The Last Enemy
1 Corinthians 15:1-26
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
17 April 2022
“The last enemy to be defeated is death,” writes Saint Paul at the close of this proclamation of the resurrection. In all of his writings Paul viewed death as a malevolent power. Death was a force, often personified, which struck randomly and with abandon.
Seven years ago in my Easter sermon, I contrasted the ancient view of death with our own. I preached,
We do not share the ignorance of our forbearers that led to their fear of death as a malevolent power. Death is no longer such a mystery to us. We have a better grasp of biology and understand death as part of the life cycle of a biological organism. For many of us in the developed West, life itself is no longer "nasty, brutish, and short."
Those sentences felt right seven years ago. But they don’t feel quite right to me anymore. Six million people have died in the last two years of a novel coronavirus. We watch with horror the atrocities being committed in Ukrainian cities. We are more attuned to the violence in our own nation. Last year, 2021, was the deadliest in American history, it was just reported this week. So, I believe we now understand our ancient forebearers better, and why they viewed death as a malevolent force and not simply as a biological fact.
In the spring of 2020, before the pandemic, the economists Anne Case and Agnus Deaton released their book Deaths of Despair detailing how the United States was already in the midst of a epidemic of death. Our life expectancies were declining, after more than a century of dramatic increases. Why, in our advanced society, was death on the rise? The kinds of deaths on the increase were related to suicide, drug addiction, and alcohol abuse. These were self-inflicted, preventable deaths. And yet they were dramatically on the rise. Their book was an attempt to explore and explain this shocking phenomenon.
And what they identified was a rise in despair. These sorts of deaths followed from unhappiness, depression, a lack of meaningful work, a lack of purpose, feeling left out and left behind by society. They revealed that we have a serious social problem that we need to be aggressively addressing. Unfortunately this revelation came just as the world shut down for the pandemic and focused our attention elsewhere.
But their analysis is a wake-up call to us that we were already experiencing an epidemic of death, resulting from a epidemic of despair. And so we have been living through a shift in our society and now, I can’t say the same things about our understanding of death that I did seven years ago. Now I feel much closer to Saint Paul and the ancient writers of the Bible—death feels like a malevolent force, an enemy, and not simply a biological fact.
So I turn to ancient wisdom. Some of the most ancient wisdom we have—The Epic of Gilgamesh, that ancient Mesopotamian story that is in many ways the fountainhead of our literary tradition. The Epic of Gilgamesh deals profoundly with issues of death and grief.
Gilgamesh is the king of great-walled Uruk. His friend and companion is Enkidu. Together, they survive many dangerous adventures, only for Enkidu to die of some mysterious illness. And Gilgamesh's grief overwhelms him. He flees his city and his responsibilities and sets out on a journey around the world seeking immortality, an answer to the problem of death. A way to defeat this enemy.
Near the end of his journey, Gilgamesh finds Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim is the builder of the ark and the survivor of the great flood. His story pre-dates the account of Noah in Genesis, and many scholars think that the Noah story is simply the Israelite retelling of this even more ancient story.
When Utnapishtim sees Gilgamesh, he asks him why he looks so bad:
Why are your cheeks so hollow? Why is your face so ravaged, frost-chilled, and burnt by the desert sun? Why is there so much grief in your heart? Why are you worn out and ready to collapse, like someone who has been on a long, hard journey?
Then Gilgamesh answers in one of the great laments in world literature:
Shouldn't my cheeks be hollow, shouldn't my face be ravaged, frost-chilled, and burnt by the desert sun? Shouldn't my heart be filled with grief? Shouldn't I be worn out and ready to collapse? My friend, my brother, whom I loved so dearly, who accompanied me through every danger—Enkidu, my brother, whom I loved so dearly . . . the fate of humankind has overwhelmed him. For six days I would not let him be buried, thinking, "If my grief is violent enough, perhaps he will come back to life again." For six days and seven nights I mourned him, until a maggot fell out of his nose. Then I was frightened, I was terrified by death, and I set out to roam the wilderness. I cannot bear what happened to my friend—I cannot bear what happened to Enkidu—so I roam the wilderness in my grief. How can my mind have any rest? My beloved friend has turned into clay—my beloved Enkidu has turned into clay. And won't I too lie down in the dirt like him, and never rise again?
Utnapishtim responds to Gilgamesh, basically scolding him for his grief and lack of gratitude and then warning him that he must change his life:
You have worn yourself out through ceaseless striving, you have filled your muscles with pain and anguish. And what have you achieved but to bring yourself one day nearer to the end of your days?
Yes: the gods took Enkidu's life. But man's life is short, at any moment it can be snapped, like a reed in a canebrake. The handsome young man, the lovely young woman—in their prime, death comes and drags them away. . . . suddenly, savagely, death destroys us, all of us.
In this ancient story, we encounter death as the last enemy. Death as the malevolent power. The grief and anguish expressed by Gilgamesh, we understand. The descriptions are vivid and remain true of us in our sorrow. Their expressions of hope and longing for new life, resonate with us as well. I read these ancient words and they speak to me even more powerfully after our experiences of the last few years.
And, yet, Saint Paul tells us “The last enemy to be defeated is death.” Death has been defeated. Jesus the Christ died and rose again so that we might all rise again.
