A sermon by Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
If Christ was not raised, your faith has nothing in it. What would have been the point of my suffering at Ephesus? If it is for this life only that Christ has given us hope, we are of all people most miserable. Those who have died within Christ’s fellowship are utterly lost. But the truth is, Christ was raised to life. So in Christ all will be brought to life. O Death, where is your sting? Thanks be to God! He gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Have you heard the General Motors On-Star ads. A woman is in the middle of nowhere and an emergency arises. She pushes her On-Star button and there is an immediate answer from the heavens via satellite phone. Locked out? We’ll unlock your car right now over the air waves. Flat tire? We know exactly who to call and they will be there as fast as the tow truck can get there, and, by the way, we also know exactly what tire you have on that car so there will be an exact replacement. Need directions anywhere, doesn’t matter whether it’s a restaurant or a hospital, just stay on the line and we’ll tell you when and where to turn. Even in the smallest way your future is in good hands.
Now there is a GM of a God for you. Always at the ready to reach down from the ether, focus on just you and your needs, protect you, guide you and take care of you. That’s the God they really wanted back then. “If he is the Messiah of God, let him come down from that cross and save himself, and not incidentally all of us as well.” And instinctively isn’t that what we would like of him also. What’s the point of a God, if he does not rearrange our world a bit to our advantage, reward us for our efforts to live upright. How often have I heard it in the face of some premature dying? “Such a good person. How could God let this happen?”
So the first thing to be said on this bright Easter morning, is that the GM God is not the God we get in Jesus of Nazareth. This is why they were not disposed to believe that he had survived death. In this over psychologized age, some of the intellectual elite suggest that the resurrection was simply wish fulfillment on the part of his friends. They could not tolerate the thought that he had gone down in defeat and death. So they willed him alive again. But that is not at all fair to the story.
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As English scholar N.T. Wright puts it, “They knew as well as we do that things like that just don’t happen. When people died they stayed dead in first-century Palestine just as much as in the technological twentieth century. Jesus’ followers weren’t expecting him to die in the first place; when he did, they certainly weren’t expecting him to rise again. Yet they say, loud and clear, that that was what had happened. He had gone through death and out the other side, into a new mode of human existence.
The stories they tell about meeting him are mostly quite breathless and artless. They are mostly much more like quick eyewitness sketches, with the detail not even tidied up, than like carefully drawn portraits. All the accounts suggest that the early Christians were as puzzled by this as we still are. But they are all quite clear that it happened. It wasn’t a corporate hallucination. It wasn’t a grief-induced fantasy. It wasn’t just a matter of him living on in their memory. It was for real.”
So the story of this day works this way. It is not something you can prove operating out of a dispassionate objectivity. It is only something that can be embraced in all its craziness and then lived from in our days here. In faith we can dare to live as if it were true, and when we do we find it changes everything else. If we start with trust in the story, we discover that all sorts of good things happen to us by way of health and courage and hope, by way of renewed enthusiasm for this life. The certainty of the story rests in how it changes life here and now as we give ourselves over to it.
First of all, it changes the face of suffering. (Suffering like that of the Good Friday cross.) The suffering of Jesus was not unusual. Crosses were all over the place. The cross epitomized the pains and agonies of life in that kind of world. Did I say that kind of world? Read Bosnia. Read Iraq. Read your morning paper. The suffering of Jesus was not unusual, and everybody knew what it meant. It meant the absence of a God who cared one wit.
Isn’t this almost instinctual. Life sails along. All is right with the world, our personal world at least. Then out of nowhere accident or disease strikes and we find ourselves shut-in. Shut out, really, from life. And we do wonder where God is. Why does he let this happen to me? We experience suffering as the absence of God.
So did they. His friends had hoped right up to the last minute that God was with him, on his side, would use him to lift the yoke of the Roman occupation, turn the corner toward prosperity and future. Argued right up to the last minute about who would have what seats in the cabinet of the new regime. But God had let Jesus down and no less them. And nothing about their mindset even remotely suggested that something else was going on there on that hill far away.
