This Lent I wondered how to say with conviction the Easter proclamation, “O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?”
Paul’s rhetorical question seemed all too real this year. We lost a pillar of the church, and a mentor to me, in an unexpected death. Then a beloved staff member and our organist choked while eating alone: one moment heating up leftover beef tenderloin and then, the next, gone.
We felt the sting of death this winter. It struck fast and without warning, a scorpion of grief, and our hearts still ache from the bite.
How can we sing with conviction and honesty, “I know my redeemer lives”?
I can’t sing it just by repeating the classic slogans of the church. Facing the hard horizon of death, I don’t find comfort in the churchy language of cherubim and seraphim, of God enthroned in splendor while angels play harps. Perhaps as your pastor I should have rehearsed images of God’s many mansions that await us or some detailed description of heavenly glory.
But too much has already been said about things we don’t know. Speculating on heaven doesn’t assuage my grief. But it can make me laugh. The Apostle Paul, in the same letter where he taunted the grave, suggested that in the resurrection we receive new bodies, not like our current ones. This led countless theologians to wonder about our new, spiritual bodies. Origen - a church father from modern-day Syria - was convinced that in the resurrection our bodies would be transformed into perfectly round spheres; heavenly bodies, angelic bowling balls. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to lose weight. I’ll be mad if I wake up in heaven with a Body Mass Index of 100. No, if God is good, then perhaps I’ll be transformed into a body like Captain America.
Origen tried to imagine our new bodies, but much of our tradition just transferred what we experience here on earth into heaven. So some say heaven is an unending banquet - the feast of eternity; everyone together in one big room. It sounds perfect for everyone -- except the introverts. You might like to network through eternity; but I’ll be longing for just a minute alone.
The problem with heaven as a long version of earthly life became clear to me when I thought about fashion. Are there trends in heaven? Fashion Week? I’m not trendy now, so will I be wearing last year’s styles forever? Or in heaven do I finally get to be a hipster? Will that mean a man bun through eternity?
Such speculation doesn’t bring peace to my heart.
Nor do I find comfort when people assign tragedy to the will of God. William Sloan Coffin, once the pastor of Riverside Church, spoke of this during a eulogy for his son Alex. Coffin’s twenty-four year old son died as the result of a traffic accident; a devastating tragedy. Driving during a terrible storm, his car hurtled off the road and into the water.
Many people tried to comfort William Sloan Coffin. Flowers arrived with caring notes. Friends brought food. One person, as she dropped off something for the family, muttered to herself, “I just don’t understand the will of God.”
William Sloan Coffin reacted immediately, “I’ll say you don’t, lady!” He spoke with that quick anger which can come from the grieving heart but also out of deep conviction about God.
The woman had spoken as if death must be the end, as if it were the final logic, and therefore a divine truth. But Coffin knew the unbound love of God. As he explained,
“The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘it is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
William Sloan Coffin spoke so much more truth than any speculation about heaven or God’s plans. I may not know much about heaven, but I’m sure God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break this winter.
Such knowledge comes from the Easter discovery. Of course at first the women on Easter morning didn’t know how to sing “I know my redeemer lives.” Their hearts broke to see Jesus’ sacred head wounded; shock and horror filled them. The Psalm promised, “Grief may spend the night but joy comes with the morning.” But on that Easter morning the women found grief still lingered with them. Laden with more sorrow than spices, they went to weep some more at the tomb.
All the way through telling the story, Luke used an unusual phrase, “and yet.” It occurs at least six times in these few verses. He wrote this way to contrast normal expectation with what happened. Jesus was dead and yet the women went to see him. The stone was rolled away and yet they went in. They bowed and yet men spoke to them. The men said, “He is not here and yet has risen.” They shared this with the other believers and yet the men did not believe the women. And yet Peter ran off to find out for himself.
Luke knew the power of death, the finality of the grave, and, especially, the indignity of public execution. Betrayal, rejection, mockery, and death itself all seemed to defeat Jesus. It stung the disciples to their core. As one scholar explained, “[Luke wrote as if] there’s another storyteller loose in the world, one who preaches a half-gospel of Good Friday, that cannot get past the hopeless finality of the crucifixion.” The other storyteller wanted to end with death; the end.
