Faith In Real Life Blog
“With Fear and Great Joy”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
April 5, 2023
After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers and sisters to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
This week I listened to a religious commentator make the case that the Christian faith hinged upon the resurrection. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, the Christian faith is a sham. Though I believe that statement, it more often serves to cut off inquiry than claim our foundational belief. It is nearly impossible to read these stories without questions and doubt. And to even imply that such questions reveal a faint-hearted faith leads to nervous silence rather than informed dialogue. So today, I want to ask some of the unspoken questions. Our faith can stand the inquiry and we need to be able to articulate that faith.
The biblical record is confusing. We have splinters of information, but the various appearance stories differ significantly in their description of the Risen Lord. At some points, he cannot be touched. At other times, he is not only touched (by the women in this story) but Jesus invites touch (with Thomas). On one occasion, Jesus is like a spirit suddenly appearing in a closed room and on another, he is so physical, he is eating fish on the seashore. Even when he is speaking face to face, Jesus is frequently unrecognized. However, it is that Jesus lives, it is not always obvious and it is certainly inconsistent. It was just as common to misunderstand or disbelieve as the early disciples tried to comprehend what had happened.
When we try to apply resurrection and eternal life to ourselves, we run into a raft of new problems. Does Jesus’ resurrection mean the same wiill be true for us? Will we be reunited with those we love? Will we retain an earthly identity? How old will we be in this new life? Do we get new bodies and if so, which body do we get—as a four-year-old? — as a 44 year old or maybe an 84 year old? Are we our daughter’s mother or our mother’s daughter? These are but a few of the ‘practical’ questions surrounding resurrection and heaven that lead us into a quagmire of uncertainty. And as often as not, our answers (as if we knew) reflect our desire to hold on to what we know rather than allow for possibilities we can barely imagine.
Today’s scripture is the only narrative of the resurrection that includes an earthquake. I like the image. For me it reflects the visceral experience of having everything we stand upon shaken. Fear and awe accompany virtually every angelic appearance in the bible. Likewise, fear and awe accompany any experience in which our certainties are shaken. We think we know what life is. Life and death are defined biologically. If the heart stops beating, we’re dead. Nothing could be more obvious. These women had every reason to believe Jesus was dead. They had witnessed it. But what if life is not defined as a function of our beating hearts. What if spiritual life is not governed by physical life—or death. That is the very heart of Jesus’ teaching. But in human history we are slow to see beyond what we think we know. It took a long time to see the world as round or to realize the earth is not the center of the universe— and longer still, to learn that we are not the center of the universe. What had been obvious facts of life turned out to be false.
Jesus taught repeatedly that the things of this world by which we value life are secular and not spiritual. There is nothing in our mortal lives we get to keep. We lose our health, our vitality, our possessions, our accomplishments and finally everyone we love. Very few people are remembered beyond two or three generations. If our lives are based on any of these, death is the end. To put it biblically, death is the victor. We are dust and to dust we will return. In contrast, Jesus taught that every life has meaning and that we are part of something bigger than our individual selves. He promised that a life of caring and regard was the life that gives life. Everything else dies. Life is about loving. Love is what unites us with God and connects us to one another.
It is difficult to imagine that life has meaning beyond our living, but anyone who has survived deep grief knows something of this possibility. In the midst of deep grieving, we almost desperately try to hold on to our loved one as we knew them. We are reluctant to give up clothes or possessions. We seek to preserve their memory and legacy. Grieving people often set the table for their loved one and almost all will have conversations with them. But what is inevitable is a great emptiness that feels unbearable. It takes a long painful process to give up insisting that life should be as it was. But when and if that happens, we can discover the part of life that transcends physical death. Only then can we receive what we have been given and use those gifts to re-engage life. The hurt does not go away but new life can begin.
A story I find helpful is of the salt woman. She wanders the earth, desolate and alone. She finally arrives at the seashore and puts her hand in the water. In that moment she discovers a peace she has never known—a deep peace. But when she withdraws her hand, it has dissolved in the salt sea. Unity with God requires us to give up our individual self to be joined with something greater and something eternal. It is frightening but it is incredibly good news.
Every drop of caring belongs to the ocean of love. We matter and how we love matters. We are joined and sustained in ways that we cannot imagine nor control. When I teach, I often ask what people remembered. Often, however, I hear sentences that I don’t remember saying. It is the so-called ‘simple’ regard and kindness that matters in life. Holding that faith is what it means to love God and to love one another. That truth could not be destroyed by death. If you believe that, your life will be transformed. Accomplish all you can—but remember where life is to be found. That is the promise of the resurrection.
Jesus had to face what most of us fear—the end of physical life—to show us what is eternal. Our bodies will die but life and love go on. Every one of us have ancestors, friends and connections we can no longer name which have molded and sustained us. But just because we can not name or predict such connections does not mean they are not continually occurring. That is resurrection faith. Jesus had been teaching that faith for three years but it took meeting him after his death to realize what is eternal. That is when the disciples left their closed rooms, returned to Jerusalem, and found new purpose. They were transformed.
One of the obvious difficulties in discussing the resurrection is that we can only use words we know to attempt to describe what we do not know. Two women of the church described the continuity of love and connection as visitation by birds—for Elinor Cook, it was a crow that reconnected her to her father and for Carolyn Brooks, it was a cardinal that connected her to her husband. Both took solace in seeing these birds. But if you can suspend literal interpretations and suspend disbelief, you will see they both were trying to describe a continuity of life and loving. Those men, who they had buried, remained with them. It is not all different than the familiar, “I will prepare a place for you…” which is read at most funerals. It is the promise that our lives matter and continue long after our deaths. Such faith allows us to live and calls us to love.
One last note, please notice that the angelic visitation—however you understand it—was not sufficient. The woman had to meet the living Lord. (Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers and sisters to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”) FYI, the women were not believed either. The disciples also had to meet the living Lord in Galilee. In real life, the knowledge of the Lord is not sufficient. The experience of the Lord is what transforms.
Trust the resurrection faith that we belong to something greater than ourselves. We are loved and love is eternal. Make love the center of your life. He is risen. He is risen indeed.
In real life we cannot keep the people we love nor the people who have loved us—BUT we can keep the love. That is frightening but, ultimately, it is our resurrection faith.
Let it be so.