Extreme New Life
In South Africa during the time of apartheid when the black community was really beginning to revolt, there was a black man who was a double agent, he was working for the white government. He insinuated himself into a group of seven young black men who wanted to fight against the government, and he taught them how to use guns. Then he led them into a police ambush, and they were all killed.
When apartheid was overthrown, and there was a new government in place, a group of people got together to work out a plan for healing the country. There had been so much violence against so many people, and there needed to be some way of releasing, some way to facilitate forgiveness, the letting go of anger.
And so the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its chairman. It was a place where the victims could speak, and where the perpetrators could speak, and many miracles happened in that sacred space. One of those miracles happened when the double agent spoke, and told the story of the terrible thing he had done. The mothers of the boys who had been killed were there. After hearing what he said, one of the mothers stepped forward. She said later that she did not think about what to say, it just came out. She said to him, “you have taken the life of my son, now you have to fill that empty place.”
That is resurrection. That is the re-creation of life where there was death. The new life is not the same as the old life, but it is life, where there was death.
What would it mean to tell the man who had killed your son that he is now your son? What would it mean to the mother? What would it mean to this man? I first thought about what it would mean to a mother to say such a thing, to release that level of anger, to forgive that deeply. But then, I thought, but what about this man! Imagine being expected to come into this house and fill the functions of a son where you were the one responsible for the son’s death. This is a traditional society, where there are expectations for each member of a family at certain times.
My friend Beth married a man from India, and when his father died, there were specific things that she, as the daughter-in-law, was supposed to do during the funeral and the memorial time following it. Each member of the extended family had specific responsibilities assigned to them. If there had been no daughter-in-law, then those responsibilities would be taken over by someone who would step in to handle that role.
But the role of a son is still very important even in our non-traditional society, isn’t it? Imagine how much more important it is in a traditional society. And this mother simply refused to let what he had done keep her from having a son. Never mind that he did not look like the original.
One of the puzzling things in the stories of the resurrection is that people do not recognize Jesus, at least not at first. In the coming weeks, we will read several of these stories, but here we have Mary dealing with the empty tomb, she encounters the risen Lord, and she does not recognize him – until he says her name. He looks different, he is different now, different enough that even those who were close to him do not recognize him – until he does the kinds of things that open their eyes to his presence. Jesus, resurrected, is not the same. They had to learn to “see” him differently. We too have to learn to look differently.
Have you ever gone looking for something, and looked and looked and finally given up, and found it in plain sight later? I have. But when I find it, there is something different about it. It was not where I was expecting to find it, or it had changed somehow from what I thought. One of the worst is when I lose my keys, and they are simply in a different pocket. I am such a creature of habit – the keys always go into my right pocket. If, somehow, they end up in a left-hand pocket, I go crazy looking for them! Or, I put something down, and someone else, being helpful, puts it away. Again, I know where I think it should be. My mind tells me what “should be” because that’s where I left it. When I get into that “should be” space, I have a very difficult time opening my mind to other options – I keep going back to the old place, sometimes over and over again!
Because of the resurrection, the women did not find Jesus in the tomb. The angels ask them, “why do you look for the living here?” I can just imagine the women wanting to scream, “because we saw them put him here! That’s why!” Because of the resurrection, we can no longer look for Jesus in the empty tomb – or on the cross, for that matter. He is risen. We will not find him in the tomb, he is back at work in the streets and alleys, in the hospitals and clinics, in the jails and parks.
Easter is the culmination of Holy Week, which is the culmination of Lent. Holy Week is one long feast for the senses as we taste, touch, smell, hear and see God’s love made manifest in bread and wine; in water and towel; in fire and oil; in word and action; in sign, symbol and sacrament. What is the meaning of all of this? Love is the meaning. Love speaks forgiveness. Even when you kill my son, God says, you are forgiven, but now you have to step up and fill these shoes. How can we do that? How can we possibly do that?
There are two answers to that question. The first answer is that we do not do it alone. The second is that we do it by following the way that Jesus taught us. We follow the way together. We come together to be refreshed and refilled to go out to follow the way of Jesus in the world. Church is sort of like the grocery store. You don’t go to live at the grocery store, you go to get what you need, to keep you going in the world. Of course, if all you get at the grocery store is Twinkies and candy, you will run out of steam and think bah! this grocery store is not very good. Well??
So, what can I tell you about the Way of Jesus? We learn by watching what he did. Our son Jeremy told me about a study done with children, to see how they learned to be good children. The first thing that they discovered was that children who had learned the concept of guilt were much healthier than the children who had learned shame. Guilt is the understanding that I have done something wrong; shame is the knowledge that I am bad. With guilt, where I have done something wrong, it is possible to rectify the situation. Shame, where I am bad, is irredeemable. So it is critical to teach children that while they may do bad things, they are still good children. That’s on the negative side.
How about teaching them the positive things, like being generous, for example? So they did research with four groups of children and their teachers, and they looked at teachers who talked the talk, and who walked the walk, or didn’t, in various combinations. What they found was that the group of children who learned best were with the teacher who only walked the walk. This teacher simply was generous, acting it out in front of them, without needing to talk about it. That’s what made the difference. Our actions are what matter, period.
When we look at Jesus, we see someone who cared, and who reached out with offers of help, no matter who, or what, the person was. We see someone who was unafraid to stand up to power. We see someone who did not worry about the small stuff – it’s all small stuff, remember? We see someone who reached back to the essence of the matter in order to deal with the present. We see someone who spent hours in prayer, and who read his Bible. We see someone who spent time in community most of the time, and occasionally went on retreat. We see someone who paid full attention to the person in front of him and listened to their heart’s desire. And we see someone who taught forgiveness, over and over again. And he taught forgiveness by doing it, not by talking about it.
One of my teachers said that it was forgiveness that created the resurrection, that this intense level of forgiveness from the cross simply defied the laws of death and dying. It is no accident, she says, that Jesus, in acute pain on the cross, says, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Forgive, forgive. Holding anger will kill you, and refusing to hold anger will give you life. This is the way of Jesus.
In the midst of chocolate bunnies and painted eggs and Hallmark banalities, Jesus offers us the door to real life.
So here’s the Easter message for you. If you want to live, forgive. If you are dying in any part of your life, look quickly to see how you can forgive, how you can let go of any anger you have been holding. Forgiveness is the door to resurrection. Resurrection is not the recovery of old life, it is a door to new life, and that new life may be very, very different – but it will be life, and not death. And, we have to choose to see it. We may be looking in the tomb, looking and looking because we know something died there, something very important. Jesus stands waiting for us outside the tomb, looking different than we expect him to look. Will we let go of our dying to go live with him?