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Death Defeated

Easter Sunday

Isaiah 25:6-9
Acts 10:34-43
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
John 20:1-18 OR Mark 16:1-8

This Easter will be the first since my mother died in July. She died so unexpectedly and quickly that I could not be with her when it happened. Still, mom was a believer and hers was a fast, peaceful death. As these things go, we would call it a good death. Nevertheless, as I found out at Christmas, and I expect I will find out at Easter, her death has upset me more than I first knew.

Without question, there are various reasons for this. It is a normal part of the grieving process. I probably have some unfinished business with my mother. I feel guilty I was not there when she died. As we approach Easter, however, I need to think about death – her death in particular – and resurrection theologically, or, at least, as a Christian.

Let us begin with death. I am grateful that mom’s death was relatively peaceful and painless. It is equally important for me to remember, as one of my former pastors says, “Death sucks.” Death, as least as we know it, was never part of God’s plan. It plays no redemptive role. It is our enemy. Indeed, it is only in comparison with the colossal brokenness of creation, its pain, disease, and disaster that we speak of a good death. The past several months reminded me of this in ways I had forgotten.

Since I am a theologian, people often want to know from me how much of this resurrection stuff do I really believe. I am not a great fan of trying to prove that Jesus rose from the dead by means of evidence that all rational people would accept. My fear is that such reasoning only brings us to a very narrowly constrained notion of resurrection.

My belief is more robust, but it also recognizes that the gospel stories of the resurrection are filled with odd and awkward moments. In Mark’s gospel, for example, the resurrected Christ commands the women at the tomb to go and tell the disciples. Today’s reading ends with them telling no one “because they were afraid.”

In John, all that Peter and “the disciple that Jesus loved” learn from the women is that Jesus’ body is not in the tomb. When each of them looks into the tomb we are told that they “saw and believed.” Immediately, however, we are then told that they did not understand the scripture that he was to rise from the dead. Based on that, it is not clear what they did believe.

These examples remind us that our gospel accounts of that first Easter are raw. They get the information out, but they certainly leave a lot of questions unanswered.

This year, however, I am much more interested in those readings that reflect on that first Easter from a bit more distance. In Acts, Peter stresses that he and the others are witnesses to what God has done. As a witness who walked with Jesus, even haphazardly as Peter did, the resurrection allows him to understand the life and teaching of Jesus in a new way.

Most importantly, his experience of the resurrected Christ, through the presence of the Spirit, empowers him to be a witness to Cornelius, a Gentile. As he explains it, he can now see that “God shows no partiality.” Peter now sees that through loving Israel and through raising Israel’s messiah from the dead, God is bringing all people into a saving embrace. That is pretty good news to those of us who are not Jews.

Paul, too, in his extended reflection on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 helps us not simply to understand that the resurrection happened, but what it means. As he will boldly announce at the end of the chapter, Christ’s resurrection means that death is defeated. He quotes the reading from Isa 25, proclaiming that “death is swallowed up in victory.”

Paul was not naïve; he knew that death still stalked the world he lived in. He confronted its reality in his travels and sometimes from the confines of a jail cell. The resurrection of Christ convinced him, however, that God had acted to rob death of its power and ultimately to destroy death.

In these words from Isaiah, Paul understood that God was acting to “destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; [God] will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces.” God will destroy the sheet and the shroud, the burial garments, because they will have no further purpose. We will no longer grieve in the face of death because it will be swallowed up. Then the party begins, “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”

This particular year, these readings from Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Isaiah mean the most to me. I don’t doubt Christ’s resurrection or my mother’s. In the aftermath of her death, however, my gratitude for Christ’s resurrection and my appreciation of its cosmic significance are deeper. I am more eager than ever for death to be swallowed up, for the tears to dry and for the party to begin.

5 Responses to “Death Defeated”

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  1. Your pastor was right. Death sucks. My family is struggling with the death of my grandson this year. Thanks for helping me to hear the good news in these texts.

  2. Stephen Fowl says:

    I am sorry to hear about your grandson’s death. I hope this feast of the resurrection will bring some renewed joy for you and your family.

  3. Dale Ziemer says:

    Thank you Steve. These words are so powerful, so tender, so true.

  4. Joel Shuman says:

    Steve,
    I had forgotten your mother had died. I am sorry for the ongoing pain, but glad for the hope you receive from the good news that cross and resurrection are the events determining the arc of history and so of our lives. Peace be with you. CHRISTOS ANESTE!

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