The conclusion of the series “A Dystopian Lent”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
March 27, 2016—Easter Sunday
Luke 24:1–12 • Very early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb, bringing the fragrant spices they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they didn’t find the body of the Lord Jesus. They didn’t know what to make of this. Suddenly, two men were standing beside them in gleaming bright clothing. The women were frightened and bowed their faces toward the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Human One must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words. When they returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles. Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women. But Peter ran to the tomb. When he bent over to look inside, he saw only the linen cloth. Then he returned home, wondering what had happened.
So here we are on Easter Sunday. We have completed our forty-day journey through the wilderness of Lent. We have walked the road from the hosannas of Palm Sunday, through the controversy of the days that followed, the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples, the betrayal and denial of Jesus by those closest to him, the trial before the religious leadership, the trial before the political leadership, the condemnation, scourging, mockery, and humiliation he underwent at the hands of his captors, the crucifixion, and his sorrowful death upon the cross. We have walked in sorrow and grief to the tomb in which Jesus’ body was laid, wrapped in burial shrouds, as the day came to a close and the darkness rolled in.
And now here we stand, at the empty tomb, somewhat bewildered, but having heard the message that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Just as he told us that he must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and be raised from the dead, so it has all come to pass: Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed! Alleluia!
Well, as a colleague of mine used to say: good for him. What does that have to do with the rest of us?
That seems like an odd question to ask. But perhaps a number of you have been wondering that same thing. The church doesn’t always do a good job at explaining this, assuming that we all get it. We all understood why Easter was important. Even I remember wondering this as a kid. I get that Jesus’ resurrection was a big deal for Jesus, but what did it have to do with me? What did it have to do with my going to heaven when I died? What did it mean for Jesus to be raised from the dead?
I can tell you that some of the worst sermons I have ever heard have revolved around this question. And they all seemed to have some variation on the same theme. Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t really about his resurrection—it was about something else. Usually Jesus’ authority.
I heard one preacher say something like this: Jesus said that he would die and be raised from the dead after three days. He did, in fact, do this. Therefore, we can pretty much trust everything else that he said. That’s it? The resurrection of Jesus Christ is basically a parlor trick to prove how reliable he is? The resurrection is vindication of Jesus’ authority.
Another variation on this theme is that Jesus’ resurrection was proof of his divinity. The implication being that what he taught us was not just the words of an inspired prophet, but were God’s own words. God speaking to us in the flesh. To be honest, this also seems like further vindication of Jesus’ authority.
Other interpretations will usually describe Jesus’ victory over death and sin. How death and sin have been conquered. Or sometimes they’ll talk about how Jesus atoned for our sins with his death and was resurrected afterwards as divine sanction for his sin-cancelling efforts.
There are a few things that strike me about these lines of thought. The first is that by emphasizing the resurrection as a vindication of Jesus’ trustworthiness or of his divinity, it almost has the effect of separating Jesus’ experience from our own. Of course Jesus came back from the dead—Jesus is divine; death can’t hold him. But we’re not divine; how does Jesus’ resurrection liberate us from death? Somehow, emphasizing Jesus’ resurrection as proof of his divinity removes the resurrection from any meaningful part of the human experience. It makes it less connected to me. To the life I live. Yay! Jesus has come back from the dead. But then again, he is God, so I guess that’s not too surprising. I mean, God does that kind of thing, you know?
Second, these understandings of Jesus’ resurrection seem to focus a lot more on Jesus’ authority and reliability than Jesus ever did. Jesus does not go around giving speeches in the gospels saying things like, “I would have the greatest death ever. Spectacular. Believe me. It would be so great people will be talking about it for centuries. I’ll have the best tomb. A guarded tomb—And I’ll make the Romans pay for the guards. They’ll pay. Believe me. But you’ll see. When I die, I won’t stay dead. No, I’ll come back. I’ll come back. Three days, tops. Believe me.”
Jesus seems to spend much more of his time talking about the Kingdom of God, and what it looks like to experience the Kingdom of God. What it looks like to love one another with the same love that God loves us. What it looks like to live a life of faith in the midst of a broken world. What it looks like to marry faith and action into a life of righteousness. Jesus talks a lot about tearing down the divisions that separate us, removing the walls that divide Jew from Gentile, insiders from outsiders, the poor from the wealthy, the respectable from the prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus’ message in the gospels seems to be about so much more than whether he’s a reliable source of information or not. So much more than whether he is divine or not. Jesus’ message is about the transformation of the world.
