"Conquest - Jesus Style"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
April 19, 2020
1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31
I don’t want to die. It’s not being dead that bothers me so much. I’ve often said that I’m agnostic about the details of being dead, I’m not so worried about that. I try not to have specific expectations about that. Perhaps being dead will be as it is depicted in the Gospel according to Hollywood. Perhaps there will be a reunion with loved ones. Perhaps there will be continuity of identity and return of consciousness of some sort. Perhaps our beloved pets will eagerly greet us. Perhaps there will be some meritocracy of the dead – some hierarchy of holiness and proximity to the divine. Perhaps every dream of self-fulfillment will be granted. I highly doubt all of that. I suspect there will be something much less particularized. Perhaps, in death, I will return to the cosmos – to God’s beloved creation – the balance of divine energy granted to me that I did not expend in life – that I did not waste working against the grain of the universe. Still, regardless of the details, I have confidence – what I would call Faith with a capital F – in God, who is the ground and source of being, and whose nature is infinite self-giving love, to trust that death will be a kind of life unbound. Death will be liberation and relationship in which life has been given up in order to have life more abundantly.
Dying is another matter. Dying is terrifying. Dying is beyond my control. Life is mostly beyond my control as well. And without taking my hands off the wheel, I am working on fretting less about what is beyond my control. But dying is hard to let go of. Why is that? Should we not, as followers of Jesus, as those who claim to know the assurance of our salvation – which is the process of becoming more and more whole and healthy and aligned with God’s desires for connection and collaboration and compassion – should we not also be willing and able and free to die well? Our culture tells us differently. Not just our culture, but the world as humanity has construed it – creation as we have bent it to our will. It is not unreasonable to see human life as a kind of virus that invades a host and takes from it indiscriminately, leaving the host depleted and vulnerable. We seek to avoid dying and death at all cost – and to hide it away. This may be in part due to a smallness and narrowness of our understanding of life. And our incoherence about what exactly life is – when does it begin and end, what are its boundaries, how is my life connected or separate from your life or anyone else’s – lies at the heart of our most bitter conflicts and struggles. That incoherence underpins our divisions regarding abortion and the death penalty. It is behind our fumbling responses to global pandemic.
We – as a society and, I suspect, as individuals to a great degree – fear and deny death and dying. Over the course of recent history, especially in so-called “developed” nations, we have moved dying and death as far as we can from our daily life and experience. It goes along with the increasing specialization of a mechanized society. Those with what we perceive to have little life left in them are moved into long- or short-term storage. We shield the eyes of children from the process of dying and from the presence of death – wanting to protect them from trauma, while watching cops and criminals murder each other on Netflix, disconnecting ourselves from quality of life and desensitizing ourselves from the reality of death. Disagreement and critique about responses to the coronavirus range toward two extremes. To one extreme, my life belongs to me and I must protect it at any cost. My freedom is bound up when I am held accountable to others. To another extreme, life must be protected at any cost because responsibility for death is to be avoided. We are huddled in an upstairs room with our doors locked for fear of the vector that may carry our loss of control and hasten our dying and death. Our current reality is framed between the incongruous partners of anarchy and tyranny.
The analogy of the disciples in the upper room on the very day that they had been stunned by Jesus’ assault on the boundaries between life and death is not perfect. The virus and its effects are not to be confused with the Judeans or the temple authorities or, as it has been unfortunately or deliberately translated – the Jews. And yet, into our midst steps Jesus, fresh from the harrowing of hell, and still marked by the wounds of his execution. The story of these followers – both timid and earnest, is both comforting and disturbing to us as we live in this very anxious time. We tend to dismiss the miraculous counter-reality that is described in the very fleshy and literally tangible presence of Jesus who breathes and lives and moves and has being after his very real dying and entry into death. As post-enlightenment thinkers, we dismiss the pre-scientific mind. In doing that we lose all around.
