Monday, February 25, 2019

Sermon: “An Apocalypse of the Non-Zombie Variety”, Luke 6:27-38/1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50 (February 24, 2019)


Although most, if not all, of us are familiar with the term “apocalypse”, I would venture to guess that fewer of us actually know what it means. Many people assume that “apocalypse” means “end of the world”, and it usually has a pretty violent, catastrophic connotation. While a part of this understanding comes from the apocalyptic literature in our own tradition (like the books of Revelation and Daniel, for example), I’d argue that we have Hollywood to thank for the vast majority of what we think we know about apocalypses. We’ve been particularly informed by the “Zombie Apocalypse” genre of film and television. 

The concept of zombies has been around for centuries, but it’s had a surge in popularity during the latter half of the 20th century with movies like “Dawn of the Dead” and T.V. shows like “The Walking Dead”. We’ve even had zombies in the news lately, as the CDC announces that a “Zombie Deer Disease” (officially called “Chronic Wasting Disease”) could eventually affect humans. This news has prompted many a tongue-in-cheek social media declaration (at least in my circles) that “the zombie apocalypse is nigh.” Clearly, our collective subconscious has zombies on the brain.

Of course, deer population excluded, we know that zombies are fictional creatures, so why do they have such a firm grip on our psyche? Why are they so much more terrifying to us than, say, werewolves or vampires (who, in the young adult genre at least, seem to have been recast as romantic leads these days)? My guess is that it’s because zombies play on our fear of death and decay—things that, in our experience, are both very real and inevitable. We’re afraid of death, but we’re also terrified of what immortality might actually look like. After all, in our observation of human bodies, we only ever see them breaking down and deteriorating; with the exception of short-term healing, the general trajectory of flesh is one of decay. Hence, zombies: when we try to imagine what resurrection would be like, the best we can come up with is a sort of reanimated body that continues to decay until it falls apart completely. Understandably terrifying.

Although they didn’t have access to zombie movies, I suspect that the church in Corinth would have been equally—if not more—concerned about this. Without vaccines and modern medicine, bodily decay was a constant, visible fact of life for them. Disease and early death could strike at any time, and recovery was less common than it is today. When Paul preached that Christ had conquered death through his resurrection, it must have been a great relief to this community that had seen friends, family, loved ones, even children die in front of them…yet, how could they possibly fathom a bodily resurrection that would be anything other than horribly gruesome?

Paul’s epistle is evidence that this was very much on the collective minds of the church in Corinth. Although we only hear his half of the conversation, it’s pretty clear that they’re worried about something like an army of the undead rising up upon Christ’s return—which sounds pretty scary to me, too, to be honest. But Paul responds that this isn’t the case at all. He reassures them (and us) that God’s resurrection doesn’t merely revive what was before, like jump-starting an aging car motor to get it limping along again. No, the resurrection that God brings isn’t a zombie apocalypse, but an apocalypse of complete and utter transformation.

Here, I suppose, is where I should share what the word “apocalypse” really means. It comes from a Greek word that literally means “an uncovering”. While we usually think of an apocalypse as a terrible, cataclysmic event, in reality, it refers to the uncovering and revealing of God’s true Kingdom and God’s ultimate plan for creation. Yes, it involves destruction, in that the old world will fall away and die, but as Paul reminds us here, it also involves re-creation through total transformation. It’s when we’ll finally be able to understand God’s sacred vision perfectly.

So really, a zombie apocalypse isn’t an apocalypse at all, properly speaking. Instead of uncovering a truer reality, it twists the reality that we already know into something broken and incomplete. We think of zombies as “undead” instead of living again because theirs is only a partial regeneration at best. The body is reanimated, but in a degenerated form. The “spirit” is nothing more than a functional spark; it’s not capable of the love and compassion and choice that God created us for. But the resurrected bodies and spirits that will be revealed at God’s apocalypse will be different; they’ll be better than anything we can possibly imagine, better than our earthly bodies ever were, even at their best. They won’t be subject to the decay of the physical world but will be whole and uncorruptible, just as the risen Christ was. What God has done in Jesus’ resurrection and will do upon Christ’s return is wholly different than anything Hollywood has ever dreamed up.

