I Corinthians 15:19-26
April 21, 2019
A colleague of mine got a phone call. A father and mother of a student intern of their church had been visiting their daughter at school when the father suffered a massive heart attack. The pastor was asked by the family to meet the mother and her two daughters at the funeral home the next day when they went to see the body. They were ushered in to see the Dad who was in his fifties at the time of his death. They all broke into tears and hugs and spent a great deal of time recalling their husband and father with stories and more weeping about the man who was so dear to them. After about two hours of remembering the mother and spouse who was a Presbyterian leader and seminary professor looked at the pastor and said “I want to sing. Do you have hymnbook?” “Um. I don’t know.” “If you don’t have hymnbook maybe The Book of Common Worship?”
He went to his car and no there was not a hymnbook, but there was The Book of Common Worship, and so they read the Easter liturgy, the scripture and the prayers for funerals, which we call a Service of Witness to the Resurrection. Sometimes in the face of shock and grief some familiar words can almost make it bearable.
As Luke shares the story in his Gospel, the women who walked to the tomb early on the first day of the week did not yet want to sing. They had watched Jesus crucified. They had watched him die. They had watched Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus down. They watched how his body was placed in the tomb but when they came to the empty tomb, they were perplexed. I imagine they were shocked and disoriented as well. The crucifixion was disturbing enough but the body of Jesus is nowhere to be found.
Suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them and Luke says they were terrified. Maybe because we have heard this story so many times we barely linger. We are blind perhaps to the emotion of the moment. We are so accustomed to Jesus friend so kind and gentle, to what a friend we have in Jesus that we pass over this sacred moment with hardly a shrug. Let’s get to the alleluias - that’s what I’m searching for. Whatever it is that is going on here, I understand this terror to be on the side of awe as this band of faithful women press their faces to the ground in acknowledgment. The women are having an encounter with the Holy and these experiences do not leave us unmoved or unchanged. Standing on Holy Ground they bend to their knees in humbleness. The spice bearers are asked a wonderfully enticing question, “why do you look for the living among the dead?” Angels, apparently, chide us. With barely a moment to consider the revelation, a quick bright follow-up. “Remember how he told you… that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered. Then they remembered the words of Jesus. Then they were flooded with revelation and a kernel of hope is planted in their hearts.
If your memory is having trouble calling up details about these women from the last time you read Luke or heard it in church; it is because up until the passion and resurrection, they have been in the background and hardly mentioned. Now, spices in hand they come front and center as first witnesses to the resurrection and they are transformed from mourners into the hopeful, from the hopeful into evangelists. While others have denied Jesus or have fled in the face of the arrest, the women have stood firm. Even without seeing the resurrected Christ, they come to faith. Based on their experience with the holy, they run to bear testimony to the disciples. It is in remembering the faith encounters they have experienced in the past that they recognize a new and fresh moment of sacredness. As they experience mystery again, they can feel God molding them forming them into different people.
Presbyterian pastor and scholar Eugene Peterson died last October and another great leader leaves an empty spot. Peterson is probably best remembered for his translation of the Bible called the Message. Peterson started Christ the King Presbyterian church in Bel Air MD in 1963 and served that church until the 90’s when he went on to teach at Regent College. Peterson was very supportive of our congregation when we were first starting and so for some reason I found myself reading his book Living the Resurrection again this week as my Holy Week devotion.
Peterson raises up the significance of Sabbath to the Resurrection accounts in the four Gospels. What did the women do on Saturday? What did the disciples do on Saturday? Though they had followed Jesus for three years. Though they put the ministry of Jesus at the center of their lives. Though they had poured their every effort into the work he had called them to, though they had followed him to the end, though they had witnessed or worried about his arrest, though they had seen him suffer and die on the cross. Though they had seen him laid in the tomb on Good Friday night, though they had wept for him or kept a silent agonizing vigil of pacing and fist pounding, come Saturday, they did absolutely nothing.
