Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. She said, “They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Peter and the other disciple started out for the tomb. They were both running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He stooped and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was folded up and lying apart from the other wrappings. Then the disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in, and he saw and believed—for until then they still hadn’t understood the Scriptures that said Jesus must rise from the dead. Then they went home.
Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in. She saw two white-robed angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been lying. “Dear woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked her. Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. “Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?” She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”
“Mary!” Jesus said. She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”). “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Then she gave them his message. John 20:1-18
If god died tomorrow, would anyone notice? Would anything change? Would there be round-the-clock news coverage like there is with the death of a Pope? Would you just wonder why god hadn't shown up for work? Would you look around in church and think, “There’s something different here.” Would Christian Science Monitor newspapers and copies of the The Christian Century begin to pile up somewhere? Would we notice after a season that tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes oddly didn't happen this year? Or would they increase? I recently read about a woman who was healed by Jesus in her church last November. She can now walk after 22 years of immobilization. If god died tomorrow, would reports of miracle healings come to an end? If god died tomorrow, would Christian fundamentalists stop burning the Qur’an to honor their god? And who would pious religious leaders like Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps blame when they say indefensibly unintelligent and wicked things? If god died tomorrow would people keep sneezing relentlessly even after we said, “God bless you”? Would food taste funny after we said grace? Would lightning bolts stop flashing and thunder be silenced when some non-believer takes the lord's name in vain? If god died tomorrow, would you find that you're bitterly missing something in your life, or would it go on the same as usual? If god died, would human beings stop turning their eyes toward a supernatural realm and begin to acknowledge the value of this beautiful, fading world?
What happens when God dies? Imagine two men carrying a dead body to a tomb. Not just any dead body. It is the body of their Lord. A man named Joseph wipes the wounded face of the body and with a soft towel he cleans the blood that came from lashings and a crown of thorns. Then he closes the corpse’s eyes. Another man named Nicodemus unrolls some linen, and together these two men lift the body of Jesus and set him on the aloe covered cloths. They prepare the body in a hurry as the sun sets and the Sabbath begins. Across the city, ten men sit in a darkening room. The door is locked tightly. Each man feels embarrassed and guilty and scared. These are Jesus’ closest friends. Each is too overwhelmed to go home and too confused to go on. Each has an anxious hope that it’s all been a bad dream. Each has betrayed the one whom they promised to follow with their lives. Now all seems lost and senseless, for the man who claimed to be one with God now lies dead and buried in a garden tomb.
What happens when God dies? Have you ever had a time when your expectations of God begin to crumble and you are left with nothing but fear and faithlessness? Have you ever faced a crisis of hope; a feeling that all was lost because God is not around to make the future any better?
In the modern era, it was generally agreed that life was a steadily upward moving process. Education and science seemed to guarantee the moral progress and enlightenment of the human race. However, as time went on, we were confronted with world wars and military occupations. We faced holocausts and genocides, the development of nuclear weapons, ecological disasters in our own backyards, and wars throughout the world. These events shattered the dreams of moral growth, as we saw the consequences of our inhumanity. All the naive ideas about progress were eclipsed by the very real possibility that humans would wipe each other out of existence.
Many of the people of my generation, the so called “Generation X-ers” grew up wondering, “Why hope in the future, if there’s no future to live for? What is there to hope in if nuclear Armageddon destroys us all? What kind of future do we have if the environment won’t sustain us?” We achingly asked, “Where is God?” These aren’t just the questions of the X-ers. Like the disciples in the upper room, it feels as if hope has been buried in a garden tomb. We dare to think, “If God were alive, there would be no holocaust. There would be no Hitler, or Stalin, no Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic; no Darfur, no crises like we see in Haiti and Japan. If God were alive, we wouldn’t have to live in fear of what the future holds.”
I once read about a town that was to be flooded as part of a large lake for which a dam was being built. In the months before it was to be flooded, all improvements and repairs in the town were stopped. What was the use of painting a house if it were to be covered with water in six months? Why repair anything when the whole village was to be wiped out? Week by week, the whole town became more decrepit and more miserable. As one citizen of the town said, “Where there is no faith in the future, there is no power in the present.”