I don’t want to get caught up in trying to explain something that is so foreign to our training and experience. That’s not the point of the Gospel anyway. It’s not a fable whose purpose is to explain the experience that when we have lost someone – whether they have simply moved away or their body has ceased to be a vehicle for abundant life – we have the lingering experience of their presence – even to the extent of hearing, seeing, smelling, and speaking to them. Nor is it evidence to be judged. It is so much more than that. What happens in the narrative is not what the narrative is about. This is true about any story. The story is about the reasons we are moved to tell it. The story is about the relationships that motivate us to remember and to share. Yes, the plot and the details are important. And some stories are just a joy to be shared – or are cathartic and liberative in and of themselves. Stories can be destructive as well – especially when told with malevolent intent. This is especially true of the Gospels – and emphatically true of the Gospel of John. It invites us ever deeper into its superfluity of meaning – overflowing and life-giving.
There are many portals to deeper relationship and meaning in these few sentences from the original conclusion to John’s Gospel. As with all biblical narrative, the overall structure carries meaning as well. We are reminded in its conclusion that John’s Gospel begins with the beginning of all things. Like all the gospels, it is a creation story. It is about the creation and revelation of a new and alternative reality. We recall the ancient story that we often think of as THE creation story, and how it begins with a troubling, disturbing wind/breath/spirit that moves over the waters, giving life and calling meaning out of chaos. So too, Jesus’ breath enters the followers huddled in the chaotic aftermath of his death. Even though they had been warned it was coming, they were unprepared. And now, their lungs were filled with a novel spirit that would soon go viral. Even though they may have thought that eternal life and close connection to Abba God would mean a perfected existence – whether in the fully embodied realm or the exclusively spirit realm – here was Jesus, both wounded and whole – salvation personified.
What comes next will be different. We will not return to a now-perfected former order. We will be marked forever by the wounds that separate us – the experiences that traumatize us. This is good news. The former order was fundamentally not working for most people. Our current affliction has shed strong light on the shadows of our system. It’s my hope and prayer – my trust and faith – that what’s next will be closer to God’s deep longing for compassion. It will certainly be different – a new normal. But we will not have lost the wounds.
We say, with the Apostle Paul, that Jesus conquered death. And yet here we are, surrounded by it, in one way or another. You know that I work very hard to avoid militaristic terms, phrases, and analogies. I believe that to follow Jesus requires explicit and committed rejection of violence and warfare. But to understand the analogy of conquering death, we must enter that mindset for a moment. To conquer does not mean to annihilate or eliminate. To conquer means to take a territory into one’s realm. If indeed Jesus conquered death, it means that he incorporated it into his realm – embodied it. He embraced it fully. We protestants don’t linger much in the idea that following his execution Jesus entered hell – which to the people of that time was not a place of punishment, but a non-existence where whatever remains of life lingers. There is no biblical account of the middle day. But just as God blesses and redeems creation by entering it profoundly through Jesus, so Jesus blesses and claims death by entering it profoundly on the middle day. We should not fear or deny the reality of this place claimed by Jesus as part of his own – especially when by doing so we diminish the abundant riches of life as God pours it out upon us and breathes it into us.
We are in the middle day. We are in a time of uncertainty and loss. We are surrounded by loss and death. And yet we follow the master of death as well as life. We are invited not to hide death away, but to live with and through it. That is my project, and if you stick with me, yours, during this extended Lent that overlaps resurrection. Let us consider what it means to live with confidence that while life is to be preserved and protected as holy and sacred, death, too, is to be understood and embraced as a gift to creation. We do not believe that Jesus conquered death merely for the benefit and occupancy of his followers. But we are confident that Jesus’ life and death and resurrection are meant to reveal to us that, wherever we find ourselves, God is already there – before, between, and beyond. In these coming weeks, we will return often to this project. How did the first followers live when life returned, and how are we, followers today, to live when life returns. That is mature discipleship. And in the end, how shall we give away our death as Jesus gave his away? This is the ultimate quest of discipleship. How are we to conquer – Jesus style?