This week I’ve tried to give as much attention to the themes of Easter and Resurrection as we normally give to Holy Week and Crucifixion. The focus reminded me of this reflection I wrote on 1 Corinthians 15 several, gosh more like 5 1/2, years ago. As we went through the process of adopting our second son, Alexander, who was then 4 years old, the agency required us to answer questions on their Statement of Faith. One of those questions had to do with the resurrection.
Question: Explain your understanding of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and how it informs your life.
On Friday night two Fridays ago, I left dinner warming in the oven and I drove to the Gables on Route One to be with a church member and his family as he died. By the time I arrived his eyes were almost empty. His hands were clenched tightly against his chest, and his breathing was rough and shallow.
For a while I just listened as his wife and son and told me stories that made them smile through their tears. While they shared, my eyes wandered around the room and took in the evidence left by a marriage nearly sixty years old: photos and cards from grandchildren, trinkets collected from travels round the world, and elegant black and white photos taken back when their love was still new and the adventure of their life together had only begun.
After the conversation tapered off into silence, I asked if I could pray. With my hand on his head I prayed into his still-listening ear but loud enough for his family to hear.
And in my prayer I did my best to gather up all the gratitude I’d just heard shared and to give that gratitude back to God, and I closed with the affirmation that nothing he had done in this life and nothing Death brought could separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus. I said ‘Amen’ and his family said ‘Thank you.’
But…if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then they should have said: ‘You’re a liar.’
Because if Christ has not been raised, then I have no idea what can/cannot separate us from God’s love.
On the Saturday following I met here at the church with a youth about to leave for college. She was anxious with all the questions you might expect:
‘What am I supposed to do with my life? Who am I meant to become? Whose voice am I supposed to listen to?’
And she was even more anxious because Christians like you all had convinced her that maybe the answer wasn’t as simple as ‘What do I want?’
Sitting there in my office, with the Saturday band warming up in the sanctuary, I told her all the things her parents don’t necessarily want me to say but you all pay me to say:
‘It’s not about success. Don’t just do what your parents want. Money won’t make you happy. The only way to happiness is by finding a way to serve others; your heart will always be restless until you give it to something bigger than yourself.
‘Jesus said,’ I said, ‘the only way to find your life is by losing it.’
Of course, if Christ is not raised from the dead then that’s about the worst advice I could give anyone. Because if he’s not Risen then that means Jesus lost his life and he never got it back it again.
Earn. Succeed. Enjoy yourself, I should’ve said. You’ve only got this life to live.
On Sunday morning, in between worship services, a parishioner here at Aldersgate lit into me, complaining about my sermon from the week previous.
‘That was just irresponsible,’ he groused, ‘and caustic and rude. Maybe nobody else caught what you were implying but I heard it. I can’t believe you’d preach a sermon like that! Who said we’re not loving?!’
And I replied, in love: ‘Gosh, I don’t know why God would use my words to speak that particular Word to you.’ He glared at me and walked away.
But, you know, if Christ has not been raised then I could’ve just said:
‘Look, what’s the big deal? They’re just my words. Ignore them. Forget about them. It’s not like we’re dealing with a Living Christ who might be trying to use me to speak to you.’
That Sunday evening I received a phone call at home from a church member. She was upset and hurt by how she’d been treated by other church members. She expected more from a church, she said. She expected Christians to act better than that.
I listened and apologized and said:
‘That’s not always the case, and it’s unfortunate we can act that way because our community is supposed to be a sign of the Kingdom to come.’
Then again, if Good Friday is the last this world ever heard from Jesus then that Kingdom isn’t coming. And I would’ve been better off saying:
‘Yeah, churches are made up of people- what do you expect?
We’re no different than anybody else.’
On Monday morning I walked all around this building during Vacation Bible School, and I watched and listened as volunteers taught 260 little children be-attitudes from scripture.
All told it was a successful week.
Unless, of course, Christ is not alive, in which case the week was, at best, a waste of time, and, at worst, cruel. After all, such beatitudes, that way of living, will only get them killed.
Just look at Jesus. He was crucified, died and was buried…and that’s it.
Later that Monday afternoon, a woman knocked on my door. Her voice was defeated and her face was splotchy sad. And in between tears and trying to catch her breath, she told me how her marriage was coming apart at the seams and that there was nothing she could about it.
‘There’s no hope,’ she told me.
‘On the other hand,’ I said, ‘it’s just when you think there’s no hope that there is. That’s what we believe here. That there’s never no hope.’
On the other hand, if Christ is not risen then I am nothing but a glib fool, and I would have done better to say:
‘you’re right it sounds hopeless’ and given her the number of a good lawyer.
