In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As Luke explains the growth of Jesus’ followers in their faith in the resurrection: the risen Jesus asks them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” In a striking phrase, Luke describes how “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” The gospels are full of stories of how Jesus’ earliest followers day-by-day worked their way towards an understanding of the resurrection, where death would never be the final word for them ever again.
It can seem, however, like common sense to believe in death’s victory over life rather than life’s victory over death. Death has its own forces, people, and propaganda in our world of the living. Death makes itself felt and its life draining reach into our world should not be underestimated or accepted in particular situations too easily.
I’ve been surprised by how much fatalism there has been in this pandemic. There has been too much unnecessary death during this most difficult year. How much has it been heard, “If it’s my time to go, it is”? While such a sentiment can seem like faith, it is not. It give ups too much ground to death. It is a faith that undermines our own personal agency rather than saving it. That sort of fatalism has made a lot of tragedy appear to be inevitable that simply was not.
Death has enough victories in our world. It can even take up residence within us, in our minds, while we are still alive. I run into it and I bet you do too. From time to time I speak with people who are daily filled with anger at another person usually for good reason. But so often I discover that we are speaking of something that happened twenty or thirty years ago. Legitimate anger hardens into a toxic bitterness. And it takes a bit of daily work to nurse wounds and grudges so as it keep the pain that fresh and vivid over time. The saddest part of it all is how that initial pain consumes so much of the rest of life when it does not have to. The kingdom of death, in this way, can assert its grip long before we ever see the grave. I only bring this up as a cautionary tale because death stalks us all with its work of robbing us of the joy of life even as we are alive. To live with spiritual and physical vibrancy requires a kind of life-affirming faith and a good deal of daily attentive work.
This Easter season is a reminder that Christianity is a gospel of life. St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26). Christianity is a religion of joy and life. Its opposite is death. Death is its enemy. Jesus came to loosen death’s hold upon us, its dark grip on our imaginations, it cold effects upon our hearts. Jesus said, “I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
Today we began our service with me proclaiming, “alleluia Christ is risen!” And you responded, “The Lord is risen, indeed, Alleluia.” We say this reminding ourselves of the truth of Easter, where the victory goes to life and not to death, and our worship is to the God and author of life and not one word of homage is given to the kingdom of death.
This third Sunday of Easter is a time to do a personal inventory and ask yourself, “What parts of you have not yet experienced the resurrection light? Are there hidden dark corners in your heart that don’t know that Christ is risen? Do they not know that whatever the kingdom of darkness has done over the years is being undone and overcome so decisively that your heart can just let go of whatever holds it. Or even forget about it entirely since there is so little to be gained from remembering death’s intrusions into life? It is joy that wins in the end and that is the thing to hold onto or even be held by.
Is there some playground insult directed at you by some childhood bully that you still remember? That’s the kingdom of death. It is time to introduce that insult to the power of Jesus and his resurrected life. Is there some disappointment in your past that keeps bubbling up with feelings of regret? It is time to introduce regret to the power of Jesus and his resurrected life. Is there some failure in your past where you let yourself down and other people too? It is time introduce failure to the power of Jesus and his resurrected life. Is there some fear that haunts you and robs you of your joy? It is time to introduce fear to the power of Jesus and his resurrected life. Is there some anxiety that afflicts you and makes you tense and upset and steals your happiness? It is time to introduce anxiety to the power of Jesus and his resurrected life. Is there some anger, hatred, or bitterness in your heart that may be there for good reason because it used to protect you, but you have carried it long enough. It is time to introduce anger to the power of Jesus and his resurrected life. Or is it something else, some other way that the kingdom of death is still in your life? It is time to introduce death to the power of Jesus and his resurrected life.
You may be thinking that the thing you are wrestling with is not so easy to introduce to anyone and you may need additional help to be free of it. Remember how clearly we are told that it took a while for this wonderful truth to really sink into the hearts and minds of the early followers of Jesus. Have you ever held a penny in your hand? Sure you have. But what if you gripped it really hard? And then you just held it tight for a long time. You can run this experiment, but after a while it is going to be really hard to open your hand. The muscles in it tighten up and it is hard to get any new message through to them. If you hold it long enough it is hard to say if you have the penny or if it has you. How do you let go when it is that bad, when you can’t even see the line anymore between you and the thing you have and has you, when the kingdom of death resists the power of Jesus and his resurrected life?
Personal prayer has a tremendous amount of power here. We underestimate the power of personal prayer for ourselves. Help is right here at hand. But prayer is something we need to learn or practice and it takes some patience and repetition. It takes time for you mind to learn to trust it and lean into its humble rhythms. For example, our psalm for today is a prayer written against night terrors. Some of us unfortunately have found ourselves with the Psalmist in the dark, in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, anxious or afraid (maybe a lot this last year). The Bible gives us this prayer for that situation, to find the light in the darkness, to find Christ’s resurrection when the kingdom of death feels like it is advancing.
The writer of today’s Psalm pleads in the darkness, “Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause… have mercy on me and hear my prayer.” He tries to assure his whole self, “Know that the Lord does wonders for the faithful; when I call upon the Lord, he will hear me.” So I should “Tremble, then, and do not sin.” He tells himself, “speak to your heart in silence upon your bed.” He thinks how many people are full of woe and lament saying, “Oh, that we might see better times!” But unlike them he asks God directly, “Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O Lord” (that is, “see me here afraid in the dark”). And then notice the change in how he feels as he feels seen by God and is no longer alone. He says, “You have put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine and oil increase. I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you, Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4). That is what it looks like when the darkness yields to the light, when fear lets go, and Christ’s resurrection makes its power known in your heart when you most need it. That path of life is always, always, there, even when we have trouble seeing it for ourselves.
So let us not give the kingdom of death one more victory. No fatalism here. Even if–with the disciples–we, in our joy, are disbelieving and still wondering, let us open more and more places in our hearts and minds to the power of Jesus and his resurrected life. If you don’t seem to be finding it, be patient with yourself in the same way Jesus’ earliest followers were patient with themselves. When we say together, “alleluia Christ is risen!” May our hearts respond, “The Lord is risen, indeed, Alleluia” because our hearts know that life is stronger than death, and that, despite what other messengers may say, we were made for joy.
May the Almighty God, who is always more than we can ask for or imagine, give us confidence in Christ Jesus, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit we live into the fullness of life, both now and forevermore. Amen
The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet