Why the fuss over a missing body?

 

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Were you one of the myriads who avoid Facebook at Easter? Has the wonder at all of the different ways to meme “He is risen indeed” worn off? Do you wonder why all the fuss for a missing body anyway?

Maybe you grew up in a family that didn’t attend church. Or perhaps you grew up in a suburban evangelical church that seemed more about maintaining a cultural status quo and giving the faithful “hot topics,” than forming a robust and thoughtful faith. Growing up non-religious I didn’t know what to make of Easter either.

I heard the astounding claim that Jesus Christ came back from the dead. I assumed they meant the “not quite dead, not quite alive,” “came back” of movie zombies. Or perhaps a new-age, “his spirit is always with us.” Or maybe even a motivational, “he was knocked out but he pulled himself off the mat” to Rocky theme music. But no, they meant an actually dead person, a person who had been professionally executed and the blood drained from his lifeless corpse, was not only walking around but convinced a significant group of people to follow him around Palestine for 50 days after the government had signed off on the execution’s success and entombed and guarded him.

When I first heard this I thought, “Ridiculous! How can even Christians believe such a tale?”

Well, it turns out it is hard to stop people from believing, even in shocking things, when they have seen them for themselves. The eyewitnesses to Jesus resurrection couldn’t stop talking about seeing Jesus after his death, even when it got them killed. Eleven of twelve disciples would die for failing to say 3 simple words: “It. Never. Happened.” Even before folk could really tell you what Jesus’ resurrection meant they knew it was earth shattering; That it put what Jesus had done in an altogether different category from anything that had happened on the planet before or since.

People that were seen to be killed but are walking around and claiming that they laid down their life and, as God in the flesh, are free to pick it up (John 10:17-18), well, that creates a spectacle. The question is, what does the spectacle mean? The early followers of Jesus, upon reflection, realized the empty tomb meant three things:

First, it plausibly explained our human condition. Second, it was a concrete event that withstands scrutiny. Third, it tangibly improves the lives of its followers.

First, our human condition: Unlike modernity’s belief in the goodness of humanity, the Christian faith acknowledges a further complexity – that we are enslaved, by an underlying driver of our behavior: sin and death. Sin and death chase us. It is why we fear death and are uncomfortable around the dying…why we deny our own mortality and try to hide the effects of aging. And sin and death rear their ugly heads in every relationship we have, individually, interpersonally, and internationally. Well-meaning broken people breaking people as we stumble toward the grave. The Christian faith explains our human experience.

Second, the empty tomb said that Jesus entered into sin and death and defeated them, and that because he did, we will someday be as he is: never to taste death again. All of this is based in the idea that one God/Man defeated death, indicated by the empty tomb. Paul wrote the entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 15 about this. Unlike other faith systems, the Christian faith is based on an act in history, the resurrection. The empty tomb not only endures scrutiny, it invites it. In Matthew 28:6 the angel says to the women, “come, see the place where he lay.” Either Jesus exited a tomb and death is defeated. Or he did not and it is not. But give it a close look, because the empty tomb stands up to rigorous scrutiny.

And finally, Jesus Christ materially improves the lives of his followers. In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway wrote, “the world breaks everyone…and those that will not break it kills.” Sin and death oppose us. They are trying to break us, and they are trying to kill us. Jesus breaking out of the tomb means, as Paul said, “that when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Jesus Christ delivers life. Now and for all eternity. (Col. 3:3-4) That life changes you. If you doubt it, ask anyone I went to high school with.

The empty tomb and missing body are a big deal because they explain our experience, withstand our scrutiny, and deliver us life. 

I  do realize that, even if you can accept the three historic conclusions of the 2.2 billion Christians, we are a product of our culture, and Americans have trouble with religious claims to uniqueness. Since the 1960s we have heard another unhelpfully optimistic assertion that all religions are essentially the same. This is bizarre on its face if you think about it for more than a minute. Even atheists like Harvard religion professor, Stephen Prothero think so. In his book “God is not One,” Prothero points “many Buddhists believe in no God, and many Hindus believe in thousands of them. And those gods are of completely different character as well: Is God a warrior or a mild-mannered wanderer?” Not only that, the view of the struggle of life and the vision of what being fully alive in the various religions looks completely different too. We like to pretend that religions are benignly alike. But they aren’t. And you can’t just get rid of religion either. Religion is sociologically persistent. Humans are hardwired to religion and worship. The trick…is to make sure we worship the right object.

The empty tomb and the missing body are a big deal specifically because they answer the question of the object of our worship. They explain our struggle, give a solid basis that can be scrutinized, and materially change the lives of those who walk with the risen one. Which is why your Christian friends can’t help but post about it on social media.

