Are you living into these days of Easter? Feed your soul with this Easter sermon from Rev. Omar Rikabi, on covenant, redemption, reversal, and resurrection, all through the lens of…David and Goliath?
Click here to listen.
Are you living into these days of Easter? Feed your soul with this Easter sermon from Rev. Omar Rikabi, on covenant, redemption, reversal, and resurrection, all through the lens of…David and Goliath?
Click here to listen.
In a previous post, I argued that if God is perfectly loving, then at least some animals would be resurrected in heaven—namely, those creatures whose life-ruining suffering was never redeemed during their earthly lives. Here, I will give a Scriptural argument for animal resurrection, focusing on the beginning and end of the grand biblical narrative, specifically the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2, the flood narrative of Genesis 6-9, and the promise of final restoration and renewal as described in Romans 8 and Revelation 21-22. In a nutshell, the argument goes like this: Animals are featured prominently in Genesis 1-9. They are, therefore, a significant part of God’s plan for creation. And, according to Romans 8 and Revelation 21-22, God plans to restore and renew all things, presumably animals as well. Thus, just as humans can hope for the redemption of their bodies through resurrection, there is good reason to hope that animals will be resurrected as well.
Creation and Re-creation: Genesis 1-9 The Bible begins with a hymn in which God establishes a kingdom: God commands all things into existences, bestows names and titles, draws boundaries and establishes domains, and assigns various functions to created things. Humans occupy the top of this earthly hierarchy. They are created in God’s image and are given dominion over the earth and over all living things. Yet animals are important as well. Along with humans, they are blessed and commanded to “be fruitful and multiply” and to fill creation.
The world of Genesis 1 is orderly and peaceful. Originally, there was no struggle for survival, no competition among species, and apparently no predation: “And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food” (Genesis 1:30). Animals are also prominent in Genesis 2:4-25, where, like Adam, they are created from the dust as potential helpers for him. Adam gives names to each of the animals and rules over them, though the Bible repeats that Adam is not given their flesh to eat, but is instead limited to the fruits of the garden (Gen. 2:15-17). After just two chapters of peace and harmony, the biblical narrative takes a sharp dive in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve, who were supposed to care for Eden and all creatures in it, instead are disobedient and submit the whole world to a curse. Things get progressively worse until, by the time of Noah, the world is so corrupted that God regrets ever creating humanity. On the surface, the flood story illustrates God’s mercy toward Noah’s family and (a select group of) the animal kingdom in the midst of divine judgment.
But reading carefully, we see that Genesis 6-9 both reflects back on creation and foreshadows the new heavens and new earth. Notice, for instance, how the flood narrative imitates the style of Genesis 1 and draws a clear contrast between them. Originally, everything in creation is as it should be—the refrain “and God saw that it was good” is repeated seven times in Genesis 1 (on the seventh time, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”) Compare that to the beginning of the flood story: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6:5) Again, Genesis 6:11-12 says, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.” The deluge, furthermore, represents a reversal of God’s creative activities. On the second and third days of creation, God separates the waters, holding them back with the dome of the sky and with dry ground. But once Noah is safe in the ark, God allows the waters to return, and “on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.” (Gen. 7:11) Next, God creates all over again. The waters recede, once again leaving the sky and dry ground. God brings forth living creatures from the ark to creep across the ground and fly through the air. And just like the first time, God blesses humans, commanding them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” and gives Noah’s family dominion over all creatures.
Finally, God establishes a new covenant with Noah, his future descendants, “and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark,” promising never to curse the ground because of humanity and never to destroy the world again by flood. (Gen. 8:20-22; 9:8-17) In effect, when Noah leaves the ark, he’s entering a new heaven and a new earth—a world that is like Eden, but diminished: Whereas Adam and Eve were innocent and unashamed of their nakedness, Noah’s family is still stained by sin, and Noah’s nakedness is now a cause for shame. And while there was originally peace among the animals, the violence that infected the animal kingdom after Adam and Eve’s sin—competition, predation, and so on—is still present. Moreover, Noah is allowed to eat meat, and the fear of humanity now afflicts all of the animals.
At the same time, however, while the great deluge is a means of destruction and re-creation, notice that it is not a complete destruction, nor a complete re-creation. God could have utterly annihilated the old creation and spoken an entirely new world into existence. But instead, God chose to fashion his new earth from the remains of the old one. This point is significant because several prophecies use the flood as a foretaste of God’s ultimate plan for the world. In Hosea, for example, God’s promise to restore peace to Israel echoes the covenant established with Noah: “In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety.” Meanwhile, Peter predicts that just as “the world of that time was deluged with water and perished…the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire,” which will set the heavens ablaze and melt the elements (2 Peter 3:6-7, 3:10-12). “But,” he continues, “in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Peter 3:13).
Consummation: Romans 8 and Revelation 21-22 According to Scripture, then, the post-deluge world is like Eden, but diminished; in contrast, the new heavens and new earth will be like Eden, but elevated. Paul’s letter to the Romans paints this picture beautifully:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25)
This passage continues a line of reasoning begun in Romans 5, where Paul says that “we boast in our sufferings” because they produce endurance, character, and hope (5:2-4). The cause for this hope, he continues, is Christ, through whom the righteous have been justified, reconciled to God, and freed from sin. Whereas Adam’s sin introduced death into the world and enslaved humanity to sin, Christ’s death and resurrection bring life, freedom, and ultimately adoption into God’s family. In the passage quoted above, Paul ties together these themes and extends them to the created world: We should have hope and wait patiently for the redemption of our bodies because all of creation waits in eager anticipation, both for its own redemption and for God’s children to be revealed. In other words, since God’s plan from the beginning has been to redeem creation (“creation was subjected to futility…in hope that [it] will be set free”), we can be sure that God will bring this plan to completion.
Similarly, in Revelation God is the Alpha and Omega, the creator of the universe and its perfecter. The consummation of all things is described in Revelation 21: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:1-5a)
Like Romans 8, Revelation brings us back to Genesis. John’s description of the new heaven and new earth draws from the prophecy of Isaiah, in which God promises to end the futility and misery of the present world, bring joy to his people and dwell with them, and establish peace, even among the animals. Revelation 22 makes an explicit connection to Genesis 2: Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2) While a single tree of life grew in Eden, the new Jerusalem has several trees of life lining its central river.
