When we attend a funeral, we have been somewhat surprised by death. Easter is a time when we gather in the safety of the sanctuary to talk about death without being shocked, and the conversation is filled with hope and life. Reader’s Digest had a story about a priest who asked one of his members, Sam, to help with the wiring in the ceiling of the sanctuary. The only way to get to the wiring was to crawl in the rafters in the attic, and Sam’s wife was afraid he would get stuck so she decided to go along with him to the church, waiting for him in a pew. The church was busy that day, but they all froze when Sam’s wife, apparently coming out of a time of solitary prayer, yelled out, “Sam, did you make it up there o.k.? Can you hear me, Sam? Are you all right up there?” “Yes, I made it up here just fine!” Sam replied. That sanctuary emptied faster than it ever had before!
If you have lost a loved one, Easter is a time to remind yourself that your loved one did make it “up there” all right, and at Easter we can contemplate our own passing. Scott Peck in Further Along the Road Less Traveled said that being able to talk about your mortality is a sign of emotional maturity, but maturity doesn’t make it any easier to deal with the dark side of death, the temporary separation from our loved ones, and the fear of what is next. Easter brightens death with a mysterious Easter hope: Victory over death gives us courage in our present circumstances. Knowing that we will all be raised from death, welcomed into eternity, and that separation from our loved ones will be no more, gives hope like nothing else. When the experience of death comes close, our lives may come into clearer focus.
That happened to the great writer Fyodor Dostoyevski. He was captured as a political dissident and lined up with colleagues to be shot. Before the bullets were fired his whole life came into focus. His senses became clear. His smell and hearing were amplified as never before. But then no bullets were fired, no death came. The czar had orchestrated a mock execution in order to demonstrate to the dissidents that he saved them. The other two prisoners went permanently insane. But Fyodor went on to write some classic Russian books, such as Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov. His insights into the human heart—perhaps because his own heart was so troubled—remain some of the most profound in literature. Upon reflection, Fyodor Dostoyevski considered his experience one of the most blessed things that ever happened to him. He felt as if he had gone through the whole process of dying without having died, and this allowed him to appreciate life all the more.
We may learn to appreciate life most when faced with the reality of death. Easter gives us the opportunity, without being morbid to reflect on the ultimate meaning of things. We want to know that we will continue to exist as real people when we have shed this body of clay. We will! We want the joy of being reunited with those whom we love beyond the pall of death. We will have that joy. We yearn to know that our lives really matter to God. Yes, God cares about us. And when death comes close we realize that there is something beyond the physical body that is a part of being human that we cannot comprehend. Have you ever been with a loved one when they passed away? They appear to be empty.
Guy Claxton, author of The Wayward Mind : A History of the Unconscious Mind puts it this way: “Death is one of the most fundamentally and universally puzzling aspects of human life. The newly dead body of a friend or relation is like them in a way, and yet utterly unlike them in its stillness. Where has all that energy, all that personality, gone? What was it that they had while alive, and so obviously have no more? Surely there must be some force, some principle of life that has disappeared. Surely this must be associated with the breath, the first and last vestige of life; the pneuma, the spirit. Surely this spirit cannot simply have been extinguished; surely it must have moved on rather than been snuffed out.”
The disciples were not calmly watching Jesus die in a hospital bed. They watched Jesus die the horrible death of crucifixion, and their expectations died, too. After three years of being with Jesus, watching him heal people, perform miracles, teach parables using simple, everyday objects to illuminate life’s deepest points, they had the highest hopes for Jesus. Only a week before, their hopes had risen to fever pitch when the excited crowds welcomed their Master, waving palm branches and shouting ‘hosanna’. Then he was crucified, dead in a sealed tomb, their hopes were dashed; the dream was over. But the resurrection taught them three big lessons that we can learn as well. Good Friday happens, it takes time to emerge from it, and resurrection will happen.
Those three lessons were learned in succession, and they taught the disciples a mysterious Easter hope.
Good Friday is the day Jesus was crucified. The reason why such a terrible day is called good may be in the ancient use of the word good, meaning either holy or God. Whenever we say, “good bye” we are saying, “God be with you.” Some use Good Friday to describe a horrific event in life. The day your loved one passes away, or the day you hear terrible news, it comes to everyone’s life. We all face Good Friday, but it does not mean that we must face a bad event in order for something good to happen. It is not like saying that we need winter before spring. Good Friday surprises our lives and is so unwarranted and shocking that we wonder if we can make it through. Good Friday is not a choice. We do not choose for our whole world to be shaken. But when it does happen, we are remade into something new that we could not have predicted or visualized. Good Friday unveils a new way of being when you come through it.
Discover the Power Within You tells about a young soldier who lost his legs in battle. When he realized what had happened, he was in the grip of Good Friday. He was inconsolable. He stayed in his bed, and no doctor, nurse, or volunteer was able to help him recover emotionally from what had happened. One day another patient of the hospital strolled in and sat down on a chair near the bed. He drew a harmonica from his pocket and began to play softly. The patient looked at him for a second, then back to the ceiling. That was all for that day. The next day the player came again. For several days he continued to come and to play quietly.
