Walker Chapel UMC

Sanctuary Open for Prayer: Sunday, 9:00 am
Adult Study: Sunday, 9:30 am
Worship: Sunday, 10:30 am
Children's Sunday School: Sunday, 10:45 am



May 2019

Suggested reading: John 20:1-11

Among one of the more common beginnings to a committal service in our United Methodist Church tradition actually has its origins in a medieval Gregorian chant:

Media vita in morte sumus quem quaerimus adjutorem.

The words were later translated into English for use in the Book of Common Prayer and are now translated as:

In the midst of life, we are in death, from whom can we seek help?

And often the response to this question at a committal service is taken from Psalm 124: “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

While this emphasis upon death in the midst of life may sound a bit morbid to us, especially today, it was simply stating a fact of life in the Middle Ages when anywhere between 30% to 50% of children died in infancy and the average life expectancy ranged somewhere between 30 to 35 years. Still, even in our modern age, death is never far away as, for instance, when 8 persons were killed this past week as a result of the storms that marched across the central part of our country and the tragedy in New Zealand not long ago that so unexpectedly took the lives of 49 people.

Easter, of course, is a story about life, not death. But before it’s a story about life, it’s necessarily a story about death. That’s one reason why Easter is not nearly so popular a holiday as Christmas. Take away the Christmas trees, the presents, the parties, and the Christmas trees, you still have the wonderful story about a child’s birth. But take away the beautiful lilies, the Easter eggs, the Easter bunnies, and what do you have left but an unsettling story about death and resurrection. That’s one of the reasons why so many of our churches stand empty the three days before Easter. It’s not just because we lead busy lives, even though we do. It’s also because many of us simply do not want to face the grim reality of death. 

I recall, for instance, several springs ago, taking my camera with me on a hike along the C&O Canal when I came upon an especially lovely azalea in full bloom. I couldn’t resist! Only as I was preparing to shoot the photo did I notice the desiccated skeleton of a deer lying beneath the bush. I recoiled, of course, not so much because I’m squeamish at the sight of dead animals but because of the startling contrast between the dead animal and the bush that was in full bloom.

Easter is like that. Its deepest meaning lies in the stark contrast between life and death, resurrection and crucifixion. Paul said that although we are spiritually dead because of sin, we are spiritually alive in Jesus Christ. He said that it is only as we participate in the death of Christ—that is to say, as we die to sin—that we may be raised again to newness of life or, in other words, that we may share in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The way to a more profound understanding of Easter and the resurrection, therefore, necessarily takes us past the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

Having said that, Easter also is about life, although to more fully appreciate this we must first come to terms with the Resurrection. How do we explain it in a way that will not only make sense to us but also to others? Is it an illusion? In other words, did Jesus only appear to be dead? Did he exist in some catatonic state in the hours following his crucifixion only then to be revived by the coolness of the tomb? Some have said so.

Or must we somehow spiritualize the Resurrection, say that it has more to do with the immortality of the soul and Christ’s ideas than about the resurrection of the body? Bishop N. T. Wright not long ago wrote extensively about this in a book he entitled Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. These are difficult questions that should never be casually dismissed or ignored, for how we choose to answer them can either lead us and others to faith or to despair.

But some have asked me, “Yes, Mark, but what do you believe?” And I have answered saying in a word how I believe the resurrection is best explained as mystery. I’m not being evasive. I say mystery only because to respond adequately to the question inevitably leads us to the limits of human reason. I can’t explain what Mary saw or didn’t see on that first Easter when she arrived at the tomb, nor can anyone else. 

Another way of saying this that may be more acceptable to the scientific mind is to say that the Resurrection is like the theory of limits in calculus—the idea that a certain sequence of numbers can lead us to another number but can never actually quite take us there. In much the same way, the Biblical narratives concerning Jesus’ resurrection can take us almost to the point of faith but that ultimately to believe in the Resurrection takes what the 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called a “leap of faith,” which I understand as not a flying leap into the abyss but something more like an extrapolation about what is unknown based upon the evidence of what is known. 

How else can we explain the extraordinary impact Jesus’ life and death has had upon people? I liken it to two books written by the Nobel prize-winning author, Elie Wiesel who wrote the book entitled Night about his experience as a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp during WWII. It’s a heartbreaking book about the death of his parents in one of those camps and the almost unbelievable cruelty visited upon its occupants. But the sequel to that book was entitled Dawn in which Wiesel began to put the Holocaust into the perspective of his Jewish faith. The crucifixion, I’ve since thought, is like a Christian holocaust, a time when evil appeared to triumph over good and hope seemed extinguished and yet hope wasn’t extinguished nor was good defeated.

We’re celebrating Easter this year after hearing the shocking news of the fire that engulfed one of the great icons of the Christian faith, the Notre Dame cathedral. It’s an enormous loss, to be sure. I don’t think one has to be Roman Catholic to feel the loss. At the same time, I’ve been thinking all this week about how even more magnificent that cathedral will be after it has been rebuilt and—one would hope—brought up to modern architectural standards so that it will stand not simply as a monument to the past but, as it should, a beacon of hope for generations to come.

So I do not despair at what the future might bring. The Resurrection has changed all that. As Maltbie Davenport Babcock once wrote: “This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet. This is my Father’s world: why should my heart be sad? The Lord is King; let the heavens ring! God reigns; let the earth be glad!”

Yours in Christ,