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Holy Week for Newbies

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A primer for those wondering what all the hubbub is about.

Holy Week, in a nutshell, is a spiritual retreat without leaving home. Remember summer youth camp? You had an authentic, transformative experience of God in a group of others having the same experience. You came home connected to those people and God in a new way. You thought, “That was fantastic. I am different and I can hardly wait to come back next year.” Holy Week is a lot like that.

Holy Week is series of liturgical experiences that walk us through the final week of Jesus’ life. We journey with Jesus, in the short span of a week, from His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the missing guard unit, neatly rolled grave clothes, and the shocking appearance of a risen Savior. In a symbol and story impoverished culture, Holy Week opens our hearts to the gift of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. This is more than a psychological remembrance, it is actively allowing ourselves to be in that final week, baptized (immersed) into his death…”Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? …in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  (Romans 6:3-4)

Holy Week is sacramental

…and we are sacramental creatures. Regardless of any initial reaction you may have to that word, hear me out. A sacrament is a tangible symbol that creates what it signifies. Like kissing. When you first kissed that special someone on the doorstep at the end of the evening, it did more than represent thinking the girl was pretty and nice and that you enjoyed talking with her. It actually created and amplified those feelings. You walked back to your car more emotionally connected to her than you were when you opened her door a brief moment earlier.  And when her front door clicked shut, you fist pumped the air. “Heck, Yeah!” Because that kiss actually made more of what it signified.

So God gave us, fleshly, sacramental, critters that we are, a God who came in flesh. Who lived. Who breathed. Who touched us and was touched by us. Who walked willingly to a criminal’s cross, laid down, spread his arms wide for humanity, and waited for real nails to pierce his hands and feet. It is because you too are flesh and blood that you should engage in Holy Week…because Holy Week creates what it signifies: “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10)

A current reality

The ancient prayers point us to the deep mystery in this: It isn’t “Christ rose.” It is “Christ is risen!” Holy Week is a current reality. A more real reality. So we do more than meditate on these holy mysteries. We allow them to become true within us, as our baptism is true within us. We join him on Maundy Thursday in His Last Supper. We are with him on Friday in His death. We keep prayerful watch before His tomb on Saturday. With growing anticipation we mark His descent into Hades and His trampling of death by His death. Finally, with shouts of joy, we greet His resurrection on Sunday morning, knowing that one day it will be our resurrection too. In Holy Week, as Orthodox priest Fr. Steven Freeman says, “The life to come becomes the life we live.”

A “deep mystery,” it should be said, is not magic. We must surrender to the prayers and liturgy – faith must be lived. In the end, Holy Week isn’t something we do. It is something that does us.

So what is the hubbub?

Holy Week is more than an emotionally powerful experience. It is an opportunity for a greater sanctification. As Paul said, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Romans 6:8) Or, as an Arnold Swarzenegger character once said, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Do yourself a favor, make time to engage in Holy Week, especially the three-day “Triduum”: The despair of Golgotha on Good Friday, the muted sorrow of Saturday, the joyful Baptisms at Saturday’s Great Vigil, and the surprise of a risen Savior on Easter morning.

Almighty God, who through your only‑begotten Son Jesus Christ, overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life‑giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Holy Week Sched 2014 Blog

Death: The obsession we cannot avoid and dare not admit (1of 2)

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In our rush from the church, have we begun using entertainment as religion to answer the questions fundamental to human thriving?

Our culture has almost entirely insulated us from the reality of death. Most of us are awkward with the topic in conversation and go to great lengths to avoid the appearance of nearing death with a plethora of products, services and surgeries designed to cheat aging at any coast. Our post-modern avoidant/fascination with death struck me last night at our local cineplex. The new release lists are heavy with vampires, zombies and time travel…except for the ones about super heroes with death-defying powers. When did death-avoidance become the central theme of our entertainment?

Although we may abandon organized religion, it appears that we do so at our own existential peril. In our rush from the church, it seems we have begun using entertainment as religion to answer the questions fundamental to human thriving.  Last night’s trip to the theater was instructive. The opening line to the movie The Book Thief is “Everybody is going to die someday.” The closing line of the last preview before the movie started was from The Winter Tail: “Maybe it is possible to love someone so much that they cannot die.”  Interestingly, the Christian message is precisely that there is a love so strong it will overcome death. But instead of considering that message, most of us will avoid thinking about death until we stare it in the face – literally looking down at the remains of someone we loved lying in a casket.

