The Good Place & The Resurrection


Last week, I went to Saskatchewan to see my family. While there, I took some time to drive to the edge of my old home-town to pay my respects at my parents’ graves. That’s a strange expression: “to pay one’s respects.” These days we only use it about death. Once people said it for all kinds of visits. Now, paying one’s respects is pretty much about cemeteries, or visiting families at a funeral. There I was, in a empty graveyard beside the trees. I could see my breath in the air and hear the big trucks whistling by on the highway. In my case, “paying respects” meant rooting through little skiffs of snow and pushing aside dead leaves in a half-dozen places, until finally I found the brass plaques in the ground that have my parents’ names on them.

It felt good to make that visit. But really, who was it for? Someone could easily point out that now my parents are gone they don’t need my respect. Dead is dead, they could tell me. Your parents are gone. It’s nice you did that, but that visit had far more to do with you feeling good about being a dutiful son, than about them.

Some Sadducees, those who claim that there is no resurrection, came to Jesus one day and asked him a question. Teacher, they said, we have a problem for you. Then they went into a long story about a woman who married seven brothers in a row, all of whom died. So, they asked him. You can just imagine them smirking. Shrugging their shoulders at Jesus. You tell us, whose wife will this poor woman be in the resurrection?

The point isn’t the story, which is kind of weird. The point for the Saduccees was, “dead is dead.” Jesus was one of those Jews who taught that there was a resurrection. What, is this woman going to have seven husbands, they asked? They were trying to trap Jesus into admitting the whole idea is ridiculous.

We don’t realize what a “hot-button” issue resurrection was back then. As much as climate crisis is today, the resurrection was what a number of first-century Jews argued about. The group that came to see Jesus didn’t like resurrection. They thought it was silly. But Jesus and the Pharisees took the other side: at the end of time, God wouldn’t have any trouble scuffing through piles of snow or pushing aside leaves. God can find the faithful no matter how much snow is on the ground. That’s what Jesus taught, and the other Pharisees too. The faithful dead would be raised.

On this issue, we who claim to follow Jesus, who call ourselves Christians, are probably more like Jesus’ opponents. “What do Christians believe happens to you when you die?” I’ll ask that to my classes sometimes at Concordia. Sometimes the Jewish and Muslim students know the answer better than the ones who actually go to a Christian church.  The Christian kids will say things like: “Christians believe our spirit goes to heaven to be with God.” Or: “our soul spends eternal life in heaven.” Floating on clouds or something like that. When they say that, I show them what Jesus said, and what Paul writes in the New Testament. There’s nothing about souls.  When we say the Apostles’ Creed later on in the service, notice the words: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of …the soul? No. Some kind of disembodied spirit that floats around? No. Immediately going to heaven through some kind of shining tunnel? Not at all. We believe, we say every church service, in the resurrection of the body.” At the last day. When the reign of God changes everything, and everyone.

I’m not saying I personally have any idea what happens to us! But I do know what the Bible says. And it doesn’t say much about individual post-life spiritual existence. The scriptures tell us there will be a whole new, physical, world. There, truth and justice and love will reign, and all of the awful things that can happen to people here just don’t. There will come a time, it says, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, and wars will cease, and hatreds will stop. It will be a time where there will never be another Krystallnacht, the sad anniversary of which we marked yesterday. It will be a place where every child will grow up without fear, healthy and happy. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. And that place, the Bible insists, will be very real. And physical.

Again, who knows? The Bible was struggling to put hope to words. Paul says we’re baptized into Christ’s death, so that just as Jesus rose, someday we will too. That starts, he insisted, right now.

I really like the resurrection of the dead way of looking at life after life for two main reasons. Firstly, it’s organic. Jesus and the Pharisees taught that ALL creation would be renewed. Not just human beings. ALL creation: plants, animals, trees, air, water. I think that’s a message we need to hear. We don’t need a faith that tells us we can ignore what’s happening to our planet because, after all, humanity’s real nature is spiritual and all this physicial stuff is just distraction. Physical resurrection doesn’t privilege human beings. Jesus said that what he called “the children of the resurrection” will ALWAYS be physical, in some way at least. If we really believed that this place, this earth, is where we will always be, maybe we would take better care of it. Maybe we’d honour those trees and plants and animals and water right now, because they are co-heirs with us of what is coming.