Finally one day he said, “Does my playing annoy you?” The amputee said, “No, I guess I like it.” They talked a little more each day. One day the harmonica player was in a jovial mood. He played a sprightly tune and began to do a tap dance. The soldier looked on but was apparently unimpressed. “Hey, why don’t you smile once and let the world know you’re alive!” the dancer said with a friendly smile. But the legless soldier said, “I might as well be dead as in the fix I’m in.” “Okay,” answered his happy friend, “so you’re dead. But you’re not as dead as a fellow who was crucified two thousand years ago, and He came out of it all right.”
“Oh, it’s easy for you to preach,” replied the patient, “but if you were in my fix, you’d sing a different tune.” The harmonica player looked at him and said, “Then maybe an up-to-date example will help you to believe it can be done.” With that he pulled up his trouser legs and the young man in the bed looked and saw two artificial limbs. The soldier with the harmonica was once right there. He had known the power of a resurrection and had learned to live life abundantly–even without his legs. Needless to say, the young patient’s own resurrection began that moment. And that brings us to the second lesson the disciples learned.
It may take time before you emerge from Good Friday. The disciples learned that resurrection does not happen instantly. Waiting for Good Friday to end can be excruciating. Being told to wait when you are feeling lost, full of doubt and despair, and lonely is not what you want to hear. Knowing that God’s presence feels so real to others doesn’t help either when you are at the end of your rope. But Jesus did console two disciples after the crucifixion along the road to Emmaus. They were trapped in despair, sad and disillusioned, completely without hope. Have you ever been at the point when you are afraid to hope because you feel as if you couldn’t cope with another letdown? They were walking down the road of shattered dreams. The Scripture tells us that they didn’t recognize Jesus when he walked next to them. Maybe the sun was in their eyes, or their faces were covered in the Middle Eastern style to protect their faces from the dust, but I believe that they didn’t recognize him because they were unable to even look up. Could it be that they were so despondent that they didn’t even look up, so preoccupied with their unanswered questions, so filled with the feeling of hopelessness that they weren’t able to see what they so desperately wanted to see, right alongside of them? Could it be that the last three days had been so full of despair that their hearts were lost in darkness and they couldn’t even see the light of life that was walking with them every step of the way? Jesus asked them what they were worried about, and then pointed them toward hope. Being a friend means being a good listener, but it also means giving some hope, some direction. Jesus told them how God freed the Israelites throughout history. Later, when the disciples finally recognized Jesus at dinner, they remembered how the words of Jesus burned within them as they walked. They learned to see the world not as a place of death, decay, and defeat, but as a place of waiting for God’s final victory.
And that brings us to their third lesson, resurrection will happen. John Ortberg found a great analogy for the resurrection. While on a family vacation, he and two daughters ages 3 and 5 were swimming in the hotel swimming pool. He told them not to run around the pool because they might slip and drown. He was standing in the pool and they were taking turns jumping to him. He said, “Apparently these warnings were scarier than I had intended. At one point, while Laura was jumping into the pool to have me catch her, Mallory slipped and fell into the water. She went all the way down to the bottom for just a second or two before I reached in and pulled her right back to the top. When I pulled her out of the water, she was sobbing. She looked up at me with these big brown eyes and said, “Oh, Daddy! I drowned! I drowned! I drowned!” I said, “No, Mallory, you didn’t drown at all. That is not drowning. You didn’t even come close to drowning! You weren’t even within a mile of drowning. So let’s not tell Mommy about this. Mommy probably wouldn’t understand what I know, which is that your father was watching you the whole time, and in the moment that you slipped under that surface that was so scary for you, my arms were right there with you, and they were plenty strong enough to pull you up out of that water. You were perfectly safe, more alive than ever.” The story of the resurrection is not just good news; it’s true news. And when Jesus says, “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die,” that is not a metaphor or some vague hope. It means that death has no power to take you from the arms of the Father.
This is something we all need to keep in mind—that regardless of how deep the pain and how terrible the circumstances, we will at some time know joy, hope, and passion again. This is not to say we try to ignore or repress the pain and despair, only that we understand that we can pass through it to more joy. This is essential if we are to stay involved with life and be a force for love and justice. For without a doubt we will face hard-times and pain and sorrow and disappointment—and it is what we do in the face of this pain and despair that will determine the quality of our remaining days—and that will determine our impact on the world. We all carry inside our souls the beginnings of new life, Jesus taught. All of us, he said, can turn toward the good, transform from the old into the new, and find ourselves re-born with hope into new life. Hope may be a sliver of light shining in- it might be only a hint, a whisper of possibility -maybe a single encouraging word, or only a line of music – but that hope can be enough to allow us to blossom into new life.
The disciples learned that there may be a Good Friday, that it takes time to emerge, and that resurrection will happen. From their lessons we are taught that the resurrection is the ground of our assurance, it is the basis for all of our future hopes, and it is the source of power in our daily lives here and now. It gives us courage in the midst of persecution, comfort in the midst of trials, and hope in the midst of the world’s darkness. With Easter’s mysterious hope, let us walk with Christ as the disciples did and move from tears to joy, from despair to celebration, from death to life. Amen.