I Corinthians 15:19-26
“Meet us now in our places of death” it says in our prayer of confession. “Meet us now in our places of death.” Meet us in Brussels. Meet us in Paris. Meet us in Boston. Meet us in Mali, Turkey, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Ivory Coast. Meet us in workplaces and schools and neighborhoods touched by violence. Meet us as we sit by dying loved ones. Meet us in morgues and funeral homes. Meet us in households ruled by fear and violence. Meet us on battlefields.
This week, we are reminded that the places of death are many. Like Mary, like Peter and the other beloved disciple, we strive to come to grips with death’s power. We mourn. We retreat in fear. We struggle with our anger and confusion.
In response to the stories of death and destruction, our world speaks of further death and destruction. “We must utterly defeat our enemies. We must wipe them from the face of the earth. Then we will be safe.” We live by an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. Our world is bound by the ways of death.
This is a day to wrestle with the places of death in our world. It is a day to ask where God is in the midst of all this death. How is the God we proclaim a reflection of the world in which we live? Sometimes we proclaim God to be as violent as we are. “God exacted punishment on the whole human race by putting the Son to death on a cross.” “God is waiting to judge you – and, perhaps, condemn you!” Many of our theologies and proclamations about God are bound up in the world’s violent response to violence. Jesus is perceived to be the victim of God the Father’s need for retribution. We speak of Jesus as the one killed in our place to satisfy God’s judgement on the world.
Is it any wonder that the world, including many adherents of Christianity, sees violence as the answer to violence? How much of the violence is inflicted by those who see themselves as agents of God’s anger and retribution? Turn on the news and you will hear many declare, in the name of Christianity, of our need to exact violence upon our enemies or those who have sinned. Nation battles nation. One group wages war on another. Parents batter children. There was talk, when I was in seminary, that one professor advocated that men “punish” disobedient wives with beatings. (This advice was given privately, to those men who listened to every word he spoke.) We even see misfortune, illness, and death as signs of God’s righteous anger.
At other times, our proclamations of good news seem to be foolish and naïve. As God’s people, we proclaim God’s goodness. People look at this violent world and challenge us, “Where is your God? How is this good?” Sometimes, in the face of all of this death, it may seem, to use Paul’s words, “we are of all people most to be pitied.” (I’m using those words out of context!) The world may wonder at our proclamations of good news when we are surrounded by death. It may seem that what we strive to offer is a mere panacea that ignores the real world. We proclaim a message that is no earthly good. We speak and dream of that sweet by and by—yet accept that we live in a very different world that doesn’t play by God’s rules.
We come to the empty tomb confused, mourning, angry, and maybe despairing. We live in a world still torn asunder by violence, by hatred, by fear. We live in a world where death surrounds us. We don’t need empty words. We don’t need a message of good news that denies the realities that confront us daily. We need Easter good news that speaks to the deaths that surround, confront, challenge and frighten us.
We are not unlike those disciples and friends of Jesus who saw Jesus’ death looming and ran away—or stood at a distance—or even collaborated with those in power. Where is God in this story? Is God working with those who executed Jesus? Does God endorse the violence that brought about Jesus’ death? Or is God’s promise that if we just muddle through, eventually we will know a different world?
We cannot come to the story of the resurrection without looking not only at Jesus’ death, but also his life. We affirm, we proclaim, that in Jesus we glimpse God. Was Jesus a man of violence? No! This is the man who said make peace with your enemies, make peace with your sisters and brothers in the faith, do not strike another person, put away the sword. This is the man who tore down the dividing walls of hostility. He didn’t build them. He knew the consequences. He knew that God’s ways of peace and reconciliation would not be readily or easily accepted. He knew his death was coming –not at God’s hands, but at the hands of all those who were threatened by the ways of peace and justice that would bring people together. When Jesus died it seemed that his disciples had not only lost someone they loved, they lost his message. Those in power crucified not only the man; they crucified the message. What he proclaimed seemed to die on the cross.
The Passion hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus” asks, “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?” Then it answers, “Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee. 'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee. I crucified thee.”
I think the hymn has it right. It was not God who demanded the crucifixion. It was human beings. The violence and death was not God’s choice; it was human choice. What Jesus chose to do was be faithful to God’s ways and endure the consequences of a world that could not or would not embrace and accept the message and grace that Jesus embodied.
Mary, Peter and the other disciple came to that place of death – they came to the tomb. And the tomb had been emptied – emptied of its power. The empty tomb, the resurrection is where we see God’s answer to the rejection of Jesus, God’s answer to all the violence and fear that led to his death. This is where God is active! The resurrection is God’s resounding affirmation of the life Jesus lived – of the image of God embodied in him – the healer, the reconciler, the one who reached out and touched lepers, ate with sinners and tax collectors, the one who welcomed children, women, Samaritans – even Gentiles. The resurrection is God’s YES to the one who chose to trust in God’s love even as he faced his own death.
Why do we not know – even yet – that the violence of this world never yields good fruit? Soldiers return from war wounded in body and spirit. Children raised in violent homes are likely to continue the cycle of violence. Nations that suffer violence find ways to retaliate with more violence. Many of those who feel isolated, rejected, and without hope seek justice through violent means. The cycle is never-ending when violence, hatred, fear, and dismissive judgment are given free reign, are embraced as necessities.
Episcopal Bishops published a statement this week that says: “We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others.” Those who crucified Jesus thought they were winning – they thought they were ensuring the safety of the nation by silencing a person and a movement that challenged the brokenness. They thought death would be the end.
But God said, “No!” The resurrection declares that God will triumph over the ways of death that so enslave the world. Paul writes in I Corinthians, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” And God has destroyed that enemy. That is the good news of the empty tomb, of the resurrected Jesus. Those who crucified Jesus thought that death meant the end – of him and of his message. God destroyed that enemy death – saying yes to Jesus and yes to the message of his life.
Our world needs Jesus’ message embodied in those who seek to follow him. We need those who will cross the boundaries that divide and seek true peace that emerges from reconciliation. Our world needs those who heal, those who dispense mercy, those who walk into the places of death and proclaim that God is not absent, but present – offering victory over the ways of death and destruction. We need to find ways to address the hurts that fester and the isolation that brews despair.
The good news of Easter is that God has destroyed the power of death. Yes, that means we may trust in the promise of a life beyond this life. Yet, that promise gives us the courage to live God’s ways today – proclaiming love in a world that too often lives by hate, proclaiming reconciliation in a world that sees division as the only way to be safe, proclaiming a deep peace that comes not through intimidation and coercion, but through the recognition that all are created in the image of God.
God meets us in our places of death and God says, “See, the tomb is empty. Death’s power has been vanquished. Live! Live into the life of Christ!”