The afterlife is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, he comes to claim the here and now. . .
These words come from the second verse of a wonderful hymn in the Easter section of the Episcopal Hymnal. It’s a hymn that I used almost universally as the hymn sung just before the reading of the Gospel on Easter Sunday throughout my ministry, not just because it is a powerful piece of music, which it is, but because of where it put the emphasis of Easter, in the here and now. This is a most powerful theological reminder that we do not gather on Easter to celebrate the resuscitation of a corpse two-thousand years ago, nor do we gather to celebrate what we so affectionately call the afterlife. I say affectionately because it turns out that two books on the subject of The Afterlife rushed into the top 10 of the New York Times Paperback Bestsellers List some years ago, one being called Proof of Heaven, a Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife and the other, Heaven is for Real, a Little Boy’s Astounding Trip to Heaven and Back, and there have been many more since then.
In a sermon titled Hell Fire and Brimstone, the preacher, Robert Cox, tells of how he used to go to a church where the preaching was almost always about what was going to happen to you after you die, especially if you didn’t straighten up and fly right. He wrote, I used to pray that we could be in a car crash on the way home after a really good altar call, so I could be sure I would get to Heaven. It would be funny if it were not so tragic. What a dreadful way to go through life. Jesus literally embodied the grace and forgiveness of the God of love and would never want us to miss the joy of living our lives in the here and now because we’re so busy worrying about the there and then. Easter isn’t as much about what happens after we breathe our last as it is about all the time we’re going to have to spend living and breathing! Christ is alive! Christ comes to claim the here and now. . .
The Gospel from Luke appointed for Easter in Year C acknowledges that we must face the various seasons of Lent in our lives before we can experience Easter. We are told that those brave women set out, in the midst of horrific grief, to anoint their Lord’s body for a proper burial.
The only reason that those women even knew where Jesus was buried was because they stayed to the bitter end, right there at the foot of the cross, while most of the men had run away. I still stand in amazement that it took our Episcopal Church more than 200 years to elect a woman to the post of Presiding Bishop! What those steadfast women say to us on Easter morning is that you simply cannot find resurrection unless you are willing to squarely face death in the here and now.
I remember a parishioner once writing to me late in the evening after our Good Friday service, and she said, It is very strange, but having experienced God’s intimacy with all that death and darkness that is so much a part of our lives, I feel put together again. I wrote those words down because I knew that even with all the books from Graduate School on my shelves, I didn’t have one that could begin to translate the Passion of Jesus Christ into our everyday lives quite that eloquently.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ never meant to suggest that there would be no more to tombs in our lives. The Gospel of Jesus Christ says, if you search with due diligence, you WILL discover the Resurrection! The God of grace and glory has absolutely seen to this! The power of God is love! Easter comes around every year to remind us that the power of God is alive and well in the here and now when you need it the most.
I remember vividly a time in my own life when I desperately needed to feel that power in the here and now, and not my church and not even the open and accepting arms of my loving family could satisfy that need. When my son was two years old, more than forty years ago now, he was fascinated if not obsessed with trains. At the time Kathy and I rented a small house that was directly across the street from the Mountain View station for the Amtrack commuter line that ran between San Francisco and San Jose. Now to put it in perspective, when I say station, I’m talking about a couple of benches under an awning. Quite frequently, I would take my little boy over to the station, and we would sit there and wait for the trains that came by every 20 minutes. It became a ritual for both of us. It was a particular joy for him when the train didn’t stop at the station but would whiz by at high speed. It was well worth the price of admission just to watch his little face light up when the front of the train would make its approach, and the train whistle would blow at almost deafening levels. It was almost as much fun as Disneyland and a whole lot less expensive.
I remember one day, while we were just having a chat, waiting for the next train, Kathy called to me from the front porch of our house and motioned for me to come home. There was an important call from my dad who had some bad news. We had been waiting for some tests to come back and he had just received the results. He was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that was universally known, at the time, to be fatal.
The reason that phone call stands out in my memory so vividly is because I was 24 years old at the time and had not yet brushed with death anywhere near this close to me, besides nobody had really told me yet that your parents aren’t supposed to live forever. This was the first really big tomb that I was ever asked to enter. I was considerably disoriented after I hung up the phone, and I didn’t know what to do or where to go.
I knew that I didn’t feel much like talking, and so almost unconsciously, I walked back across the street to the little Mountain View train station, this time by myself, and I waited for the next train. With tears streaming down my face, I sat on that bench for what seemed like an eternity. The silence was deafening. Then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I saw the bright light in the distance and then I heard the whistle blow. For some reason that train seemed bigger and faster than any I had ever seen before. I hope it doesn’t stop here, I thought. No, it’s going much too fast. It’s not going to stop. And without knowing why, I walked right over to the edge of the tracks, and I stood as close to those thick metal rails as I could get. The train drew closer, picking up even more speed and I waited, and then it happened. It passed by me with such a rush and a roar that the wind butted me backwards and nearly over. It gave me a good pounding to say the least. As strange as it may sound, I was incredibly comforted by that event, and to this day, although I know better, I still find myself wondering if that train really had any passengers on it.
I wouldn’t have said this at the time but looking back I realize what drew me back to the train stop after my dad’s phone call. I desperately needed an Easter experience, and I needed it in the here and now.
It was my feeble way of searching diligently in an empty tomb. I needed to know that there was a power out there that transcended my fragile existence; a power so great that it could even be called divine!
And in that moment, I felt put together again. On that day, God turned a simple commuter train into a profound sacrament. It wasn’t that I never had to enter any more tombs, it’s that I came to know that I never had to go into any of them alone, ever again! If Jesus were resuscitated, he would have been limited in time and space, but because he was resurrected, he can show up in any tomb, any time!
A handful of disciples caught in the tomb of failure and despair experienced the blast of the Risen Christ, and that failure and despair turned into promise and hope. As a result, a handful has multiplied into over two billion world-wide. Easter is the train that comes down the track for each one of us, right when we feel that our lives have been shattered and there is no more hope.
Do you hear the whistle blowing? Can you feel the rush of wind in your life this Easter? I pray that you can. And if pain or disappointment or weariness or loneliness or anger lies buried somewhere within you this Easter, I pray that you come to know that when we claim that Christ is risen, we also claim that WE can be risen, and that Christ comes to claim the here and now. . .
Alleluia Christ is Risen!