What does it take to rise from the dead?
Here are my reflections from Easter Sunday. Enjoy.
Happy Easter! On this morning, when the daylight is returning and the days have become warmer, when flowers begin to bloom and trees put out their first leaves; when the earth is coming back to life after a dreary winter; we hear the amazing news that Jesus has risen from the dead! And since Jesus the Christ has conquered death, we too know that we need not fear the ending of our mortal lives. It is a great day for celebration, and a great day to consider the ways in which we, too, metaphorically rise from the dead. Through all of the changes in our lives, Christ is there to reassure us that after every loss, after every little death, there will be new life.
This is our faith! However, this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Mark reminds us that resurrection might be… a little scary, a little hard to believe.So let’s unpack that story a bit. Let’s also consider a more recent experience of a person who says that he was dead, and came back to life, and look for the lessons that he has for us. And let’s consider what steps one has to take when rising from the dead.
Original ending of Mark: leaves uncertainty
Let’s review the events leading up to the Easter story. Jesus was crucified on a Friday. He died on a Friday afternoon, so late in the day that those who loved him barely had time to get his body into a tomb before the Sabbath began. So the women in his entourage go back to give Jesus’ body a proper treatment and burial, the first chance they have, on Sunday morning.
Now imagine how you would feel if you had left the body of a loved one in a safe place, and then come back 36 hours later… only to find out that the body is gone. Not only that, some young man you have never seen before, a guy wearing nice clothes, tells you that your loved one is no longer dead, but alive, and tells you to spread the word! I don’t know about you, but I would be scared. Mark tells us that these women were frightened, and didn’t tell anyone.
In the oldest manuscripts we have, the Gospel of Mark ends here – with puzzlement and uncertainty on the part of the witnesses. I can imagine a storyteller bringing this message to a group of people who wanted to hear about Jesus. I imagine that everyone would ask, “Well, what happened next? Where did Jesus go? Where is he now?” It would leave them with more questions than answers. Come to think of it, the process of rising from the dead, in our everyday lives, also involves a lot of uncertainty, and more than a little discomfort.
But before I talk about how to rise from the dead, I want to share someone’s story with you.
A friend recently recommended that I read a book entitled “90 Minutes in Heaven.” It’s not the sort of thing I would normally read, but I think it has some insights that we can find helpful. The author, Don Piper, is a Baptist minister. On a fateful day, more than 20 years ago, Don was driving home from a church conference when his car collided with an 18-wheeler. The semi truck crushed the roof of his car, mangling both the car and the driver inside it. When paramedics arrived at the accident scene, they could not find a pulse in Don’s body, and concluded that he had been killed instantly.
While the paramedics were waiting for the medical examiner to arrive, another pastor who was driving back from the same conference happened upon the accident scene. Pastor Dick Onerecker reported that God told him that he needed to pray for the driver in the mangled car, and so he did, even though the paramedics again checked and could not find Don’s pulse. This second pastor somehow found a way into the car, touched Don’s shoulder, and prayed for his healing, finally singing some familiar hymns.
During this time, Don Piper said, he was in heaven. He was in a place of almost unbearable beauty, light, and music, and was greeted by relatives and friends who had died long ago. At one point, he found himself singing.
Dick Onerecker was singing “What a friend we have in Jesus” when he began to hear another voice singing along, Don’s voice. He hollered for the paramedics to call an ambulance. The man who had been pronounced dead 90 minutes before… was alive! The rest of the book tells of Don Piper’s painful journey of recovery, and of his conviction that he had had this experience so that he could tell others about it and give them hope.
Now, you may or may not believe that this preacher went to heaven, and came back again. Bur whether or not you believe that part of the story, I think you will find that the story of how he came back to life again, from that accident, has some lessons for all of us.
How to Rise from the Dead:
How does one rise from the dead? I submit, for your consideration, that rising from the dead has three parts. First, we have to die. Second, in order to rise, we have to let go of the things that accompany being dead. And third, we must be open to a new life that is completely different from the one that died.
