5 April 2015, Christ Church
Very early on Sunday morning, just after sunrise, [the women] came to the tomb. (Mark 16)
Easter is about ultimate things. Easter is about life—and death—and the meaning they have. Easter counts for everything: which is why it is so important that you are here this morning.
The Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel once observed that, “death is a test of the meaning of life. If death is devoid of meaning, then life is absurd.” If, in other words, we live life moving inexorably toward its obliteration in an absolute negation of death, then what we do now, or fail to do, is essentially pointless and irrelevant.
Against this rather bleak perspective, however, Heschel goes on to suggest that we must remember that the view we take of death is fundamentally affected by our understanding of life. “If,” he said, “life is sensed as a surprise, as a gift, defying explanation, then death ceases to be a radical, absolute negation of what life stands for. For both life and death are aspects of a greater mystery, [which is] the mystery of being.”
Heschel’s comments lead us toward the point that if we regard life as fundamentally a gift that is given to us by God, then death is not simply its end, but rather its consummation. It is so because death is the moment when we return to God the gift of life that was given to us in creation. Death becomes an act through which we offer to God the greatest gift that we have to give, which is the life that God gave to us, with all of the compounded layers of meaning and beauty that we have added to it by how we have lived. Death is therefore a part of the larger mystery of being, for it is the point at which the circle of divine/human reciprocity established in creation is closed and brought to its completion. As Heschel provocatively put it, for a pious person, it is a privilege to die, for death is the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, of returning to God, that which God bestowed on us.
Now this divine/human reciprocity is the context, I think, in which we might begin to try to make sense of what Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection have to do with us. Throughout his life, Jesus was intensely aware of having been given a mission, a purpose to accomplish. His life was lived as an enactment of this strong sense of convergence with God’s will. Finally, once Jesus senses that this mission is accomplished by his death on the cross, that “it is finished,” he enacts the transaction of handing his life back to God—of closing the circle—with the words, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
And were that the end of it, then in and of itself that would have been a powerful and vivid illustration of the circle of reciprocity between God and humanity from which we could take much inspiration. We could identify with him as one of us, supremely exemplary for his having fully lived a life given, received, and returned.
But of course, that is not the end of it. On the Sunday morning after Jesus’ death, as the Gospel of Mark has it, three women go to the tomb to anoint his body with aromatic oils. They go to put the final touches on the residue of a life now returned to God, intending to anoint his body as the receptacle of the gift of life that it was. They come, you might say, to hallow his death as a sign that the circle has been closed.
Yet what they find, is that there is no death, no body, remaining to be anointed. Instead, there is an empty tomb, and where Jesus had been, there is an angelic messenger who points them toward Galilee where they will see him who has been raised again.
Jesus, you see, has not only closed through his death the circle of reciprocity with God that encompasses life and death as we know it: through his resurrection he has also recommenced the movement around that circle. Taking up life once again, he extends the circle of giving, receiving, ennobling, and returning life so that it is made continuous rather than solitary. This is the new creation, in which the finality of death is replaced by a life that is uninterrupted by the separation of body and soul.
This new creation is not the same as something like Nietzche’s idea of eternal return, nor is it analogous to any of the various ideas of reincarnation. But it is something that Christian faith affirms as “life everlasting,” whatever that may be—and it is some manner of continuing enjoyment of and partnership in the divine/human encounter which God intended from the beginning of creation.
Now, contrary to popular belief, the Bible actually has very little to say about the afterlife. Unlike many of the other religions of the ancient Near East, the Judaeo-Christian tradition is relatively ambivalent about what life after death might look like, especially when you take into account the visionary, mythical character of much of what the Bible does have to say (such as the book of Revelation). There are no pyramids in our tradition, with embalmed pharaohs journeying with their golden treasures into the next life; there is no epic of Gilgamesh, wandering in endless search of immortality.
Rather, the Bible calls us to take heart from the fact that in Jesus, God has resolved the problem of death: it no longer has the last word. As a result, we can focus on what the Bible calls us to instead: a persistent and unrelenting concern for how to sanctify this life, which it proposes is to be done by living in creative partnership with God in establishing a kingdom of charity and generosity and delight and enjoyment and gratitude.
Jesus’ resurrection to life on the other side of the grave becomes God’s ratification of the ultimate meaning of life on this side of it. We are, in some mysterious fashion, hid with God in Christ, which gives us reason to trust in the meaning and goodness of this life, and then to get on with the business of living it as the gift that it is, as fully and graciously as it is given by God for us to do. So Heschel is right: death is a test of the meaning of life; but because in Christ death is no longer without meaning, then neither is life absurd. Life is gift: it is a gift both now and in the age to come.
As we used to sing every Easter Sunday in the Baptist church of my childhood,
To God be the glory, great things He hath done,
So loved He the world that He gave us His Son,
Who yielded His life our redemption to win,
And opened the life-gate that all may go in. Amen.
© Joseph Britton 2015