Our obsession with death becomes even more curious when viewed in light of our near total buffering from it. In previous generations death came earlier, more often, and closer to home-most likely even in the home. Today we have longer life expectancies, become infirm in care facilities, and enter hospitals when illness becomes terminal. Today when we take our last breath it is usually in an institution rather than in the places of our lives. (This has been covered in the press recently (NPR) and was picked up on the Episcopal Cafe.) Add to these layers of insulation, the entertainment industry. Big entertainment includes in it’s notoriously unreliable curriculum the lesson that people don’t actually die at all. They are “offed” (often quite creatively) only to appear next week on another network, perhaps even in the same time slot.

The media is merely a barometer of our desires – It packages and sells us what market research tells them we want. Having discovered our discomfort with our own mortality, it sells our anxieties back to us in the form of a seemingly endless array of zombies and vampires, with their promise of a life-of-sorts. Perhaps, though, the clearest barometer of our post-modern denial of death is found in the new Tumblr site, “selfies at funerals“. If we cannot cheat death, at least we can laugh at other’s deaths. Turn up the music, dude!

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Perhaps the epitome of our post-modern denial of death is found in the new Tumblr site, Selfies at Funerals...Turn up the music, dude!

All of this, of course, affects the church. Many Christians now have an “It’s a Wonderful Life” theology of the afterlife more akin to ancient Greek (or perhaps LDS) beliefs than orthodox Christianity – this is the popular view we “pass on” to become angels trying to win our wings by aiding the frustrated left on earth.

Contributing to this fuzzy theology is the demise of the traditional funeral. You may never have been to an actual funeral, but you have surely been to a memorial service. A memorial is, of course, about looking backwards – of “memories.” The general liturgy of a memorial is to sing a few of the deceased’s favorite songs and, to continue our It’s a Wonderful Life metaphor, share our remembrances of Uncle Billy.  Occasionally a few too many remembrances, and for too long…glossing over flaws and overstating things a bit on behalf of someone whose life might have actually left a lot to be desired. To be realistic, returning again to It’s a Wonderful Life, although Uncle Billy’s absent-mindedness was cute, it caused the family a great deal of trouble. The pastor then closes the memorial with a short message that makes some reference to Jesus’ as accounting for the deceased’s goodness and gently asking those present to consider a relationship with God in order to join Billy in his eternal home.

As heartwarming and well-intended as it is, the memorial is all about looking backwards. A funeral is all about looking forward. It is about promises and hope bought vicariously. It is about real and eternal life, new bodies, and paradise found, purchased at another’s initiation and another’s expense.

The memorial, when viewed in light of the old-school funeral, reveals a very low view of the transition between life and death, and a fuzzy view of the afterlife…both of which, when added together, diminish our understanding of the purpose of the time we have here on earth. The memorial has very little teaching on the afterlife, very little explanation of what comes next and very little of the historic Christian narrative, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” (BCP 363)

In our times of greatest loss our most profound need, besides the presence of those we love, is for the comfortable words of the faith. We need reminders of what lies ahead rather than what lay behind. We need to know that we do not stand alone at the precipice – we are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 11:1). And because death could not hold Jesus Christ, neither can it hold those who are found in him (1 Cor. 15:20-23). That is why in the traditional Christian funeral we shout in hope, “even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” (BCP, 499)

Here is where I may get into trouble with you: It may feel as if I am treading on the toes of those of us who planned the final services for our parents or wife or brother or Uncle Billy. I should say that, as a pastor, I have done more than a few memorial services myself. We sent my mother on her eternal way with a memorial service. After more theological reflection I can only say that I wish I knew then what I know now. I was the victim of a lack of theology of death and the afterlife. And, as a result, those under my leadership were limited by my lack of understanding. I now see the memorial as a far cry from a prayer book funeral.

Interestingly, while this end of life conversation was going on, three clergy in the Episcopal Church: Nicholas Knisely, Bishop of Rhode Island, Bryan Owen, Rector of St. Luke’s Baton Rouge (who blogs as Creedal Christian), and myself have been working on a question and answer on funeral practices as a customizable parish resource to give people a brief glimpse into the purpose and power of a proper funeral service. It will be available as text for websites or as a customizable flier. I will put up the text that we have worked out as a post in the next several days.

We offer this, not as a condemnation of what anyone has done, but as a resource to help us have a broader perspective on life, death, and the afterlife. The hope is that this would be a helpful planning resource for a time when you need it. The traditional funeral has the perspective of twenty centuries of Christian reflection that both blesses and relieves us of the absurdity of seeking for answers to our deepest longings in zombies and vampires. It offers a more hopeful hope. Not just for Uncle Billy, but for us as well.