The clear implication is that the holy city will be like Eden, but much better. Noting how Revelation 22 merges the temple imagery of Ezekiel 47 with the garden imagery of Genesis 2-3, G. K. Beale argues that the new Jerusalem is a “paradisal city-temple” that encompasses the whole earth. According to Beale, the Jewish temple was a microcosmic model of creation, and “the Garden of Eden was the archetypal temple in which the first man worshipped God.” So Adam was the first priest of God’s temple, and his task was to subdue the earth and extend the boundaries of Eden until it covered the whole earth. Beale continues, This meant that the presence of God, which was initially limited to Eden, was to be extended throughout the whole earth. What Adam failed to do, Revelation pictures Christ as finally having done. The Edenic imagery beginning in Rev. 22:1 reflects an intention to show that the building of the temple, which began in Genesis 2, will be completed in Christ and his people and will encompass the whole new creation. Full Circle From the above texts, we can take three important points:
An underlying message in these passages is that the end will be like the beginning, but even better. For example, in his epistle to the Romans, Paul argues that because of Adam’s sin, all of creation is in bondage to death and decay. In Romans 8, he gives us reason to hope: Freedom from sin and suffering comes through Christ, not just for humanity, but for all of creation. What Adam has bound, Christ will set free. Similarly, in John’s apocalypse (which draws heavily from the Edenic prophecies of Isaiah and Ezekiel), the new heavens and new earth is a cosmic do-over: where Adam failed in the beginning, Christ will succeed in the end.
For example, recall the prophecy of Hosea 2:18, which echoes God’s covenant with Noah and the beasts, as well as 2 Peter’s prediction that the new heavens and earth will be born, not from the destructive waters of a flood, but from an all-consuming and transforming fire. In other words, while the post-deluge world is like Eden, but diminished, the new heaven and earth to come will be like Eden, but exceedingly greater.
From Genesis 1-9 we learn about God’s power and authority and goodness, about humanity’s relationship with God and our place in the hierarchy of creation, and about humanity’s relationship with other living things. According to Genesis 1-9, animals are not an afterthought; they are not simply an embellishment of an already beautiful creation. Rather, animals integral to God’s original plan for creation. Indeed, they are so important that God delivers some of the animals through the flood so that he can use them to repopulate the new world. It stands to reason, then, that God will use the same animals from this world to populate the next. To this point, I have given two arguments for animal resurrection, one philosophical and one biblical. Perhaps neither one, by itself, is totally convincing, but when taken together, they begin to make a strong case. In a later post (or two), I will add two more arguments, one that focuses on the relationship between humans and animals and one based on the scope and effectiveness of Christ’s atonement and resurrection.
 Hosea 2:18. The New Testament authors, and subsequent Christian theologians, typically interpreted Old Testament eschatological prophecies as being inaugurated with Christ and brought to completion in the end times. Accordingly, it is common to interpret such prophecies about “Israel” as including the church and all of the righteous.
 There is some question about exactly what “the whole creation” refers to. Wesley’s translation of 8:19-22 says “the creature,” which he interprets as “every creature” and “the meaner creatures”—that is, to non-human animals (see “The General Deliverance”, II.2). The NRSV, however, reads “the whole creation,” which I interpret as referring to all of material creation, living and non-living. Either way, Paul’s hope extends at least to the animals, for in this passage Paul seems to have Genesis 2-3 in mind, which describes the animals as an important part of creation.
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress…The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust!” (Isaiah 65:17-19, 25). Notice the reference to the serpent’s deceit in Eden, suggesting that the new Jerusalem will reverse the effects of Adam’s sin.
 For more on this, see Mitchell Glenn Reddish, Revelation, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, Ga: Smyth & Helwys Pub, 2001), 421.
 G. K Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans ; Paternoster Press, 1999), 1110. See also Sandra Richter’s Seven Minute Seminary video, “Genesis 2 and the Ancient Near East,” which touches on this Eden-as-cosmic-temple theme.
 Beale, Revelation: A Commentary, 1111.
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.
There goes Jesus eating again. Eating fish with fisherman. Have you ever read through the Gospels and noticed how often Jesus is eating? Why is that? With the exception of birthday parties and my wedding, I really don’t think I would have anyone include meals in my biography. So why waste the precious ink?
Believe it or not, I think eating was central to Jesus’ mission. That’s right, the mundane and ordinary routine of sharing fellowship over a meal was a staple to Jesus’ missional diet, and I think this carries forward to the church today as well. In fact, I think there is a missional motif in Luke’s Gospel revolving around the word “fish.” So we shouldn’t be surprised to find the fisher of men eating fish with his fishermen disciples in this scene. Yes, we could spend all day talking about eating the fish and the significance of it for Jesus’ physicality of being raised from the grave. But, I think the fish points to something else, a sign, a symbol, a reminder of who the disciples are called to be and what they are called to do.
Besides our passage, there are three other places where we find the word “fish” in Luke’s Gospel.
Back in Luke 5 there is a crowd surrounding Jesus while he’s teaching God’s Word when all the sudden he sees some fishermen washing their nets. They are a little down because they worked hard all night and couldn’t land a catch. You know how the story goes. Jesus gets into Peter’s boat, continues teaching the crowds, and tells Peter where to cast the nets. They pull in the motherlode, so much so that the large quantity of fish causes the boat to sink. Swept off his feet, Peter falls down at Jesus’ feet and says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” James and John, likewise, were frozen in fear. Jesus tells them, “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching people.” Fishing for people, eh? They drop everything and follow him.
Next we encounter another miraculous event, Jesus feeding the multitudes the 5,000. Prior to the miraculous feeding, Jesus sends the disciples out on a mission. After a quick debrief, the disciples ask Jesus to send away the crowds so that the crowds can find lodging and food. Jesus snaps back, “You feed them.” Baffled, the disciples say they only have five loaves and two fish, which cannot possibly feed everyone. Jesus tells them to set the people in rows of 50, then he gives thanks to God, blesses it, breaks the bread, and kept handing them to the disciples until all ate and were satisfied. The broken pieces that were leftover were picked up, which were 12 baskets full. Sounds eerily similar to God providing manna in the wilderness to the Israelites. Mary’s prophetic prayer that Jesus “has filled the hungry with good things” seems to have been fulfilled. Fishing and feeding.
The last reference to fish is with regard to prayer. Jesus compares praying to God, like a son asking his father for a fish. Of course the parent isn’t going to give the son a snake instead of a fish. Who would do that? Then Jesus says, “How much more then, will your heavenly Father give you the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” Fishing, feeding, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Hmm.
Fast-forward to the Emmaus Road. Our congregation loves the “Walk to the Emmaus” so I’ll trust you are familiar. In that scene Cleopas and his fellow companion are walking on the road to Emmaus when a guy interrupts and decides to join them. They do not recognize that the person travelling with them is Jesus until he breaks the bread. Like Jesus breaking the bread before feeding the multitudes, or breaking the bread for the Last Supper, it is in the breaking of bread in which their eyes were opened and they realized that Jesus was in their midst. Strangely enough our passage follows the Road to the Emmaus. After Jesus eats the fish he opens their minds to Scripture, and how he is revealed in it so that the disciples might be His witnesses. Bread and Fish. Hmm. Sounds familiar. Anything in our passage about the Holy Spirit? Well immediately after our passage Jesus tells the disciples to wait to be clothed on High, that is, filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost before they go out. Hmmm. Do you see a pattern here?