Secondly, I think the resurrection of the dead gets another idea right, and that is relationality. By that I mean that the usual Christian idea of dying and going to heaven is pretty individualistic. It’s more than a little selfish. But the Biblical idea of post-life life is radically corporate, and mutual. Just like we are in constant relationship right now with other human beings, and with the natural world, so we will be forever. We were created into relationships. And that’s how we hope to be RE-created. There will be a city, says the book of Revelation, and a river will run through it. Its gates will be open. And it will have trees.

Lately I’ve been watching the Netflix series “The Good Place”. It’s fascinating that in a world that insists it’s not very religious, there’s a hit TV series about what happens to us when we die. But the take-away message of “The Good Place” is really about life NOW. Not life after death. The characters, whose names are Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani, struggle to change and to be better. When they do that, they’re doing what we all need to do. They’re learning what it means to be better people. Better human beings, less selfish, and more loving.

Whenever I go to that cemetery in Saskatchewan to visit my parents’ graves, it’s a bit disconcerting. Even though I’ve been there a dozen times its always hard to get oriented. It always takes me a while to find them. This time I took Christmas holly. I banged the ice out from the frozen flower containers and put in the holly. Then I stood around for a while, and thought about my parents. To the Sadducees who came to test him, Jesus said: the children of the resurrection cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God. I started getting cold, and my step-mother was waiting. So I said a sort of prayer, and climbed back in the car.

In “The Good Place,” the real message is that what will endure beyond the tomb is mostly who we’ve become because of how we treat each other. Jesus said the same thing. What happens after death might be a mystery. But whatever your beliefs, practicing the discipline of how to act with love, and faithfulness, and justice is a start. And caring for each other and the planet like our future depends on it, seems exactly the best place to begin.


Long after the Thrill


Way back in 1982 John Mellencamp came out with Jack and Diane. That song ALWAYS pops into my head when I read about the disciples after the crucifixion. They were so lost. Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of livin’ is gone. Which is to say: sometimes our dreams disappear before we do. I imagine Peter down by the water with the nets in his fingers, wondering what he’s supposed to do with his life, now that Jesus is gone. Yet the sacred word of the resurrection turned out to be that sometimes we shouldn’t try going back to normal. I miss lots of things about the ‘old days’ – my parents, my physical condition, my hair! But I don’t miss overt racism against First Nations, teachers smoking in the classroom, bullying encouraged in school, open sexism against women, gay-bashing and anti-Semitism. Some day soon, God willing, we’ll look back in equal horror at the ways the banks now make profits, the outsourcing of pollution, the obscene salaries of CEOs, and the gutting of our little towns and industries by the almighty dollar. Can we be prophets who call out injustice, hurt, and hate? The resurrected Jesus stands on the shoreline of our lives, calling to us in our little boats. Don’t go back to normal, he shouts out. That’s done. You can grieve it, if you need to, but it’s gone. Come sit, and be quiet, and have a little something to eat. And then together, let’s talk about what you’ll do next. Let’s sit and think and ponder and plan whatever resurrection is needed.

The Curious Unrecognizability of Christ


It’s always bothered me. In John’s version of Easter, Mary, when finally she turns around and bumps into Jesus, thinks he’s the gardener. Isn’t that a more than a little bit strange? I’m sure I’m not the only one. After all, we know who’s supposed to be Jesus. And unlike us, Mary was there. She’d known Jesus. But she sees him at the grave and – very strange – instead of being overjoyed doesn’t even recognize him. She thinks he’s the gardener. That just doesn’t make sense. It had only been, what? Thirty-six hours?

The whole thing is weird. Despite church tradition the first (human) words from the resurrection aren’t really “he is risen”. The first words from the resurrection are really “who are you?” Not an assertion, but an ongoing question, the same one we’ve been asking 2000 years.

Maybe it was the shock. Maybe it was Mary’s grief, blinding her to the man standing right in front of her. Those are all good, rational arguments. But for me, there’s another, more interesting possibility.

Maybe, I wonder, maybe new life ALWAYS changes our appearances somehow. Maybe the kind of passage from death to life that we celebrate strips away everything, like a fire, and only leaves the real person that the Creator intended. Including with Jesus.

Maybe reality is upside down, and it’s not that the resurrection isn’t real so much as what we’re living right now might not be. Maybe it’s not so much that we change, but that, given enough love and time, and perhaps some divine intervention, we become, if we’re lucky, who we really are.

