30. Dead and Alive
How often have we heard those tremendous words read at the funerals of our loved ones! I myself, as a minister, have recited them scores of times, walking with the casket bearers up the aisle of a church, or standing in a funeral parlor. But I have never felt quite right about doing so. Whom am I supposed to be addressing? Are these words meant for the dead body, the corpse? Am I saying to it: "If you believe in Jesus, you will come to life again?" Of course not! That would be ridiculous! We know the corpse has begun to decay already. Am I, then, addressing the spirit or soul of the departed, telling him he will survive death if he believes in Jesus? How could he hear me, let alone believe in Jesus, if he were not surviving anyway?
There has been much confusion of thought on this matter of survival. Many people think that it was our Lord's resurrection from the dead which assured us eternal life. "Because He lives, we shall live also." The implication seems to be that nobody survived death before that first Easter Sunday when Jesus rose from the sepulcher. And, since belief in Jesus is supposed to be a prerequisite of survival, one must suppose that there is no eternal life for Jews, Hindus or Buddhists! I cannot go along with that; it is unthinkable. Swedenborg's basic teaching on the future life is that everyone who has ever lived on earth since the Creation is alive today in the spiritual world. Neither the resurrection of Jesus, nor belief in Him, has had any bearing on this. Man is a spiritual being, and at death he merely puts off his physical body as a snake sloughs its skin, and continues to live in the spiritual body. Death is only a switch of consciousness from one plane to another, after which the physical body is discarded.. Even the most hard-boiled atheist, when he dies, "though he were dead, yet shall he live"; and so it has always been.
Evidently Jesus was speaking of another kind of life and death when He said He was the resurrection and the life, and that the man who believed in Jesus would never die. His words did not refer to physical life and death. They apply to us here and now, and are not really appropriate at all at a funeral service. Spiritually speaking, you may be dead already, or you may be alive. And, whether you are dead or alive as to your spirit, will depend very much upon your belief in Jesus Christ, and on His resurrection from the dead.
It certainly worked out like that with the disciples on that first Easter Sunday. Can you realize the amazing change which took place in them as a result of the resurrection? Think of the appalling horror of the crucifixion, and the disciples' guilt and misery when they found it had all taken place with only John out of the whole twelve of them present to witness it, the rest having run away and left their Master to his fate. Judas at least had had the courage to commit suicide. True, Judas had betrayed Jesus, but in a sense so had they all! What was there left to live for, anyway? Though alive as to their bodies, they were inwardly as dead as Judas, every one of them. They felt they would be dead men forever more. Spiritually dead.
But now comes the astonishing change. When Jesus appeared to them in the upper room on Easter Sunday evening, alive and well, more alive than they had ever seen Him before, radiating power, breathing on them with the Holy Spirit . . . their whole natures were transformed. Whereas before they had been baffled and defeated, now they were victorious. Then they had been weak, now they were strong. Then they had been followers, now they were leaders - of others. Whereas, before, the important thing to them had been, whether they would be first in the coming kingdom, now it was the Kingdom itself that mattered. Surely, Jesus was not the only one resurrected that Easter morning! His life poured into all those others who believed in Him, producing a corresponding change in them, so that they were able to go forth in His name, even working miracles as He had done, bringing the whole world to His feet.
How much greater and more spectacular was this change than the mere survival of someone's spirit after the death of the body! I don't see that survival after the death of the body is all that remarkable. Plato pointed out, four hundred years before Jesus was born, that the soul must survive the death of the body, because disease, or accidents, or the assassin's knife, which destroy the physical body, are physical only, and so cannot touch the soul. Therefore the soul, being undamaged, must continue as before. We piously speak of the deceased entering a "higher life," being "nearer to Jesus," and so on. But is that so? Death is only like peeling off the skin of a banana. If the banana is rotten before you skin it, it is rotten afterwards. Even worse, in fact; for the skin did kind of hold it together! The only real difference that physical death makes is to bring out hidden qualities. Whereas in this earthly life our real nature is often hidden under the skin, after death we appear in the other world as we really are. "There is nothing covered that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known."
In other words, if a person is spiritually dead before he departs this life, he will be spiritually dead in the life to come, and his state of deadness will go on developing and becoming more noisesome in hell. Whereas if he is spiritually alive here and now, he will become even more alive after the removal of his physical body, and increasingly so in heaven to eternity. The death of the body is like taking off one's jacket when one gets home, so that one can feel more free to be oneself. It effects no vital change, only a release. The Lord is Love itself and is continually striving to preserve the good that is in each one of us, in all men. The Good Shepherd is always seeking the lost sheep. Nevertheless, the principle holds - that we shall only enjoy the "abundance of life" that He came to give us, in the measure that we live it here on earth.
In the case of Jesus, the crucifixion stripped off His infirm humanity which He had inherited from His mother Mary, and released His Divinity, revealing Him as He really was: God in Human Form. We shall not be like that, since we are only finite. But, if we have regenerated on earth, death will release the angel within us, and we shall arise in resplendent spiritual bodies. We shall not have wings; we shall be human beings, not monster birds or batmen! - but we shall be able to soar without wings, and join others whose characters are like our own, in one of the regions of heaven.
