March 31, 2002
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women
took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They
found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they
entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they
were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that
gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the
women bowed down with their faces to the ground. But the men
said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?
He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he
was still with you in Galilee, 'The Son of Man must be delivered
into the hands of sinful men, be crucified, and on the third day be
raised again.'" Then they remembered his words.
When they came back from the tomb, they told all these
things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene,
Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who
told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women,
because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however,
got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen
lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself
what had happened. (Luke 24:1-12)
Reading from Swedenborg
Nothing flows into us from the Lord but what is good, and nothing
from hell but what is evil. So the Lord is constantly leading us
out of evil and toward good, while hell is constantly leading us
into evil. Unless we were in between, we would have neither
thought nor intention, much less any freedom of choice. We have
all these gifts because of the balance of good and evil. So if the
Lord were to turn away, and we were left to our own evil, we
would no longer be human. (Heaven and Hell #546)
I call heaven and earth to record against you this day that I have set
before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life, so
that both you and your descendants may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19)
In the early church, Easter was the principal festival—Christmas
came along later. There is a reason for this. What had launched
the disciples on their missions was not Jesus’ birth but his resurrection.
What had formed their own faith was not stories about
Mary and Joseph, about the shepherds and the wise men, but
their own experience with their master. The crucifixion had shaken
that faith to the core. The resurrection had lifted it to a whole
new level. It transformed the disciples from a stunned and bewildered
band into passionate bearers of the gospel—the good news.
The good news was not simply that Christ was risen. That had
been good news to the disciples, but it would mean little to people
who had never known Jesus before the crucifixion. The good
news that affected them directly was the news of the forgiveness of
sins; of the kingdom of heaven.
The good news was not that death had been overcome. As
someone has observed, the death rate remained constant at one
hundred percent. The good news was that death need not be
feared. It was deliverance from preoccupation with death, freedom
to focus on living in a new way. This would be the experience
of the convert, equivalent to the disciples’ experience of the
resurrection. This would be the living presence of the Lord in the
convert’s life. This is what the convert would celebrate at Easter.
It is intriguing to see a parallel to this in our own times. There
are more and more people who have had what we call “near death
experiences”; people who have, by most definitions, actually died,
and have returned to life. By the testimony of the vast majority of
them, they do not tend to think a great deal about their immortality.
They no longer fear death, but they have no particular longing for it, either. The biggest change is in their view of life here and
now. Having encountered a being who understands them through
and through and loves them effortlessly and without reserve, they
now see their own lives in terms of their love and understanding.
They have met in person what our theology tries to tell us about:
the marriage of the good and the true, of love and wisdom. And
that has become, in gospel terms, the pearl of great price.
This is another way of expressing the gospel that the apostles
carried. It is the core of the Lord’s teaching. He was constantly
trying to stir his disciples’ minds into action, and their hearts into
compassion. It was not enough simply to tell them to love each
other. There are too many different ideas about what love is. He
needed to tell them to love each other as he had loved them.
By his behavior, by the way he treated them and everyone he
encountered, he defined love. There was nothing particularly sentimental
about it; nothing spineless or self-effacing. This love had
courage and clarity, firmness of purpose, and extraordinary sensitivity.
This love was capable of the ultimate self-sacrifice, but
without any trace of martyr complex. This love listened to others
with full attentiveness, and responded in unexpected ways. It
could work miracles, it could tell stones, it could weep. It was so
human that it gave new depth and definition to the very word
“human,” saying to each of us, “This is what you are intended to
be. Love each other as I have loved you.”
What we are talking about is the spiritual sense of the Easter
story. Very simply put, love is spiritual life, and lack of love is spiritual
death. The Lord was able to rise from the grave physically
because he had so completely overcome death spiritually. By
becoming love itself, he had become life itself.
It would seem obvious that he did not come to deliver us from
physical death. There have been profoundly devoted Christian
souls, who gave of themselves with a completeness and generosity
that puts the rest of us to shame. They have died just as surely as
everyone else. The difference is that while they were alive, they were wonderfully alive. We need have no doubt as to their ongoing
life in the spiritual world, any more than we need doubt our own.
But that is not the point. We are not talking about time and eternity;
we are talking about quality, here and now.
Some years ago, an elderly member of one of our churches was
prevailed upon by her doctor to move from the house she had
lived in all her married life into a nursing home. From a medical
point of view, this was the only thing to do. She was nearing ninety,
had been widowed for a number of years, lived alone, and was
having more and more trouble taking care of herself.
She died within months of the move, essentially from depression.
What made sense from a medical point of view was spiritual
nonsense. From a spiritual point of view, the purpose of the move
was not to prolong her life, it was to prolong her days. In effect,
she was asked to exchange a short span of time in the surroundings
she loved for a longer span of time in surroundings that were
without meaning for her. It is certainly arguable that six months
of contentment is better than any number of years of depression.
As soon as we take seriously the teaching that life is essentially
love, we move out of the numbers game—counting how many
years we can eke out—and become engaged with questions of
quality. We can have some effect on the numbers; we can take care
of ourselves or not, for example. But we have no choice whatever
as to the ultimate outcome. To the materialist, the commandment
to “choose life” makes no sense at all.