If I am losing you, let me try to reel you back in: the disciples are fed in order that they may go out and feed the multitudes. You know the saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” A huge proportion of Jesus’ ministry was teaching these fishermen how to fish for God’s kingdom. And guess what, it’s not as complicated as you might think. Preparation for effective ministry comes through studying God’s Word and being empowered by the Holy Spirit through prayer. Simple enough. You don’t have to be an apostle to do that.
Sometimes I think we make church way more complicated than it has to be. What if it was as simple as studying God’s Word, Spirit-filled prayer, and going out and feeding people physically, emotionally, and spiritually? We should all take seriously Jesus’ command before the miraculous feeding: “you feed them.” He’s equipped us. What are we waiting for?
Remember how much we see Jesus eating with people all the time in the Gospels? The simple and uneventful act of eating with people was central to his mission, and it’s not that difficult. That’s what the early church did. They met with one another in their homes, breaking bread, and telling others about Jesus. Likewise, when we invite others to share a meal, this is extremely meaningful cross-culturally. When we eat together, we discover the inherent humanity of all people. We share stories, hopes, fears, and disappointments. People open up to each other. And we can open up to them to share the same things, including telling them about the truly human one…
Hear this letter from the 4th century Emperor Julian to his officials about those pesky, atheist Christians, their hospitality, and the fear that they will take over the Roman Empire with their meals:
We must pay special attention to this point, and by this means affect a cure [for the “sickness” of Christianity]. For when it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, then I think the impious Galileans [Christians] observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy. And they have gained ascendancy in the worst of the deeds through the credit they win for such practices. For just as those who entice children with a cake, and by throwing it to them two or three times induce them to follow them, and then, when they are far away from their friends cast them on board a ship and sell them as slaves…by the same method, I say, the Galileans also begin with their so-called love-feast, or hospitality, or service of tables—for they have many ways of carrying it out and hence call it by many names—and the result is that they have led very many into atheism [i.e. Christianity]. (from Michael Frost’s Five Habits of Highly Missional People, p. 12)
Imagine that? Sharing meals and sharing Christ with others was subversive to the Roman Empire. They feared that the Christians would take over.
Michael Frost in his Five Habits of Highly Missional People helps us out with the who, what, and how of eating meals with others. It’s really pretty simple, and not complicated. Look, most of us eat 21 meals a week. Let’s be honest. We Memphians might have even more. But dedicate at least three meals with others a week. That’s not too hard. Get into that rhythm, and then it becomes a habit.
So what does a meal look like? Well it can be as grand as an ornate, elaborate dinner party or the bare minimum of coffee and a donut.
Whatever it may be, sit across the table from three people this week and talk. Who should we eat with? Frost suggests that we missionally eat with one person who is not a church-goer. If you want to take this further, eat with someone who may or may not be able to repay you. But, don’t be surprised if people invite you over for a meal, in return. And don’t be surprised by their eating habits.
Also, eat with fellow disciples. I recently started something called “Table Groups.” This is a young adult initiative where we meet and eat together. We share life. We pray. We encourage one another. There are various components that I try to incorporate into our time. One might call it a table liturgy. I’d love to see this implemented on a church-wide scale. It would foster community and intergenerational fellowship, and guess what? It’s modeled after the early church. It’s not complicated. We can grow as a church by doing the simple act of eating and sharing our lives with one another around a table. If this is something that you might be interested in doing, please talk to me after the service, or email me. I’d love to see us get to know one another on a more personal level by just being human and connecting through breaking bread.
So, let’s feed people physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Let’s get in a habit of eating with at least three people per week, one being a non-churchgoer. Let’s grow in fellowship so that we can mutually encourage one another as we go fishing.
I still find one of the most fascinating things in the world to ponder about is that when Jesus wanted his disciples to reflect on his death, he didn’t give them a theory, but a meal. Let’s now prepare ourselves for his meal: may our eyes be opened to Jesus in the breaking of the bread. May our minds be opened to the Word we just heard, and may we be fed so that we can go out and bring more people to feast with us here.
Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.
After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. – Mark 16:9-13
It’s about time. I want to trust that it is true; good news comes in all different forms. I really want to believe it. I want to wake up one day to emerge from the dark of the room to find that things have changed, and that there in the cave of uncertainty I will find it, that our wait would be over.
I want to find…my child’s first tooth. A parent can expect teeth anywhere from 5-6 months to 18 months. Some are early sprouters and some are late bloomers…and then, well, there are the outliers. My daughter turned 18 months old last week and she passed this mile marker with an all-gummy grin.
When my child is grumpy, fussy, cranky, I no longer default to the thought that a tooth is emerging. Twelve long months of teeth not being the cause of her pain has made that feel silly. So many times we have been “faked out,” passing her teething rings, cold presses, sympathetic fingers to the mouth in order to feel whatever may be emerging.
I talked to my dentist. She assures me that she has never seen a child with no teeth. We have an appointment lined up with the pediatric dentist. I hear other parents say that it is strange to look at an x-ray and see baby teeth just below the surface in your kid’s mouth…and then oddly on the layer above these baby chompers is the row of adult teeth hanging back ready for their day in the sun. I am not ready for an adult, I have an outlying toddler. It’s appropriate for the season.
Easter exposes the outliers. That extra stretch of time in the darkness of three days, God is bringing about the best sprout of all time. During Holy Week we heard about those who approached the tomb expecting to find a buried reality, only to be shocked and surprised.
And it could be that Mark ended there with verse eight. It certainly could have ended there according to this Gospel writer. If you go to any Bible, you will no doubt find some cryptic words connected with verse nine and beyond. In some texts these verses even appear in brackets. In the earliest of manuscripts, these words that tell about the Jesus sightings, the actual glimpses of the Risen Christ after the tomb, were not found.
It begs the question: were the original verses lost? It is possible. Did later scholars seek to fill in the other elements of the story that existed from oral tradition and other manuscripts? Or did Mark truly end with the strange words that close chapter eight in reference to the women at the tomb: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (NRSV).
We are led to believe that there were those who thought that this was anything but a fitting end to the script. It leaves us hanging. It leaves us dangling in wait of what is to happen next. If it were a TV series, it would be the end of one season with a cliffhanger to the next. “Jesus really is alive, tune in next time.” But, something would come next. It could not possibly end there. And we the readers know it cannot, it does not end there. More verses emerge.
