Letters from Prison, X: Far Above All Rule and Authority
Why seek ye the living among the dead ? —Luke 24:5
Batman and Superman in the same movie. How could we be so lucky? It reminded me of something that happened a long time ago. About once a decade Jesus becomes the hot media topic of the moment and for a day or two he gets on all the front pages of the newspapers and the cover of People Magazine. Well, maybe not People, but you get my point.
It happened when Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code, and it happened when Mel Gibson made his Jesus movie, and it happened about 20 years ago when The Jesus Seminar hit the papers. You probably don’t remember The Jesus Seminar guys, but preachers do.
So one Holy Week about 20 years ago, Jesus lands on the cover of all three major American newsweeklies: Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report. When I found out Jesus was on the cover of all three magazines in the same week, I decided I’d better have those magazines, so I went to a wonderful little place in Grand Rapids, Michigan, called the Socrates Newscenter. Great name for a newsstand, great place, one of those places where you can get coffee from Guatemala, Kenya, and Vietnam, and The New York, London, or L.A. Times, or the Sun-Times from Chicago; you can get The Philadelphia Inquirer and The National Enquirer. You kids won’t remember this, but this was in the days when they still printed magazines and newspapers on dead trees.
So anyway I go to the Socrates Newscenter to find Jesus in Time and Newsweek and I can’t find them anywhere on the racks lining every wall, and I ask the lady behind cappuccino counter and she says, “Oh, my Time’s and Newsweek’s have all sold out this week. They’ve been flying out the door. I don’t know what happened. Did they all do a swimsuit issue or something?” I said, “No, not exactly.”
She said, “Who’s on the cover this week, anyway?” “Jesus,” I said. She said, “Well, you don’t have to swear.” “No,” I said, “Jesus is on the cover.” She said, “Oh, how odd. What did he do?” I was about to say, “Well, he rose from the dead,” but then thought she probably knew that, so I said, “Well, they’re arguing about him again, of course.”
She said, “Oh, I should have saved an issue for myself. My daughter just asked me who Jesus was, and we don’t go to church much, so I didn’t know what to say. She’s three, and she said, ‘Is he like Batman?’ And I said, ‘No, I think he’s more like Superman.’ Is that about right?” And I said to the cappuccino lady, “Well, that’s a start.”
It’s hard to make sense of Easter for the unlettered, or for the lettered, for that matter. It never happened before and it will never happen again, at least not till the end of time. As a friend put it to the late great Harvard Chaplain Peter Gomes: “I don’t like Good Friday, but it makes sense; I love Easter, but it doesn’t.” Yes? We hate Good Friday but we get it, and we love Easter but we don’t. Get it, that is.
It’s a Good Friday world we live in, as we were reminded the other day by those horrible images from Brussels. Crucifixions we see, resurrections we don’t, at least not the way the Gospels tell the story. Preachers always wonder whether they’re getting through on Easter.
But of course that’s been true of Easter stories from the beginning, including the very first Easter sermon of them all. This is the way Luke tells the story: Off to the tomb go Mary Magdalene, another Mary, and Joanna, bringing spices meant to delay for just a little while the inevitable putrefaction that will set in. On the way they’re probably wondering how on earth they’re ever going to complete their mission. How are they going to get into a cave-grave closed off by a huge, round, flat disk of granite shaped like a lozenge or a poker chip and set into a stone runner beneath, the ancient equivalent of a sliding glass door, except that there are no ball-bearings to ease the way and it’s bigger than a Mini Cooper.
When they get there, of course, problem solved: stone rolled away. But that just sets the stage for the next problem: grave empty, no corpse to dress with spice, mission impossible.
Two angels are there to help the women solve the riddle. Well, actually Luke says it was two men, but they appear as if from nowhere, they’re obviously not from around here, they’re dressed in dazzling raiment, so I guess it’s logical to deduce that they’re splendid Vanny Envoys from the Great Blue Beyond. “He is not here,” they say, “for he has risen. Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember what he told you? Why seek ye the living among the dead?”
The women go flying back to wherever the eleven remaining disciples are holed up, maybe in that Upper Room where they shared their last meal with Jesus, and tell their story: the stone rolled away, the tomb empty, the phosphorescent foreigners, the glad good news.
