But Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).
This is the kind of morning Henry David Thoreau, the writer of the American classic, Walden, could write volumes about! The birds are singing, the flowers are blooming, the air is crisp and fresh. There is so much natural beauty finally bursting forth. Thoreau would have a field day with what is going on outside. He had such a way of writing about being in the experience of nature, whenever he hiked, walked, or fished at his Walden Pond he seemed tuned in to the details and beauty in an especially vivid way. In the last months of his life as he battled tuberculosis, several times his friends asked him to reflect upon what was coming next for him, for his thoughts about the afterlife. He was known to have responded, “One world at a time!” I wish he would have had a different answer. He had such courage in life’s day-to-day, at one point saying, “All endeavor calls for the ability to tramp the last mile, shape the last plan, endure the last hour’s toil. The fight to the finish spirit is the one… characteristic we must possess if we are to face the future as finishers,” but he may not have had the faith to look beyond “one world at a time.”
On this Easter morning we must keep ourselves as fascinated by nature as Thoreau, yet take his style of awareness one step further. He described life’s unfolding beauty, but on Easter we remind ourselves that life is about more than the beauty of nature. The Easter miracle cannot be contained in only this world. Easter is a time to celebrate how this temporal world bridges into the eternal through the resurrection of Jesus.
Our halleluiahs call beyond the boundary of this world because we can’t live in one world at a time. We must live out the beauty in this world, but we also look to the next. It is not a usual way to look at life, but being mindful of more than this world empowers us in a way far beyond contemplating the world’s natural beauty. Having our sights set beyond the horizon of this world gives us a taste of the courage of the next world. It is a taste that nourishes us in this one. Beyond the natural, the usual, the expected, is an Easter faith, an Easter hope, and that is miraculous. We feel the beauty of creation and a freshness each Spring, but Easter takes us to another level as we anticipate our own new lives breaking forth in our journey of faith.
A past Christian Century article echoed that sentiment, “Resurrection, on the other hand, is entirely unnatural. When a human being goes into the ground, that is that. You do not wait around for the person to reappear so you can pick up where you left off – not this side of the grave, anyhow. You say good-bye. You pay your respects and you go on with your life as best you can, knowing that the only place springtime happens in a cemetery is on the graves, not in them.”
Easter reminds us that this world in all of its beauty is not the only world. Otherwise we would be lost in despair when we visit the graves of our loved ones. It is natural to die, we expect it, but what happened at Easter was not expected, it was unexpected. It was not usual, it was unusual. It definitely was not natural, it was supernatural. It is victory over death, and that redraws the boundaries of this life, doesn’t it?
Even though we recognize and celebrate victory over death, death is still our powerful enemy. In the Broadway musical, A Little Night Music, at a party the grandmother gathers the attention of everyone and then proposes a toast: “To life!” she exclaims. The dinner party explodes in support of this toast and lifts glasses high in celebration. But then she decides to propose another toast, “And to that other reality, to death!” But this time, no one celebrates. A dark mood falls over the room and basically destroys the festive spirit of the party. If you love life, death is a real enemy, and if we are limited by a “one world at a time” mentality, even mentioning death can be the worst downer one might imagine.
Easter gives us hope in the face of death, and gives us courage to be able to face the “little deaths” of life. As we realize how Jesus did not shy away from the human experience of suffering, we gain courage to face our own suffering and the sufferings of others, rather than push such suffering to the back of our consciousness. We may not be able to toast death, but we can certainly be less afraid of it, which helps us confront it. Jesus showed that death can be confronted and even, “survived,” and we know this because of the witnesses that saw the risen Christ. Theologian Desilva wrote in a commentary on Hebrews, “The emphasis on the testimony of ‘witnesses’ to Jesus’ triumph over death has set Christianity apart from its contemporaries. What, then, becomes the human project if death is not the be-all and end-all of our existence, if, in fact, it is not for this material creation that we are ultimately destined? On the one hand, there lurks the danger of nurturing an otherworldly mentality, which withdraws from meaningful involvement in the course of human society. On the other hand, if we hold our transcendence of death together with God’s call to “love righteousness and hate lawlessness,” we are greatly empowered to strive for God’s values and vision even in the face of great personal loss and opposition.”