If there is no hope for the future, then there is nothing else to do but live for the moment. Our society trains itself to live for immediate good feelings and thrills. After all, God is dead. And if God is alive, He (and I use the word intentionally here), He has been very irresponsible. Or maybe God’s not powerful enough to stop bad things from happening. God can’t be trusted to heal. God can’t be counted on the bring justice and stop evil. If God isn’t there for us, then we only have one reasonable means of survival -- we will take care of everything ourselves. If the future is not sure, we will make here and now as pleasurable as possible. If we can’t hope in God, if there is no one greater then ourselves to believe in, then we will put our trust in our own abilities to make ourselves happy for the time being.
As this behavior continues, we will observe its destructive power. We scramble for status. We seek the next rush of immediate pleasure. We dream of money and power. But our striving doesn’t seem to fill the places inside of us that want to believe that there is something greater than our own attempts at happiness -- that there is a God who cares, and loves, and promises a future for us.
So far, I’ve presented the grimmest view of our natures, yet a view that’s embraced almost daily by world news. Rebecca West in her book Black Lamb, Grey Falcon makes a statement in her observation of the Balkans. I think it applies to us all. She writes:
Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live in our nineties and die in peace, in a house we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set life back to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.We’re afraid of economic hardship, we’re afraid of debt, we’re afraid of diminishing resources and environmental destruction. We’re afraid of racial tensions and the growing gulf between the rich and the poor. We are afraid of religion-endorsed hatred. We’re afraid of the hurt between between people of different nations. We’re afraid of a drift toward endless war. We fear for ourselves and our loved ones. It’s easy to fall into heartsickness when we have to rely on our own striving to make the future.
Out of this turbulent swirl of hopelessness comes a message spoken at a garden tomb in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. This is no time for sadness. This is no time to mourn. This is not the time to be afraid. God is not dead. Jesus is no longer in the grave! Jesus is alive!
Today, we celebrate the living Christ who stands before us. Today we proclaim that God overcomes death and gives birth to a new hope. Jesus rose so we would know that there’s something more beyond the painful and inhumane offerings of the world. Those without hope ask, “Where is your God?” The answer is this: look in the place where you would never expect God to be...like a cross. Look again in the places of pain and agony, and there God is in the flesh. God isn’t stumped by the evil in the world. God doesn’t gasp in amazement at the death of our faith or the depth of our failure. We can’t surprise God with our cruelties. God knows the condition of the world, and God still loves it. God loves it enough to become one with us, to suffer the greatest kind of punishment imaginable, to die . . . and then rise above it. God doesn’t use the world’s ways against the world. Through the resurrection, God declares that worldly powers really have no power at all. We have a living God who knows our pain and offers us new hope in the midst of it.
The school system in a large city had a program to help children keep up with their school work during stays in the city's hospitals. One day, a hospital program teacher went to visit a boy. No one had mentioned to her that the boy had been badly burned and was in great pain. Upset at the sight of the boy, she stammered as she told him, "I've been sent by your school to help you with nouns and adverbs." When she left she felt she hadn't accomplished much.
But the next day, a nurse asked her, "What did you do to that boy?" The teacher felt she must have done something wrong and began to apologize. "No, no," said the nurse. “We’ve been worried about that little boy, but ever since yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He's fighting back, responding to treatment. It's as though he's decided to live." Two weeks later the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until the teacher arrived. Everything changed when he came to a simple realization. He said it this way: "They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?"
There is hope beyond our suffering. God raises Jesus and remind us that we have a future. We see the fallout of fear and the theaters of hate all around us. God reaches beyond that and says, “Do not mourn a dead God. This is no time for sadness. I’m alive! And because I live, you also will live.”
That’s real comfort. That’s real hope. This Easter, my prayer for all of is that, with the women leaving the tomb, we can affirm a word of hope: “I have seen the Lord.”
I have seen the Lord and I refuse to be controlled by fear.
I have seen the Lord, and I refuse to dehumanize another.
I have seen the Lord and I will tear down the walls of gender, race, class, and sexual identity.
I have seen the Lord and will I love my enemies.
I have seen the Lord and I will stand with the poor.
I have seen the Lord and I will forgive those who've wronged me.
I have seen the Lord so I will resist the violence of the nations by acting for peace.
I have seen the Lord and so I will demonstrate the power of resurrection in our world!
Yes, after seeing the risen Lord, let's dedicate the rest of our lives to claiming and acting upon our good hope in Christ . . .
That when all our work seems useless, new hope blooms.
That in the midst of brokenness, healing stirs.
That in the midst of darkness, a light shines.
That in the midst of death, new life abounds.
• Rebecca West. Black Lamb, Grey Falcon. New York: Penguin, 1994, p. 1102.