And yet. On Easter morning the women discovered something improbable, something unprovable: Jesus lived.
Death claimed to be the final word - fini - and yet on the first Easter morning the women realized nothing could separate Jesus from the love of God: they became convinced that neither death on a cross, nor rulers like Herod and Pilate, nor the presence of betrayal, nor powers of soldiers, nor the height of injustice, nor the depth of the pain, nor anything else in all creation could separate Jesus from the love of God.
Death wanted to finally isolate Jesus, to contain him in the grave; the resurrection symbolized the failure of death and the victory of love, nothing could separate Jesus from God’s love.
Perhaps their hearts filled with the song of British rock band Deep Purple,
Love conquers all
This one will last a lifetime
And if love conquers all
This one will last forever
What did the women discover that let them know this? Just emptiness. They saw nothing in the tomb. But of course there’s two ways we can feel empty. The first is emptiness as in used up, exhausted, poured out; empty as we usually mean it. But there is another kind of emptiness: the kind that comes from letting go; empty as unburdened; empty as a kind of clearness and clarity. One kind of emptiness makes you cry; the other kind of emptiness comes as the unburdened peace afterwards.
Karl Rahner, one of the great Catholic theologians of the last century, reflected on this understanding of resurrection. He spoke of this transformation from death to eternity in a prayer. Shortly before his own death, Rahner prayed:
[O Lord], when all is silent in death and I have learned and suffered my last,
Then you will begin the great silence in which you alone resound,
You who are word from eternity to eternity.
Then all human words will be dumb.
Being and knowing, knowing and experiencing will be the same:
‘I will know as I am known,’ will understand what you have always said to me,
No human word, no image and no concept will ever stand between me and you;
You yourself will be the one joyful word of love and life
That fills all the spheres of my soul.”
God not only feels the sting of death, the heart of God not only breaks first of all our hearts, but God overwhelms the reality of our end with the overabundance of divine love, till it fills all the spheres of our souls.
The women took this incredible news to the rest of the community. Here Luke subtly shifted the language describing the community’s leaders. When the women arrived, they spoke to the eleven - the twelve were reduced to eleven because of Judas’ betrayal - and now the eleven remain, remain hidden in their grief, remain locked behind the doors of sorrow.
The eleven don’t believe the women. As Luke said, “These words seemed to them an empty tale.” Of course Luke wanted us to catch the pun between the empty tomb and the empty tale. And yet, the description of the community leaders changed even as they heard the empty tale. After hearing even death could not separate Jesus from God’s love, the eleven become apostles. Apostles are those sent on a mission. The resurrection news changed them from the people who remained put to the people sent out. Symbolic of this, Peter dashed out the door. The resurrection sent him on a mission.
Before the women went to the tomb, it seemed as if death had defeated Jesus, broke him off from community; but in the tomb, with the stench of death still lingering in the air, the women realized even death could not end the love of God. When they shared the truth about love, it transformed the disciples into people sent with love out into the world.
As another biblical scholar once said, “The resurrection is love strong enough to defeat death; it is love strong enough to impel the work of Christ. A good life is more than just a ‘get out of the tomb free’ card. A good life is what we can live because we are out of the tomb.”
We’ve held a lot of funerals over the past year. Funerals confront us in a hard way with the horizon of death. I talked once with a family member who reflected on her relationship with the deceased. “We argued a lot,” she said, “and now none of it seems important.” She wanted to start living in a different way. It was a resurrection insight.
The resurrection challenges us all to live in new ways too. The challenge isn’t to speculate about heaven and life hereafter. No, the resurrection - the assurance of God’s love stronger than death itself - challenges us to live differently on earth. Knowing that love never ends, we can’t just sit around waiting for heaven. Instead that resurrection love moves us to see what remains to be done herebelow. If the resurrection promises eternal community, then who needs to be welcomed here? If the resurrection promises eternal love, then who needs to be loved now? If I know my redeemer lives, then how can I show that in my life on earth?
This winter we learned again how real the sting of death can be. And yet on Easter morning I come to realize love is even greater. Our stories do not end with death but continue on with the love of God. And therefore I want to show as much of that love as I can in this life. Alleluia and Amen.