A Communion Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 23, November 11, 2001, dedicated to the loving memory of Ethel Shellenberger, and always to the glory of God!
Job 19:23-27 and Luke 20:27-38
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
My mother called at 5:15 last Tuesday evening. Ethel had died. Almost 92 years young, Ethel Shellenberger was a saint of Christ's church and one of the most important people in the formation of my life and faith. As the sun was setting on another glorious day of God's creation, one of God's most holy and sacred treasures was "graduated" (as Roy Burkhart liked to say) from this realm to the next, from earth unto eternal life.
Ethel was 49 years old when I was born. Single, never married, Ethel dedicated her life to the church. You could say she was a Bride of Christ and his Church. And she was always faithful to Him. In the late 1940's, she was one of the first women to serve on the national staff of the Evangelical and Reformed Church - and then later in the United Church of Christ. She worked with teens and young adults in a program known as Youth Caravans. These Caravan teams of teens and young college students from all across the country and all across the world - would spend summers traveling from one church to another, one town to another setting up and leading Vacation Bible School, leading worship and teaching Bible Studies. These teams embodied global diversity and the universal love of Christ generations before it became popular in the church to speak of diversity and inclusiveness. Out of this program, the first wave of ordained women leaders in our church was born in the 50's and 60's. Ethel was their director, their leader, their "Mother Superior."
A woman of small physical stature, Ethel had a faith and a prayer-life like none I have ever witnessed before. She was a well-read lay theologian, and a great teacher (as a woman in her mid 60's she taught my Church School class in junior high and high school) and later taught my parents class until at 88 years old she stepped down from her Sunday School calling.
She was an Environmentalist, a social activist, and she was Pennsylvania Dutch! One could say, that to be of true Pennsylvania Dutch descent, one needs to combine a firm faith with a hard head; a soft heart with a steel spine; and a smile which says to the recipient, "I love you, but you are wrong, if I say you are. And I am right, for God knows it is true." Ethel was Dutchy - through and through.
Last month I had a chance to say goodbye to Ethel when I returned home and visited her at the Wyncote Nursing Home. When we were visiting, she asked, "And how is Dr. Washington Gladden's Church these days?" She was quite proud that "her boy" had been called to serve you. A graceful, determined, wise, and socially- conscious child of God, and in her death I grieve deeply the passing of one I have loved my whole life long.
Like countless billions before her, Ethel has left this earthly, physical realm. Nevertheless (and we as people of faith live in the "Nevertheless"), I am sustained by the promise of resurrection to eternal life. It is my hope and my faith - and my deepest heartfelt prayer -- that Ethel has been raised to the realm of glory - to eternal life, light, and love with her Savior and the host of heavenly saints.
You may be surprised by the news I am about to share about resurrection and eternal life from the lips of our Savior. But, the passage I read from Luke's Gospel, 20:27-38 contains all that Jesus really had to say on the subject of resurrection. His words are contained in the final five verses of the passage:
"The children of this world would marry and are given to marriage, but those who are accounted worthy to attain that world and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry or are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore because they are equal to angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection . . . (for) God is not God of the dead but of the living, for all live to him." (Luke 20:34-36, 38).
You can search all four gospels and you will find no more teaching on resurrection by Jesus. While, through other texts of scripture written about Jesus, through the creeds and through centuries of theological reflection, we get stopped short or sidetracked by the role of the physical resurrection and resurrection of the dead - Jesus chose to de-emphasize both. Rather, as "God with Flesh On," Jesus jumped in and tested the waters for himself. He walked into the valley of the shadow of death and walked out of the other side of death!
Jesus surrendered life as we know it to those who needed to destroy His body and thus destroy God's Body of Incarnational evidence. They did it by killing him on a cross. Three days later, when those who loved him came to clean and perfume his dead body, they could not find him anywhere. When he finally showed up later, he showed up in full and complete bodily form. In the physicality of his Risen form, the Christ ate fish, broke bread, cooked breakfast, even walked and talked while traveling a few miles down the road to Emmaus. But, he also walked through locked doors and vanished when people were looking right at him. He was the same, but he was obviously different. He was physically there and yet spiritually, not there - a mystery - by both real and unreal measures.
Writing 55 years ago of the mystery of eternity entitled, The Eternal Now, Paul Tillich wrote:
It is our destiny and the destiny of everything in our world that we come to an end. Every end that we experience in nature and humankind speaks to us with a loud voice: you will also come to an end! It may reveal itself in the farewell to a place we have loved for a long time, the separation from the fellowship of intimate associates, the death of someone near to us. Or it may become apparent to us in the failure of a work that gave meaning to us, the end of a whole period of life, the approach of old age, or even the melancholy side of nature visible in autumn. All this tells us: you will also come to an end. (Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, NY, 1963, p. 122).
Paul Tillich continues that when we are shaken by this voice, we ask anxiously - what does this all mean? Coming from the darkness of the "not yet" and rushing toward the darkness of the "no more" we cry out in prayer with Augustine - what does this all mean? "And it is in the act of prayer that we are elevated to the eternal." (Ibid, pp. 122-123) "In fact," he continues, "there is no other way of judging time than to see it in the light of the eternal. In order to judge something, one must be partly within it, and partly out of it . . . But we become aware of the eternal to which we belong and from which we are estranged by the bondage of time" ( Ibid, p. 123).
Time runs toward an end. Many people - but not the people or writers of the Bible - speak loosely of the "hereafter" or "life after death." Even in the words of our liturgies we refer to eternity as "world without end." But, the world, by its very nature, has an end. In fact, the mystery of the future is answered by an eternity above time, not after time. I believe the greatest mystery of the future is the present truth that Eternal life begins now. The challenge of eternal life is to live - for God - fully in the now that we have been granted. If we are able to do this - and this one of the hardest things to do, by the way - we truly begin to experience eternity today.
Despite Paul Tillich's words, Jesus' words, and my words about living eternal life now, you may still choose to get your brain all tied up in knots trying to figure out physical resurrection vs. Metaphysical resurrection. But, I would encourage you to untie the knots and focus instead on God. When it all boils down to it, I think we will miss the point of our faith (or our lack of faith, as it may be) if we focus on our own beliefs about resurrection. I believe it is more helpful to see that Resurrection is not about our own faithfulness. Resurrection is a radical claim about the faithfulness of God, who will not abandon the bodies of his beloved. Remember the Son's words about the Father's faithfulness - "God is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all of them (those that have died to us) are alive!" (Luke 20:38). So while we, and the Sadducees in generations before us, get all tangled up in questions about marriage and who we will meet in heaven, Jesus returns us to the eternal now -- God of the Living!
While I grieve the death of Ethel in these days, and others of you among us grieve the deaths of your loved ones - I am reminded by the prayer of mourning from Judaism - "Remember the goodness of the person now deceased. And in the fullness of her memory, live her goodness for others!"
Perhaps if you and I made the choice to really Live today, to really Live in the Present, we would experience such fullness of joy, that we wouldn't know what to do with the energy of life which filled us!
As we come to the table of grace, we have Christ's Body and Blood; The Bread of Heaven, the Cup of Eternal Blessing to sustain us NOW! Let us drink deeply and eat fully of these simple blessings. I have, if you will "A Sixth Sense" about all of this. It is my sense, as we awaken, open our eyes, open our hearts, open our minds to the Eternal now - we will experience the Eternal Presence of Christ - now! His real presence, the body of Christ, the blood of Christ - calls us to partake and share. And so with saints and seers, and the host of angels, we say "Thanks be to God! Now and forevermore!" Amen.
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