We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (NIV)
Recently, I was looking for the best words for a bad situation, trying to choose a sympathy card for a family who had experienced a real tragedy. Dying is a step into the unknown. It seems to demand words to transcend the gap, so religion might be a good place to start. But I was disappointed. There was a conspicuous absence of religious condolences, while the selection which remained offered little more than thin gruel and empty platitudes. It seems that our culture does not take religion seriously.
One condolence was particularly absurd. It said something like, “You will see your loved one when we all meet in the gathering place”. The gathering place? It sounded like something made up for children who have lost a pet. “Don’t worry children, Bowser is now in the Gathering Place, you know, where all good dogs get their reward.” It underlines just how much our culture disdains religious belief in favour of empty sentimentality. Let’s all pretend – except that death is not pretending. Even Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died, because the reality of it is sad and ugly. Let’s be frank. I am looking for some real good news.
It’s the problem of how to say something meaningful up against the harshness of what appears to be the end. When Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James went to visit Jesus’ tomb, they were told by the angel that Jesus had risen from the dead. Their reaction to this news made perfect sense when taken rationally. The earliest manuscripts for the Gospel of Mark say, they “ran away and did not tell anyone, because they were terrified”. What they had seen was impossible. Whom could they tell? Who would believe them? The good news of the resurrection was not welcome, not even then.
At the centre of the Christian Creed, are the words of Saint Paul to the Corinthian Christians. “Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures…” Paul goes on to say, “if Christ be not risen, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is also in vain.” There it is. The Resurrection. It’s the scandal at the heart of the Christian message, and also that which separates Christianity from other religions. Paul concludes with a pretty strong statement. He says, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death…Death is swallowed up in victory.”
To our present culture, this is a bold assertion, a tension that plants itself between the head and the heart. What Christianity claims is radical – a great struggle between two kingdoms, good and evil. A sacrificial rescue mission. Cosmic victory and a King who shall return. Those who find this storyline absurd, will enjoy a “Lord of the Rings” movie of the same theme without a sense of irony. It’s fine, as long as we can treat it like wishful thinking.
And yet, make-believe doesn’t get that far in real life. No one would be willing to put their life on the line for mere whimsy. One of the early Church Fathers, Tertullian famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. He meant that the message of Christianity survived because the Christian martyrs could not deny what they had witnessed. They had seen death defeated, therefore they no longer feared it.
There is nothing that brings this all home more than seeing a loved one lowered into the ground. I recall the first Easter after my Dad had passed away. I wept like a baby when I heard the Easter proclamation. My wife and kids were alarmed, but mine were tears of joy because I knew deep down in my heart that what we repeat in the Apostle’s Creed is more than empty words.
Sorry, greeting card company which shall go unnamed. You omitted the very hope needed, for fear it might offend. There is something in theology called the Scandal of Particularity. It means that the claims of Christianity are bold and specific, nothing vague intended. Christianity is not for the timid. The journey to the Cross and the victory of Jesus’ Resurrection repudiates the worst we can imagine. It calls us beyond our comfort zone in order to find real comfort. It takes on the mystery of death and says CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?
The message of Christianity is not for the faint of heart, and yet it IS. Faith is not an intellectual proposition; it more often looks like hope in the face of despair. And that is what I would call real good news.