Sightings, an Easter Sermon
All around this land Easter morning celebrants of Resurrection Day will be singing, "He lives!" The "He," of course, is Jesus, to whom many Christians affectionately and intimately refer as "the living Christ." That he lives is far more than a reaffirmation of an ancient conviction, that somehow the prophet from Galilee, the carpenter's son, the miracle worker, rose from his bloody death and strode forth from a stone-sealed tomb on the first day of the week. To say, "He lives," insists that this Jesus, the tomb's escapee, continues to move among those who believe in him, trust his wisdom about this mortal life, and have committed their lives to following him.
Like the angel suggested outside the tomb that first Easter morning, that Jesus was to be found, not among the dead, but among the living. (Luke 23:5)
Sure enough, in my travels and my readings I have found witnesses to Lordly sightings in our brief contemporary moment on earth. In a pre-Christmas issue of Time Magazine in 1999 (December 6th issue), the editors commissioned a piece by a novelist and Biblical scholar, Reynolds Price, to recapitulate (and speculate) on the details of Jesus' life and death. Which he does admirably, if a trifle too creatively for my cautious inclination when it comes to canonical text. Toward the end of his retelling of the sacred story, Mr. Price, the historian and imaginer, becomes a witness:
Fifteen years ago, as I was about to undergo five weeks of withering radiation for a 10-in.-long cancer inside my spinal cord, I found myself--an outlaw Christian who had, and has, no active tie with a church--transported, thoroughly awake, to another entirely credible time and place. I was lying on the shore of the Lake of Galilee with Jesus' disciples asleep around me.
Then Jesus came forward and silently indicated that I should follow him into the lake. Waist deep in the water, I felt him pour handfuls down the fresh scar on my back--the relic of unsuccessful surgery a month before. Jesus suddenly told me, "Your sins are forgiven." Appalled by a dire physical outlook, I thought ungratefully, "That's the last thing I need"; so I asked him, "Am I also cured?" He said, "That too."
Okay, the hallucination of a desperate soul; but to Reynolds Price it was reality, a deeply intimate reality, just as real (and far more effective) as the surgeon's scalpel and the radiation's burning. How wonderful it would be if we could coax him to an Easter service: it would be a rare delight to watch him sing, "He lives!"
Dozens of dear souls with little literary flair have confided to me, parishioner to pastor, that Jesus is "always there for me, and I don't know how I would get through the day and especially the long night hours, if I couldn't feel his presence beside me." Such witness to the living Christ has buoyed me in my rounds of shut-ins (which can be a tough and depressing duty), who know better than the rest of us, in our time of strength and sunshine, that they (and all the rest of us!) are dependent on the grace of God for each breath drawn. Too bad that it should take weakness of body to open our eyes to the healer and redeemer ever at hand; but, then, he's the one who blessed those who know their need of God (Matthew 5:3 NEB) for this reason, that, in words borrowed from John the Baptist, as we decrease he increases. Humility is the preamble to faith.
Friday, Good Friday, Barbara and I participated in a pilgrimage to seven different churches in Mark Twain's old neighborhood: Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Baptist, UCC (2), Lutheran, and a Pentecostal rescue mission, Glory Chapel. Talk about the different ways to see the cross! At Glory Chapel we listened to a substance abuse addict give his testimony, and then solo with a chorus in a rock beat version of "Sweet Jesus," who personally rescued him from a dead end in this mortal life. The Episcopal priest in the bench in front of me clapped in appreciation as loudly as I did. Although it was the day of the cross, it was also a day of resurrection, a life reclaimed from sleeping in alleys and eating from trash cans. The message of that stop on Good Friday could have been (for it certainly was), "He lives." In Hartford. Jesus, sighted once again.
In a far different context, a seven hundred plus page book, a history of the horrific relationship of the Christian church to the Jews for two thousand years, James Carroll's "Constantine's Sword," dripping as it with tears for the terrible things otherwise good people have done in the name of their faith in Jesus, Mr. Carroll hints at his sighting of the living Christ:
His [Jesus'] presence was real. On this claim rests the entire structure of the Christian religion, and I, for one recognize it as an unwilled claim of my own experience. The writing of this book is a response to the undefined, unseen, continuing presence in my life of Jesus Christ. By now it is clear that my knowledge of Jesus is indirect, incomplete, a matter more of inference than experience, not knowledge of Jesus, but faith in him. I am one of those haunted friends who found themselves incapable of believing in him in the first place only through the story of those first friends who gathered to tell.*
I concur with Carroll. For me too Jesus lives as the shadowed presence throughout my days. Like that popular picture of a family saying table grace and a robed figure in the background, hands downstretched in blessing, as if to remind us of the promise that where "two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." (Matthew 18:20) The living presence of Jesus, mediated to me through the lives of those who love him and seek to follow him, has become a personal reality as I accumulate the scars and the blessings which come, sometimes in equal measure, from getting in step with him.
I would not rule out the possibility of an intense and intimate epiphany; I just don't expect one. It is enough for me to see the unfolding evidence of Jesus' continuing presence in the world, if, perhaps, in the bold strokes of human history (still pretty much a mixed bag), then mostly in the depths of human hearts. Other hearts, surely; but my own too.
Which brings us back to the beginning and the Easter refrain resounding through the land, "He lives. He lives... You ask me how I know he lives. He lives within my heart."
* Carroll, James. Constantine's Sword,The Church and the Jews, page 125f., Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000.