Such an orientation to the world also throws us a lifeline by which we may be pulled out from the entangling snares of our own “defense-against-death” pursuits, freeing us to serve a different, God-centered agenda. On this day in 1945 the German pastor Dietrich Bonheoffer was condemned to death. He had found courage to leave the safety of America to participate in a plot against Hitler’s life. The other prisoners were deeply impressed at the way Bonheoffer truly lived a resurrection faith. His faith instilled within him such courage that the camp doctor remarked that in all of his years as a doctor, he had never seen someone so composed in the face of death.
Easter has meaning in our everyday lives if you agree with the book, Passages, that states that moving through the various stages of life is a kind of dying. When the need to let go of certain things signifies that life will never be the same as it was, it is a kind of dying. Children going to school, then to jobs, there are little deaths in those things as new life emerges. In the middle-age years, we realize that we are not the same as we used to be. We do not have the same stamina or physical endurance. As we grow older we realize that life becomes ever more limited as age increases. Every time a friend’s name is read on the obituary page, we may experience a little death of our own. Little deaths, but in each is the courage to endure and move through them, and that is Easter faith.
Jesus invites us to participate in what God is doing to change the world in which we live. And God is at work! In a Christianity Today article, Philip Yancey described some of the ways in which God has been helping our world become a better place. “Only a century ago, four in five children died of disease before they reached five years of age. Now it’s about one in ten. Thirty years ago the global literacy rate was 53%. Now, about 80% of the world’s population can read. The percentage of people suffering from malnutrition has dropped by more than half, to 20%. Previously only 1 in 4 people had access to clean water. Now 3 out of 4 do. Dreaded diseases, like smallpox, which claimed 500 million lives in the 19th century, have been virtually eradicated. And according to the UN, overall conditions in the developing world have improved more in the last 40 years than in the previous 500!” In many of these improvements, it is a resurrection-type faith that moves people to take on what seems like an impossible situation, confronting the poverty or needless violence of death in the world. There is still so much to be done. The world needs resurrection faith, it needs prayer!
America is still leading from a point of faith. One of our members attended the national prayer breakfast in Washington DC. I enjoyed looking at his bulletin and knowing that our nation’s leadership was focused upon prayer led by the President. I looked at previous prayer breakfast remarks and found President Ronald Reagan telling this story in 1984:
“This power of prayer can be illustrated by a story that goes back to the fourth century. The Asian monk living in a little remote village, spending most of his time in prayer or tending the garden from which he obtained his sustenance…It was Telemachus…and then one day, he thought he heard the voice of God telling him to go to Rome. And believing that he had heard, he set out. And weeks and weeks later, he arrived there, having traveled most of the way on foot. And it was at a time of a festival in Rome. They were celebrating a triumph over the Goths. And he followed a crowd into the Coliseum, and then there in the midst of this great crowd, he saw the gladiators come forth, stand before the Emperor, and say, “We who are about to die salute you.’’ And he realized they were going to fight to the death for the entertainment of the crowds. And he cried out, “In the name of Christ, stop!’’ …He made his way down through the crowd and climbed over the wall and dropped to the floor of the arena. Suddenly the crowds saw this scrawny little figure making his way out to the gladiators and saying, over and over again, “In the name of Christ, stop.’’ And they thought it was part of the entertainment, and at first they were amused. But then, when they realized it wasn’t, they grew belligerent and angry. And as he was pleading with the gladiators, “In the name of Christ, stop,’’ one of them plunged his sword into his body. And as he fell to the sand of the arena in death, his last words were, “In the name of Christ, stop.’’ And suddenly, a strange thing happened. The gladiators stood looking at this tiny form lying in the sand. A silence fell over the Colosseum. And then, someplace up in the upper tiers, an individual made his way to an exit and left, and others began to follow. And in the dead silence, everyone left the Colosseum. That was the last battle to the death between gladiators in the Roman Colosseum. Never again did anyone kill or did men kill each other for the entertainment of the crowd.”
Don’t you love imagining President Reagan telling that story? One small voice that could hardly be heard above the tumult. “In the name of Christ, stop.’’ It is something we could be saying to each other throughout the world today.
We could look around and feel discouraged, but like those disciples at the tomb, we must be filled with the resurrection power. After the Good Friday service one of our members stayed to ask me the identity of the disciple who looked into the empty tomb and believed. “Who was that un-named disciple who peered into the tomb and believed?” Many have tried to answer that question with a name of another disciple, but maybe it was left out for a reason in order for us to draw deeper into the mystery of Easter: that disciple is you, looking into the empty tomb and then going out into the world with a new courage in the face of death and all of the little deaths of life, determined to live in “two worlds” at a time.