But why? In part because Mary Magdalene had to tell someone about what she had seen! She cannot keep the bottle on the best surprise. Some people do not have poker faces. Some folks telegraph joy or fright. There is no way Mary Magdalene is getting far before she explodes with the good news. Out of fear comes a wellspring of recognition: the cave, the tomb, could not hold the body.
For Mark, this is all bonus material. It is the spectacular extra tracks. Unexpectedly there is an uncovered song there, the important lyrics of liberation. You have to listen to several minutes of “dead space” in order to hear a guitar fire back up. Recall “Her Majesty,” the hidden, bonus song on the Beatles’ “Abbey Road”?
In light of the risen Christ, each of our days, our opportunities here are like bonus days. That’s what my church member has said to me as she approaches her 93rd birthday. When I ask her how she is doing, she says that these days are all “gravy.”
I find myself a bit envious. I have some less years on me, but what if I treated these days, these now as they are—gravy days. Bold days are here. The resurrection is real. All these days past the tomb living into the Easter story of resurrection are extra.
I am guessing if we asked Georgina Harwood she may say the same thing about the days she has been given. I read the story of this remarkable woman who took a leap out of a plane…on her 100th birthday. She would go on in the next days to swim with sharks to commemorate a century on earth. She wants to make the very most of all the days she has.
Crazy? Perhaps. Crazier than resurrection? Not a chance.
And there is 19-year-old Lauren Hill you may have heard about. She tenaciously played college basketball until a brain tumor progressed last fall and she had to stop. She has since died. But ever since her diagnosis, she advocated and raised funds for research, and kept up a spirit of determination that transcends her death. She was an outlier (in her rare disease, yes), as a courageous woman who transformed a seemingly horrific situation. Who knew her mortality was not the end of her legacy.
We could make a long list of all the signs of death in our midst.
But here at the site of the empty tomb is our leap beyond lip service. When we take up the mantle from Mary and open our mouth to the truth. There is something bursting below the surface. A little seed of germination. This is Easter…we are the outliers who believe that despite all the impossibility of being raised from death that our God did just that.
Do you know what my daughter can do? No, she cannot eat cucumbers, or crunch carrots, or scissor her incisors into celery. But that smile. The way her nose crinkles when she is particularly happy—that has resurrection joy written all over it. And it keeps coming after each fall on the playground, each age-appropriate meltdown, each sniffly nose, each whiny protestation.
And such joy will come even after her teeth cut through the flesh in their painful way. Surely coming back into human flesh as Jesus did had its growing pains as well. The Scripture says that Jesus was now different. In light of Easter, we too are different. We Christian outliers know of life beyond death, life beyond pain—even when we are justifiably upset at our circumstances. As we name the death of this world, let’s admit that it is about time life showed up.
Whatever the state of your teeth: we know that each mouth has good news to share. We have been gifted the bonus tracks. Christ honors all life: aging and emergent, graying and green, nearing the earthly end and the just now newborn. Can we manage a smile in thanksgiving for our gravy, grave-defying days? Can we dare to keep the Spirit of Easter going, in motion, emanating from our flexible selves?
You know, a part of me already misses my child’s gummy grin. Even if we feel the lingering tug of death, Christ sustains his emergence from the empty cave. With our outlying smiles, we keep the promise that first burst from the mouth of Mary Magdalene.
Note from the Editor: This piece originally appeared as the cover story for the March/April 2015 issue of Good News magazine, which offers practical resources for renewed and robust ministries, and which you can find here.
Though the Easter candy on store shelves has now reached the 90% off mark, Christians continue to celebrate the season of Easter as we move through spring. Have you felt the resurrection? How are you praying as we read of Christ’s appearances to his disciples and as our minds turn towards Pentecost?
I find myself walking in the semi-dark, friends clustered around me. Our hands are full, carrying materials to preserve a corpse.
It was a long Sabbath. We were supposed to rest, so we did. But there’s no rest from thoughts of despair and grief. They follow you into every room you enter.
Like we had followed Him. We saw the miracles – the joy in strangers’ faces when Jesus spoke them well, or touched them, or called them out of tombs.
Now I’m walking to a tomb. The sun is mocking me. It sets, it rises. He’s dead. Others may say he spoke blasphemy, claiming to be God. Maybe they didn’t have loved ones who had been blind and who could see the sunrise now. But we saw them kill Jesus, and we all stumbled as the earth shook when he died, like the universe itself was responding to what happened. Someone said there was damage in the temple. The earthquake shook some tombs open.
And now we’re walking. It feels like there’s been nothing but loss and evil at play for the past few days. What can we do? We weren’t the one calling a dead man out of a tomb; that was him.
I shift my spices. We’re getting nearer, and I feel the dread of anticipation ripple through the group. We want to do this for Jesus; there’s so little we’ve been able to do the past few days, and sitting through the Sabbath gave little outlet for grief.
We can’t heal his body the way he healed so many, but we can honor it. I saw where the wealthy man buried him. He began the care. We’re here to continue it. It’s all we have left.
I lead the others through the garden. We’re close now and I’m hearing birds when the earth begins to shake again. Again? I’m on my hands and knees again for the second time in three days. The myrrh is dropped and I smell it’s strong scent while my eyes are squeezed shut, waiting for the shaking to stop, to cease and let me be still.
My hands are clasped over my head and I hear voices around me, the other women are standing up and looking around.
I open my eyes.
There it is – only, I must be in the wrong place. It’s the tomb, I’m sure it is, but the rock has been moved. Only no one’s looking at the rock.
I’m shaking again, my knees are weak because I don’t know what I’m seeing – lightning with hands and feet? A thousand stars looking at me, blinking? I’m shaking all over, and then the light begins to speak, and it sounds like the voice is coming from the night sky, from the farthest stars, and from right next to me, at the same time.
I hear words, comforting words that calm and soothe and my hands stop shaking so badly. And then the lightning figure speaks again only this time I hear the voice but I can’t understand how the words make sense.
How does this face of fire know we were looking for Jesus? It’s telling me Jesus isn’t here, and my mind is numb as the lightning’s voice says Jesus is risen. My thoughts are stuck, I don’t understand and a quick glance shows me my friends’ shocked faces and I know I’m not alone in my daze.
Then the face turns and it’s like a prism and the figure shining so bright points into the tomb and I hear that voice echoing and close telling us to look and see where Jesus had been.
My hand still smell like myrrh. Am I still holding it? I look down at my hands and see they’re empty. I must have dropped it.
The lightning voice is speaking again and I hear it telling us to go, to go, quickly, and tell the others. I feel friends’ movement at my side and hear their feet running, running through the garden. My body’s not responding. I look down and realize my hands are clutching my head.