And their message is met with a stare as blank as many preachers see every Easter Sunday morning when they try to say the same thing. “But these words,” Luke tells us, “seemed to the disciples an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
“An idle tale,” says Homiletics Professor Tom Long. “An idle tale”: “empty talk,” “silly story,” “foolish yarn,” “utter nonsense,” “sheer humbug.” “When the women came racing back with the news…the disciples should have been prepared, eager, receptive, believing. Instead they yawned, checked their watches, and wondered when the sermon would end so that they could shuffle off to coffee hour.” That was the Church’s reaction to the first Easter sermon ever preached.
But that’s not the end of the story, is it? Luke tells us that when Peter heard the news, he “got up and ran to the tomb, stooped down, looked in, saw the linen clothes by themselves, and went home, amazed at what had happened.”
Who knows why he went? Maybe he went expecting absolutely nothing. Maybe Peter didn’t believe in angels. Maybe he went only to hunt down the grave robbers who stole Jesus’ body. Maybe he went merely to prove these daft females wrong.
But the fact is, Peter went. He didn’t see Jesus. Not just yet. All he saw was an empty grave and a discarded shroud. He didn’t see Jesus. But he came home amazed. Peter went.
So in the Gospels that’s where Easter Good News gets its unpromising start: in the darkness before dawn, amidst the tombstones of a cemetery, at the lip of the grave. But of course! Where else would resurrection happen, where else could resurrection happen but in the presence of death where it’s most needed?
So maybe here’s a good thing to remember for those of us who live under the threat of the Islamic State, and never-ending war in the Middle East, and nail bombs in the subway and exploding luggage at the airport and the news of one murdered child after another in our beautiful but violent city: Easter Good News always comes from the grimmest, dreariest places. In the Gospels the Good News of Easter comes from a cemetery, and in Paul’s Letters it comes from a Roman prison cell.
“God put God’s power to work in Christ,” writes St. Paul, “when God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”
“Far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” What Paul wants to tell this baby church in Ephesus is that Easter was not just one good man’s random, lucky, unique escape from death, but a fundamental alteration in the fabric of the cosmos.
I don’t know how you feel about this—people argue about this—but in the New Testament Death—capital ‘D’—is not a natural part of life. Death—capital ‘D’—is not part of God’s original intent for creation; Death—capital ‘D’—is a mistake.
Death in the New Testament—capital ‘D’—is not just a physical, but also a metaphysical, reality. Death is a cosmic villain to be caged up; death is an ontological enemy to be vanquished. Death—capital ‘D’—is a principality, a dominion, a tyrant to be unseated, a despot to be dethroned. And here in his letter from prison to the Church at Ephesus, Paul is doing something like what John Donne is doing in his famous Holy Sonnet:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and Dreadful, thou art not so,
For those whom thou thinkst thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
John Donne personifies Death. John Donne scolds’ death, as if Death were a sensible enemy, a noble antagonist, a threat to be eliminated. And so with Paul in Ephesians.
And Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of the end for death. At Jesus’ resurrection, death—that frightening, fiendish, formidable foe—begins to die. God puts Jesus far above every rule and authority.
That quintessential message of Easter Hope came from the sad narrowness of a Roman prison cell. Such wonderful things come from such terrible places as prison. In 1845 and 1846, Henry David Thoreau was living in his 16’x10′ cabin on the shore of Walden Pond. He lived there for two years, two months, and two days.
In July of 1846, he walked from Walden Pond into Concord to get his shoe repaired. As he was leaving the cobbler’s shop, he ran into the Concord tax collector. Henry David Thoreau hadn’t paid his taxes for the last six years. It was his way of expressing his absolute contempt for American government at the time.
Henry Thoreau came from a family of avid abolitionists, and the American government in 1846 was very sympathetic to slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act would pass in four years in 1850 and this just made Mr. Thoreau seethe. The United States had just initiated an unjust war with Mexico, and in Mr. Thoreau’s mind the only reason for the war was to acquire new territory for the expansion of slavery. So he just stopped paying his taxes.
Mr. Thoreau’s friend and fellow Concordian, Ralph Waldo Emerson, came to visit Mr. Thoreau at the Concord Jail. Mr. Emerson peered through the bars of Henry’s prison cell and said, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” And Mr. Thoreau responded, “Ralph, what are you doing out there?” Yes? Maybe more of us should be in prison. So much hope and courage can come from a prison cell.
Let me just end by telling you two things I found out this week that made me happy. They have almost nothing to do with Easter, except that they’re happy things and gave me a more Easter-like attitude. Maybe they’ll do the same for you.
I just want you to know that though I haven’t quite completed my transition yet, I am working on shifting my loyalties to local sports teams. I still like Wolverines better than Wildcats and Patriots better than Bears, but I’m making progress.
For instance, my favorite basketball player plays for a Chicago team. This Chicago athlete was the league MVP in 2015, leading the league in Points Per Game (23.4) and Free Throw Percentage (95%–95%!!!!), and coming in third in rebounds (8.4), and blocked shots (2.1).
Her name is Elena Delle Donne, and she plays for the Chicago Sky in the WNBA. Last year, Elena Delle Donne was the Steph Curry of the WNBA. She is 6’5″ tall,188 pounds of pure muscle, and a very special human being. Someday I’ll tell you why I admire her so much, but I don’t have time today.
Someone wrote her, or emailed her, or tweeted her: “Elena, my brother keeps telling me I throw like a girl. What should I tell him?” Elena wrote back, “Tell him ‘Thanks!’” I love that. It’s a compliment!
How would you like it if someone told you that you throw like a girl? Or that you played basketball like a child? Bruce Fraser, an Assistant Coach for the Golden State Warriors, told Stephen Curry that he played like a child.
So, I had to think about that for a moment. Steph Curry is having one of the greatest seasons ever for one of the greatest teams ever. The Warriors are 65-7; some say they are the most dominant team in NBA history.
Steph Curry has made 348 3-point shots this year, which obliterated his own record of 286 from last year. He makes about 50% of his 3-point attempts.
Stephen represents Under Armour, the sporting goods company; Morgan Stanley estimates that Steph Curry is worth $14 billion to Under Armour. When I first heard that number, I thought somebody added an extra zero, but I am guessing that Morgan Stanley knows what it is talking about.
After the Golden State practice every night, when everybody else has gone to the showers, Assistant Coach Bruce Fraser stays out on the court with Steph Curry and feeds him the basketball so that he can take 100 extra shots from beyond the 3-point line. He has ten stations around the perimeter of the arc, and he takes ten shots from each of the ten stations till he takes 100 shots. Once he hit 70 in a row—that’s 7-0. This is not human.
They asked Bruce Fraser what makes Steph Curry so special, and Bruce Fraser said, “He’s like a little kid; he plays like a child; he just has so much fun. He gives no indication that he has the slightest idea about the size of his accomplishment.”
So I just decided that I wouldn’t take things so seriously. There are shootings in Charleston and Chicago and bombings in Brussels, but Jesus is alive, and God has put him far above very rule and authority and power and dominion, and given him the name that is above every name.
K. Chesterton said, “God is the only child left in the universe, and all the rest of us have grown old and cynical before our time.”
“Why seek ye the living among the dead?” said the angels to the women who’d come to pay their respects to the dead but couldn’t find anybody dead to pay their respects to. In other words, “What are you doing in a cemetery, for Christ’s sweet sake? Get out there in the world of the living. That’s where you’ll find him.”
It’s a good question, don’t you think? Why seek we the living among the dead? He’s not in the graveyard, for he has risen. You’ll find him turning water into wine, and a small lunch into a banquet for 5,000, and simple fisherfolk into brave heroes. You’ll find him wherever people live fully, faithfully, and fearlessly, unafraid because death is not an end but a new beginning.
Peter Gomes, “The New Day,” Life Before Death (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 209.
Tom Long, “Empty Tomb, Empty Talk,” The Christian Century, April 4, 2001, p. 11.
Scott Cacciola, “Stephen Curry Says He Can Get Better, and 29 Teams Shudder,” The New York Times, March 17, 2016.
Slightly adapted from G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1985, originally published 1913, p. 74.