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“Easter Begins in Darkness”
Sermon on Mark 16:1-8, Isaiah 25:6-9
The classical definition of a comedy is a story that has a happy ending. It may not be happy throughout, and it isn’t necessarily funny, though there may be comic moments – the essential thing is that things turn out well in the end and that the heroes of the story are still alive.
In this classical sense, the Easter story can be said to be a comedy, with the resurrection of Jesus as the joyful climax and the promise of life and peace for his followers as the satisfying denouement.
It must be said that this sense of a satisfying ending is missing in Mark’s Gospel. The Gospel ends with the shock and fear of the women, who leave the empty tomb in a panic. Their reaction is not surprising. In the Good Friday world in which they have been living, the empty tomb must have seemed like an April Fool’s prank staged by someone with a very disturbed mind.
No one was expecting a resurrection. God’s Messiah was expected to defeat the Romans, not to die a degrading death and then be raised to life. When the women went to the tomb on that early Sunday morning, they were not expecting anything but the confirmation of what they already knew: that all was lost.
Easter begins in darkness, the darkness of devastating loss, defeat and hopelessness. Though I just talked about a happy ending, it’s important to understand that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was not just a happy reversal of circumstances. God’s victory over death and evil was wrenched out of unspeakable suffering and unfathomable loss. Good Friday was a catastrophe of cosmic proportions, but it was also a story of ordinary human failure: a story about the failure of institutions and the unreliability of the human heart.
In his last week in Jerusalem everybody failed Jesus: the Roman bureaucracy in its fear and misunderstanding of the people in the Judean province it occupied; the religious officials who turned to the Roman state to deal with a teacher they found problematic; the crowds who first celebrated Jesus as an agent of their deliverance from the Romans and then turned on him when he disappointed them; Jesus’s fair-weather friends, the disciples, who deserted him at the first sign of trouble -- and, in Mark’s Gospel and only in Mark, even the women fail the risen Jesus by running away. The New Testament has a brutal realism about the world as it is, and about people as they are.
It is still a Good Friday world most of the time for many people on earth today. Think of all the people who have been failed by the institutions that should have protected them: the Yazidi Christians of Iraq, now under ISIS rule; the Syrian people, caught between a crushing authoritarian dictatorship and the rebel forces trying to overthrow it; the Yemeni people who are starving by the millions. In our country, we see the people of Puerto Rico still waiting for power and basic services six months after Hurricane Maria, kids struggling to grow up in violent neighborhoods and failing schools, people dying from overdoses of recklessly prescribed opioids. Along with these institutional failures, there are all the everyday acts of ordinary human contempt or negligence. This is also part of the Good Friday world of the Bible, a world in which even God can seem to fail us. Jesus’s words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are words that many people have said at one time or another. Maybe some of you have said them.
The Good Friday cross, with its apparent triumph of ignorance, cruelty and indifference, stands as a reminder that we still live in a broken world, where human lives are heedlessly thrown away, where human hopes routinely get stomped on. And at the end of it all is death.
Death, in fact, is the most implacable enemy that stalks through the pages of the Bible, the “shroud that is cast over all peoples.” Isaiah compares death to a ravenous beast, waiting to gobble up everything human beings hold most precious.
In Silicon Valley, I understand, there is hope that they are about to solve the problem of death. Immortality – or at least virtual immortality – may be just around the corner. It’s a matter of cracking, and then hacking, the code to the gene or molecule that causes aging.[i] A woman named Martine Rothblatt, the founder of a biotech firm called United Therapeutics, says, “Clearly, it is possible, through technology, to make death optional.” Others in the Valley are slightly less optimistic, saying we’d do better to work on dramatically extending our life span – so, it’s either “death is optional” or, worst case, “death will have to wait.”
If this is true, then the Easter message of the Resurrection may seem less compelling to us than it has to two millennia of Christians before us. If technology can solve death, then it can solve everything, it would seem.
I should note, though, that the endless life the Silicon Valley gurus are working toward – which is not the same thing as the Bible’s “eternal life” – may be primarily for rich people. Death, once the Great Equalizer, could become simply the fate of the poor. People like Peter Thiel may have no intention of growing old and dying, but Silicon Valley hasn’t really thought through what these technologies would mean for the entire species: Could no babies be born because the earth would soon be unsustainably overpopulated? Would there be no more new ideas from the young? And what would be the quality of life? Would this endless life be recognizably what we call human? (Species that have extreme longevity, such as a kind of clam that can live over 500 years if it doesn’t get used for chowder, don’t necessarily excite our envy.) If retooling our bodies turns out not to be an option, though, we may be able to preserve our consciousness and merge it with the cloud. Somehow that doesn’t seem all that desirable.
Even if the dream of immortality is realized through technology, it will not be a perfect world. Even the wizards of Silicon Valley can’t solve all the failures of the human species. The stubborn realities of the Good Friday world will not be so easily eliminated. There are, after all, many kinds of death: not just physical death, not just the loss of youthful good looks and vitality, but also the death of love, the death of friendship, the death of dreams, the death of trust, the death of hope. In spite of radical advances in medicine and gene technology, it is likely that for the foreseeable future death and suffering will continue to be a constant for the human species.
Maybe the Silicon Valley immortalists are right – maybe a few privileged people can escape the human condition. But for a realistic account of human experience, I still look to the Bible rather than to the technocrats. As grim as the Bible can be about the human condition, it is also wildly, buoyantly hopeful about the God who raises from the dead.
We can agree with the Silicon Valley folks that death is not OK and no rationalization will make it OK. But we can also affirm that Resurrection is a mystery even bigger than death, and it makes a claim even bigger than the promise of personal immortality. The truth claim of the Resurrection is that God will be with us forever. To quote Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, then we are of all people most to be pitied…but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” His resurrection says something about our future.
The resurrection was God’s “No” to all the annihilating forces that conspire against full human life and flourishing. The resurrection is about God acting to wrench life out of loss, defeat and death. Christ’s death and resurrection assure us that nothing in all creation, not our failures and betrayals, not even death itself, will separate us from God, who seeks finally to redeem this world, and to “wipe away the tears from all faces.”
I am a Christian in part because Christianity has the only “world view” that makes sense to me. Only Christian faith is able to look squarely into the darkness, name it, take an inventory of its dimensions, and affirm a remedy for it. The faith that has been handed down to us from the apostles tells us that beyond all the sorrows and struggles of life, beyond even death itself, there is a presence and power that holds us and will not abandon us. Our hope is not in ourselves, it is in the One who comes to us from beyond us: Someone in whom the life of God has overcome death itself, and who offers that life to us, now and forever. “In Christ all will be made alive.”
He is risen indeed! Alleluia. Amen.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
April 1, 2018
[i] See Tad Friend, “The God Pill,” The New Yorker, April 3, 2017, 54-67. Information and quotations about Silicon Valley’s quest for immortality are taken from this article.