Look. Don’t look for the myrrh. I’m supposed to look in the tomb. Only I can’t move, and when I lower my arms, I discover my face is wet. I’m heaving sobs and can’t stop; I’m not sure why. I’m terrified, but this hope now living inside me, it won’t die. I will my legs to move, and I look down into the cavern. And then the figure wearing lightning asks me why I’m crying and my brain is stuck again. All I know is that I came with myrrh to this tomb and it’s empty and what do I say?
“They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have put him.”
And I turn away from the tomb that doesn’t make sense and I’m still crying into my hands that smell like myrrh, when I see someone standing nearby. It must be the gardener.
That must be it. He saw something, he can tell me what happened. But I can’t ask. Instead, he asks me why I’m crying and who I’m looking for.
Please, I say. If the tomb was broken into, or that earthquake damaged it, and you carried him away, please, just tell me where. I brought myrrh. I have friends, they’re coming back, we’ll take him. Please, just tell me where.
But the gardener’s voice is different now, and he says my name – Mary.
And the world turns upside-down, only this time there’s no earthquake, because I don’t need to look for Jesus, or for my myrrh.
I’m looking at him. I hear my voice say “teacher?!” And I kneel at his feet, the feet we were going to wrap, the feet that were supposed to be still and now, with nail holes, are wriggling in front of my eyes.
And then Jesus – not in the tomb, not breathless and lifeless and cold – then Jesus tells me to go to the others with a message.
Suddenly my shaking has stopped. My feet are ready to run.
I whirl around and begin to run.
I don’t look back.
Selfies make us feel important. A quick snapshot with a mobile device and instantly our pictures are viewable by billions of people around the world. If we’re honest, we often take selfies with the intention of getting as many “likes” as possible by our followers.
Each year, Easter, for Christians, welcomes a different energy in our places of worship. Proclaiming with loud voices in song, “He Lives!” always stirs the soul!
What I did not realize, however, is that when I went to my office after Easter worship and checked social media, I would have an epiphany–Easter is the greatest “selfie” Sunday for Christians as well.
As I reviewed my timelines on Facebook and Instagram, the pages were saturated with selfies of worshipers in their Easter finest. Picture after picture of different colors and patterns from various denominations and cultures!
Religiously, we celebrate Easter because Jesus Christ rose from the grave, overcoming the power of sin and death and offering us the gift of eternal life and communion with God our Creator. Yet, because our post-modern culture has become saturated with the commercialization of major Christian (and non-Christian) celebrations, we must often approach those unfamiliar with centuries-old traditions with a new way of explaining the effect of the resurrection in the lives of human beings.
Here is the reality of Easter: Death and the grave are overcome. Good Friday is conquered by Resurrection Sunday. The Messiah lives and reigns. God’s Kingdom is here and now and is prepared for those in the eschaton (the life the come).
As a result, followers of Christ should be changed and transformed from the inside out. We should, in effect, have something glorious to capture–that is, a new life living in the power of the resurrection.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of going to the Order of the Flame conference sponsored by World Methodist Evangelism. It was a gathering of around 100 pastors and their spouses from the Pan-Methodist connection. We had seminars around our responsibility as witnesses for Christ and were encouraged to remain Faithful Leaders as Mission Evangelists (F.L.A.M.E.) throughout our ministry.
Many moments during this conference were powerful, but perhaps the most touching moment happened when the entire group prayed for one of our brothers’ infant daughter who is battling a rare form of cancer. With our hands laid upon him, we prayed that the power that raised Christ would also heal his daughter.
It was a request for a miracle.
What makes us think we can make such an audacious request? My answer is clear, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In his book on the “Dynamics of Faith,” Paul Tillich says that, “faith is not an act of any of [humanity’s] rational functions, as it is not an act of the unconscious, but it is an act in which both the rational and non-rational elements of his being are transcended” (Tillich, 6).
Believing in a miracle, a rationally unexplainable occurrence, takes exactly what Tillich describes–a faith that transcends our comprehension without excluding our consciousness. In other words, we should know what we are asking for but not expect the miracle to come in ways we can understand. This is the great mystery and power of our faith.
Do we know how God is going to heal this little girl? No, we do not. But we believe God is able. The resurrection gives us this hope.
This hope reminds me of a “witnessing” experience I had during my undergraduate studies. It was late one night and my friends and I were leaving the library. We departed in my vehicle and proceeded to our dorm. I parked, and as we were getting out, a homeless gentleman approached my driver’s side door.
His clothes were physically torn and he carried a trash bag that I assumed contained his personal belongings. It was dark and late and from my perspective, an inconvenient time for God to place me in a witnessing situation – especially after the gentleman explained to me that he had just been released from the state mental institution for stabbing someone with a knife.
Ten dollars is what he wanted. But God showed me something different.
Standing in front of me was a brother in Christ who was not only physically hungry, but also emotionally and spiritually hurting. So I asked, “before I give you the $10.00, may I pray with you?” He consented.
I prayed that the power of our risen Lord would overtake his life and heal any past or present pain. After we prayed, tears were flowing from his eyes and he simply said, “thank you.” I gave him the $10.00 and we parted ways.
My hope was that our interaction would be the gateway to his experience of a new life in Christ. But I did not know what would happen.
Some would argue rationally that this man’s life was unsalvageable. But where some rely on reason, God’s message is always, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Therefore, we believe that the power of Christ can change someone’s life–whether we witness it or not.
One Thursday evening about nine months later, I was leaving my father’s office which is close to the university. As I was getting into my car, a man yelled at me from across the street. “Hey, hey, brother!” he said, as he began running towards me. I asked him, “Sir, do I know you?”
He said, “You sure do! I am the man you prayed with in the parking lot at your university. I left that night and read the book you gave me; in fact, I still have it. I made amends with all of my family members that I hurt and now I am a changed man. I saw you and I knew I had to thank the man who led me to Jesus Christ, my Savior and Lord. But now I have to go, because I am volunteering today at the shelter up the street.”
He left jogging towards the shelter about a half-mile away looking and feeling physically and spiritually different. He had obviously experienced the power of the resurrection!
My only regret is that I didn’t take a selfie with him as proof of his transformation. But I finally realized that he had already taken plenty with Jesus on his personal Resurrection Day. They may never make it to social media, but Christ will assuredly remember them in his book of life.
Today my first-person perspective of Resurrection Day sits over at this website in honor of the traditional myrrh-bearers – the women who went to care for Jesus’ body at the tomb, later running and announcing the resurrection to the rest of the disciples. (Yes, Protestants – after Greek Orthodox Pascha [Easter], the tradition observes the Feast of the Holy Myrrhbearers; have we forgotten how to remember female saints?).