The situation seems to be, then, that we must seek and achieve Life here and now. We must be resurrected here and now, rising from the tomb of dead and miserable states here in this earthly life, before we leave for the Great Beyond. This present world is the workshop where character is formed. If we don't develop heavenly qualities here and now, we shall not be able to pick them up in the world to come. If a watch won't keep good time when it leaves the factory, it never will.
Very well. How, then, are we to attain this spiritual life? Jesus said: "I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." The answer seems to be that we must believe in Jesus. But does this answer mean much? I have always believed in Jesus. Haven't you? The U.S.A. is a Christian country, which means that the majority of its inhabitants "believe in Jesus Christ." If you walked down Main Street and asked the first few people you met whether they believed in Jesus Christ, they would probably say yes. Oh yes! The disciples believed in Jesus, right from the beginning of their association with Him; but this did not prevent them from deserting Him when their own lives seemed to be in danger. You can believe intellectually in almost anything: in the North Pole, in George Washington or the Atomic Theory; but how does that help you when you are in real trouble?
There is scarcely a person I know who isn't in trouble of some sort. Life is short-changing them. They do not feel they are getting out of it what other people are, and what they deserve to get out of it. They feel inadequate because they cannot keep up with the pace of modern living. According to the TV, every man should be successful and every woman beautiful. We should own plush cars, have wall-to-wall carpeting and an electric toothbrush, and we should vacation in the Bahamas. Yet, whatever we own, we seem to be one step behind what other people have. Even our TV is only in black and white, whereas the programs, we are told, are brought to us in living color! How is it we cannot afford a color TV like the Jones next door? And what do we hear when we turn it on? All this drug taking. (Fill up my glass, will you dear?) and the kids smoking marijuana. (Pass the cigarettes, will you?) Agitators stirring up trouble; factory workers on strike, and the good-for-nothing poor on welfare; and those disgusting long-haired hippies - should be whipped! Oh yes, and pollution, that's the big thing now. With my asthma, I soon won't be able to breathe. Too many automobiles, that's the trouble; I can hardly find a parking place in town in the mornings. The factories belching out smoke - though, of course, we need the products they manufacture. All this building around our house, the district's going downhill. I could put things right, but nobody listens to me. What has Jesus Christ to do with it? Nothing at all!
My dear friend, if that is the kind of way our thinking goes, we are spiritually dead, and our God is dead too. We have nailed Him on the cross. Or we have let others nail Him on the cross, while we settle down in our comfortable arm chair. Sure, we believe in Jesus - He's up there on the cross! We believe in Him intellectually, but our affections are entirely focused on ourselves, and we judge everything by the way in which it affects ourselves. Only when we begin to listen to other people, and try to see things from their angle, and appreciate their needs and enter their agonies, shall we become really alive. And to do this we must be filled with the spirit and life of Jesus Christ. We must allow the treasures of heaven to take precedence for us over the baubles of the world.
Reality lies in God, not in the material world at all; nor can we receive God's living spirit unless we give ourselves out to others. Courage, fortitude, self-sacrifice, love: these are real, and they come to us from God. Who is God? Can we know Him? Not in His infinite Essence, except by analogies and symbols, such as were used in the old religions. But Jesus we can know. He is God in human form, accommodated to our perceptions and experience. We can learn from the example of His life on earth what our life should be. A life of outgoing love. Love even of enemies. Prayer for those who despitefully use you and persecute you, the people who get under your skin. A minimum of possessions. Spiritual poise and lightness of touch. Compassion for the poor and outcasts of society. Humor and joy. With these dynamic qualities, Jesus endured the agony of the cross, forgiving those who were torturing Him. (Forgiving us even!) So He rose triumphant from the tomb, with all power in heaven and on earth. He can give you as much of that power as you need and want, and are able to receive.
Do you believe in Jesus in this sense? Do you believe in Him sufficiently to devote your time, from now onwards, solely to the extension of His Kingdom, in whatever place and circumstance you happen to be? Do you believe in Him the way the disciples believed in Him after He had risen from the dead? It is fairly easy to believe in Jesus Christ crucified!; there's a kind of defeat there. But do you believe in Jesus Christ resurrected and glorified? With all power? THAT will transform you! That will bring you to life! Think of Him now, while you are reading this, so that today will be a turning point in your life, a conversion from which you will never turn back. From now on you can press right forward, with victories all the way. This can happen in any framework. You can come to life and begin living victoriously even if you are a cripple in a wheel chair, or penniless in a slum. In the early Christian Church, slaves did. They had "victorious living," by cooperating with the living Lord.
What are the evidences and fruits of victorious living? A serenity and gentleness, a basic stability, and a patience that is in no hurry for results. You are never thrown off balance, but can take things as they come. You can cope with difficulties and deal wisely with problems, because you will have a sound frame of reference, firm on underlying principles but flexible in their application. You will know what is more important, and what is less; what to press for, and where to yield. You will be broadly optimistic, recognizing God's power and knowing that the future is in His hands. You will be tolerant and liberal, not critical of others, not jealous or resentful, not easily hurt, uncomplaining, not taking yourself too seriously. Beyond everything I would say, you will have a New Orientation, no longer hinging around self and your possessions, but focused on the Lord. A New Self, resurrected from the old.
May this resurrection take place today. Your family and friends will notice a difference in you, and will wonder at it. They will look into the sepulcher of your old dead self, and an angel will tell them: "So and so is not here, he is risen!" (or, "she is risen!"). And you will be able to say, "I am risen indeed!"