Surviving Crucifixion

March 12th, 2012

One Summer, I had two pet spiders at home in my kitchen. They were small, black, and furry with red dots on their backs. They played chase on the water faucet and hid from each other in the African violet. They provided early morning entertainment and they presumably ate bugs, so I was glad to have them. Imagine my distress, then, when I found one of them belly up on the windowsill with all his legs curled up. A jar lid had fallen on him and his thorax was crushed. I turned him over with a toothpick and let him lie in state there in the sun.

A week later, he looked plumper for some reason. A couple of days after that, his legs uncurled. The next week I lifted one of his legs with a toothpick and he pulled it back, just slightly. He was definitely alive again, although not the way he had been. Do spiders hibernate? Do they regenerate, like starfish who lose an arm? I don't know. All I know is that my husband and I were both unnerved by his new life.

“That spider was dead,” Ed said to me. “This is definitely creepy.” Why? Because in the normal course of events, what is dead stays dead. And if it comes back to life again, that is because it was not dead after all. There was a spark of life left in it that was breathed on and brought back to life, so that death was pushed away for a little while longer. And that is miracle enough for most of us.

A resurrection is a miracle of another order. There is no continuity with life as we know it. The spark is utterly extinguished. The heart stops. The legs curl up for good. Death occurs, beyond a shadow of a doubt. The living withdraw to get on with their lives and the silence is complete. Then, when everything is over, something entirely new begins. What was cold becomes warm again, and what lay still sits up. Creation occurs all over again—not a spark rescued from the ashes but a whole new fire kindled out of nothing—the gracious act of the only one who can make life out of dust, not just once upon a time, or even at the end of time, but over and over again.

If we do not believe this, Paul says, we are of all people most to be pitied, and yet the resurrection of the dead in general and the bodily resurrection of Jesus in particular are hard for many believers to swallow. Perfectly faithful people say that it really does not matter to them whether it happened or not, that if Jesus' body was stolen and he was quietly buried by his friends, they would still do their best to live by his teachings. Others say it was the survival of his spirit that mattered, and that too much thinking about what happens after you die can distract you from what you are supposed to be doing while you are alive.

The truth of the matter, for me, is that resurrection is nothing any of us has ever seen or experienced for ourselves. Near-death experiences, yes; ghostly visitations, yes; but none of us knows firsthand what it is like to be resurrected from the dead. According to the Bible, God set it up that way. Hundreds of people witnessed Jesus' crucifixion, but not one living soul was there when he was raised from the dead. The women saw him afterward, when he was back on his feet, and his disciples saw him after that, although not for long, but no one was allowed the privilege of seeing him come back to life.

So none of us should feel too badly about finding it hard to believe. Resurrection is not something we can test, like gravity or true north. It is a nonmaterial reality, which was one of the reasons Paul was pushing it so hard on the Corinthians. They were champion materialists—big eaters and drinkers, with big appetites in all departments—who preferred religious truths with immediate results. Anything that happened outside their day-to-day experience was not of much interest to them. They preferred to go for all the gusto they could get and leave the dead to bury the dead.

By pushing them on resurrection, Paul was pushing them to believe that life was more than they could see, taste, or feel. He wanted them to know that there was a dimension and quality of life that was all but invisible to them—something much more comprehensive than the present—and that if they missed out on it then they were the most pitiful people on earth. If he would not let up on it, it was because he was driven by his own experience of Christ's resurrection—a flash of light on the road to Damascus, a voice that came out of nowhere—a complete transformation of his life by someone who was supposed to be dead and gone.

Paul learned everything he needed to know about resurrection in that one blinding moment: that God has power beyond all human understanding, that life is stronger than death, that none of us can ever say for sure that everything is over for us. If God can raise the dead—and, just as important, if we believe God can raise the dead—then our despair will be temporary and our hope invincible, not because we know how to keep it alive but because God has never forgotten how to breathe life into piles of dust.

We do not know what resurrection will mean for us in the end. We cannot know how it will feel or work or look. But we do have evidence it is so. God has woven resurrection into our daily lives so that we can learn the shape of it and perhaps learn to trust the strength of it when our own times come.

I am thinking of a friend of mine, a teacher, who was fired from his job six months short of his retirement after twenty-five years. It was a nasty piece of work on the part of his superiors. They wanted to punish him for challenging them, and to make him an example for anyone else thinking about trying the same thing. They called it early retirement and gave him a party he suffered through. “I've been to my own funeral,” he said weeks later, recounting the pain of it. “I lost my students, my program, my livelihood, my pride. But you know what? There really is life after death. I'm doing things I always wanted to do but never had time. I'm spending time with my wife. I'm finding energy I thought I had lost forever. Getting crucified turned out better than I thought.”

I am thinking of Saint James's Church in Richmond, which burned in 1994. Established in the 1700s, it was one of the oldest churches in the city when lightning struck the steeple during a summer thunderstorm. Before anyone could respond, everything burned up: the pews, the prayer books, the organ, the altar. The next Sunday was baptism Sunday, and do you know what those people did? They put up tents in the street and baptized babies while they stood in the ashes of their ruined church. A sign maker in town donated a banner that has become that church's motto: “Let Us Rise Up and Build,” it says (Nehemiah 2:18).

I am thinking of another friend of mine who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in her fifties and who surprised everyone around her by growing more and more alive as she died. Her nervous system quit on her, inch by inch. After she lost her ability to speak, she took up watercoloring. She made everyone who visited her watercolor too, and she posted our creations on her kitchen wall as though they were masterpieces of the world. She continued team-teaching weekend workshops on faith in life although she could communicate only by writing on the board. No, I take that back. She communicated also with her wide-open, lit-up face. When she died, surrounded by her friends, she was as alive as anyone I have ever known.

These are not resurrection stories, because nobody knows about that but God. And yet they are true stories about the raising of the dead, much more impressive than my spider—people who are laid low and by all rights should never rise again who suddenly sit up in their ashes, brush themselves off, and go on to live more than they ever lived before.

It is entirely unnatural. It is how God works, now and forever—not by protecting us from death but by bringing us back to life again—because life, not death, is God's will for us. Every moment of our lives carries the seeds of that truth. Those who miss it are of all people most to be pitied. And those who believe it? Our hope shall never die. Amen.

excerpt from: God In Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering by Barbara Brown Taylor, the book is included in the Ministry Matters Premium Subscription

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