The end is better than the beginning.
That's a message, if not the only one, of the Book of Life, otherwise known as the Bible, that book gathering dust on the end table. Born in light and the pastoral splendor of Eden, this earthly enterprise, despite all its dark and bloody chapters, is destined for a glory beyond mortal imagining.
There you have it, the Holy Scriptures from Genesis through Revelation.
But it's those intervening chapters, the dark and bloody ones, about which the Book is chiefly concerned. Our time is its preoccupation. And in that time the central events, the hinge of history, are those which we commemorate again, Good Friday and Easter. No, of course, that's not self-evident, the cross and resurrection as the heart of the human experience. The world hardly thinks so, even if it pauses indulgently for the Christian celebrations. Newspapers sometimes even report on sermons. But soon enough an indifferent world rushes on to the next big thing, whatever it is, and it rarely is anything the faithful nominate. Which I say without even a hint of ruefulness, just to observe the way things are.
Believing Jesus and believing in Jesus means at its simplest following him, following him through time with all of its dark and bloody chapters, anticipating the light, the ineffable light, at the far end of this earthly journey. I've been trailing Jesus for a long, long time. I've spent more than half my life encouraging others to do likewise. I've failed as much as I have succeeded. Same goes for those similarly persuaded. No need to rehearse the many missteps. You've suffered them at my hands; if I rarely at yours. The cross never fails to accuse me. But the light beyond it summons me to get on with it and keep trying.
I'll spare you too the rehearsal of the successes. Instead I want, as the Easter dawn approaches, to point the directions in Jesus' footsteps toward the light.
First, if not most importantly, be righteous... but not overmuch. Be honest. Tell the truth. And do it all with healthy dollops of self-deprecation. During the four decades of communist ascendancy in East Germany, Christians were valued because they, who by going to church surrendered all expectation of rising in status, would answer honestly questions in which what was at stake was promotion or perquisites. No fudging to give the boss what he wants to hear. To be sure there are limits to truth-telling: it's no lie to lie when a storm trooper knocks on the door looking for Anne Frank. But on this journey toward the light Christians, like their exemplar, can be counted on to see and tell it like it is. Small enough virtue, unless, of course, honoring the truth makes you a pariah... or a traitor. That was the fate of many first century Christians compelled to confess "Caesar is Lord." The penalty for offering instead the very first Christian confession, "Jesus Christ is Lord," could be the arena and lions. I suspect there must have been a lot of crossed fingers in ancient Rome. The Christian Century columnist Halford Luccock opined that Jesus didn't get in trouble because he counseled "Consider the lilies," but because he identified Pharisees as hypocrites and made vaguely revolutionary references to another kingdom. Yes, be righteous, but not a prig.
Secondly, be kind, yes, kind to a fault. Jesus was: touched leprous wounds; cradled other people's children; honored women's dignity in a chauvinist age worse than ours; saluted the truth no matter who uttered it; brought the best wine for the wedding party; washed the feet of his friends; befriended all sorts and conditions of humankind; entered a friend's tomb when it reeked of death; and forgave his killers... to mention a few of the second miles he went for heaven's sake and ours. Over the last half century I have occasionally worried aloud about the perils of the professional Christian, me. The ne'er-do-well has the nose of a bloodhound to sniff out the location of easy marks like pastors are supposed to be. I've instituted personal rules to restrict required kindness, each of which was designed to make it abundantly clear I was not a doormat and I wasn't ready to accept a relationship of financial dependence with anyone other than my wife and family. No matter, the panhandlers came and the food and money went. Because in the back of my soul I kept hearing red letter words about giving to those who ask and not turning away those who plead for help. It has been a lifelong struggle between the realist and the Francis of Assisi inside me. Who has gotten the upper hand depends on whose judgment you ask. But I won't chafe if you were to accuse me of being incorrigibly generous. Even a sucker. I can blame it all on Jesus. Whose tribe, were it to increase, would make this world a fairer resemblance to the kingdom of love and light... toward which we are tending.
Thirdly, for God's sake, be easy to get along with. The Apostle Paul framed it in other words, that we should be all things to all people. Which brings to mind the sermon staple of a story sure to be found elsewhere on this website. About the two preachers vying for one pulpit. They preached their candidating sermons and an impartial visitor wondered why one was chosen when they both preached hell-fire and damnation and how we're all going there. "Because," the church member said, "our new pastor, unlike the other fellow, didn't like having to tell us what he did, and didn't exempt himself from the judgment." In my book on the pastorate posted on this website I have a paragraph or two about how prophets should be charming. They usually aren't. Which explains John the Baptist hanging out in the desert and Jeremiah in exile. Even with all the charm in the universe, the prophet can still end up on a cross. Very few of us will ever face that prospect. But we do have, by Jesus, an expectation to summon others to follow him. Hippocrates requires of doctors, above all else, to do no harm. That's not a bad rule for Christians too, to comport ourselves as to bring no shame on the Gospel we serve. Alas, some ardent believers are doing their damnedest, if unintentionally, to make the term "Christian" in this generation a synonym for dumb and mean and boring. God save us from taking ourselves too seriously! God give us a saving sense of humor... and a touch of irony.
Finally, if and when it ever should be (and may God spare thee and me) we should have the cross thrust upon us, be courageous. No whimpering. No whining, "Why me?" Say instead like my pal and Mets fanatic, Austin Armitstead, when in the last throes of his final illness, he shook his head at any thought of complaining against heaven, and said to me, "Why not me?" to the cross of circumstance he shouldered. Or that hero of resistance to Nazi evil, my mentor (by books), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, convicted of complicity in the plot to assassinate Hitler, went naked and unflinching to the hangman's noose in the sure hope of a new day for his nation and world. And Martin Luther King, Jr. who took a killing bullet in Memphis for his witness for racial justice in the name of the Prince of Peace and his vision of a kingdom of love and light. Crosses do not always kill; sometimes they simply wound. I think of the ardent Social Gospel preachers of the generation before mine, men and women who walked picket lines for unions and for world peace, who in the light of subsequent history may seem to have been more impassioned than wise, leaders of congregations who for their activism were pilloried by McCarthyism in the 1950's, sometimes having to forfeit their pulpits for their convictions. Not for them the Ecclesiastes counsel, "Better a live dog than a dead lion," when posterity, like eternity, now counts the stars in their crowns for the courage of their witness.
Maundy Thursday we attended a Tenebrae service. We sat in silence when the last candle was snuffed out. There we prayed Jesus' prayer, "Our Father... thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven." And the lights went up on this Meanwhile and all of its dark and bloody chapters. I cannot speak for the other worshipers, but following Jesus in my mind and heart with the liturgy, I took renewed determination to make the most of my time for his sake... and my own.
We go to the light.