Towards a Whole-Hearted Faith, Part 6 (Easter Sunday)

The resurrection of Jesus is proclaimed in the reading from Mark chapter sixteen, verses one through eight.  Listen for God’s good word to us.  [Mark 16:1-8]

So this rabbi, priest and Presbyterian pastor go on a road trip together and sadly get in a crash and find themselves at the Pearly Gates.  St. Peter greets them and assures them they’re all “in,” but before that he wants them to assess their lives by answering a simple question.  When you’re lying in the open casket, what do you want the people paying their respects to say about you? What do you want to hear?   The rabbi responded “He made a difference in the world.”  The priest answered, “He sacrificed so much for the good of others.”  And the Presbyterian pastor said, “Hey look, he’s moving!”

Happy Easter.  A day of rising, a day that changes mourning into dancing, a day for skeptics to become believers, a day when even death becomes a joke.  Nothing is more important to Christian faith than the resurrection….

…and nothing strains credibility more than the idea of a dead man coming back to life; the heart that had stopped beginning to beat again by Divine CPR.   Who can believe it, with even a smattering of biological knowledge? Of the many questions directed to me over decades of ministry, none is asked more often (and more poignantly) than Will the dead live again?

We’re in good company.  The biblical account of Jesus’ resurrection raises more questions than it answers.   There are no triumphant alleluias, no glad sighs of relief in “all’s well that ends well.”   That first Easter was shrouded in anxiety and doubt. Even news delivered by angels that he had been “raised” mainly produced shocked disbelief that strangled speech.   This can’t be true!

Fear not, questioning friends!  The hope of Easter lies not in the denial of death, or searching for a way around it. Even if that Presbyterian pastor was reanimated straight out of his coffin, he would eventually die.   Death waits for us all, and to be astonished by this day means first of all, to acknowledge that reality…

…and then laugh in its face.

What??!  That may sound like the ultimate blasphemy in the face of dead Palestinian children or your own departed loved one whose absence is a sharp, unrelenting ache.  Death is no laughing matter.  But I wonder if we have sometimes misunderstood the meaning of resurrection and its power to rewrite the script of our lives and the life of the world.

Jesus’ resurrection is not a happy ending.  Those women, initially silenced by their fears, found their voices and told their truth to the despairing disciples.  They returned to the upper room, where they had gathered that last time to break bread with their Teacher, remembering, grieving. . . and in ways we cannot explain rationally, Jesus met them there.  They were as certain of his presence as they ever had been.  Experiencing the peace beyond human comprehension he conferred upon each of them.  Sharing a meal and conversation as they had so many times before.

But even then the music doesn’t swell and the scene fade out.  Because Jesus didn’t stay with them.   He came to assure them of his living presence. . . and before he left, to commission them to continue the work he’d started.  To proclaim the life God intends for all people, now and forever.  To demonstrate the Love which prevails against the powers of this world.   Oh, no, the resurrection is not a happy ending.  It’s not an ending at all!  Instead, Jesus’ empty grave signals the inauguration of a new community of redeemed and resurrected people.

The life Jesus lived on earth: welcoming the outcast, serving the poor, loving one’s enemies, generously sharing wealth, healing broken bodies and souls, reconciling relationships—-what Jesus demonstrated so richly, had become the path ahead.  His love –that not even death could destroy—had become the rule above any other.  It became possible.   The disciples were gripped by the knowledge that they could do this hard thing:  to rise with their Teacher and live as he had lived.

I picture the dawning of that realization as a deep, full-throated, belly laugh.  Not a nervous titter, or an awkward, self-conscious giggle, but the laughter of liberation from fear.  Be joyful, poet Wendell Berry advises, even though you have considered all the facts.  Easter invites laughter —not profane or mocking, but wholehearted, even spiritual laughter, because it testifies to something greater than the facts.  The deep truth that God is love.  Made in God’s image, we are love.  And love, my friends, endures forever. Not even the gates of hell can prevail against such love.

Which makes the path ahead very different from other options.  Now we understand that life is more than survival; we can spend our lives on a purpose greater than self- preservation.  We can see the world’s brokenness —  our wars and violence, greed and hoarding, divisions and meanness—not as inevitable, but contingent.   That’s not to downplay its destructive consequences, and tragic outcomes.

But it is to respond to human suffering with something other than despair.  The power of resurrection gives us courage to trust that love will overcome the powers of death.  And resurrection strengthens       us. . . to love, beyond anything we can imagine on our own.  To find our voices and tell the truth. Not to look away from the faces of suffering children in Gaza/Israel, Ukraine/Russia, Haiti and Sudan, at our southern border and in our city streets, but to see them with eyes that have gazed into a tomb that is empty of its power . . . and get to work.  Repairing.  Restoring.  Reconciling.  Practicing resurrection.

Wherever we encounter death:  be it in the heartbreak of a beloved’s passing or the death of the life we’d planned for ourselves, we will mourn and grieve.  But Easter speaks to the very depths of our being that it is not the end:  Not the end of our love.  Not the end of our life.  Trust in the rising.  Look for the rising.

As the pastor of a mainline congregation I spend considerable time thinking about the death of the church as predicted by pundits of all perspectives, from those who cite its irrelevance and those who point out its hypocrisy and judgmentalism, to others convinced we’ve lost our soul to radical inclusion or centering the least and last among us. I’m not untroubled by these conversations, but they don’t make me afraid.

Congregations change and flex in response to needs of neighbor and world.  Some may even wither and close.  But the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead will do the same with the Church, despite our flaws and failures.  This Church doesn’t belong to me or even us—it’s Christ’s Church.  Ten years ago I could barely imagine our building transformed into a community center for service beyond the sanctuary, as a home for non-profit mission partnerships, as accessible space for all kinds of musical performance.

Yet–guided by a singular vision of putting God’s love into action, through prayerful planning and sacrificial giving, the deep talent and resilient faith of the Central community, all of it animated by the grace of God—-here we are.  Rising to new life and new opportunities to demonstrate God’s love to one another, our neighbors and the world.

I love resurrection as a metaphor, but I have struggled with it as a literal reality.  Will the dead live?   Easter does not provide answers to all our questions, but invites us to keep asking …and to stay open to where the risen Jesus may show up. I have been a bit hesitant to share one particular experience that has helped me grieve my personal losses with hope. I make no claim that it was a vision directly from God, or that it “proves” anything, but it illumined—and continues to illumine—my dark and painful times.

You never knew my dad, a pastor who served for 20 years at the Presbyterian Church in Yuma, Colorado.  My dad was a big man, tall and husky with a booming bass voice, who spoke with great authority and passion about his beliefs and perspectives.  And how he did love to argue…er, discuss ..theology!  Especially with his kids, to make sure we were learning the way, the truth and the life correctly, according to him.

He rejoiced when I discerned a call into ministry, but he was also worried that my theology might lead congregations astray. The debates continued.  We hadn’t really worked out all our issues when he died, following heart bypass surgery, at age 63.   The congregation I was serving at the time was comforting, but I was hurting.  On the night before Easter I had a dream.  In that dream, my dad appeared, walking toward me (I knew it was my dad because he was wearing the brown leisure suit he favored and that fairly horrified me).  There he stood, looking straight at me, and before I could say anything, threw back his head, and began to laugh.

No words.  No lecture. No authoritative pronouncements.  Just… laughter.  Laughter that rolled away the stone for me.

Christ is risen.  Christ is risen indeed!

And thanks be to God, we are rising too.