So, what does his resurrection have to do with that? What does Jesus’ resurrection have to say about the broken world we live in?
II. THE WORLD
And boy do we live in a broken world. A world in which so many suffer. A world in which tens of thousands are driven from their homes by a murderous death cult using a perversion of religion to sieze power. A world in which those same refugees are shunned by a world afraid of the very people they have fled from. A world in which a fractious political campaign reveals a dark, disturbing, hateful aspect of our civil life that many of us had thought banished decades ago and others of us had experienced all too frequently.
A world in which innocents die violently while waiting at a train station or in a subway, or going to work, or trying to learn in a classroom, or while conducting a bible study in church. A world in which warfare is still the preferred method by many to solve complex issues. In which machines reign terror over the skies of small villages caught in the crossfire between the principalities and the powers of the world.
A world in which ever more unpredictable weather drives people from their homes, afflicting those who already have so little. A world in which so many continue to live under political oppression, discriminated against because they dare to speak out against their rulers. A world in which people continue to be discriminated against based on their race, their religion, their national origin, their identity, or who they love. A world in which far too many children go to bed at night without adequate food or shelter. A world in which entire segments of the population feel they are being left behind by an unfeeling economic tide.
It’s a terribly broken world. It’s a world in need of redemption. A world in need of saving.
III. STAR TREK
Throughout Lent, we have been looking at dystopian fiction as a lens through which we have explored the brokenness of the world, the brokenness that we know as we wander through this wilderness of forty days. We looked at The Road and its bleak view of a world that has come to ash, and explored the feelings of ruin that we experience. We looked at The Giver and explored the experience of being deprived of a meaningful choice in our lives. Children of Men helped us reflect upon the experience of being cut off from a hope in the future. The Hunger Games and issues of innocent loss. The Walking Dead helped us to explore our reluctance to honestly confront the reality of death in our midst. Nineteen eighty-four allowed us to explore the feelings of being crushed by entire systems. In all of these dystopias, we reflected on how the hope of the gospel defeats and transcends the fears that are found at the heart of all these dystopian fictions.
So we did a pretty good job at finding ways to express the wilderness journey of Lent. There are plenty of narratives that embody the anxieties, the fears, and the brokenness that lie under the surface of human experience. Thanks to Cormac McCarthy, Lois Lowry, P.D. James, Alfonso Cuarón, Suzanne Collins, Robert Kirkman, and George Orwell, we have plenty of examples of all the brokenness of the world.
But enough of the wilderness already. Enough of the brokenness of the world; it’s Easter. Christ is Risen. It’s time to look at hope for the world and the future. So, enough of the dystopias. What world could we look to that would give us a vision of the world that we’re hoping for, the better world awaiting?
In my mind, the answer is obvious: Star Trek.
Now, before you accuse me—rightly—of being a Trekkie (which I have been since I discovered Star Trek reruns some time in the early 1970’s), and claim that that is the sole reason I picked the show as my example, allow me to defend this choice.
When Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek in the 1960’s, the world was in the throes of the Cold War, on the brink of nuclear annihilation, in the midst of the Vietnam War, with social and political unrest here in the U.S., racial injustice, economic strife. And in the midst of that Roddenberry gave to the country a vision of the future in which the earth was united and at peace, exploring the vast reaches of space, in a gleaming starship crewed by Japanese helmsman, a Russian (actually, Soviet) navigator, a Scottish engineer, a Black female communications officer, a Southern medical officer, and an alien—somewhat demonic-looking—science officer. Yes, it’s true they were all captained by a white American—and given the fact that he was from Iowa, it’s 50-50 that he was a Methodist—but the visual imagery of the crew itself was a statement. And the more you learned about their world, the more you understood that this was not our world as it is, but as it could be. A world without poverty. A world without war. A world without want. Heaven.
The world was inspiring.
Of course, the things that we craved the most were the shiny things that they had: hand held communicators, medical beds that could scan a patient, voice operated computers, handheld data retrieval devices, and let’s not forget the transporters and the warp drive. That was inspiring, too.
There are untold numbers of people who are serving in NASA right now because they grew up on Star Trek and wanted to join the closest thing to Starfleet. There are engineers who saw the shiny things on Star Trek and wanted to have them. I’m convinced that the only reason we ever had flip phones is because engineers wanted to replicate the communicator that Captain Kirk and company used. Hell, I’m convinced that the main reason that Tori still has a flip phone is because Kirk had one.
