By Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
“First and foremost, I handed on to you the tradition I had received: that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried; that he was raised to life on the third day, and that he appeared to Peter, and afterwards to the twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred of our brothers at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, and afterwards to all the apostles. Last of all he appeared to me too.” So the apostle in I Corinthians, chapter 15.
I just read you one of the earliest accounts of the resurrection, far older than those of the four Gospels. Paul wrote the letter around 54 AD, around twenty years after the death of Jesus. Now, twenty years is not a long time. When I was a kid I thought it was forever. Now I know it is just the blink of an eye.
But Paul is passing on an account he insists he got from the early Christian community in Jerusalem where it all happened. And there is only one occasion where he could have received their story, a visit two to three years after the event. So within three years after the event, there is a courageous band of believers in Jerusalem, prepared to swear to the death that they met this Jesus of Nazareth beyond the grave at least five different times, two of them individual encounters, two of them by a dozen or so, and once in a company of 500.
Here is a story that ought to stand our hair on end, an account of something beyond our wildest dreams, confirming the hunches and intuitions of human beings of all places and times. It affirms the drive for justice and love and meaning which is part of any real human existence. It makes some sense out of this whole show we call life. The cruelty, the injustice, the brutality of Dachau and the Gulag and Sadam Hussein, and accidents and cancer and Alzheimers are still there to be agonized about and wept over, even as was that cross of his, epitomizing all that is wretched and evil about life in this world.
The story does not eliminate any of this, but it does give us a whole new perspective from which to view all this. For it says that the terrors and tyrants of this world do not have the last word. Nor do the diseases and disasters. God and life have the last word.
Is it so implausible that the God of this incredible universe, who loved his creation, should at an appropriate time give us a glimpse, however fleeting, into the reality of His world? For the Apostle the problem rests with the idea that this life and world is all there can be. If so, that means, he writes, that he is a liar, and those early Christians were willing to collude and die for a hoax, and Christianity is born of a massive delusion, and life and love and justice have no ultimate meaning, and the brutes and thugs of this world will often make out infinitely better than many of the innocent and deserving, and there are no ultimate consequences for anything we humans decide to do. It means that talk of a God of love is basically nonsense.
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Where do you put heaven in this universe as we know it today? I don’t know. But there are astrophysicists now who talk about an infinite number of universes, or about a flip side to this universe. So it certainly sounds like there is space available. And for modern science the world is no longer the closed system we learned about in school. Of course, we who are caught in this world of space and time cannot possibly imagine life outside it, beyond it. We can only trust on the basis of the resurrection stories that it is real, as real as Jesus was to those early witnesses. Different, transformed, but real. The only answer I have to the question, “Where is my Dad?” is this: He is with Jesus.
But Paul’s word for this day is not so much an argument, as it is a reminder of what is at stake. Paul says here is the story and here is what you lose if you refuse to embrace it, live it. Perhaps the problem with this day is not so much in our heads as in our hearts. Maybe we hesitate before wholehearted belief, not so much because we have intellectual problems with it, but because it scares us no little bit. If we really trust it, surrender to it, live it, it will open up dimensions of hope and joy in this life that are in many ways unnerving, scary, demanding. It some ways it is quite frankly easier to remain neutral, agnostic. It is at least protection against disappointment and discouragement.
First of all, what a whole new sense of purpose the story imposes upon us. It turns emptiness into high meaning. The apostle writes, “Because God was so gracious, so very generous, here I am. And I’m not about to let his grace go to waste. Haven’t I worked hard trying to do more than any of the others? It was God giving me work to do, God giving me the energy to do it. Therefore, my friends, stand firm and immovable and work for the Lord always, work without limit, since you know now that your struggle and labor in the Lord is never in vain.”
Iona McLaughlin’s book, Triumph Over Tragedy, tells of her struggle to find purpose and meaning in life following the death of her daughter Jane and husband Pete and son Jack in an accident which also left her near death. The sequence of tragedy, as you can imagine, was overwhelming for her. Lying in her hospital room she wondered for what purpose she continued to live. She often wished for and prayed for death.
But there were people in her life who would not let her give in. Though she was some 1500 miles from home, they flew to her side.The day came when she was able to leave the hospital. But what could she do? For 20 years she had been a wife and mother. Now her husband, her 14-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son were gone. How do you so radically change from being wife and mother to being neither.
She went back to school to retrain. But there, among the cynicism of college students and professors, her faith in God began to falter. Maybe they were right. The universe was without reason or plan. Her despair led to thoughts of suicide. There would be no need to struggle any longer. The anniversary of the deaths for first Jane and then Pete and Jack were difficult milestones. It was the sudden unexpected memories which would shatter her the most. A note left in a forgotten book. A person walking down the street with the same gate as Peter.
The struggle with “Why?” was the most difficult struggle in her life. “Why would God take from her those people she loved most? Was God a capricious God who struck out by creating pain? It was a letter that had come to her from her minister that helped her begin to change her perspective. “God is as sad over this as you are. It is not God’s will that such things happen. But God’s will is for life to be lived to its fullness. We Christians believe in immortality. Whatever is commenced here will be completed there. Nothing is lost out of God’s care.”
For Iona, the final step in overcoming her tragedy was in moving beyond the “Why” to accepting that she was where she was and with God’s help and love she could love and move on to where God would have her be. She writes, “Whatever is, is: You cannot change it. Whatever has happened, has happened, and you cannot go back. The thing to do, wherever I am, is to do the very best I can and leave the rest to God. Put your hand in the hand of the God you know is there.
Life did go on for her. The despair and hopelessness of the difficult years never returned with the same power. She taught at the college. The years were fulfilling. The great learnings came. Through the grace of God and hope in him, she did live again, through the strength of what she came to call her Easter faith.
From emptiness to meaning. And from despair into hope. Hope not so much focused upon the rescue of my solitary soul beyond the grave. Hope in this old story is always communal hope, hope for reunion with those we have learned to love in this world and have lost for awhile. He writes, “If Christ was not raised, your faith has nothing to it … and it follows also that those who have died within our fellowship are utterly lost. If it is for this life only that Christ has given us hope, we of all people are most to be pitied… so in Christ will all be brought to life.”
Jesus’ picture of the future is the picture of a banquet, a grand party with everybody there. I confess the hymns I learned as a kid burned that picture into my head. “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.” “In the sweet bye and bye, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.” “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun.”
They may have lacked in musical taste, but any hope less than that they picture is not worthy of the story. I have always loved the account of Dr. Beck, who spent some years as a missionary doctor in La Paz, Bolivia. He returned finally to Northwestern University. Those who knew him witness that his was a faith in the ultimate victory of God over sickness and death that gave his labor meaning and power. It did lead to problems. He loved to sing the old hymns and one day the wife of a very prominent government official was waiting on the cart to go into surgery. Suddenly she heard Dr. Beck coming down the hall to do the job, belting out, “When the roll is called up yonder, we’ll be there.” After surgery she wrote a scalding letter to the administration, asking them to warn Dr. Beck that this was not an appropriate hymn to be singing as you are about to do surgery on someone.
But stop and think what it might mean to our relationships if we walk out of here truly believing that these are for eternity. If this story is true, we shall never come to the end of enjoying each other’s company. We will always find fresh occasions for joy. What a whole new perspective that imposes. What a call to take one another seriously, seek to faithfully love. The story turns emptiness into meaning, despair into great hope, and it turns fear into faith. One translation of Paul has him saying, “And why do you think I keep risking my neck in this dangerous work? I look death in the face practically every day I live. Do you think I could do this if I wasn’t convinced of your resurrection and mine as guaranteed by the resurrected Messiah Jesus.”
We have all read recently of how faith enabled one young woman to rise above fear and panic to save not only her own life but the lives of many. I refer, of course, to the story of Ashley Smith who was taken hostage by Brian Nichols, a rapist and murderer, at two o’clock in the morning. Andrew Sullivan writes of what happened between those two over the subsequent 13 hours in Time magazine. “These people weren’t saints. Grace arrives unannounced, in lives that least expect or deserve it.
Sullivan continues, I say that as a believer. The crimes Nichols is suspected of are inexcusable. The serenity of Smith is close to inexplicable. But the message of the Gospels is that God works with the crooked timber of human failure. That was an exceptional moment of redemption. But every day we have smaller, calmer chances to turn another’s life around, to serve, to listen How often do we simply not see what is in front of us? How often do we believe that the world’s evils – are beyond our capacity to change? Or that there is no one in front of us whom we can serve? Smith and Nichols’ story is a chastening reminder that we may be wrong.
There is a line in a Leonard Cohen song that has always stayed with me, Sullivan continues. It kept me going in a bleak moment in my life, when I thought, as we all sometimes do, that I couldn’t see how good could come out of the wreck I had turned my life into. “Forget your perfect offering,” Cohen advises. “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Happy Easter.
The story turns emptiness into purpose, despair into hope, and fear into faith. But finally as with Paul it sooner or later turns from argument into song. “Death is swallowed up; victory is won! O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting. Thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
To the degree we not only embrace the story in faith, but learn to truly sing it with full hearts, we learn to live already in a whole new way. Faith that the future is forever, raises life to whole new levels of vitality and courage and serenity and hope and joy right here, right now. Faith in the resurrection produces a life before death that has the ring of eternity about it.
He calls his friends back to faith in the resurrection, not because it will get them into heaven, but it will get heaven into them here and now. And this is always the ultimate test of faith and truth. What does it make of us now? How does it transform us and life now? Does it make us better off or worse off as human beings now? The story grants us a new perspective and a new power and a new peace in the face of death. And so we do sing.
At the close of the last century the notorious agnostic Robert Ingersoll died. When notices were sent out announcing the funeral services, for some reason they contained the brief sentence. “There will be no singing.”
Eugene Smith was a minister who never sang much because he didn’t have much of a voice and couldn’t read music. But one year his daughter persuaded him to sing along with the choir when it came to the Hallelujah chorus. And he really got caught up in the last part when they were singing all of those “Hallelujah’s” at the end. He said that as they were singing all of those Hallelujahs he got carried away. He loved to sing those Hallelujahs and he was just about to sing a couple of more when all of a sudden the choir stopped, the director stopped and the organ stopped. He said that they stopped too soon. He said, “Since that time I have been going around with a couple of Hallelujahs inside just waiting to get out.”
Well, let’s hope we all do.
Copyright 2005, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.