In Zimbabwe, traditionally women preach the Easter sermon, because it was women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection.
A woman’s voice can usher in the Kingdom of God.
I don’t know what lullabies Mary sang to her infant, who, contrary to “Away in a Manger,” would’ve wailed and screamed like any other baby because that’s what Fully Humans do. I do know some other words Mary spoke right before Jesus’ first miracle. “Whatever he tells you to do, do it.”
A woman’s voice can usher in the Kingdom of God.
Women’s History Month is punctuated by International Women’s Day; the internet floats retrospectives up to the surface, and we see photos of ceiling-shatterers, of sisters and mamas captured in time because they happened to be in a certain place on a certain day. I’m young enough to be surprised at the outcry caused simply by a woman running in a marathon. I’m old enough to feel impatient that progress in certain areas seems to have stalled in my lifetime. I’m aware enough to know how much things have changed in the past 100 years.
Women got the vote. Women welded and riveted. Women got labor-saving devices. Women burned bras. Women embraced careers. Women got the power to sue harassers. Women rediscovered value in parenting, knitting, gardening. Women took selfies.
Obviously there were some ups and downs.
This March is a bit different for me. This March, instead of reflecting on Earharts and Bhuttos and Roosevelts, I keep hearing the voices that echo from far away; voices that are muted; voices cut off.
I think about the women who lost toddlers to a vicious ruler bent on destroying a baby who drew wise men from the Far East – Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.
I think about a woman in a rural Chinese village, unable to pay a fine for a second child, losing a baby to a government-forced abortion against her will. She can’t even blog about it.
I think about about Felicity and Perpetua, saints, women who were martyred in the early church the nameless women like them who died for their faith.
I think about Assyrian Christian women kidnapped by ISIS in Syria.
I think about a story in the book of Genesis about the rape of Dinah – read here – and I think about young women fighting for dignity and healing from sexual assault and trafficking through organizations like Project Unbreakable and the International Justice Mission.
A woman’s voice can usher in the Kingdom of God – whether or not we hear it. How many women have gone unheard?
Ultimately, all the voices are heard: they hold up the rafters of the universe in prayer, they proclaim the Risen Christ and worship joyfully, they whisper hope and comfort with Messiah-smiles to the dying and the ones dead inside.
Ultimately, all the voices are heard: the voices weeping for their babies, screaming in loss, yelling in protest, whispering in despair. They are heard, like Martha and Mary’s voices were heard by a heartbroken Messiah – “if you had been here…”
You know what followed.
Dear sisters – we hear you. Across the centuries – we hear you. When no historian wrote your part of the human tale – we hear you. From the other side of the world – we hear you.
Founder of the Methodist movement John Wesley’s last letter was written about the urgent need to end slavery. He wrote it to famous abolitionist William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was someone who could hear silenced voices.
A woman’s voice can usher in the Kingdom of God.
Lord, in your mercy, show us how to hold the megaphone.
Lord, in your mercy, show us how to set caged voices free.
“Jack, take your hands off of your ears.”
“But I don’t want to hear what you are saying!”
This is what shoppers strolling down store aisles could overhear recently. Alas, the four year old had acted up; alas, Mama had to intervene with a reminder of behavior expectations. But the child had realized that with hearing comes accountability. If I can’t hear you, you can’t hold me responsible.
And the hands clamped tightly over the ears.
I get the instinct.
I haven’t been swiping an imaginary monster along grocery store shelves knocking products out of place, but I’ve certainly wanted to power down communications coming at me fast and unrelenting. There are days when I feel I can’t take hearing about another iota of tragedy. Once while I was breathing through the nauseating misery of a panic attack a loved one asked what was wrong.
“The Holocaust,” I said.
I meant it.
An image had planted in my mind from a fragment of an Oprah show seen years before featuring a tour of the World War II horror, Auschwitz – the shoes…the piles and piles of shoes, so human, creased on top where a foot had bent – and one tiny little red pair…
I get the instinct to clamp my hands tightly over my ear, to turn my grimacing face away. Even as a news junkie (especially as a news junkie?) sometimes I have to limit how closely I follow unfolding events.
I can probably affect something as intimate as your blood pressure level right now.
Russia and the Ukraine
Scandal, addiction, bankruptcy, cancer
“But I don’t want to hear what you are saying!”
I know, dear friend. I know you don’t. And there’s good news in the world, too, after all –
The ice bucket challenge
Donation of a kidney
Rain after a drought
Here’s the twist: the second list may lower your blood pressure or make you smile, but it won’t ultimately make you happy without the first list. I’m not advocating the tired “you need evil to appreciate the good” theology – there’s no such thing as a “felix culpa”, a happy crime that’s blessed because you appreciate the good more.
No, you need the first list in order to be truly happy because we humans can only be happy when we face the reality of evil. We can’t be happy without the truth. Despite being surrounded by the truth of ugly facts – genocide or beheadings or crowded refugee camps or grotesquely contagious diseases – we have the inner impulse to reach also for the truth of reality, of existence, the Truth that transcends current events, that tunes the music of the spheres and absorbs everything into the unity that is Triune love.
To avoid the truth – whether of current events or the transcendent reality – is to construct a scaffolding of denial constantly in need of repair and maintenance. If you live attempting to ignore the retch-inducing evil of this world, you will consign yourself to living constantly in fear – more fear, in fact, than what comes from facing current events or theological questions or past experiences or worries for the future.
“But I don’t want to hear…”
Sometimes the well-worn, familiar refrain says it best, as Pastor Martin Niemöller so famously wrote and spoke:
In Germany, they came first for the Communists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.
There is a deep, gnawing dread when we deny the truth that stalks us, insisting to us that we untie the blindfold. But if I can’t take hearing about the facts of the world I live in, how will I pray for its transformation? If I seek out mind-numbing busyness, how will the Holy Spirit show me where to serve? And if I hear the facts only so that I can attempt to add them to my pile of pieces as I attempt to solve the puzzle of the Apocalypse and how things will ultimately end, then I am not living beautifully – I am living miserly, attempting to guess tomorrow’s weather so that I can gain from the forecast, regardless of who is suffering today. This day. Right now.
Denial never brings happiness – neither does distance, or distraction. We are a global neighborhood now. And while it’s tempting to mistake cynicism for wisdom, Christians are called to be the least cynical people on earth; not the most naïve, or the most chipper, or the cheeriest – simply the least cynical, because we dare to look into the abyss of the evil in our world or the evil in our own hearts and we still dare to say that that evil is not the last word.