Imagine being a tadpole. Your whole life has been in a pond. All you know is water. That’s the limit of your comprehension. And one day, your close friend, another tadpole, disappears. You think she’s gone, but she’s just following nature, which means that there’s a resurrection of a sort going on. She’s changing into the adult. A toad. Something all of you tadpoles don’t even suspect exists, even though it’s coming for all of you. Then, one day, from somewhere, somehow, into the water dives this magnificent creature from beyond. Not a tadpole. Something completely different. And yet you sort of recognize her. If that happened, it would alter everything you believed about reality, there in the tadpole world. Maybe Jesus became who he really was, who we will ALL someday be, only by going through the suffering he did. That’s certainly is the case for other people. I can safely say that at 56, my sufferings have changed me, and I know I’m not alone.

Easter doesn’t mean life eternal. It means life after death – or maybe better, through death. The spring of our lives is upon us, but there will never be a spring without a winter, and every winter, no matter how hard, carries spring in its bosom. Northern Europeans know that well enough. May God give us the eyes, and the hope, and the expectation, actually to believe, see and trust in THAT kind of resurrection.

What’s Unrealistic


This Easter memory starts in a Montreal hospital, where I’m walking down the hall after a visit with a parishioner. A young man steps right in front of me, blocking my exit. I almost run into him. “Are you a priest?” he asks me in French. Non… Oui, uhhh…J’suis un pasteur luthérienne.” He looks at me a moment, and then grabs my hand and starts pulling me with him down a side hallway. “We need a priest,” he says in English. “You’ll do.”

“What? What’s going on?” I’m confused, but just as I’m getting my mind together, we come to a room with a small crowd standing outside the door. There are three or four well-dressed, middle-aged women, and two middle-aged men in suits. Most of them look like they’re crying or have been crying, or are about to cry. The young man who has brought me announces that he’s found a priest, at which they all look up in visible relief. S’il vous plait, Père, ici. C’est urgent….”I step into the room. There is an older man, Italian, I think, in a sweater, holding the hand of an elderly woman on the bed. Her eyes are closed and at first I think she’s already dead. Then I realize she’s having great difficulty breathing.

There are two younger men standing very near her bed too, and a young woman. They see me and the look in their eyes is not one I’ll soon forget. “Last rites,” I hear one of them say. “The priest is here. The priest is here.” They clear a place and with their eyes and their hands push me to the centre spot by the bed, right beside the woman, whom I can see is dying. They look at me with pleading in their eyes. “Priez. S’il vous plait mon Père…priez pour son âme.” I take her hand and look down at her.

Do not be afraid, says the angel to the two Marys who had come to anoint the body. Do not be afraid. In this world, things are not as you imagine them. There has been something that has happened. Something dangerously hopeful. Something unbelievably important. Do not be afraid. Something new has been done, out of love, for us mortals, not to stop the inevitable death and fear and pain and regret and loss. But maybe, just maybe, to pass through them to the other side.

Today is Easter – our celebration of the resurrection. That’s a great thing, right? “We are an Easter People” proudly proclaims the most recent headline in our church paper. I saw copies of it here at the church. Again, a great thing. Except that the problem that no one admits is that if you ask any Lutheran what it actually means to be an Easter people, we’re hardly able to tell you.

What IS Easter? It’s spring. Yes. But let’s not stop there. Spring is good – in fact, thank God it’s finally spring! – but that’s hardly enough. Easter is not just new life poking out of the ground after a long awful winter that didn’t seem to ever want to quit. And it’s not just holidays and time with family and pussy-willow branches hung with eggs and good food and chocolate bunnies.

Easter is more than that. But then what IS it?

Not long after that incident in the hospital, I was talking with one of my friends who is a non-Christian about it. He looked at me: “I can understand you wanting to give comfort in a situation like that,” he said to me, not unkindly, “but how can you participate in such a lie? You DO know how unrealistic this whole life after death thing is, don’t you?”

If I’d had my senses I would have answered him better. With the benefit of Easter hindsight, I might have said something like this:

The resurrection? Yes, it’s unrealistic. Of course. Like St. Paul said: resurrection is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to everyone else. No one comes back from the dead. No one rises – except in zombie movies and Greek myths and Gospel lessons. But life is our hope. And you want to talk about unrealistic? Let’s talk about unrealistic…..

