Going on Ahead of Us
Well, here we are again, my friends, on Easter morning. Day has given way to day, month to month; the seasons have turned, and turned, and turned again; the winter was a rough one, but now again we find ourselves on this morning of all spring mornings, the day of the Lord’s resurrection. The tomb is opened; all the dark and the dank inside of it, inside of us, is exposed to the sweet bright rays of heaven. “[N]ow hell is a joke,” as St. John Chrysostom wrote 1600 years ago; “finished,” he said, “[d]one with. Harrowed because now taken prisoner. It snatched at a body and – incredible – lit upon God. It gulped down the earth and gagged on heaven. It seized what it saw, and was crushed by what it failed to see.” Yes, on Easter morning death is cheated of what it expects naturally to be its own – another body and soul, that of Jesus, murdered by its fellows. The jaws clamp onto the space where the body was put to rest, only to experience the surprise of history, the surprise of the universe – a mouth full of life, of God. Death gags and spits out heaven – its opposite, its end. Heaven marks the death of death. Our bodies now perish, and death can have them then. The soul lives on – that part of us that has always carried the spark of divinity, the image of God, in us. These belong to God, who cherishes and sustains them for eternity, and death cannot get its jaws upon them.
We die to death when we live our lives from the core of this knowledge. As Chrysostom said of the resurrection, “life is set free.” It is not simply after the death of our bodies when we are set free, all of life – even the life we live today – is set free by the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Whether we live into that freedom is our choice alone, and it is the resurrection narrative from Matthew’s gospel in particular that tells us both how and why. It says, “he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”
Galilee – that’s where it all began – the teaching, the ministry, the calling of the disciples. That’s where Jesus will meet up with them again – he had told them so before – we read that in both the Gospels of Matthew and of Mark. Galilee is where, in the end, the disciples have to go. Now the angel at the empty tomb reminds the terrified women who have stumbled through the pre-dawn dark to perform the small honor to his murdered body of anointing it with oil: “He is going ahead of you to Galilee,” just as he said he would.
Christ is going on ahead of us. He went ahead of us to the grave to open heaven for us. But he also is going ahead of us to Galilee – he is not simply going to heaven but he is going down the road apiece. He is going a little ways ahead of you and me wherever our lives’ journeys will take us. And he will meet us there. The miracle of the resurrection for us is not simply heaven when we die, but the life that really is life before we die.
He is going on ahead of us. Where are you going? He is waiting for you there. Some, I know, here in this beautiful sanctuary this Easter morning, are giving thanks for the resurrection with a broken heart. You have lost a loved one in recent months and your gratitude for the resurrection could not be more genuine or deep. Your hope is built on nothing less than the promises of our faith that your loved one rests secure in the palm of God’s loving hand. The road for you in the months ahead is through the valley of grief. If any of us have ever loved a person, this is a valley we all will have to go to at some point. Jesus has gone ahead of you. He’s waiting for you in that valley. On this Easter morning, we remember that there is new life for us beyond the grave, but let us also remember that there is new life for us on the way there.
I look at this beautiful assembly and I see people who have shared with me that your health is not good. Before you lie months of treatment, and for some, the fear that death is near. Remember – Jesus is there waiting for you on that road: surgery, chemotherapy, rehab, detox, therapy, convalescence. For all that you will endure, he has gone on before, and the journey you take will not be alone. Thankfully, most of the roads we walk are not painful but wonderful, even if challenging – independence, parenthood, professional discernment, professional advancement, the causes and missions that frame our understandings of justice and give purpose to our days. The resurrected Christ has gone on before, waits on the road with a smile, and gestures us forward with loving encouragement. Whatever journey we take, we will not be alone.
In these same days as Holy Week and Eastertide, our Jewish sisters and brothers are celebrating Passover (each holiday follows a lunar calendar and they often align). At their Seders, they sing “Day Dayenu” – which means “It would have been enough for us,” or “It would have been sufficient,” if only one or a few of God’s sustaining miracles were accomplished, yet there are so many more! I feel on this Easter morning that this is a refrain for Christians, too. It would have been enough for us (to put it mildly) for Christ simply to have opened heaven to us on Easter – but there’s so much more. He is going on ahead of us in the here and now – he is present to us in love, mercy, and power in all that we experience. We are always in the presence of the Presence. Day Dayenu!
At least a dozen years ago, I came across an article in National Geographic that, I think, illustrates the kind of presence Christ has in our lives today, thanks to Easter. The article concerned the environmental effects of forest fires. It told of firefighters who made their way into one charred landscape after the fires had swept through. They saw on the ground what looked like a petrified bird, its wings spread out and touching the ground. They prodded the grey thing and it crumbled; it had turned to ash. Underneath it appeared three live baby birds. They imagined what had happened: a mother bird with her nest in one of the trees knew that the fire was advancing. She could have flown away like other birds and saved herself. But she had baby birds that weren’t old enough to fly. One by one, she carried them down to the ground, covered them all with her wings, tucked in her head, and let the fire pass over her. She chose to die in hopes that her death would save her offspring. In the Gospel of John, we read “There is no greater love than this, that a man should give his life for his friends.”
Jesus, too, withstood the encroaching torture and pain to buy us life – in the here and in the hereafter. Ernest Hemingway once said, “Life breaks everyone.” He was right. St. John Chrysostom, as I’ve said, wrote “Life is set free,” and he was right-er. Yes, life breaks everyone, but God’s answer to our brokenness is Easter, when, as Chrysostom so correctly noted, “life is set free.” Not just the afterlife, but life as we live it. “Easter,” I like to say, “Easter frees us from all that entombs us.” What is that for you – is it shame, disappointment, defeat, addiction, mental illness, disease, a broken heart, the struggle for, or with, faith? Is it violence, exhaustion, discrimination, oppression, poverty, loneliness, meanness, a wrong done so long ago but that colors your world? Easter frees us from all that entombs us.
Let us burst then from our tombs this Easter morning and leave others speechless as to where we might be! Heaven is open and life is set free – what have we truly to fear? Christ isn’t sitting around – he has bounded off to Galilee, back to where his work once began and where the next chapter will start. He’s not sitting around and neither must we. There are roads that we are obligated to walk – through grief, illness, responsibility, and there are roads that we are privileged to walk – through service, self-discovery, knowledge-discovery, peace-building, pouring out love, doing justice, and practicing mercy. Christ goes before us in all of it.
It is Easter morning, friends, and the God who is love has raised Christ from the grave into which we sank him. Now hell is a joke, as Chrysostom wrote. The joke is on death – grabbing for an executed criminal (plenty of those) and gagging on heaven. The death that really is death is vanquished, and the life that really is life leads the way into eternity. Its path of redemption, mercy, and love begins right now, and not in some golden age. Christ died and rose again so that we might not only live in the hereafter, but in the here and now. Let us accept that invitation with all our pounding hearts.