It was quite some years ago this week that as a boy I casually looked down at the magazines and papers on the family coffee table. While I was only about 9 I still remember the shock and terror I felt when I saw Time Magazine that day. The cover was black and on it was emblazoned in bright red letters:
“Is God Dead?”
Even as a child the words filled me with foreboding. It was in those years that my family was in crisis. For me God and my participation at church were my steady rock. Something – someone – I could count on.
As I sang in the boy’s choir at St. Edmund’s church, Easter was a sort of statement, a protest, a hope perhaps against hope itself.
As time wore on, our family continued to disintegrate and then go through various challenges. And Easter continued to be an act of protest against what seemed to be a a godless and cold world that, at least for us, was spinning out of control.
In those early years I was not particularly interested in who this god was, but that he could raise the dead. God remained vague; obviously good and caring, but a bit distant.
As I entered my teen years I voraciously read books trying to prove the resurrection of Jesus before an unbelieving world. If this god I believed in could raise a dead man from the grave, then maybe there is someone who can give me hope in the midst of our family chaos.
I find myself wondering now so many years later if many of us approach the celebration of Easter with a similar perspective.
The forces of secularism seem inexorable. Our faith is challenged the tomes of the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. Belief and church participation is at best understood by our neighbors as a quaint hobby.
Yet in the midst of this I continually meet people who long for god to come to their assistance, to provide a sense of hope amid chaos, to offer mercy and grace amid their brokenness. I meet them in my office, remembering once that a priest comforted them, and calling me out of the blue. I meet them on the streets of Chico in my role as a Street Pastor, young adults wanting to talk about their need for god. They need a god in a crazy world. They need assurance that someone in Heaven is their for them. Yet they remain vague on who that god might be other than the residual memory of the one invoked in their grandmother’s prayers.
And so we come to church on Easter. Ready to hear that there is a god who can raise the dead, or at least the hope that there is some divine presence that can give hope to those crushed with grief and confusion; that something happened in that garden so long ago that touched the lives of Mary Magdalen, and Peter and John.
And yet, when we delve deeply into what actually those first Christians proclaimed and taught about what God did on Easter, we find them thoroughly disinterested in what so many of us long for today. Their world was full of vague gods: gods of nation and tribe, gods of prosperity, gods of Empire and conquest, gods of hearth and home. All giving a vague hope in a chaotic world.
Easter actually dethrones such gods. And even dethrones the vague god who we too often invoke. What we celebrate this day is not that there is some power that can resuscitate a dead body. We celebrate the God that chose a specific life in sending his Son Jesus. This Jesus was anything but vague about the One who sent him and the One he obeyed.
Jesus embodied the Reign of the God through the the very specific actions and words of his ministry:
- Gathering outcasts, foreigners, and those on the margins into a new community
- In seeking not power, but justice and peace
- feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, turning the other cheek
- Extending mercy and forgiveness even to those who tormented him
- and imbuing all with the palpable presence and holiness of the one he called Abba, Father.
Of course, this God was inconvenient to those who the other gods of their own empire or power. This very real God made known in Jesus called for a greater love, a deeper commitment, and a more robust hope than those other gods.
In raising Jesus from the dead, in transforming him into a body glorious and eternal, God raised with him the grace, mercy, peace, and holiness he embodied in life. God raised in place of the vague gods of nation, of tribe, of hearth, God raised a New Creation, which may truly be known in part now, and in fullness in the end of the Lord’s redeeming work.
In raising Jesus, God, the true Lord of heaven and earth, eschews all vagueness, and identifies for all time and eternity with the one who is raised. To know this God then is to be found in turning to Jesus Christ and accepting him as our Savior; putting our whole trust in his grace and love; in promising to follow and obey him as our Lord.
And here is where that Time Magazine cover and the New Atheists so often miss the mark. The gods they deny are the same gods dethroned by the God who raised Jesus. Our God seeks not so much to be proven as much as demonstrated, in union with Jesus, by the power of the Spirit.
I still see value in those thinkers who have set out to show the plausibility of the resurrection, but their books are not what Easter is about. To focus on Easter as proof of God is to read the liner notes, but forget to play the music; to focus on the footnotes and neglect to read the book.
Easter is less proof than it is an invitation. It is an invitation to know the God who is the Love who moves the Sun and the other stars. Easter is an invitation into Jesus Christ’s eternal embodiment of boundless love, endless mercy, unbreakable peace, and unsurpassed glory and holiness. It is an invitation to receive the presence the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and join in embodying the resurrection in our own lives and communities through acts of mercy, ministry, and grace.
That young boy who sang out those Easters years ago as a protest received something greater than the vague hope he wanted. He received an invitation to see the power of resurrection transform lives and communities.
- Civil Rights leaders John and Ruth Perkins moving into a drug ridden neighborhood in Pasadena to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with urban youth and show them a different way forward.
- Fr. Robert and the monks of New Camaldoli giving themselves fully to the holiness of God and remaining in constant prayerful solidarity with the need of the world.
- Kay and Bill Lawrence of Rancho Santa Marta, committing their lives to the disabled and discarded children of Baja California.
The resurrection of Jesus has been an invitation to participate in the transforming grace of God through the lives and witness of those closer to home as well, people you may know:
- Gaylord, who emerged from his own life crisis with an abiding commitment to be the presence of the love of Jesus Christ for others.
- Debbie and Janice who taught me as a Street Pastor to love the denizens of Downtown in the name of Christ.
- And others who may be sitting next to you this moment who I have come to known here at St. John’s.
It was years later that that young boy had grown up and was seated at another Easter service. I listened to the joyous praise, heard the proclamation that in raising Jesus, God had raised not only his Son, but a New Creation with him, one filled with hope, justice, mercy, and holiness. I remember that it suddenly struck me “If God raised Jesus from the dead, then everything is changed. I really can’t look at anyone or anything the same again.”
And all the vain attempts to prove the existence of a vague god faded away. At the moment it seemed like a revelation, but in reality it was the culmination of an adventure with the resurrected Jesus Christ. Like those who at first did not recognize the risen Lord, because their gods were too small and their hopes too paltry.
May the invitation of the Resurrection of Jesus instill in me once more the invitation to share in a greater vision and hope than I can ask for or imagine. May the God who raised our Savior from the tomb dethrone the vague gods who ask too little while promising too much. May my prayer, our prayer, this day of Resurrection be that shared by Desmond Tutu:
Disturb us, O Lord
when we are too well-pleased with ourselves
when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little,
because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, O Lord
when with the abundance of things we possess,
we have lost our thirst for the water of life
when, having fallen in love with time,
we have ceased to dream of eternity
and in our efforts to build a new earth,
we have allowed our vision of Heaven to grow dim.
Stir us, O Lord
to dare more boldly, to venture into wider seas
where storms show Thy mastery,
where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.
In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes
and invited the brave to follow.