Now, I said, “What God will do,” but honestly, that’s an incomplete understanding of God’s apocalypse. The truth is, the revealing of God’s Kingdom isn’t something that’ll happen at some undefined moment in the future, but something that happens over time—in fact, it’s already started! God is doing the work of transformation right this very moment, but because it’s gradual, it’s often difficult for us to perceive it. It’s no mistake that Paul chose to use the metaphor of a seed to describe apocalyptic resurrection. Being a Christian is being planted as a seed, dying to the old life, and slowly growing into the person that God intends for you to be—body, mind, and spirit. The ONLY part of a life of faith that’s instantaneous is our salvation…and that’s our starting point, not our completion. It’s the planting of the seed, and the promise that it will grow.

If, then, God intends (and has indeed already begun) a total transformation of humanity in this non-zombie apocalypse, we can’t put all our hope in our future resurrection bodies. That would be both shortsighted and lazy. We need to pay attention to how God is working RIGHT NOW to transform our WHOLE selves. We may not know how to prepare ourselves for the spiritual bodies that Paul talks about, but we can certainly contribute to the resurrection of our minds and spirits. If we’re going to be an entirely new creation in Christ, then there’s no time like the present to begin.

The first step is to figure out what we DON’T want to become. Just as we don’t want to be physical zombies (whose bodies are a shadow of what they could be) we don’t want to be spiritual zombies, either. A spiritual zombie goes through the motions of compassion and forgiveness but doesn’t truly embody them. A spiritual zombie might mimic reconciliation while internally grumbling about how unfair it is. A spiritual zombie passively tolerates evil in the name of coexistence instead of seeking and pursuing good for the sake of community. A spiritual zombie embodies relationships that are stagnant and rotting instead of embracing ones that are life-giving and grounded in love.

In “The Sermon on the Plain” in Luke, Jesus goes to great lengths to explain what a RESURRECTED spirit might look like: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. THIS is what it looks like to be “children of the Most High”; THIS is what God’s true intention is for us; THIS is the sort of spirit that the divine apocalypse promises. And the good news is that we can work towards fostering this spirit within us, we can contribute to the bringing about of the (non-zombie) apocalypse even now. God is at work transforming us from the inside out, but we need to participate in BEING transformed. We don’t have to wait for Christ’s return; we can start taking part God’s complete transformation today!

And yet…we’re not very good at it, are we? We all know that even the very best, most committed among us don’t get this right every time. Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, don’t judge…this is NOT easy stuff. That’s because our transformation is still underway. The apocalypse may be imminent, but we’re not on the other side of it yet. And as I told the kids in the children’s message, these things take PRACTICE before they truly transform and become a part of us. Spiritual transformation is a long, hard process, and we can become discouraged when it doesn’t happen immediately. But remember, we’re seeds that have been planted and are slowly but steadily growing. The transformation requires patience, determination, and time.

We won’t just wake up one day and find that we love our enemies without effort and give away the shirt off our back without a thought. For us to participate in our transformation, we need to take it one step at a time. Maybe start by just trying to be aware of the moments that you DON’T live by the golden rule. Observe the times that you struggle the most. Then, once you recognize it more easily, try pushing yourself to react in a different way, knowing that it won’t always work. Try a “fake it ‘til you make it” approach. These “in-between” stages may feel weird, unnatural, and artificial…but it’s better to feel like a temporary spiritual zombie than to be permanently spiritually dead. Eventually, with practice and through the Grace of God, you’ll begin to feel the transformation taking hold. You’ll begin to feel the beautiful resurrected spirit that God is revealing within you. And the Kingdom of God will have come just a little bit closer.

As we begin to better understand how God transforms our spirits and our bodies—our whole selves—we can see exactly why this apocalypse thing might not be such a bad idea after all. A divine apocalypse is different from a zombie apocalypse in all of the best possible ways. Where a zombie apocalypse is a perversion of life, God’s apocalypse brings about life that’s perfect and complete. Where zombies are basically recycled bodies, resurrection bodies are a transformation into something entirely new and wonderful. Where a zombie virus pandemic would leave us feeling powerless and afraid, the revelation of God’s Perfect Will will leave us feeling empowered and whole. Where armies of the undead beget more death, agents of God’s new kingdom beget life everlasting. Hollywood’s version of an apocalypse may make for exciting cinema, but God’s version sounds much better to me. So now that we understand a little bit better…why don’t we spread the word? Why don’t we share with others the vision that God has for all of us for all eternity? Why don’t we do our part to begin the transformation? Let’s be the apocalypse we want to see in the world, and let’s start working on it now. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment