In This Lifetime
In this Lifetime
April 1, 2018
For many Christians, today is the day when they remind themselves that Jesus went to heaven, not hell, and that they should do whatever it takes to go to heaven, too. From this point of view, the whole reason Jesus came was to help us rack up points so that we could go to heaven, too.
I want you to know from the start that I don’t buy that perspective. Fear is a powerful motivator. People do fear death. Lots of religious leaders have manipulated people’s fears about death to control their behavior in this life. Fear and guilt and shame (with an occasional dose of hope thrown in) fill pews. I will simply say, “Shame on them!” for treating people that way and for distorting the good news of the Gospel.
I don’t think that Jesus came to make sure we go to heaven, not hell. I think he came to show us how to really live. Yes, it is a given that one day every one of us will die. What is not a given is that every one of us will discover what it means to really live before our life ends. There is love to be shared and meaning and purpose to be lived. Instead of worrying about what the next life is going to be like, we should be doing everything that we can to make sure that we don’t waste the life that we have been given.
I know this is different than what folks are programed to think that Christians believe but I’m going to make the case this morning that this is, in fact, what the Gospel of Mark teaches: that what matters most is how we choose to live. I do believe that the God who loves us in this life loves us beyond this life. I do believe that there is more. I even believe that this “more” involves reunion. However, I believe that everything beyond that is a mystery and everyone who tries to describe what that mystery will be is just “shaking their presents before it’s actually Christmas morning.”
Back to our task at hand… So, several months ago, I made the decision to preach on the Gospel of Mark all the way to Easter morning. Mark was the first Gospel written, about a generation or so after Jesus died. As the first Gospel, there are all sorts of things that make it a compelling read. However, there is one huge problem: you get to Easter morning and, while there is an empty tomb, there is no risen Christ and the women who make it to that tomb are left mostly too terrified to speak. For a generally risk averse person like me, it was a big deal to look Mark in the eye and say, “This year, I’m walking to the empty tomb with you.”
What has unfolded for me has been an amazing walk. With each passing week, I feel like I have come to see an “old friend” in a new light. Mark’s Gospel was written to provide comfort and insight and inspiration to a group of Christians who were trying to follow Christ’s way of living. (Christianity, in its earliest days, was literally called, “The Way.”) However, these people were suffering terribly. It was a huge challenge to bring together people from all sorts of backgrounds and try to be a community. Conflicts abounded. Just that pain would have been enough. However, these same people were challenged ever day to simply survive in a world in which Christianity was perceived as a threat by the powers that be. Christians were regularly being arrested and persecuted and tortured and killed—simply for believing what they believed and for trying to live those beliefs.
At a very human level, our ancestors’ had to ask each other questions like, “If we are doing the right thing and living with faith, then why is this life so hard? Why are we suffering so much? Why doesn’t God do something?” At a very human level, in very different circumstances, our questions can be very similar: “Why is it so hard to do the right thing? Why does it seem like things get harder when I try to be faithful? Why is there so much suffering that happens when all I want to do is be a loving person?”
Mark enters this discussion by writing a Gospel that reminds people just how much suffering was a part of Jesus’ own life, day in and day out. Jesus shows up to get baptized and has a great day. A voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased!” He hasn’t healed anyone or preached a sermon or performed a single miracle but he gets the ultimate validation. And then, immediately, Jesus ends up in the wilderness, suffering through weeks and weeks of hunger and thirst and temptation. There is barely a second to breathe before things get brutal.