Step One: In order to rise from the dead, we have to die first. Jesus was dead when they put his body in the tomb. Don Piper was dead, by all observations, when the emergency workers found him in his cruxhed Ford Escort. In the same way, if we wish in some part of our lives to rise from the dead, we have to acknowledge that that part of our lives is dead.
In our everyday lives, we certainly have joy; and we also have losses, sometimes one after another. Maybe it’s a friendship that has ended, a job from which we were laid off. We may be raging in our grief; we may be sad and mourning; but we begin my recognizing that whatever this part of our lives was, it is over. It has died.
Step Two is to let go of the things that belong to the dead. In order to rise, Jesus had to get out from under the shroud that had enclosed his body, out from under the cloth that had covered his face. One of the other Gospels says that these cloths were neatly folded and sitting in the empty tomb. Jesus left the death clothes behind.
Don Piper had to be taken out of his car with the Jaws of Life. He had to have someone take him away in an ambulance rather than a hearse. And as he recovered, he found that there were parts of his old life that would never come back: walking normally, running after a football that one of his sons threw to him, being totally independent. He had to let them go.
It’s the same way with us, isn’t it? When a relationship has ended, if we want to enter into something new, we have to let go of the old habits that made up our everyday routine. Making that phone call at a certain time every afternoon, just to say, “I love you.” For me, it’s sending my Mom flowers for Mother’s Day; even though it has been four years since she passed, I still catch myself thinking that I need to order a bouquet. Or I still catch myself wanting to pick up the phone and tell her about what’s going on in my life. The calls I used to have with her were wonderful, but they belong to the past.
Sometimes in our church life, too, we find ourselves clinging to things that are associated with something that’s dead. We want to have the joy that we had five years ago. Or ten years ago. Or maybe just last month. But those things are all in the past. We can’t hang on to them. The church that we had ten years ago, or fifty years ago, or whenever, does not exist any more. We have to let it go.
And that brings us to Step Three. We need to be ready for a new life that is completely different from our old one. We should expect God to do something that will surprise us!
The Gospel stories of Jesus after his Resurrection almost all say that there was something different about him. Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize him in the garden where she wept by the empty tomb. The disciples with whom Jesus walked to Emmaus didn’t recognize him until the breaking of the bread. He was different!
Don Piper’s body is different; so, too, is his spirit. In his book, he tells of the painful physical processes that were involved in his healing, and the equally painful emotional adjustments that he needed to make. For example, when his parishioners came to visit him in the hospital, and asked what he needed, he would say “nothing.” This kept up until a mentor of his wisely pointed out that the offer to help was an expression of his parishioners’ love for him, and that he was being selfish in refusing their help. He learned that sometimes, he truly was helpless, and he had to learn to swallow his pride and let others help.
I think back to the women in Mark’s Gospel who saw the empty tomb. They were frightened! They didn’t know where Jesus was, and they didn’t know what would happen next. Sometimes, church, we have to sit with that discomfort. We can cling to the past, or we can open ourselves to new possibilities. Only one of these strategies leads to resurrection. As scary as it is, new life comes from being willing to go someplace completely different.
What about u?
So, what is it in your life that is dead? Where is it in your life that the Holy One is calling you to rise again, to new possibilities?
Once upon a time, I had a poster that was designed by Corita Kent, the same artist who painted the bold splashes of color on the gas tank that lies between I-93 and the ocean, up in Boston. The poster had bold splashes of red and blue; on these splashes of color, it had the words:
“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”
I got rid of that poster, somewhere in my time in graduate school. It had gotten to be pretty beat up, and I had begun to think of the slogan as a horrible cliché. (Now, I wish I still had it; it would be worth something as a collectible!) Yes, I moved on from that particular possession; but there is still an important, if obvious, truth in the words. This Easter morning is the first day of the rest of your life.
What will you rise to in this new life?