It is true that many of them abandoned him and some denied him. It is true that many of them hid in fear that they might be arrested by the Romans and certain colluding Pharisees. It is true that the 12 hid behind locked doors but that is not the source of their Saturday stop. On Saturday they paused, on Saturday they did not visit the grave, on Saturday they did not embalm or wrap the body in Linen and spices, because Saturday was the Jewish Sabbath.
Peterson who was a Presbyterian Evangelical, yes I have evangelical friends, Peterson found our society to be very unfriendly toward Christianity. As a Pastor he had compassion, as do Pastor Jon and I, for all of you who work, who spend most of your time in the secular world; 40 to 60 hours week of commuting and working, a huge portion of your waking hours at work. Whether we like it or not Peterson says, members of our congregations experience a large portion of their spiritual formation at work and this is why in his opinion, Sabbath keeping is absolutely essential. We need to be in worship and be at prayer and rest so that we can remember the resurrection and live the resurrection with our lives. The purpose of worship and all of Sabbath writes Peterson is to nurture wonder and to take that wonder with you to your week.
Our women in Luke had kept the Sabbath and when they set out for “work” early on the first day of the week, because they had cultivated an awareness of the Holy on Saturday, they had “an instinct for God, a capacity to respond in wonder to mysteries that were beyond them, to be surprised by what they did not understand and could not anticipate.” Peterson argues that we have to stop, we have to be quiet enough long enough to see, open eyed with wonder – resurrection wonder. In this way he would agree with Martin Laird Who wrote Into the Silent Land, which many of us read this past Lent. We have to teach ourselves to find the quiet. Sabbath keeping, says Petersen, Is something we do with others and an act that cultivates a receptivity within us that allows us to join with God in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, healing the sick, loving our enemies, raising our children, and doing our everyday work to the glory of God. Peterson who was a humble man is very clear that there is no such thing as spiritual elites, any of us are capable of Sabbath keeping, prayer and meditation. We are wired in God’s image. We are born with this wonder, you need only look at children to know; to marvel is a human trait. “Jesus resurrection is an open door [says Peterson]. Everyone has easy and ready access to this company of resurrection friends, among whom there is no rank or privilege.” If we cultivate wonder we will be receptive to and recognize God’s presence in our world. And like cherry trees, I think resurrection wonders are breaking out all around us all the time. It is when we are in our ruts and tunnels we miss them.
In the weeks before Lent , Pastor Jon and I did a preaching series on Modern Prophets and Jon spoke about Howard Thurman who was among other things a spiritual mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Thurman in his book Inward Journey writes that “Our Spirits Remember God.”
“It is good to remember that God has not left [God]self without a witness in our lives. There is at work in life much that seems so circumstantial that the release of explanation can come only by the great word of the noncommittal: coincidence. Even the most cursory examination of what may be regarded as the most commonplace life, shows that at many points startling things have occurred that altered the entire direction of life: some chance word heard at a critical moment , some singular encounter along the way, a paragraph tucked away in an ordinary book, a stray thought out of nowhere, finds a cuddling place in the mind and there begins to live and breathe and reproduce its kind until something emerges as a new outlook, a different way of thinking. It is good to remember that God has not left [God]self without a witness in our lives. Despite all the wanderings of our footsteps, despite all the ways by which we have sought to circumvent the truth within us, despite all the weaknesses of spirit and mind…. It is good to remember that God has not left [God]self without a witness in our lives.”
We know that what Luke, Peterson and Thurman say is true. That is why year after year we are drawn to the celebration of Easter. The resurrection wonder of an empty tomb strengthens us. The hope there is in the conquering of the cross and in the defeating all the powers and principalities that inflict crucifixions on the world moves us forward.
There is no doubt that death and funerals are tough, that grief is a powerful foe, an unwelcome friend, that there is no such thing as quick recovery, that burying our emotions today is to ensure they will boomerang. Yet if we remember resurrection, if we cultivate wonder with our prayers and our Sabbath keeping, we just may be able to believe these words which are in the Book of Common Worship and with which we close our Funerals. “You are dust and to dust you shall return, all of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Because Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.