We quickly see that the life of faith isn’t some kind of insurance against challenges and hard things. Yes..good things—sometimes even wildly great things— will happen. That’s part of life. Yes, hard things—sometimes absolutely terrible things— will happen. That’s life, too. This will be true regardless of what you believe. The real story of our lives is what we do with what happens to us. Unlike so many of us, Jesus doesn’t spend his life trying to make life easier or dodging the pain or averting his eyes from everyone else’s suffering. Instead, Jesus looks straight into the eyes of the person in front of him and asks himself, “What would it mean to love this person?” Jesus immerses himself in the moment and acts with love. He shows us that even in the most awful moments, there is still the chance to love. There is still life to be lived. There is still a shot at living with meaning and purpose.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus does the right thing and more often that not, suffers as a result. He reaches out to the overlooked and the oppressed, the sick, the lame, the blind—people whom no one cared about. Eventually, their needs become overwhelming. The healthy and “in”crowd resents Jesus for paying attention to such people at all. He preaches in his hometown and they attack him and run him straight out of town. He teaches and preaches but very few people understand and even less choose to follow him. He feeds five thousand people and then he feeds four thousand people and still his own disciples— who had seen both of those feedings with their own eyes— end up worrying that they won’t have enough bread. Most of his disciples don’t understand who he really is and the one who does—Peter—won’t accept it when Jesus tells Peter that the Messiah is going to suffer and die.
So, Mark looks at his audience who is suffering and says, “The truth is that Jesus suffered, too.” If you have ever been hungry or thirsty or overwhelmed or betrayed or misunderstood or condemned or abandoned, then know this: Jesus has been there, too. Those experiences are not evidence that God is out to get you or that faith isn’t real. Those experiences are just a part of life. They may even be especially a part of life when you care about other people, which is a huge part of the “way” which Jesus showed us how to live. This truth won’t make any of those moments hurt any less but you should know that you are not alone.
You should also know that those moments are only moments. The Jesus whom Mark shows us suffers. He gets knocked down. And then, again and again, he rises. He faces temptation in the wilderness and stares it down. Then, he leaves temptation behind and heads to town. He gets overwhelmed by the needs of others but then takes a moment. He breaths. He prays. Then, he re-enters their pain. He is betrayed but forgives his betrayers. He is misunderstood but is patient with people’s misunderstanding. In the world’s eyes, he has moments of spectacular failure, but he dusts himself off and keeps going. Faith, it turns out, will not shield us from suffering or injustice but it can make us resilient. It can help us to face what needs to be faced and make it through. In the quote from John Claypool that inspires me, “The worst things are never the last things.”
All of which brings us back to this empty tomb… For the final week of Jesus’ life, the very worst of the hard stuff that could possibly happen has happened: the crowd that sang his praises has called for him to be crucified; one disciple has sold him for a bag of coins; every other disciple has abandoned him, each in his own way; the full force of the Roman authorities and the religious authorities comes down on him until he is nailed to a cross and left to die.
And yet, even then, there are the smallest, most essential signs that all is not lost. A man helps him to carry his cross. A collection of his followers, mostly the women, follow him to the place where he would die to make sure that he did not die alone. Even after his death, one man would put himself at great risk by asking for Jesus’ body so that he might be buried properly. And when the Sabbath was done, it was the women who made their way to the tomb to care for his body. Faith was not lost on everyone. People were already walking in the “Way.” Meaning and purpose and love were still being lived, even in the darkest of times.
All of this comes together in that empty tomb. It is as if Mark has been training us through chapter and verse to sing along with the chorus of that song: this hard thing happened—then Jesus rose again; the next hard thing happened—then Jesus rose again. Finally, we get to Easter morning, when the worst imaginable thing had happened—Jesus is dead and buried— and it is as if Mark looks us in the eye, holds the microphone out to us and says, “You all sing it this time!” And we do sing it, without even seeing him, “Jesus rose again!” It’s what he’s done every step from Galilee to Jerusalem. Now, he rises again, even in the face of death, itself. Love wins!
The message is delivered to the women who make it to the empty tomb: “I’ll meet you in Galilee.” There is meaning, there is purpose, there is love, yet to be lived! “Tell the disciples the good news. I will see you all there.” Love wins and life still matters!
One day, at the end of each of our lives, there will be something more amazing than we could ever imagine. There will be more! One day, there will be a heart-healing, mind-blowing reunion. In the meantime, there is work to be done! There is faith to be lived! There is love to be shared! The fear of death can never be given the power to cheat us out of the chance to live! That’s the way of living that Christ thought was worth suffering and dying for…