A young minister was asked by a funeral director to hold a graveside service for a man, with no family or friends, who had died while traveling through the area. The funeral was to be held at a cemetery way out in the country, and this man would be the first person laid to rest there.
The minister was not familiar with the area and became lost. Arriving an hour late he saw the backhoe and the crew, eating lunch, but the hearse was nowhere in sight. He apologized to the workers for his tardiness, stepped to the side of the open grave, where he saw a vault lid already in place.
He assured the workers he would not hold them long, but it was proper to say some words. The workers gathered around and the minister poured out his heart and soul. As he preached the workers began to say amen, praise the Lord, and glory. He preached and preached, all the way from Genesis to Revelation.
He finally closed with a prayer and walked back to his car, believing he had done his duty and knowing he left the crew with a renewed sense of purpose and dedication.
As he opened the door of his car he overheard one of the workers say, I’ve never seen anything like that before, and I've been putting in septic tanks for over twenty years.
Cemeteries don’t generally inspire humor, but I think we can say that Easter is a guarantee that death no longer has the last laugh.
There was no humor or joy among those who went to the tomb on the first Easter morning. Luke tells us of the women, still overcome with grief, who walked to the cemetery early in the morning to finish the task they had begun on Friday, after the crucifixion. The task was completing the preparation of the body of Jesus. Their task would not be a pleasant one. They were two days from the crucifixion and they were going to an unpleasant place. I cannot imagine the idea of entering a tomb with the thought of fulfilling such a task.
There was no expectation of finding life. You do not go to a cemetery expecting to find life, but in a place that was about death, a transformation had taken place – life had come! No longer seen as an end, death was transformed from an end to a beginning.
Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus, but it is also a day that reminds us that we are able to live A Resurrected Life.
Easter, and its resurrected life, gives us a totally new way of looking at life. Easter allows us to look into the eye of struggle and difficulty and see that something good can come from that struggle. The Got Milk? campaign has spawned a lot of imitators. I think someone should make a bumper sticker that says Got Struggles? It’s okay! Easter proves that even in our struggles we find something good. The great transformation of Easter is that even death itself becomes something new.
Easter, and its resurrected life, is also what provides the vision to see people in a new way. Where others saw a thief and a cheat in Zaccheus, Jesus saw something else. Where others saw a woman to put to death and stood ready, rocks in hand, Jesus saw one who was no different than anyone else – one to be given grace and a new chance at life. Where Peter saw his terrible failure of denying Jesus, Jesus still saw Peter as a leader and charged him with caring for his people. While others saw a man living among the tombs as a hopeless case, Jesus saw one in need of compassion and healing. While others saw a thief to be crucified, Jesus looked at the one hanging on the cross next to his and gave grace to enter his kingdom. And while others looked at those Roman soldiers in anger and contempt, Jesus said not only to go a second mile when forced to go one mile, but also offered his forgiveness to the ones who nailed him to the cross and to those who trumped up the charges that put him on the cross.
Easter also gives us a new vision for our world. We all want to complain about the state of the world today, and there is no shortage of things of which we can complain. I read the other day about possible world events that could drive the price of gas to $8 a gallon. But I also watched a report a few days ago about reconciliation efforts taking place in Somalia, seeking to bring healing after the terrible violence between Tutsi and Hutu tribes that left hundreds of thousands dead. In the space of ten days during 1994 over 800,000 people were killed in horrible violence. Those who committed the killings are coming together to seek reconciliation with the family members of the victims. I cannot imagine the difficulty of facing the people who caused so much pain and heartache. But there was a common theme among the victims – God teaches us to forgive others as he has forgiven us. Isn’t that amazingly powerful? When there are people willing to forgive such atrocities, there is hope for our world.
Jesus did not sit with the local group in the market, drinking a cup of coffee and having a gripe session – he did something. His vision was for a better world, a resurrected world. He laid his hands on the sick to heal them, he fed the hungry, he embraced the outcast, and he challenged the powers of the world when they sought to oppress and to use and abuse people.
And I would say that faith itself needs a resurrection.
Andrew Sullivan has an article in the current edition of Newsweek magazine titled Christianity in Crisis. The cover of Newsweek shouts the blurb Forget the Church, Follow Jesus. He makes the legitimate point that some people within the church have so damaged faith that it is worth considering forgetting the church and just following Jesus. I’m not ready to cede that point, but he has a point. In resurrecting faith it is time to push back against the hucksters, the abusers, the thieves, the hustlers, the finger-pointers, the hypocrites and others who have so damaged the church and faith itself. There is far too much that we see done in the name of the church that does not reflect Jesus, and if we want the church to remain relevant to our world we simply must say that is not the spirit of Jesus.
There are many churches that need a resurrected view of life. There are churches falling into decline and struggling to maintain a sense of life and they need to know there is hope and new life for them. I believe that the crisis facing churches and faith in this day and age may be one of the best things that could happen to church and to faith itself. I believe it is one of the best things to happen because it will bring about a sense of questioning and introspection that will lead to the renewal that is so needed.
In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson tells the story of Parisian obstetrician Stéphane Tarnier, who in the 1870s witnessed the death of almost two-thirds of babies born with low birth weight. Exhausted from living with so many losses, Tarnier took a day and visited the zoo. He wandered into an exhibit of baby chickens and saw an incubator in use. Soon he had a similar machine built for human babies, and the mortality rate was halved.
In that case, death led to life. Easter reminds us that death leads to life. Receive that life today.