God is the Creator and all Christians are artists – not called to paint over ugliness but rather to be a means of its melting and molding into something beautiful. “See, I am making all things new” is the context into which we must submit the 24-hour news cycle. And we have this example set in front of us: Jesus Christ, whose beautiful actions in the midst of ongoing suffering and evil lived the Truth of beautiful reality into the facts of the day around him.
Bear witness to atrocity. Weep with the suffering. Then choose actions of beauty, grace and redemption. Christ lived a life that turned “but I don’t want to hear…” into “tell me your story…” so that you and I can uncover the story of redemption on the mural of our world.
During this Lenten season there was a lot of noise surrounding four movies: Noah, Heaven is for Real, God’s Not Dead, and The Son of God. When Easter is nearing it is commonplace for a proliferation of “evidence” to come forth that will now put this Jesus-rising-from-the-dead business to rest. Maybe these movies’ release dates were strategic so that they might combat any foreseeable onslaughts from secular cynics. Maybe not. Regardless, these movies generated copious criticism
in the Christian blogosphere, Twitterverse, Facebook, etc.
Various Social Media newsfeeds were fraught with fervent apologetic zeal. Everyday someone voiced his or her opinion in favor or rejection of this or that movie. I saw a few pastors urging their congregations to go see Heaven is for Real, whilst others urged their flock to not touch Noah with a ten-foot pole. With this kind of intensity, one might think that any movie or television show with a hint of Christian or biblical overtones would trigger an immediate response, especially one whose title is the basis for the Christian hope. Right?
This past Sunday was the season finale of ABC’s Resurrection. Over the past several weeks of the season, my newsfeeds have been completely void of any discussion regarding this series. Granted, my newsfeeds might not accurately represent the United States’ viewership of any particular television series or movie; nevertheless, one would think that a show whose topic it inextricably related to the linchpin of Christianity would certainly prompt just as serious or even more critical engagement as Noah, Heaven is for Real, God’s Not Dead, and The Son of God. From my vantage point, however, this has not been the case.
Why do you think that is? It’s possible that people prefer watching movies over a television series. Or better yet, maybe many Christians were busy on Sunday evenings with church (pastors wish). Neither one of these explanations is satisfying. For starters, I’d venture to say that people prefer saving money, and could always record a show, or watch it online, if they were busy at church on Sunday nights. (I know a plethora of Christians who wouldn’t miss The Walking Dead). My hypothesis, and I pray that it is utterly wrong, is that many Christians have lost sight of what our ultimate hope actually is, namely, the Resurrection.
The storyline of ABC’s Resurrection begins with a young boy (Jacob) waking up in a rice patty in China after being dead for 32 years. J. Martin Bellamy, an agent with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, retrieves Jacob and takes him home to reunite with his parents in Arcadia, Missouri. Obviously, everyone is shocked and scared, while others are in a state of skeptical disbelief. Soon thereafter, more thought-to-be-dead Arcadians begin to appear in town, causing controversy and uproar. If this piques your interest, check out the trailer, or watch it online at ABC.
Surprised By Our Hope?
Coincidentally, while ABC was airing Resurrection, I have been simultaneously leading a Sunday School class through N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. One of Wright’s main goals in writing this book was to provide a layperson’s version of his massive The Resurrection of the Son of God (700+ pages), but moreover, he has discovered that many Christians today do not know where their ultimate hope lies. Most Christians, Wright argues, assert that going to heaven when you die is the end goal, rather than being gloriously resurrected for the (re)new(ed) world. Some are utterly confused by Paul’s unwavering emphasis that
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:13-19).
The initial pushback I received in my Sunday School class confirmed Wright’s overall impression.
ABC’s premiering of Resurrection was very timely and gave our class additional material to discuss each week. What we were learning about the resurrection could be compared and contrasted with this popular show: “Is this how the Bible depicts the resurrection? What are the resurrected bodies like? Does it align with the biblical picture? etc.” Resurrection provided yet another opportunity to examine and encourage one another about our hope.
I am unaware as to whether or not others have shared my experience. Have pastors and church leaders encouraged their congregations to watch this show to meditate and reflect more deeply about our ultimate hope? Have pastors and church leaders encouraged their congregations to engage the culture or to invite people over to watch the show and discuss it afterwards? Again, I’m not sure.
What I have seen, however, is that a significant amount of energy was invested in arguing about the recent slate of movies. Quite possibly we’ve placed the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble. We’ve shifted our attention to life after death (heaven), instead of life after life after death (resurrection life in the new world). We’ve shifted our attention to the Flood, instead of focusing on when God will flood his creation with his loving presence. Don’t be mistaken, engaging in these movies is an important endeavor; yet, I honestly believe the majority of us Gentiles would not be discussing Noah, or the validity of heaven and God, if it were not for the resurrection of the Son of God.
I get what a zombie is. I was watching zombie movies in the church basement before zombie movies were cool. I’ve seen Night of the Living Dead a dozen times. But what we have now, this is another level of interesting. I know nothing about the current zombie culture, so help me out here. What is this fascination with dead people who won’t die?
I do get that this is a thing, but I have to admit to you that I do not get the appeal of it. This isn’t an “I’m a preacher” thing. This is just me not getting what’s fun about brain eating zombies. Who wants to keep going after you’ve been amputated and mutilated and have had your head cut off?
There are literally dozens of sites online talking about the zombie apocalypse. Even the CDC website has a zombie apocalypse preparedness guide.
Evidently, when it comes to zombie preparedness, location is everything (as quoted from Estately’s blog post by Ryan Nickum). Ryan Nickum has done the math to figure out which states are more prepared for a zombie apocalypse and which ones are doomed.
As it turns out, states with more soldiers per capita will fare better, because soldiers are physically fit, trained to fight, and have access to weapons. Same with states with a higher percentage of veterans per capita. States with residents who rarely get out of their Laz-E-Boy will not escape the zombie menace (this is an actual statistic). States with a lot of martial arts and laser tag enthusiasts will do well. “Yes,” Nickum says. “Laser tag. Few things prepare you better for a zombie attack in enclosed space.” People who like guns and paintball will also do well.
So, given those factors, which states do you suppose are the most prepared for a zombie apocalypse? According to the people who know these things, the top five most zombie-prepared states are: Alaska, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Montana.
Georgia ranked 47th. And don’t bother trying to escape across the border. You’ll only be slightly more protected. South Carolina ranked 37th. The only states less prepared than Georgia are New York, New Jersey and Mississippi. (And of course, Washington, D.C. where the zombie apocalypse is currently already underway, but no one is yet aware of it.)
I believe this fascination with zombies flows from our innate fear of something that’s very real. It is that idea that we might already be a walking dead person. The Urban dictionary says zombies are the opposite of life and are driven to simply undo it, which ends up being a pretty good definition of the enemy of our souls–who is not a zombie, nor a fantasy, but someone determined to take all the meaning and significance out of your life.