We have a great deal to say, though, about life in its spiritual
sense. Whatever our circumstances may be, we have choices as to
how we will respond. Basically, we can try to make things better,
or we can try to advance our own interests. These two agendas are
often, though not always, in conflict with each other; and the
ever-present question is which we will put first. It is a question we
face in favorable and unfavorable circumstances alike.
For people in truly oppressive circumstances, this may seem a
harsh doctrine—and it should not be lightly or callously asserted. We must not minimize the difficulties that face people from abusive
homes or people in abject poverty, for example.
But Victor Frankl’s testimony carries immense conviction. He
was a Jew who survived a Nazi concentration camp. There can
hardly be more cruel and dehumanizing situations than this; there
could hardly be less freedom; yet his observation was that his fellow
prisoners were still making fundamental choices. Some were
wallowing in self-pity or hatred, some were conniving for their
own survival, while some were trying to be as helpful as they
could to other sufferers. They knew that they could face the gas
chamber any day. Yet it was still possible to “choose life”—and
some did. Perhaps all a person could do might be to murmur a
word or offer a glance of concern; but to choose to do that apparently
little thing carried profound meaning.
On a much less dramatic scale, it is significant that recent
decades have seen a burgeoning of “support groups.” These are
groups of people facing similar difficulties. They work because
people can gain through their trials a kind of understanding that
comes in no other way. Yet it is obvious that not all people do gain
from their trials. Some become bitter and alienated. Clearly, the
circumstances alone have not made people wise, nor have they
made them bitter. The pivotal difference has been in the response
to the circumstances—in the choice of life or death.
In a way that Deuteronomy does not obviously intend, this
choice between life and death is literally a choice between blessing
and cursing. Do we choose to use our lives to bless others, or to
curse them? What are we looking for as we start each day? What
are we looking for as we meet the people we live and work with?
There is bound to be some self-concern. Times when we do
not care about being thought well of are few and far between. But
again, the formative choices come when that desire impels us to
shade the truth in our favor. Then there are times when our
patience wears thin, or when the well of our sympathy seems to
run dry; when we want to indulge ourselves in the pleasures of self-righteousness, or simply distance ourselves from someone in
need. How do we choose to respond? And even more importantly,
how honest are we with ourselves? There are clear indications in
our theology that we do ourselves more damage by our rationalizations
of our sins than by the sins themselves.
If we look closely, we will discover that we rationalize our sins,
that we make excuses for ourselves, because we are afraid of condemnation.
In a strange and ultimately self-defeating way, we try
to avoid the curse by convincing ourselves that it is a blessing. As
one writer put it, we say “evil, be thou my good.” It is a line that
could have come from Swedenborg’s pen. He expressed the same
thought by saying that whatever we love, we call good.
If the primary reason for our rationalizations is fear of condemnation,
the gospel strikes at the root of the problem. The gospel
is the good news of forgiveness; the news that whatever we
may think of ourselves, the Lord loves us in the very practical
sense of wanting to bless us. This is the same Lord who knows us
far better than we know ourselves—far better than we can ever
know ourselves. Not only is there no point to rationalizing, there
is no reason to rationalize. Ultimately, we are not deceiving anyone
In the incarnation, the Lord met life as we do. He saw things
as we see them, felt them as we feel them. This is central to our
view of life, of scripture, and of the Divine. In the kinds of circumstances
we meet, and in fact under trials greater than we can
imagine, he chose life. The crucifixion is the great symbol of
everything a heartless world can inflict on us; and the resurrection
is the great symbol of the Lord’s choice of life.
He came to preserve our ability to make that same choice. In
the Sermon on the Mount, he told us that he had not come to
destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. He fulfilled
them by filling them with new meaning, by taking anyone who
would follow to a new depth of understanding. The outward
forms of the law and the prophets—the words themselves—remained constant. They now became vehicles of what our theology
calls a spiritual sense; of spiritual meaning.
Imagine for a moment that it is the risen Christ who speaks
the words from Deuteronomy that are our text: “I call heaven and
earth to record against you this day that I have set before you life
and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life....” Now
they refer not so much to the behavioral laws of Sinai as to the law
of love. The Lord’s whole life was the word made flesh, the law
and the prophets lived out on their deepest level. That life provided
us with a definition of life, and by contrast with a definition of
death. It provided us with a matchless image of blessing, and by
contrast with a chilling definition of cursing. Now, especially at
Easter, he calls us to choose life. Amen.
Thank you, O Lord our Savior, Jesus Christ, for choosing life
when all the forces of death in the universe were arrayed against
you. When all the evil of hell was bent on destroying you—on
destroying your love and wisdom; on destroying your life-giving
power—you defeated them by choosing spiritual life over death,
eternal blessing over cursing. As we celebrate your resurrection,
the ultimate expression of your choice for life, may we also be
inspired to choose life. Inspire us to choose life and blessing by
living with love, understanding, and kindness toward all. Amen.
Rev. Dr. George Dole