Tuesday morning came and so did a man needing what the church calls an assurance of pardon. He came to my office and, sitting nervously in one of my red chairs, he confessed to me the kind of father he’d been: angry and absent, violent and abusive in every way but physical.
And he told me how that was some time ago, how he’d tried to make amends, to reconcile, to change.
‘I’ve prayed about it countless times,’ he told me, ‘but I need to know if I’m forgiven.’
I assured him that if his heart was sincerely penitent then, yes.
‘That’s what the Cross means,’ I said.
Yet, if Christ has not been raised, if the empty tomb isn’t and never was, then I don’t have a clue whether or not the Cross is good enough for God. And I can’t assure you of anything.
On Wednesday afternoon I received an email. It was from a church member. The subject line told me the message was about our budget shortfall at Aldersgate and the challenge that might pose for our Mission and Outreach efforts.
The message was short and to the point. Maybe it was typed on a Blackberry. It said only:
‘If Jesus wants to bless our ministries to the poor, then he will give us everything we need to do so.’
That’s true, I thought…as long as Jesus is a Living Lord. Otherwise, forget about it.
If Christ has not been raised…then on Thursday when I stood in the sanctuary for that man’s funeral and when I looked in to his grandchildren’s numb eyes and when I told them that their life with him and their love for him was not lost but would one day be made new again…
If Christ has not been raised, then I was just talking out of my a@#.
Because apart from the Risen Christ, I don’t know into what oblivion any of us will pass.
And that Thursday evening, I sat in the living room of an Aldersgate family, a family shocked and scared by the sudden intrusion of cancer into their lives. And, holding their hands, I prayed that Jesus would heal and I prayed that Jesus would comfort and I prayed that Jesus would strengthen.
And my words might have been what they needed to hear. My words might have uplifted them. My prayers might have given them the strength they needed to face the next day or the day after that or, maybe, even the day after that.
But if Christ has not been raised, if Death has not been defeated, then all my words were nothing more than pious-sounding placebos.
And like all placebos, sooner or later…they won’t work.
If Christ has not been raised…
And on Friday I received an email from Katherine, one of our missionaries in Cambodia, describing to me her work there, what she calls her ‘small steps towards God’s New Creation.’
And on Saturday I stood behind the altar table and I broke bread and blessed a cup of wine.
And on Sunday I stood in this pulpit and presumed to preach.
And just the other day I sat on the playground here at church with my son and we watched the sun begin to set in the sky. And both of us thought it was beautiful…
But all of it, if Christ is not raised from the dead/if the message isn’t true/if the tomb isn’t empty/if he’s not alive forevermore then all of it is, in some way, a lie.
If our hope turns out to be anchored to nothing more than this life then all of it is, in some way, pitiful.
Question: Explain your understanding of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and how it informs your life.
About a month ago, our adoption agency asked Ali and I if we would consider adopting a five year old boy who needed a placement. His name is Alexander. Like Gabriel, he’s from Guatemala. And he needs a family, they told us.
For several weeks now, we have been considering it and praying about it and recently we decided to say yes. This has all happened very fast, our lives have changed very fast and, chances are, he will be with us very soon.
Our adoption agency is a Christian agency.
In addition to the endless legal documents and forms we must fill out, the agency also requires the two of us to complete a Statement of Faith form.
They want to know not just that we’re fit to parent a child; they want to know what beliefs and convictions inform our parenting. And they don’t mess around.
The very first question on the form was that one about resurrection.
I began to fill out that form this week. As I did so, I thought about the kind of life I’d want to show Alexander, and I thought about my life here- not because this is my job but because this is my church.
I’m part of a church, I wrote.
Every Saturday we gather around a Table sure that Jesus is there too and sure that Jesus can use a simple meal of bread and wine to grow us in his image.
Every Sunday we open up an old book and read from it because we believe the Risen Christ can use old words to speak to us like new.
I’m part of a church, a place of prayer- not just mental wish-lists or sentimentality- but people genuinely interceding with the Living Christ for one another.
I’m part of a community. And, yes, much of the time we’re imperfect or impatient with one another or unkind. But I’m part of a community that nonetheless tries to be a sign of New Creation.
I’m part of a church. It’s a place where forgiveness is sought and given. It’s a place where Democrats are friends with Republicans and where soldiers pray for peace and pacifists pray for soldiers. How does that happen apart from resurrection?
I’m part of a church. It’s a place where volunteers give time that they don’t have to children that aren’t theirs to form them in a way of life that makes no sense if Christ isn’t risen from the grave.
I’m part of a church that works all over the world on behalf of the poor and the forgotten. Not because it makes them feel good. Not because it’s charity.
But because these people believe their work is a down payment on a Kingdom world Christ will one day deliver.
I can’t prove resurrection, but I’m part of a church.
And from where I sit, Jesus rises from the grave nearly every day.