So the experiences of him alive again beyond the grave, once they got over their astonishment, worked a Copernican revolution in their heads. What had appeared three days before as the absence of their God, desertion by God, now looked entirely different. They saw it. The truth that right there in that suffering and pain on Golgotha, the Almighty was powerfully present in love, sharing the miseries of human life, granting this Jesus the strength to go through it without losing faith.
So the resurrection changes the face of suffering. It does not say that God delivers us from suffering in this life. And that’s a hard word for a people dedicated to pain avoidance, dedicated to the highest possible level of pleasure, comfort and security. But the word says that when it does come, the struggle, the failure, the misery and pain, as it surely does to all of us, God is there to take us through it. He shares our suffering and so changes its face. “I can face whatever comes, through Him who gives me strength,” writes the Apostle.
Trevor Beeson stood at the high altar of Westminster Abbey to celebrate the marriage of his daughter, Catharine, to Anthony, aged twenty-three. Nine months later he stood before the same altar for Anthony’s funeral, who was killed when his car ran into a wall in East London. Four months later, Trevor returned to the altar beside the coffin of his friend and hero Earl Mountbatten, who died when his fishing boat was blown to pieces by Irish terrorists. Reflecting on the experience, he said he could not blame God for these senseless tragedies.
He wrote: “I should find it impossible to believe in, and worship, a God who arranged for the great servants of the community to be blown up on their holidays and who deliberately turned a young man’s car into a brick wall. This is not the God of love whose ways are revealed in the Bible and supremely in the life of Jesus Christ.
“There are two insights that helped me to cope with this tragedy and to look beyond it. The first is that, although God is not responsible for causing tragedy, he is not a detached observer of our suffering. On the contrary, he is immersed in it with us, sharing to the full our particular grief and pain. This is the fundamental significance of the cross.
Second, although we naturally ask, “Why did it happen?”, I have discovered that the more important question is “What are we going to make of it?” Every tragedy contains within it the seeds of resurrection. This is, after all, the whole point of our pilgrimage through Lent, to Good Friday, and Easter morning. What does Jesus offer when we experience this kind of suffering? The power of God to hold us firm, to give us strength, and to see us through.
It changes the face of suffering for us in this life. And it changes the face of death. As a reality death remains. Each of us will have to deal with it one day. But in the light of the resurrection, it ceases to be the spector it was. The sting has been withdrawn, the sting of fear and uncertainty.
Dr. Jerome Groopman, of Harvard Medical School, relates his experiences with the dying, in a new volume entitled The Anatomy of Hope. In it he speaks of Barbara, to whom he had to break the news that he knew of no medicines he could give her that would help her. “We sat in heavy silence. Barbara shook her head. ‘No, Jerry,’ she said to him. ‘You do have something to give. You have the medicine of friendship.’
The next day when I visited, Barbara’s minister was there. He stood and introduced himself as Bill Babcock and then began to excuse himself. ‘Stay,’ Barbara said in a voice that left no room for disagreement. ‘Dr.Groopman is here on a social visit, like you.’ ‘I can come back later,’ I said. ‘Three’s hardly a crowd,’ Barbara said in the same definitive tone. ‘Anyway, we weren’t discussing state secrets— just the hymns I want sung at my funeral.’
Her voice was even. She could have said they were discussing the menu for next week’s church supper. I sat down as did Reverend Babcock. ‘The eulogies must be limited to five minutes, not a minute more,’ Barbara said. ‘If there is one thing I cannot abide, it is those endless droning eulogies, heaping on praise and not mentioning the juicy sins everyone really wants to hear.’ Reverend Babcock shook his head in mock dismay.
For months she had sustained a determined spirit. Now that she knew the grim reality of her condition, I had expected to see a change. But she seemed undeterred. I wondered if it would prove to be a façade that would ultimately crack. Or was it actually possible to subsume fear and face death with such equanimity? The idea left me dumbfounded.
