture of Jesus’ visit to a town called Nain. Nain was a few miles south and west of Capernaum, where Jesus had just recently healed the centurion’s servant. As the disciples approached the town gate a funeral cortege was emerging. Our Lord stopped and observed the level of grief in the widow’s face. She had lost her only son. This might sound tragic enough, no one should have to bury their children, but in those ancient times the widow’s very existence would have depended almost completely on her son; for support, finance and sustenance. Jesus had compassion on her and said to her, ‘do not weep’. This was probably not easy for Jesus to say. We have no way of comparing the chronology of the events, but Saint John tells us of the death of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany. When Jesus heard of the death of Lazarus he wept. It used to be a common Sunday School quiz question: ‘What is the shortest verse in the Bible?’ In most translations this is Saint John, chapter eleven, verse thirty-five – just two words; ‘Jesus wept’. Yes, Jesus knew all about sorrow and bereavement and weeping. We are told that he stepped forward and touched the bier; the bearers stood still. I don’t know how funerals were conducted in first century Palestine. There was almost certainly no coffin or casket, as we see today in western countries. The corpse was wrapped in cloth before burial. We have some evidence of this from the narratives of the burial of Lazarus, and of Jesus in the sepulchre of Joseph of Arimathea. Jesus said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.
So we have another instance of resurrection, certainly paralleling that effected by Elijah. The town of Nain, which is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible, no longer exists, except for the ruins of an old church and some ancient tombs. It is interesting to note that Nain was just a few miles from the town of Shunem. It was at Shunem that Elisha, who was, you will remember, Elijah’s protégé and successor, brought the son of Gehazi back to life. In that story we are given every detail of the procedures that Elisha used. I won’t go through them now, but they were much more involved than those used by Jesus a thousand years later in Nain. If you wish, you can read the account in the Second Book of the Kings. Just to give you a brief insight, Elisha concluded his ministrations by sneezing seven times, after which the child opened his eyes.
The raising to life of the son of the widow of Nain was a much more public event, it probably took place before the whole town. We were told that, ‘Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favourably on his people!”’ This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. If Saint Luke’s account can be relied upon for its chronological accuracy, and he did say in his opening verses that it could, then this miracle by Jesus at Nain caused John the Baptist to send two of his disciples to ask Jesus, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ But, that’s a scriptural passage for us to consider on another occasion.
What can we usefully learn about these resurrection stories? How, if at all, do they affect us today? We don’t have Jesus in the flesh, or the apostles who succeeded him, walking round raising our dead to life again. Yet, I am sure that there are many instances, perhaps in hospital A&E departments, where life is restored to those who, but for the ministrations of medical experts, would be counted as dead. Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation is now a vital tool in the treatment of young and old alike. Who knows how many it has brought back from the dead? However, the important point for us to remember is that God holds the power of life and death. Life was and is given to all creatures, from the single cell amoeba to the complex creatures of the animal kingdom, by and through the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit. When God withdraws that life force, they and we die. As the author of the Book of Job tells us, ‘If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust’. And, as Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, in a passage used as one of the so-called Sentences in the Prayer Book Burial Service, ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’.
Unlike the characters of which we have heard, we may not die and be resurrected in this life but we shall die and we have a faith that tells us that we shall be resurrected in the next life. In a few minutes, in the Nicene Creed, we shall say, ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come’. We must be grateful to the evangelists and others who have given us their accounts of extraordinary resurrection stories, so preparing us for that miraculous event which will, one day, be ours.
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