Jesus himself told us “I am the resurrection and the life.” We use those words to begin a Christian funeral service. And at the close of that service, when we commit a body to the ground, we pray this prayer:
In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our sister or brother, and we commit her to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless her and keep her, the Lord make his face to shine upon her and be gracious to her, the Lord lift up his countenance upon her and give her peace.
This year it seemed fitting that on Good Friday afternoon we had a funeral. For Mary Guin Knoll who died in February and wanted to wait for a spring funeral. Mary Guin was 99 ½ years old and our eldest member at the time of her death. Mary Guin was a school librarian, including at Bryan High School here in Omaha while some of our other members were students there. I loved one story that her son Jeff told about her on Friday. He said that every year when the list of most banned books was released, Mary Guin would doublecheck that all of them were in the school library and, if not, be sure to order them for her collection.
Mary Guin lived a long and good life, and over her death and burial these ancient Christian words were spoken. They were spoken because for us Christians, resurrection is our response to the power of death. We proclaim a greater power, and so death has no ultimate power over us. How can we comprehend this?
There are a couple of significant verbs in Paul’s opening remarks on resurrection. He declares:
Now I remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you also stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.
There is something revealing in this phrase, "which you in turn received." The Scottish theologian William Barclay says, we do not have to invent the gospel for ourselves. This good news is not something we have to discover. We don't have to be like Gilgamesh and travel around the world, striving and enduring hardship, searching for good news. The good news has been proclaimed to us, we only have to receive it.
We receive the good news because we have witnessed it enlivening other people. We have observed how the gospel changed someone's life. How a beloved mentor lived differently than other people because of their faith. How an acquaintance from church faced their impending death with courage and hope. How a catastrophic loss was faced with resilience and dignity. We believe the gospel to be true because we have witnessed its effects in the world. This is not belief in the abstract, in some intellectual sense. It is belief built out of our relationships with other people.
And we have learned that we do not lose community when we die. Ruth Robinson, my beloved kindergarten Sunday school teacher of whom I have often spoken, is long deceased. But because she played a significant role in the formation of my own faith, Ruth is here with us now. She continues to participate in the body of Christ, because of the faith I received from her. She continues to influence the world for good because of what she taught me that I now try to pass on to others.
And I’ve now taught many children and teenagers. Some of them are now in their thirties and have children of their own. Those young people, who will outlive me, already live lives changed by their encounter with the gospel. Long after my own death, I will continue to participate in their faith and witness. The little ones here in this congregation will be alive a century from now, hopefully remembering us and telling our stories.
Just as this morning, at the close of our Easter Sunrise Service, we gathered around the grave of the Rev. Reuben Gaylord, who founded this congregation in 1856. To honor his faith and legacy among us still.
We do not leave the body of Christ at our deaths, but continue to participate in the on-going life of the church. We share in ecstatic fellowship with our fellow Christians, including all who came before us and all who will come after us. The circle is unbroken. And the circle continues to grow, reaching out farther and farther, spreading our life and our influence. By participating in the life of Jesus, we are in communion with God and therefore with all of creation in an interrelated whole. When this perishable body ceases to function anymore, this life will go on.
This truth of the resurrection, this good news, is something in which we stand. That’s the other significant verb in Paul’s opening remarks. We stand, we hold firm. The good news we have received fills us with the hope . . . . and the courage . . . to live as Jesus lived.
Jesus lived a certain kind of life, which was very different from the way most people live. Jesus lived in solidarity with the poor and the outcast, and he challenged the powers which enslave people: Things like purity codes used to exclude those who are different. Religious practices that separated people from God rather than drawing them closer. Economic practices which robbed people of land and the ability to provide for themselves. Imperial policies which used violence to oppress.
So when the forces of domination crucified Jesus it was a challenge to the way Jesus had lived. It would have been easy to interpret that the life Jesus lived was a waste and, therefore, no model for how anyone else should live.
But that is not how Paul and the other apostles interpreted the crucifixion of Jesus. Instead, they saw the crucifixion itself as the moment which revealed God's victory and glory and love. Why was this?
Because they experienced Jesus as resurrected from the dead. And we may not fully understand this experience, but it was clearly very real to them.
And if God raised Jesus from the dead, then the life Jesus lived was vindicated. Which is the more important point. Jesus’ way of life received God's seal of approval. In other words, God was saying, "this is the sort of life I desire all humanity to live." This is the sort of life defeats the power of death.
Our Christian hope and our Christian faith is that if we stand firmly in the good news and live lives of justice, love, and peace, that we will not have lived in vain. That our lives are part of God's on-going victory over the powers of sin and death.
Which means that the more we live the kind of life God wants us to live--lives of justice, love, and peace—the more we participate in defeating death. Deaths of despair. Deaths from violence and war. The more we live with Christian faith and hope and love, the more those needless forms of death come to an end.
Death, the malevolent power, the last enemy, is defeated because we have learned to live life the way Jesus did.
I do not know what awaits us when we die. But I do know that my life has meaning. That it will continue on even after this body ceases to function. Why?
Because I have tried to live as Jesus lived. And I know from the story of the resurrection that such a life is not lived in vain.