Or to keep it out. This is our human condition. In the natural, as it is–without the option of God–it is a dead-end state. No way out. This is why we need a redeemer.
Ezekiel saw the whole thing played out like a scene out of a zombie movie–only this is real life. Look with me at his prophecy in Ezekiel, chapter 37.
The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off’” (Ezekiel 37:1-11).
We know these bones. We know this valley. Ezekiel speaks to that place we get into where our bones are in order but we’re dead on the inside.
You can look right on the outside, but inside …
You can be quietly, very privately, hurting yourself.
You can be quietly, very privately, clinging to a habit that keeps you numb.
You can be quietly, very privately, barely breathing. No joy. No sense of purpose.
You can look right on the outside but inside you’re dead.
“I was working my calendar and paying my bills and I could keep things in order, but I could barely catch my breath. I was keeping it together and getting things done, but spiritually, there was nothing there.”
Our bones are dried up …
Our hope is lost …
We are in this zombie existence–walking but not really living. This is life at the expense of others. In this state, we will end up sucking the life out of the people around us so we can feel alive ourselves. No joy. No meaning. No breath.
And into this scene, God speaks the $24,000 question: Can these bones live?
Can I make something out this life? Can I start over? Can what I’ve done be redeemed?
Can people who are doomed to death live–really live–and live, even after death?
Because here’s the thing: Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good. He came to make dead people live.
That woman who poured oil on Jesus’ head testifies to this truth. Go with me to the last scenes before Jesus goes to the cross in Matthew chapter 26, beginning with verse 6.
This story is like the visual aid for Ezekiel 37. When we get to this story, we’re in the middle of some pretty thick stress for Jesus and his followers. There is a plot to kill Jesus, and he knows it. His followers know it. They aren’t nearly as comfortable with the news as Jesus is. In the midst of that, a woman shows up–a woman who was among the walking dead. We don’t know her whole story. This may have been Mary Magdelene, who was delivered of seven demons during one of Jesus’ healing services. Or it may have just been some obscure woman who had a lot to be thankful for, who became famous that day for a choice she made. It was a choice to live a resurrected life.
I want to ask you to close your eyes and listen to this story and focus on the two people at the center of this scene–a woman who has just come from death to life, and a man who is moving toward death–with people just like her in mind.
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”
Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Matthew 26:6-13).
Here is a woman who has encountered Jesus, and now she is living a resurrected life. She’s beginning to live from a place of gratitude. And while she’s doing this thing–anointing his head with oil–Jesus is interpreting this moment in light of God’s ultimate plan. “This isn’t just a nice gesture,” he says. “This–what she’s doing–is connected to my death, the very death that makes her life possible. This is the death that makes grace possible. The death that makes second chances possible. The death that makes gratitude possible.”
And so her anointing is really gratitude for the cross, which teaches us the great paradox of Kingdom living: Though we die, yet shall we live. Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it will not produce fruit. To gain your life you must lose it.
I’ve told you before about our cat, Grace. This is her, the day Richard Coleman’s children came to our house during the GIC. For those of you not familiar with how cats communicate, let me just translate here. She is saying, “Why? Why did you bring these people here? Why do you torture me?”
Grace has not yet really lived into her name.
And I would feel a lot more compassion toward Grace in moments like this, except that she wreaks havoc on our furniture. She has killed at least two chairs. And I won’t declaw her because that’s just not the way we do it at our house, but I can tell you that things would be different if Grace didn’t have claws. Our lives would not cost as much if she didn’t have claws.
Folks, the cross is how God declawed death. It took the sting out. And right here in this scene, Jesus connects this woman’s act with his death to help us connect with what the cross is capable of. The cross takes walking dead people and gives them resurrected lives.
Go to Matthew 27:51-54, to the moment Jesus died. Here’s what happened the day God declawed death:
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
This is powerful and important. It teaches us that there is no longer a barrier between us and God. We don’t need a priest to make sacrifices for us, or to go into the holy of holies on our behalf. We are now welcome to come boldly before the throne of grace, without shame, to seek forgiveness and acceptance from God. We are called and encouraged into an intimate relationship with God.
And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.
The treasure in this scene is the word Matthew uses to describe what happened to the earth when Jesus died. The earth shook. The centurion saw the earth quake. The Greek word used here is seismos (I learned this from Max Lucado’s small book, Imagine Your Life Without Fear, pp. 13-19). The only other times this word is used in Matthew are when the stone is rolled away at the resurrection, and then also on the day Jesus calmed a storm. Do you remember that story? Jesus and his followers were out on the water in a boat when a storm kicked up. It must have been quite a storm. Matthew describes it like an earthquake–the disciples are scared witless by it. And they are confounded by just how calm Jesus is in the midst of this earth-shaking storm. In the Mark version of this story, they ask, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
The answer to that question comes definitively at the cross. “YES! Yes, I do care! I absolutely DO care that you’re perishing! I care what it feels like for you who are walking dead through life with no purpose or joy or contentment about you. I care about you who are dying in your sin.”
So, what’s the seismos event in your life right now? Where is the anxiety or fear brewing? Here’s how you claim the cross over that storm: You look dead into it and say, “I will not perish. The resurrection of Jesus is bigger than the power of this moment.”
What would it take for you to believe, truly believe, you will not perish? Not now. Not ever. He cares. And his intention is to give us a resurrection life. A life with power and meaning. And as if to prove the point, it happens right then and there, the day Jesus dies.
The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.
This is the answer to Ezekiel’s prophecy. Yes, these bones can live. We will not perish! We are not doomed to a life of walking dead! The enemy of your soul wants you to live a zombie life, but Jesus invites us to live a resurrection life.
When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
In that moment, the centurion encountered the truth. An encounter with the cross leads us to both grace and truth. We need both.
This scene in Matthew 27 shows us exactly what we can expect from the cross:
We’ve been to the land of dry bones. We’ve been to the cross. Now, Paul explains what it all means.
“I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:50-57).
Jesus calls people out of death to life. The message of Easter is not “Jesus was dead and now he is alive.” The Message is, “I was dead and now I’m alive and Jesus is the one who did that for me.” Ezekiel heard God say (Ezekiel 37:14) – I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”
That’s the promise. So here’s the question: what does your life feel like right now? Are you doing that thing where you get up every day and walk through it, then fall into bed, get up and do it all again the next day: no change, no vision, no resurrection power? Are you existing, but not really alive?
Do you realize there is an option? It is a choice to let the resurrected Christ live in you. And it is a choice to let the cross work on you. It begins (as with the woman with oil) with bowing before Jesus and acknowledging him as the source of resurrection power. And it is proven in the storms.
In his power, there is no perishing.