As I was preparing to preach last Sunday, I came across an excellent piece by the Lutheran pastor and writer Russell Saltzman on the importance of preaching Jesus dead before we preach Jesus risen. It was good enough that I posted the link on Facebook; in response, I got a complaint from my brother. It was interesting, because he wasn’t complaining about me, which is the more usual form; actually, he didn’t have any problem with the essay, either, but it sparked him to note an issue he has with most Easter services. Specifically, he wrote, “One of these years I’d like to hear a sermon that spends time talking about what everyone must have been feeling on that Saturday. We’ve all had to live through the morning after something terrible: waking up and hoping it was all a dream, realizing that it wasn’t, just going through the motions while we start trying to put our lives back together. What must it have been like for Mary, the disciples, etc. on that long day when they thought it was all over?”
It’s a good point, because while we celebrate Good Friday, we don’t emerge from that service into the world as the disciples knew it. That next day must have been the hardest day of their lives. For the rest of Jerusalem, things were back to normal after all the commotion; their fellow Jews would be getting up and going to the synagogue to observe the Sabbath, some of them probably with a sense of satisfaction that that Galilean gadfly was out of the way. For Jesus’ disciples, however, the reality and enormity of their loss was just beginning to sink in; life had a giant hole right through it that nothing could possibly fill or close or heal, and all they could do was try to figure out how to cope, how to go on, when their greatest hope had just been brutally extinguished.
That was, I am sure, a grey, empty, echoing day, with nothing for it but to keep taking one breath after another, putting one foot in front of the other, putting on the outward show of life and hoping somehow to find something to fill it with meaning; and as my brother says, we need to pay attention to that, because most people have been there at one time or another, and there are a lot of people in this country for whom that’s simply the world as they know it. Why else is the average age of onset for depression now just 14? Why else is suicide the tenth-leading cause of death in this country—and the third-leading cause among adolescents?
I used to believe that most people sailed through life with no major hurts or disappointments, but 37 years have taught me that’s an illusion; there are very few people like that, and most of those are fakes. We live in a world that’s just getting by, most of the time, a world of people trying to cope with broken marriages, abusive parents, drug-addicted children, broken dreams, evaporated hopes, one failure after another . . . There are a great many people in this world this morning, some in this community, who are standing exactly where Peter stood that Saturday: someone just pulled the rug out from under them, and they aren’t sure there’s a floor beneath it.
This is the world in which the Resurrection happened; this is the dirty grey hopelessness into which the light of Easter erupted; and this is the world as it still prevails wherever that light is obscured or changed or hidden from view. The light of the Resurrection should blaze forth from every church and every chapel into every community, but too often it doesn’t; whether because we’re comfortable and distracted and never quite talk about it, or because we think it’s not the most effective way to grow our churches and build our reputations, or because we don’t really realize that we have something important to say, or even just because we’re not sure how—it all comes down to fear in one form or another, I think, regardless—we hold back, and we don’t let the light shine.
And that’s sad, because our world needs the light—even here, where you can hardly throw a stone for fear of breaking a stained-glass window. People need to hear the angel’s resounding question: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” For the women, that’s literally what they were doing, though they didn’t know it; but spiritually, isn’t that what we all tend to do? Our world is dominated by death; Benjamin Franklin said there are only two certainties in life, but given that our current administration seems to be making exceptions on taxes, death may be the only certainty left. And as we talked about when we looked at Genesis 3, the Devil brought Eve down in part by putting the fear of death at the center of her agenda—and that’s where it’s stayed ever since.
One of the lessons of history, I think, is that the fear of death is one of the main drivers of cultures and societies. For ancient times, you can look at the pyramids—all that work to build a tomb—or at the Chinese emperor Qin Xi Huang Di, buried with an army of terra cotta soldiers. Our culture makes a fetish of youth—dressing young, looking young, talking young, face creams and wigs and plastic surgery. Some seek to master their fear by attempting to master death itself, either by investing huge amounts of money in medical care to stave it off, or by asserting control over it through suicide. There are other ways, but in the end they’re all idols to which people turn because they’re afraid of death and of dying; they’re looking for life, they’re looking for the source of life, but instead of turning to the Living One, they are seeking for life in the jaws of death.
The only answer to that is to be interrupted in the search and told, “He isn’t here: he is risen.” The only freedom from that fear is to understand that God became one of us, God suffered, God died, and then God didn’t stay dead—he came alive again, and everything sad started coming untrue, as Tolkien had Sam Gamgee put it. When the church decides to accommodate itself to what people can believe and reduces this to a “spiritual resurrection,” that’s not enough; or when we reduce heaven to just a spiritual life, that’s not enough either—as you can see from all the questions people ask about whether we’ll have dogs in heaven, or this or that or the other thing. A purely spiritual afterlife is some comfort, but if it leaves the brute fact of death untouched—if death gets to keep its winnings—then it’s only a partial victory, and we need more.
And the gospel gives us more, because the gospel tells us that death itself has been defeated, and indeed, everything sad will come untrue, and nothing that is good will be lost, because Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead in a new and perfect body—and because he did, so in him we will do the same. We do not need to fear death, though we suffer it now, because Christ has defeated it, and he’s still here, and in the end we’ll still be here, and it won’t. This is the word of the gospel, and it’s a word that a lot of people need to hear; it’s a wonderful, amazing, powerful word, a word of joy and hope and peace, and it’s been given to us to speak—we need to go out and proclaim it, shouting it at the top of our lungs: “Death is dead!” This is our story as the children of God, and we need to tell it to everyone who will listen.