A reading from Matthew 28: “Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulcher. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead.”
“And Jesus came to them and said,” ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always.’”
The story says that Jesus told his followers, his friends, if you will, to teach others what he had taught them…to carry on the work of clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, freeing the captives, visiting the sick…working for justice and peace. (“If you want peace, work for justice.”)
There is a tension in Christianity between the religion ‘of’ Jesus, as simply summarized above, and the complicated religion ‘about’ Jesus as debated by the religionists.
The religion of Jesus is about how you live your life, about being a good, kind and caring and generous person… generous in spirit as well as sharing your worldly wealth.
In the second, your religion or about beliefs; it’s about what you think – what you believe about Jesus, about the miracle of his miraculous birth – the virgin birth; what you believe about miracle stories like walking on water; what you believe about his suffering and crucifixion as a kind of payment to God for our sins, and about his bodily resurrection from the dead and his plan to return to earth someday, all of which is argumentative.
In the first definition of what it means to be a Christian – the way you live your life – heaven is not limited to what happens to you after you die, but more to the point, heaven is here and now, it’s what happens to you after you are born, what kind of life you lead.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is in the midst of you.” To enter that kingdom you simply have to be in loving relationship; the Torah with which Jesus was familiar said that the highest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself.
Easter is about resurrection, which I take to mean the renewal of life as symbolized by spring following winter.
My favorite resurrection story is from the Gospel of Luke where he provides a sort of parable – Luke is noted for his use of parables – the story of two disciples of Jesus walking from Jerusalem to the nearby village of Emmaus. Luke says, “While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”
You might say that there was a big stone in front of their eyes. Jesus asked them why they were so sad and they said, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
They told him about the crucifixion and said, ‘we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.’ So Jesus explained the meaning of his death to them. Luke says, “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.”
They still didn’t recognize him. Take another look at the word ‘recognize.’ It’s from cognition, to know or to understand. They didn’t understand that Jesus the man, who had died, continued to ‘live’ in them, allowing them to see ‘the Christ’ in every person. The story says that they invited this stranger to share a meal and Luke says, “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.”
They understood something they hadn’t realized before – that their ongoing relationship with Jesus would be determined by how they treated one another, especially ‘the stranger,’ as well as ‘the hungry, naked, imprisoned, infirm, etc.’ When he said, “I am with you always,” this is what he meant.
After their encounter on the road to Emmaus, and the meal they shared, they went and told the others. Again, the story says, Jesus appeared to them. Luke says, “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead…and forgiveness should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
Luke says, “…he lifted up his hands and blessed them, and while he blessed them he parted from them. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy…”
My interpretation of this parable is that the transition from Jesus to ‘the Christ,’ from the man, the human, to the long-awaited Messiah, is summarized in the assertion I heard from Methodist minister and seminary professor Harrell Beck, who said, simply, “When you understand the concept of the Messiah you’ll know that it’s the person next to you.”
In the story, Jesus is a flesh-and-blood man whose earthly life came to an end – he died, as we all will. The human Jesus entered the world in a fully natural way, as we all have entered, born of woman.
He was an infant, a baby, a toddler, a little boy who grew into a young man; in all this he was influenced by his family and friends; he learned about the Jewish religion and culture; he grew into adulthood and he thought about all the things he had been taught, and he interpreted them to suit his understanding of the world.
I like to think that he offered a very human and humanizing interpretation of the teachings in the Torah; he touched lives with sensitivity, insight and forgiveness, and thus he accomplished something by the way he lived his life.
The story paints a portrait of a fully actualized human being, a model for what we can become.
He left a legacy, as each of us is in the process of doing, here and now. Thus he attained a kind of immortality, helping humankind to take another step in the long evolutionary process of life on earth as we know it.
The disciple Thomas wasn’t convinced. The Gospel of John says that Jesus came to the disciples on Easter and said, “Peace be with you,” then, seeing that Thomas wasn’t convinced, he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see (the wounds on) my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side…(where I was wounded) and Jesus said to him ‘Have you believed because you have seen me (and touched the wounds?) Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Henry Nouwen, Catholic priest and theologian, wrote an insightful and sensitive essay he called, The Wounded Healer. He suggests that anyone doing ministry (he doesn’t limit it to clergy) is called to understand their own suffering, to go down deep ‘where the spirit meets the bone,’ and to reveal, or share, their own suffering, their own struggles in their own hearts and make that as a starting point of their ministry to others, the focal point of service. He suggests that we must be willing to go beyond the usual professional distance and leave ourselves open as fellow human beings with the same wounds and the same kind of suffering as those we are called to serve.
