I dedicate this message to the memory of my first year seminary roommate, Richard N. Clewell. Dick and I shared suite 411 in Hastings Hall, Union Theological Seminary, NYC, with windows onto a very noisy upper Broadway. Dick was an Evangelical and Reformed candidate for ordination. He graduated from Franklin and Marshall College with a major in philosophy, writing his honors thesis on logical positivism. Dick was a very good student, the best, the valedictorian of the Class of 1956. He served a church in upstate New York, had a very difficult time of it, with the church and in his marriage, and left the pastorate to do other work, what I cannot say, but I suspect something financial. Richard N. Clewell, Pennsylvania Dutch, died a few years short of our 50th reunion at UTS.
That first year at seminary we were introduced to the "modern" way of thinking about the Bible. The Documentary Hypothesis and all that. The New Testament was also analyzed critically and divided up into a dozen sources other than those which ancient tradition name. Miracles were scoffed at, or given natural explanations... like Jesus walking on the water actually stepped on slightly submerged rocks. The resurrection of Jesus was "spiritualized," which meant denying its historicity while extracting from it eternal truth about life and God's love.
One evening before going to sleep, Dick, obviously conflicted with the "modern" explanation for the first Easter, quoted to me I Corinthians 15:12-19: Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
This passage was for my roommate a clinching argument about the reality of what happened on Easter morning in Joseph's lovely garden. I argued with Dick, of course; I was always ready for a good argument, on theological issues especially. I had been raised in a decidedly liberal Methodist environment in which many of the clergy were virtual Unitarians. So, I said to my roommate, what's the big deal about spiritualizing the resurrection? Dick looked at me as if I were one of those "most to be pitied."
I never forgot that late evening exchange in Room 411. Over the past 54 years I have thought again and again about Dick and the Apostle Paul's claim about the resurrection; and, long, long ago, I concluded that they are right, and I would bet my life and ministry on it.
The Easter message in all its simplicity and incredibility is that He who was dead is alive. If He isn't, then I've spent the last half a century in the vain pursuit of an illusion. But, in fact, I know he rose from the dead and lives.
Yeah, Bob, where? Where is this Jesus, this risen Christ?
Well, I had coffee with him Friday afternoon... in a bagel shop. He asked me if I was from out of town because, apparently, I was asking the counterwoman too many questions. He said his name was Al, that he was 82, had lived in West Hartford for forty years, and had survived Auschwitz. I asked about, and he showed me, the tattoo on his right forearm. He treated Barbara and me to a tirade about how twelve prominent Christians in Hitler's government had plotted to kill eleven million Jews. He was a boy of fourteen when he entered the camp; twenty, when finally released. I wondered how he escaped. "Luck," he shot back. Even after I told him that I had been a pastor of a Christian congregation for fifty years, he continued to vent his vitriol toward Christendom. He said he had given up on faith in God when he watched a German soldier toss a Jewish infant in the air and laugh as it fell to the ground to its death.
Out of the blue, on Good Friday afternoon after three hours of worship in seven churches in Hartford, a fellow I had never seen before and probably will never see again chose to disrupt my holy reverie and refreshment, pleased as I might have been with my faithfulness for walking behind a cross through the streets of Asylum Hill. But nowhere that afternoon did I hear more clearly and agonizingly Jesus' cry of desolation from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Oh, you don't approve of my identifying Al as Jesus? But, friends, Jesus' voice isn't always soothing and affirming. Just ask the Pharisees... or the money-lenders in the temple... or the disciples who would "protect" Jesus from the children...or the rich young man who couldn't part with his riches... or Peter, protective Peter, who would not allow Jesus to go to a cross, and for his good intentions gone awry is called Satan. You see, I know that Al, for all his bluster, is right, that the legacy of nearly two thousand years of Christian antipathy toward the Jews was the Holocaust. And, maybe, just maybe, it was something I needed, by God, to hear on a Good Friday afternoon.
He lives. Easter morning many of the churches in Christendom will be singing that song for a resurrection morning, "He lives." I, the realist with not a mystical bone in my body, take issue with the song's location of the risen Christ. The chorus sings: "You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart." Your heart more surely than mine. Mine is, for the most part, a cold and hard thing. No, I don't go exploring inside me to find evidence of the risen Lord. I find him in other people. And not always with a contentious voice: sometimes the Word finds me with painfully tender cadences. Like Thursday evening, Maundy Thursday, at a church in New Britain, where more than two or three of us were gathered in Jesus' name. In one of the choir's anthems, Bernard of Clairvaux's words, "O Sacred Head Now Wounded," were set to new music by David Hurd. That telltale lump in my throat (signaling a warming heart?) filled me with a rare (for realist me) emotion that must be akin to listening to the angelic chorus at the throne of God.
I'd be among the first to insist on the ambiguity of these resurrection appearances of the living Christ. But why should we think it would be any easier for us to identify God's eternal Word when it comes to us than, say, a resident of Jerusalem on Passover 33 A.D.? What we have to guide us are our wits, the previous experience of believers, and that lump in the throat (Holy Spirit?).
Nor can these meetings be arranged. They happen. As in the Gospel: in a garden, along the road, in an upper room, at the seashore, on a hilltop. For me, a bagel shop, the gym, the sidewalk, a living room. Wherever we meet one another and exchange more than pleasantries. Yes, yes, the church too; but the church is more a reconnaissance tower than a heavenly rendezvous, where the hopeful go to find whom they should be looking and listening for in the world beyond the sanctuary doors.
He lives: that is the church's primary message and not just on Easter morning. If I were more mystically inclined, I am sure I could hear an "Amen" emanating from the Father's House from a room occupied by my former roommate.