Working Ourselves to Death
April 24, 2011
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed 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, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
The implications of the Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection are some of the most written-about subjects in Christian theology. The studies range from abstract theological analysis to focused practical lessons. With a host of different concepts and ideas to choose from, most anyone can pick a description of these two events that is meaningful to them. This is one of the reasons the Christian church has fragmented into so many different groups—after all, the significance of Easter is at the core of any denomination’s theological identity.
As I was thinking about all these approaches, I was struck by their historical nature. After all, they are talking about an event that we as Christians believe to be an historical one. Yet most Christians, I believe, see Easter as more than a memorial of a past event. There is an immediacy to Easter. There is something special that Easter has to offer us today! Today, we not only memorialize the Resurrection but also celebrate change, birth, rebirth, and growth. Easter bunnies and eggs, along with pastel colors, remind us of the potential and hope in the future. It truly is an incredible time.
But here is my problem: if Scripture promises us that we are going to receive the gift of newness and transformation from the Lord, we must also somehow partake of the whole story, not just the end reward. When we read Scripture, we always want to make ourselves the one who is healed, a disciple, or an injured party. But what if we are not playing that role? What if, for example, we are playing the role of the Pharisee? What if we put the proper order—the law, the doctrines—before our love of the Lord and our love of the neighbor? Then what is our role?
Even if we are not playing the Pharisee, what if we chose the disciple whom Jesus loved? What if we choose Peter? Even then, significant problems arise— the disciples don’t come off looking so perfect either. Only if we identify ourselves as Christ in the Easter story do we walk away clean, and let me tell you, it is hard to read this text and identify with Jesus! Jesus, as we are told at the beginning of the Gospel of John, is the Word, the Word that became flesh. In this church, the Word is more than a bunch of laws to live by; the Word is the rule of love with lessons that help us live the love we are meant to give.
If the Word is the Divine, that means we must identify with other characters in the story. Throughout this past week, Holy Week, people remembered the specific trials and difficulties the Lord had to undergo as a part of this Easter story. Rather than go into the specifics of the trials and torture Jesus suffered, I will just say that the Lord was defiled.
Here is the crux of the matter: if the act of redemption and resurrection is currently occurring, as we believe it is, so must be the brutal treatment of the Lord. This story is not just a moment lost in time, but like the rest of the Bible is a story that has immediate relevance to our lives. If the Lord is the Word, we must in some way be permitting or aiding in the defilement of the Word.
I am pretty sure that everyone, in some way or another, has done or is doing something to injure God. Assuming that we somehow participate in this Easter story, we are most likely closer to being one of the disciples than not. We most resemble those who wanted to be faithful and to help the Lord, but fell short of the mark. I believe that if the majority of people realized they were defiling the Word, they would want to stop.
I believe that most people are just like those people standing at the tomb in our reading for today—standing at the grave of Jesus and not seeing anything there. They are unsure of what to believe. “Are we at the right tomb?” “Was his grave robbed?” “Did the Romans take the body to be desecrated further?” The other night, as we were talking about the current reading-group book, we were discussing how sensory and physical we as people are. As a whole, we humans need to touch, taste, smell, feel, or hear in order to believe something is true.
This is a modern condition, however. The ancients knew things existed that were real but were not sensory-experience-based—not measurable with the five senses. Often treated as superstition, these beliefs were pushed out the door with the Enlightenment. Yet the ancients were not stupid, nor were they living in a false world. They often understood the difference between physical causality and deeper spiritual causality, but they knew there was more than the physical to be encountered.
Our story today asks us, “Why do you look for living among the dead?” We have been taught and told that the Lord is with us, among us, yet we do not perceive him. But what does it mean for us to be looking among the dead?
Some people try to argue that “the dead” is historicism or nostalgia. If we look at the past and trust the past, they say, we are bogging ourselves down with old stuff. The old ways, old clothes, old music, and traditional approaches to things are all lifeless. It is a bunch of stuff we are holding on to but have forgotten the meaning of. We have grown beyond all this stuff’s original intention.
Other people look to the past for meaning and life and accuse those who look to the future for meaning and life of abandoning true meaning. Modern ways, new clothing, new music, and radical new approaches to things confuse and anger them. They find joy in the subtle complexities of the past and have a connection with them. The new ways seem lifeless, random, self-referential.
Finally, others seek the Now moment (which as far as I can tell tries to capture at least five years ahead and thirty behind). The future and the past in isolation are pretty much meaningless to them. They attempt to stay current and find their joys and seek their life in the averages of the two, which is probably where I am at most of the time.
The fact of the matter is, the person who looks to the past is facing the tomb and looking in. The one who looks to the future is in the tomb facing out. And I would guess the guy in the Now moment is staring at the doorjamb. But none of these people are really doing anything different from one another. They are all seeking the living among the dead.
Past, future, and present are not places where God is going to be found; they are all equally vehicles for the Lord’s presence. That is, they are vehicles for the Lord’s presence if we are actually each willing to knock, seek, and ask for the Lord in each one of those locations. You see, resurrection and redemption have occurred, are occurring, and will occur.
The desecration of the Word that Jesus decries in the gospels was not a question of good moral laws being absent. Rather, he was upset by the fact that the religious laws were being used for personal profit and gain, as well as lifeless codes followed by rote. Written truths were present, but when the love had been removed from them, they were simply falsity. There were books full of laws to help people live a good life, but the Lord felt people needed to understand their deeper purpose. They needed to see an act of love in order to find the life in the laws that were already present.
I would bet that each one of us, including myself, even after hearing it in the Scriptures, even after I preach on it, still has a tendency at points to use rules and laws for self-gain, or at least to avoid being charitable to those who do not want to follow what we think are the right rules and laws.
Easter is a time for us to remember that the Lord is found in love and charity. We have all the knowledge we can muster. We don’t really need to worry about collecting facts and ideas about what is—we each have that to such a degree that we have inevitably hurt one another with our skillfully wielded facts— but truth, truth needs humility and love. Yet giving oneself over to potential hurt and ego bruising is very difficult, and we often do not have a map or a toolbox to assist us.
But today, on Easter Sunday, we are reminded of the consequences of our actions. We are reminded of how much effort we can put into working for righteousness, only to be looking among the dead. Yet no matter how we defile or hurt God, the Divine can take it. The Lord and the Word cannot be killed. The Easter story, like all of the other stories in the Bible, is constantly being taught and retaught, each time in the hope that someone new will hear the story and grow or transform because of it. Each telling is not static repetition, but increases and enriches the message, creating a fullness that will eventually lead to an abundance of heavenly communities.
At this high point of the Christian year, we can each rest assured, knowing that we are loved, that God seeks to make each one of us full and whole, and most importantly, that the risen Lord is not found in a competition of righteousness. It is a personal experience within each one of us, as we realize that the things of this world are dead and that only the higher, more powerful love is life. It is when we realize that the Lord is not in his grave, and we say, as we do on every Communion Sunday, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
Christ is risen from the dead: trampling down death by death; and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. Thou didst go down into the grave, O Immortal One, yet thou didst put down the power of hell and didst rise a conqueror, O Christ our God: thou spakest clearly to the myrrh-bearing women, Rejoice; thou didst bestow peace upon thine apostles, and to the fallen hast thou brought resurrection.
Rev. Kevin K. Baxter