April 26, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
During times of difficulty, people often turn to their faith for comfort and meaning. In the rituals, the community, and the teachings of their religion, they can find direction and guidance, the support of others, and ways of making sense of their lives even when the world has suddenly turned upside down. In an increasingly global community, we may have friends or neighbors who we know to be people of faith but their faith may be different from ours — they may be Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim — and in watching them practice their faith we may have found many similarities to our own growing in respect for our common desire to apprehend the spiritual and tap into a strength and wisdom greater than our own. I, myself, have a great amount of admiration for the great religions of the world and the more I have learned about other faiths, the more I have found uniting themes that cut across culture and time to bring us into a universal awareness of God by whatever name(s) we call God.
Nevertheless, each religion contributes to the whole human experience not just by what we hold in common with one another but also by the different emphases of each faith which inform how religious communities encounter the holy. Today, I want to think about Christianity’s unique message and what our faith offers the world in our common human quest for meaning. There are a lot of things that we teach to our children or preach from the pulpit are crucial to our Christian understanding of the world but are not necessarily restricted to a Christian understanding. Other religions, for example, have an ethical code which includes laws to love one’s neighbor and be kind to strangers. Other religions have sacred scriptures and prayer and worship practices. We might immediately point to the centrality of Christ as our unique offering and yet other religious people would agree that Christ is an important teacher and even one of the greatest prophets.
“Ah, but we see him as God’s son, as part of the Trinity,” we might argue, and yet even that is not a unique claim in the history of religion. Many religious groups have had a central figure who was or is thought, in some way, to embody God’s essence or will. When I eliminate all of the parallels to other religious groups, I am left with one core belief or teaching that to my knowledge is unique among the world religions, and that is the story that we rehearse every year during Holy Week: Christ crucified, Christ resurrected. Throughout the history of the church, the balance between the cross and the empty tomb has been the crucial proclamation for the people and it is that death and life experience which most informs the way that Christians view the world. For Christians, everything is filtered through the tension and inseparable teaching of the crucifixion and the resurrection. Jesus on the cross without an empty tomb would be simply the picture of another martyr who died for the cause. At the same time, a savior who ascended into heaven in glorious triumph without the suffering and death on the cross would have been another mythical supergod divorced from the reality of human suffering. It is the combined symbol of the crucifixion and resurrection which has had throughout history the power to change us and give us hope.
The crucifixion/resurrection event is then, I believe, the unique contribution of Christianity to the world of faith but how does crucifixion/resurrection help us make sense of the world? For Christians, what truth about life can we discover in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection?How does the understanding of crucifixion/ resurrection help us to live?
Many theologians and philosophers have suggested that human existence is defined by our recognition of our own mortality. While animals live entirely in the present experience, human beings live in the constant knowledge of our eventual death. Marcus Manilius, in the first century, gave voice to human anxiety when he said, “At birth our death is sealed and our end is consequent upon our beginning.” All of us can remember the first time we really confronted mortality as we were growing up — that time when a grandparent died or a schoolmate suffered a fatal accident. We can remember how a sudden recognition of human mortality made us wonder about the meaning of life; and few of us ever really escape the continuing anxiety about life’s meaning when death threatens. It is part of the human condition to wonder about the meaning of life in the face of one’s mortality.
In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin and his tiger friend Hobbes are sitting beneath a tree and Calvin is saying, “I don’t understand this business about death. If we’re just going to die, what’s the point of living?” Hobbes contemplates this for a moment, then brightens and says, “Well, there’s seafood!” to which Calvin gripes, “I don’t know why I even talk to you before dinner.”
Crucifixion/resurrection helps us to cope with our anxiety over our mortality by facing the reality of mortality and human suffering while still providing hope. James Wind of the Religion Division of the Lily Endowment talks about the Christian hope for healing by relating the following true story: On July 23, 1973 Dax Cowert had driven his father to look at a nearby ranch that was for sale. After walking around the property, they returned to their car to go home. What they didn’t know was that a leaking propane gas line had surrounded their car with a cloud of propane, and when they turned on the ignition, the car exploded in a fireball. Dax’s father died quickly in the fire, but Dax, as he always claimed, was not so lucky. He had severe burns over sixty-five percent of his body and he lost several fingers and was now blind. Dax had been a high school athlete, a rodeo rider, a skydiver, and an Air Force pilot; now he faced a world of darkness, of skin grafts, tubes, medicines and years of rehabilitation. From the first person who found him through the many doctors and medical personnel who worked on him over the next 232 days in the hospital, Dax asked to be allowed to die but no one honored his request. Even during his subsequent years of rehabilitation, Dax made several suicide attempts and though today he has developed an uneasy truce with life, he still says that if placed in his original situation, he would choose to die.
In evaluating the ethics of this case, the bioethicist William May summarizes the primary conflict at work. Dax, he said, could not see the value in extending his life. The doctors, on the other hand, were reasonably confident that they could achieve enough good quality of life to extend Dax’s life against his will. Underneath both Dax’s and the doctor’s argument was the assumption that life is a continual line that can be extended or shortened by human decision. In fact, he says, what nobody recognized is that Dax had already experienced his death. His life, as he knew it, had come to an end already. His case didn’t need just decisions about bodily healing; it needed someone who could face with Dax the death that had already occurred and then radically reconstruct Dax’s life from the ground up.
This is the language of crucifixion/resurrection; of death and then life again. We, as mortal people, live with the knowledge that our mortal lives will someday end and our faith teaches us to believe that there will be life beyond the grave. This is certainly one way of understanding death/resurrection; but we don’t have to wait until our deathbeds for our faith to give meaning to the world. We die many deaths along the road. When a loved one of yours dies, you too experience death. Who you are is changed forever. When you discover that you have a chronic illness, you experience a kind of death. The healthy person you were is gone; you must now re-build a new identity from the ground up. If you go through a divorce, you also go through a death of identity. You cannot go on pretending that you are the same person you always were — your life has fundamentally changed. Part of you has died and you will need to experience a resurrection to become a new person.
Christians who preach only glorious heavenly ascension preach a faith that ignores the reality of the death-dealing forces that act upon our hearts and our spirits. It doesn’t take seriously the radical threat of these forces to drastically change everything we believe and know about ourselves. A faith without the cross, a faith which doesn’t acknowledge our pain, forces us to move blithely through life pretending that nothing can harm us and that nothing can change radically and when life deals us its tragic blows as it almost always does, we have nothing in our faith that allows us to acknowledge the deep loss of our very selves that we experience. The apostle Paul refused to proclaim a triumphant Christianity that ignored the cross because it would become an irrelevant faith of “pie in the sky by and by” with no help for us in our present sufferings.
At the same time, the cross without the resurrection leaves us suffering the wounds of living with no hope for healing. Dax knew he had died; what he needed was the message that a new person could be born.
Paul said that we live the death and the resurrection of Christ. We experience the suffering that he experienced; our hearts break, our spirits shatter, we die from the wounds of tragedy, hurt, and cruelty; but Christ teaches us that though we die, there is hope for life again. We can grow again into new people. We will have to let go of who we were in order to become new people and that will be painful, but there is hope that the new person we become will be a person who can again laugh and love and live.
This is why we need God in Christ so that we say as we confront the sufferings of this day: Christ has died. Christ is risen. And so shall I.