People saw a vision of this world that could be and they wanted to work to make it a reality. They understood the vision to be a prompt toward hope. Toward witness. Toward action.
But this brings us all back to the question of what Jesus’ resurrection has to do with the rest of us.
We are not the first to note the brokenness of the world. Nor are we the first to reflect on what a better world would look like.
In the first century, the world for the Jewish people looked very broken. Their line of kings had long since been broken. Their temple had been destroyed and though it had been rebuilt, it wasn’t the same as Solomon’s temple. The Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets of the law lost forever. The brief period of independence under the Maccabees had devolved into factional dynastic infighting eventually yielding to Roman interference, followed by a direct Roman takeover of Judah and the installation of a military occupation of their holy city. There was great division among the people. The priests had allied themselves with the occupation, they no longer sought the good of the people. Those in the provinces struggled to make a living under heavy imperial taxation. The wealthy seemed to profit from their alliance with the structures of power and the poor were neglected, marginalized, pushed aside. The first century world was a broken world. As much as our world is.
But faithful Jews believed that God would redeem the world. God would not allow the forces of evil, oppression, and injustice to prevail. God would set things right. God would even bring about a world so peaceful and so transformed that the wolf would lie down with the lamb, and the lion would eat grass like the ox. God would dwell with God’s people upon the earth, a world transformed and remade. In the end, God would not even allow death to have the final word: God would raise the righteous from the dead in a resurrection of the dead, and they would dwell with God in the renewed, transformed world forever.
And so here comes Jesus, one who speaks of this world to come, who offers a vision of what it will be like. And a way in which we can live that way even now. His followers start to suspect that he might be able to usher in this new world, this vision of the better world awaiting. And then—he is betrayed, denied, arrested, and crucified. The vision of something better, something more has been crushed once again by the reality of the brokenness of the world. Evil, oppression, and injustice have reared their ugly heads and the righteous innocent has suffered the consequences.
But then: Christ is Risen! Jesus has been raised from the dead. For a first century audience, the significance of this proclamation would not have been lost. Everything we have hoped for, everything we believe God will do to renew and restore the world—even to the point of defeating death itself—is true! Jesus’ resurrection is not the vindication of Jesus’ credibility, it is the vindication of our hope. It has everything to do with us.
Jesus’ resurrection confirms our hope that God will not abandon us to the brokenness of the world. God will not abandon us to injustice and oppression. God will not even abandon us to death. Resurrection is real. Jesus has been raised. And as Christ has been raised, so too, will we.
As St. Paul wrote, Christ is the first fruits of those who have died. The beginning of the harvest, not the end. His death is not an isolated event, limited only to those who claim a divine pedigree. His death is the first, it is the beginning. It is the vindication of the promise of the better world awating.
And in so doing, Jesus’ resurrection becomes as much about the future as it does about the past. Because of the resurrection, we have before us a vision of the world as it can be. A vision of the world that we hope for. The faithful of ancient Israel had a vision for what that would would be like. In Jesus’ resurrection, that vision was vindicated. Jesus has given us a foretaste of the kingdom of God. We have been given a glimpse of the better world awaiting.
When people encounter such a hopeful vision, like the one of earth’s future that we see in entertainment like Star Trek—a world without war or poverty, or racial or national divides, a world where technology works to better people’s lives rather than enslave them—that vision can be powerful enough to cause people to devote their lives and energies to realizing that vision, even if for the time being that manifests itself in things like MP3s and flip phones.
But Easter does the same thing. Our commemoration of Easter fails if we limit it to something that happened to Jesus only. Or if we interpret it to mean that if we believe it happened then we get to go to some heaven on some other plane of existence after we die. Those things lose sight of the power of the resurrection to speak to the future.
For the resurrection vindicates our hopes for a future, it fills us with an understanding of what is possible with God. Christ is risen, and because of that resurrection we have been given a powerful vision of the better world awaiting. A vision so powerful and world-transforming that we are called out of our complacency to try to bring that world into being. We are called to live in such a way that we model for the world what it is capable of being. We are called to tell the story of Jesus, and of what that means for the world. We are called to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. We are called to work for peace, for justice, for freedom. We are called to boldly go into all the world and proclaim: Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed!