Resurrection lite or resurrection light?
Today I am reminded of what Michelle Webster-Hein once wrote:
This morning at church I plunked out the four parts of an old hymn while above my chords the congregation’s voices took flight. And I thought of geese bursting up together from the edge of a pond where they had been napping and squabbling and pecking for fish.
Sometimes it is hard for me to believe in God, heaven, restoration, but it is easier on Sundays, when the Mennonites sing, to suspect that goodness is always paddling about at the edges of things.
“Goodness is always paddling about at the edges of things.” Now that to me is a good word for Easter.
Believe it or not, it’s not easy to know what words to say (or not say) on a morning like this. I think a lot of you sensed that because I got a lot of “I’m praying for you” emails this week. Thank you for your prayers.
Ever since I was little, our family began Easter outside at an Easter sunrise service. Easter began with the stillness and quietness of the morning. The sun did the work for us as we watched, waited and listened. I actually think Jesus’ resurrection is best considered outside. There’s more room to explore and imagine when you are outside near a garden, near water and rocks with the sound of birds and the sun peeking over the horizon. Plus, the majority of the resurrection stories found in the Bible take place outside.
For six years when I was the pastor at Bethel College Mennonite, I biked 5-6 miles to the Easter sunrise service with the youth group, sometimes as early as 5 a.m. It was only later in the day that we gathered to raise our voices in a sanctuary setting. But again, thinking about my growing-up years, I didn’t have to use very many words back then. In my family, my sister and dad did most of the talking while my brother and I did the trumpet-playing and my mom organized the Easter dramas. This was fine by me. I was much more comfortable playing trumpet than thinking or talking about the theological implications of Jesus’ resurrection.
I’m not sure why, but this year I found myself wanting to play the trumpet again. Or at least I wanted to see if I could play the trumpet again, and of course I made the mistake of saying this out in front of our Music Ministries Director Rosi, and within a day, there was a trumpet waiting for me in my office. Perhaps I wanted to play trumpet again because I feared I wouldn’t have words today. A pastor should always have a back-up plan.
This week several people asked me if I enjoyed preaching at Easter. A couple people even asked me if I ever had to fake believing in the resurrection — a bold question to ask a pastor, but I appreciated it nonetheless.
I’ll admit that it does at times feel daunting and even presumptuous to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus from death. I tend to be among those pastors who are a little more comfortable with quiet, hushed alleluias at Easter than bold, triumphant shouts from the mountaintop. Sometimes, some years I prefer to go lite on the resurrection.
I can relate to what pastor Russell Rathbun writes:
On this Sunday, Easter Sunday, I am always a little intimidated to get up and say anything, especially such a clear and remarkable thing. How do I talk about the actuality of this event that we are re-membering, the coming back from a murder perpetrated by God’s creations, which serve not as evidence for our condemnation, but as the advent of our reconciliation, our new birth as a humanity?…
No matter how much joy and exuberance I try to summon on a day like this, he writes, it always feels inadequate in its aim and size.
I imagine it’s not just pastors who can relate to this. It’s difficult to know what to say or not say on a day like this. It’s intimidating to know what questions are acceptable to ask in church. We’re all trying and struggling to frame this impossible-sounding, even offensive-sounding notion of bodily resurrection. Sometimes on a day like this it’s difficult in church community to give each other enough space to explore, dream, and imagine, affirm and yes, question. Sometimes we become so convinced that Jesus’ resurrection did or did not happen, or that it means this and not this, that we stop exploring and imagining and listening to one another.
I tend to agree with writer Nora Gallagher, who fears that we spend so much time in the church debating whether the resurrection did or did not happen and in our debates, we sometimes miss the point entirely. What if, she wonders, we spent more time asking ourselves what the resurrection points to, and what Jesus’ post death appearances ask of us…for it is (and I quote her) “finally what we do with these accounts that matters. Will we make them into superstition or use them as stepping stones to new life here and now?”
I thought this week about Bonnie Beachey, a beloved member of this congregation who died in January. The service we held in her honor did not begin with words. It began with her grandson rising from the pew, walking with great care to the front in order to light a candle. There was a note in the bulletin that said the white candle symbolized Bonnie’s baptismal vows and the flame represented hope and faith in eternal life.
I was so moved as I watched him carefully light this candle in honor of his grandmother. As I watched him light this resurrection candle, I found myself wondering again about this notion of resurrection — this grand undoing of death that the Bible describes, and that the church through the ages, that Bonnie sought to live and trust. I found myself wondering again, asking myself what I resisted about the resurrection, or why at times I chose to treat the resurrection more lightly.
And then this week my mind wondered to my time spent in one of the children’s Sunday school rooms about six weeks ago. I was collecting their questions about Jesus, the Bible, the church, etc. It was Joel Bollinger who finally spoke up. It took him a little while to feel comfortable asking it but finally in a slow, thoughtful way he said,
If someone dies (long pause), this might sound weird, (another pause), but if someone dies are they considered recreated? If so, what kind of recreation?
These are times I feel woefully inadequate as a pastor and wish I would have pursued trumpet performance instead.
Because this question gets at the heart of what we are invited to wonder about and consider on a day like this.
Joel, and to anyone else who have wondered about such profound things, I believe that the God we worship is a God who is always at work creating and recreating. The story as passed on to us through the ages goes that not even death can entomb God and not even death can entomb us. In all things, even in death, God is at work redeeming, renewing, restoring and yes, recreating — putting back together that which feels lost forever, broken and torn apart.
How that putting back together happens, when that happens, why that happens is what we are invited to reflect on our whole lives and in community. More than that, recreation is what we are invited to practice as the people of God. Jesus’ resurrection, whether we believe in it or not, points to much more than the miracle of a dead person raised from the grave. What I believe the resurrection points to is that all of the principalities and powers that seek to entomb God and entomb us, all of the hatred spewed in our world, all the injustices, all that would keep us down — these things may appear to have the last word, these things may have us doubt in the presence of God, but the good news of Easter worth considering is that these realities do not and will not have the last word. And they won’t have the last word because the Spirit of God continues to empower people and communities who refuse to let hatred have the last word. The always-creating Spirit of God is breathing life into people, into places, yes, even into death, in all its forms, awakening us, awakening a new world of peace and harmony and equality and mutuality, about which we can only dream at times.
Might we come together or at least consider that piece of good news? Might we become people who seek to walk in the light of the resurrection believing together, or helping each other believe that goodness is always paddling about at the edges of things? Let’s continue to pursue that goodness. Let’s continue to let that goodness guide us in walking toward this new world of peace and equality and mutuality.
Ruth Harder is the pastor of Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Mo. She blogs at overandaroundtherainbow.com, where this first appeared.
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