Just as a wound causes suffering, so does that wound connect us, in a deeply meaningful way.
Nouwen uses the story of the wounded healer who sits with all the wounded as they unwrap and wrap their wounds, but the wounded healer unwraps only one of his bandages at time so that he will be ready to respond to another’s wounds quickly.
Nouwen asserts that to be human is to suffer; to share our suffering moves us from being isolated, separated individuals to the realization that we are part of humanity, not merely separate persons, but, part of eternity, if you will. (This realization is not necessarily a conscious kind of awareness – it comes from the depths of the unconscious mind.)
To share our suffering is to move from feeling alone to sensing a new realization of our connectedness to all of humanity, and to a deeper sympathy for the suffering of all persons, all life, even.
That new level of sympathetic understanding is what the Easter story is about; it’s what the teaching of Jesus is all about, it’s what the essential teaching of all the great religious and philosophical teaching is all about.
That’s why we Unitarian Universalists can celebrate Easter with the Christians, Passover with the Jews, and Spring with the Pagans; we celebrate human potential with the Humanists; with our Buddhist friends we celebrate the ability to roll the stone away from our minds and to be awake, to be aware and to be compassionate. With the Taoists we celebrate the natural order of the universe and the creative life force which must ever remain nameless.
In The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen says, “To enter into solidarity with a suffering person does not mean that we have to talk with that person about our own suffering. Speaking about our own pain is seldom helpful for someone who is in pain. A wounded healer is someone who can listen to a person in pain without having to speak about his or her own wounds. When we have lived through a painful depression, we can listen with great attentiveness and love to a depressed friend without mentioning our experience. Mostly it is better not to direct a suffering person’s attention to ourselves. We have to trust that our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole beings. That is healing.”
Like doubting Thomas we need to know that the people with whom we are in relationship are real, that they have suffered as we have suffered, known joys as we have known joys, been through a dark night of the soul as we have, and welcomed the Spring after a winter of despair.
The image of Jesus on the cross is a powerful (if difficult) image of suffering, a stark reminder. That image hangs in churches around the world and it is a source of comfort to millions of ‘the faithful.’ We should understand what that’s about; we should respect it and learn from it. It is not the spiritual language that speaks to most of us, but it is the religious language of millions of people over thousands of years – it deserves our respect, it doesn’t need our agreement!
Easter Sunday is the culmination Holy Week that began on Palm Sunday with the story of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, the Holy City with people waving palms and shouting Hosanna to one who comes in the name of God. Last year’s palms are burned to be used on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
Nouwen says, “Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”
“When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”
“We have to trust that our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole beings. That is healing.”
We say that ‘love is the spirit of this church,’ and Scripture says that ‘God is love.’
Easter Sunday is a good time for us to attach theological meanings to our affirmation, to remind ourselves and one another that it is a faith statement that requires a great deal of us – it requires a great deal from us.
The presence of God is revealed as the presence of sympathy, empathy or human compassion and kindness. What could be more obvious or a more acceptable theology…or more demanding of us than that?!
The unexamined faith is not worth living. The examined faith will, of necessity, be problematic, challenging and confusing – it’s a lifetime project.
Answer-oriented faith systems will win out over question-oriented faith systems every time, so don’t submit your faith to the popularity contest or ask for the good-housekeeping stamp of approval.
Faith is too-often trivialized, substituting unquestioned belief for the challenging role faith must be. Our faith comes in moments – our doubt is persistent – but our faith comes in moments of insight, intuition, understanding – recognition.
The traditional Christian prayer says ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ We need to nurture the spirit as well as the body. What nourishes your spirit? It might be a walk along the beach or a garden; it might be a poem or inspirational reading; it might be the ongoing love wrapped in memory, or the daily relationship with family and friends.
In the march toward inner freedom we often find ourselves in a parade of one, marching, as Thoreau put it, to the beat of our own drum. One aspect of our spiritual lives is entirely personal and private, which includes our sense of connection to or relationship with Nature – another aspect has to do with our relationships.
May the many meanings of the Easter story provide some of the daily bread that feeds the spirit.
We’ll close with a poem by Merritt Malloy titled Epitaph:
When I die
Give what’s left of me away
And old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you.
And when you need me,
Put your arms
And give them
What you need to give to me.
I want to leave you something,
Look for me
In the people I’ve known
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live on your eyes
And not on your mind.
You can love me most
Hands touch hands,
Bodies touch bodies,
And by letting go
That need to be free.
Love doesn’t die,
So, when all that’s left of me
Give me away.