‘Are you afraid,’ I asked her one other evening as the last rays of the sun were waning. ‘You know, not really, not as much as I thought I might be.’ I moved my chair closer to her bed. ‘Why do you think that is?’ ‘I’m not entirely sure. I have strange comforting thoughts.’ Barbara shifted onto her side so she could face me ‘When the fear starts to creep up on me, I conjure the idea that millions and millions of people have passed away before me, and millions more will pass away after I do. Then I think: my parents each died. I guess they all did it, so can I.’ She paused, ‘As Ecclesiastes says, everything has its season — a time to be born and a time to die. And as a Christian, I believe in a hereafter, that we return to God. What form that takes no one can really say.’ Barbara grinned. ‘It’s not like I’m expecting to get on the up escalator and be delivered to paradise. Or find angels there playing harps. I was never one for airy music anyway.'”
And so out of the conviction of this day that death is not destruction, that it has no victory over us, we too may find the strength when it comes to deal with it with such courage and equanimity. It has a new face for us here and now.
The word of this day changes for us the face of suffering. The word of this day changes for us the face of death.
This day changes for us the face of those we love, and those we ought to love. When in the light of this story I look into the face of wife, or mother, or children, or grandchildren or friend, or even those in need I am tempted to pass by, I realize that I am dealing with relationships that have eternity written upon them. I am dealing with forever. It seems to me that those who live only for the fleeting days we enjoy here for a time, cannot avoid a certain melancholy as the years fly by and one by one the friends disappear. As the poet, Thomas Moore, wrote, “When I remember the friends so link’d together I’ve seen around me fall like leaves in wintry weather, I feel like one alone some banquet hall deserted, Whose lights are fled, Whose garlands dead, And all but he departed.”
I believe in the Resurrection because I believe in the love I’ve seen in Jesus on the cross. There I know that God is love, and I also know that I, with a much less perfect love, want to keep alive those whom I love. So I do not let my friends die; I work to keep them alive in my memory and in my heart long after I have stopped seeing them. For whatever reason God allows a world where a man dies jogging in the prime of life and a woman dies in a crash on the way to visit her family. But I believe -–if I did not believe this, I would not believe in a loving God – that God is not satisfied with such a situation. God will not let death win. As the years fly by, I lose friend after friend. Above all else, Easter is the promise that someday I will get my friends back.”
My fantasy is that it will be like a international flight bringing me home to O’Hare’s terminal 5. At first there is that long weary tunnel into the airport, equally long halls. But this time there will be no one at the pass controls and no baggage on the belts. Then I will walk the green lane and those automatic doors will open. And I will walk into not a bunch of strangers all looking past me, but a host of friends, boyhood buddies, colleagues, coaches, professors, cousins, the whole extended family. And Jesus saying with a smile, “Welcome Home.” And my Dad there too, saying, “I hope you brought some pictures.”
Fred Buechner sits in church and reflects, “At the altar, the overweight parson is doing something or other with the bread as his assistant stands by with the wine. In the pews, the congregation sits more or less patiently waiting to get into the act. The church is quiet. Outside, a bird starts singing. It’s nothing special, only a handful of notes angling out in different directions. Then a pause. Then a trill or two. A chirp. It is just warming up for the business of the day, but it is enough. The parson and his assistant and the usual scattering of senior citizens, parents, teenagers are not alone in whatever they think they’re doing.
“Maybe that is what the bird is there to remind them of. In its own slapdash way the bird has a part in it too. Not to mention “Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven” if the prayer book is to be believed. Maybe we should believe it. Angels and Archangels. Cherubim and seraphim. They are all in the act together. It must be a little like the great “sound and light” at Versailles when all the fountains are turned on at once and the night is ablaze with fireworks. It must sound a little like the last movement of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony or the Atlantic in a gale. ”
And “all the company of heaven” means everybody we ever loved and lost, including the ones we didn’t know we loved until we lost them, or didn’t love at all. It means people we never heard of. It means everybody who ever did – or at some unimaginable time in the future ever will – come together at something like this place in search of something like what is offered here.
Whatever the other reasons we have for coming to such a place, if we come also to give each other our love and to give God our love, then together with Gabriel and Michael, and the fat parson, and Sebastian pierced with arrows, and the old lady whose teeth don’t fit, and Teresa in her ecstasy, we are the communion of saints – together forever. And then we will sing hallelujah. Let’s practice.
Copyright 2004, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.