Reflection for 7 Easter
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The three-year ministry of Jesus
is Act One
in a three-act play.
The betrayal, arrest, trial,
is Act Two.
The resurrection is Act Three.
But the author of the Book of Acts,
who is also the author of Luke’s gospel,
has a dilemma.
The Book of Acts
is the story
of the earliest followers of Jesus,
and it has to figure out
an exit for Jesus
before the next play — a kind of sequal —
can be written.
The Book of Acts
sometimes gets referred to
as the history of the earliest church
but it is a story
As a story
it communicates much better
than if we treat it as history.
Anyway, the author of Luke-Acts
creates an epilogue,
and has Jesus exit
the way other great prophets of Israel
exited: into the clouds.
Elijah did it that way
and so did Moses.
It is a very natural
for a holy man or woman
Buddhism is full of ascending mystics
and in Islam, Jesus disappears like that as well.
In fact, the Quran tells us
Jesus did not really die on the cross.
It says he may even have passed death altogether
when he was lifted up
and taken directly to God.
It is inconceivable in Islam
that a prophet, chosen by God
for such an elevated purpose
could ever be allowed
to be tortured and executed
at the hands of enemies.
So Jesus was just taken up.
Figuring out a fitting exit
for such godly human beings
is a difficult challenge because, let’s face it,
death is messy.
A torturous death is the messiest,
not to mention
the most shocking and scandalous
for an agent of God.
What was God thinking?
Anyway, how does the story-teller
write an exit worthy of the resurrected Christ?
For any of us
who have ever held vigil
with someone who is dying,
what I am about to say is recognizable.
There comes a time,
a specific moment perhaps,
when a person is ready to die
and then they do.
They let go.
They may not die
at the moment they let go
but it begins the process
of the body shutting down.
It is a moment
when the person seems to say,
even if they cannot use words,
“Okay, I’m done, let me go.”
Some people view this moment
as resignation of the mind
to an inevitable conclusion for the body.
I think of it as the body, mind, and spirit
giving way in unison
in a power greater than itself.
But whatever the substance
or the meaning of that moment,
there is clearly a boundary
between life and death
that all of us cross —
the good, the bad, the ugly, and the Christ.
If we do not die suddenly
then we will likely come to that moment ourselves.
The New Testament
has numerous depictions of that moment for Jesus,
the one in today’s reading from John
and the one in Acts
are just two of many choices.
There are pre-crucifixion moments,
like in the Garden of Gethsemane
when Jesus is purported to say, “Your will not mine.”
And deathly moments on the cross
when the narrator describes Jesus
as “giving up his spirit.”
And then there are, like today,
when the lingering presence of Jesus
must finally make an exit.
Jesus has to go
for the community to be born.
But to me, they all have that same quality:
the moment of letting go of the body –
of life as we have known it –
and free-falling into the unknown.
It is a moment of choice even if it is inevitable.
Please hoover over that:
It is a moment of choice
even though it will be made for us
if we don’t make it ourselves.
Obviously I do not know what the difference is
because I have never gone through it,
but I know from watching others,
that we can open our arms to it
but that it is inevitable even if we do not.
This side of that choice,
the space we live in now, is poignantly infused
with grief and desire —
magnified by the slipping away
of what we have known
and loved —
all mixed like myrrh
with what we wish we had loved
more and better.
We do not know
what is on the other side of that choice,
but it looks like peace
You and I, right now,
live on this side of that choice.
As far as I am concerned,
and this is just one man’s opinion,
way too much about Christianity
in the other side of that choice.
I think it is an enormously profound act of faith
to be engaged in a spiritual practice
that pays little or no attention
to the other side
until we get there.
Personally, it seems to me
that the primary act of faith
is to trust God with the unknown
and focus on this side
without anxiety about the other side.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said is best:
the question is not what we are willing to die for
but what we are willing to live for.
So I will ask you,
and myself along with you:
What are you living for?
I am going to tread on thin ice here,
because it might be messing
with your idea about Jesus.
So take this with a grain of salt:
I do not think Jesus meant to die.
I know the story gets narrated that way,
but I do not think Jesus meant to die
any more than Martin Luther King, Jr. meant to die,
or Dietrich Bonheoffer meant to die,
or Oscar Romero meant to die,
or any martyr in her or his right mind
means to die at the hands of others.
Now that is not to say they didn’t know
they were in danger.
But they did not court death
for the sake of a cause.
They did not want to die for their cause.
Rather, they LIVED for the sake of a cause
regardless of the outcome.
They knew what they were living for
and if it cost them their life, well then,
they were not going to measure the cost.
What gets lost for us in the death of martyrs,
is what they were living FOR
and the power of that decision.
Jesus knew what he was living for,
and the Gospels tell us about it
over and over and over again.
His messy, torturous death
turned Jesus’ life into a wick —
a wick illuminating the darkness
long after his last breath.
Any star that burned out millions of years ago
continues to flicker across the darkness of space
and because of what he lived for
and how he lived, Jesus is a candle that still burns.
So I think we are misguided
to focus so much on how Jesus died
rather than how he lived
and his choice to surrender.
There is a hard
but spectacular wisdom
at the core of our spiritual tradition
that may be so obvious
that we live in its light
but forget about its presence.
Everyone who has ever loved deeply,
who has ever loved beyond the boundary of Self,
knows the heartbeat of the wisdom
at the core of our spiritual tradition.
It is this: the wick of holiness
that siphon’s God into our hearts,
like an artisan well
moves the life-blood of the earth to its surface,
is one person’s willingness to disappear
so that someone else may live.
But that choice is made in advance.
The choice of what to live for
makes our disappearance
a possible outcome
under unexpected circumstance.
who enters a burning building
to save a life,
even the life of a stranger,
know what he or she is living for.
The Human Rights Worker
who lives precariously
on the margins of violence
and is murdered
while non-violently advocating or assisting
those more vulnerable,
knows what she or he is living for.
The Health Care professional
who enters a quarantine zone
in order to care for dying victims
or to find out what is killing them,
knows what he or she is living for.
A combatant who willingly
enters into armed struggle
in the service of her or his homeland,
knows what they are living for.
We can understand parents
endangering themselves for their children.
We get that.
But harder to understand
is the risk of one’s life
in order that a stranger may live.
It is an act
rooted in an idea, a belief, a hope
that is greater than one’s own life
and it illuminates the darkness.
It defies the logic of self-preservation.
perhaps even unnecessarily,
risk one’s life on behalf of others
or in the service of an idea,
At the heart of our spiritual tradition,
when we peel away the images of torture,
suffering, and violence from the cross,
we see clearly what Jesus was living for
and then we hear him ask
what it is we are living for.
The spiritual physics of Christianity
lies within the matix of a choice
to live for something
rather than in fear of losing things.
It is not a demand but an invitation.
It is an invitation to live life on behalf of others
and for the furtherance of an idea or two or three –
about the kingdom on Earth
as it is in Heaven.
Living our lives
out beyond the boundary of the self
is a decision
and a choice.
It may not get us killed,
but knowing what we are living for
will in fact, define who we are
and light a match
that engulfs the darkness.
Unlike the story-tellers of Jesus,
most of us will not get to choose our exit story
but we do get to choose
what we are living for.
We also, when the time comes,
we get to choose surrender,
in a power greater than ourselves.
These are the spiritual struggles
and challenges of our lives.
Embracing and engaging them
rather than denying and hiding from them
will grow our hearts a bigger size.