What’s really unrealistic, even more than this story of the empty grave, is the topsy-turvy tarted-up first world in which you and I live. Many of you were poor immigrants to this country. You know. You know that this life that we now live is not sustainable, not ethical, too fast, too rich, too irresponsible for a small planet. Yet we say it’s normal. We say we deserve it. And we believe THAT.

Many of you know what it is to turn the temperature down at night because there’s not enough money. Some of you, like Jesus, have lived through war and occupation. You know what it is to see dead bodies in the street because of hate. You know what it is to flee from soldiers, and you know what it is to face up to soldiers, just as the women did when they came to anoint the body of Jesus, that first Easter morning. You know bloodshed and hurt, and yet you remember how to hope, somehow, even so.

So let’s see: life, death, hope, and fear…. this story seems pretty realistic to me.

What ELSE I might say to my friend (we’re good friends; he could take it) is this:

What’s unrealistic is NOT Easter. What’s unrealistic is our death-denying, hiding the facts from ourselves society that claims we’re not getting older but better. OUR society denies resurrection but then goes on to swallow the big lie that there’s no death, period. What’s unrealistic is paying hundreds of dollars for creams and surgeries to hide our aging, ignoring the pennies needed for other good causes, and living in a world where the contents of a dumpster can be national television.

What’s unrealistic is a society that on the one hand celebrates little chicks and baby rabbits on Youtube while on the other hand stuffing 99.99 percent of those little chicks into tiny cages so far from the ground they never see a living thing, and live and die horribly as trapped, maimed, drugged and miserable creatures until the day someone looks at their remains through cellophane and haggles over whether they cost 98 cents or 88 cents a pound.

What’s unrealistic is consuming 80 percent of the world’s resources while being 20% of its population, and saying we can go on like this forever.

What’s unrealistic are low-fat, low-carb, stevia, spa bodies and minds that have turned to mush from never being challenged by ideas bigger than where to take our winter vacations or whether green or blue is the spring colour.

What’s unrealistic is buying water in plastic bottles ignoring the fact that Coke or Pepsi have taken it from the taps in the first place, and calling our wasteful, glittery, appetites healthy. What’s unrealistic is paying 6 dollars a day on coffee and muffins at a Starbucks, handing over the change to the barista while saying to the person beside us that we’re poor. What’s unrealistic is complaining about whether a politician swears or gets divorced but not what their record is on public housing, or education, or kickbacks. What’s unrealistic is saying that children are our future and it’s up to them now as some kind of sneaky way of admitting that we screwed up and now all we want to do is retire in peace and luxury and leave the mess to them.

In other words, I’d say to my friend, there are MANY types of unrealism. And the Gospel lesson today about life through death is NOT the most unrealistic, nor the most harmful, thing we believe. In fact, for those of us who believe, it’s actually a deep truth.

There’s a bit of text that’s unique to Matthew, which is the Gospel we’ve been reading this year. After Jesus dies, it says in Matthew’s Gospel that the city leaders come to Pilate to ask him for a guard for the tomb. Matthew’s the only Gospel to recount this request for soldiers. “We want to make sure that his disciples don’t come to steal the body,” the city officials say, in what is surely Matthew fending off later accusations, “Otherwise his disciples will claim that Jesus has been raised, so that the last deception is greater than the first.”

That phrase has always stuck with me. The last deception greater than the first. How can we, who celebrate this day, answer people like my friend, who believe that we ARE living a deception?

I think it comes back to the angel. Every year we change the Gospel lesson for Easter morning. But almost every year, in every different Gospel, the angel’s words are the same.

They’re the words I prayed in the hospital: do not be afraid. Death is still around. But do not be afraid. Its hold has been broken. The troubles of our lives – the hurts and pains and worries and lonelinesses, the grudges and deep aches and concerns and fears and stresses – all these are incredibly powerful. AND REAL. But so is life. Do not be afraid. That’s Easter’s promise. There is a spirit of hope. There is laughter in the pain. There’s a dance of life to which all are invited but not all answer. Death cannot be avoided. But it will be overcome.

We DO go through trials and tribulations. Yes. We DO have our times where no life is to be seen. Yes. We DO have depression and sadness in our families, and hurts that warp our very natures sometimes. It doesn’t matter how much we smile, what kind of car we drive, or what we look like. There is not a person here, as Easter-y as we all look, who is not hurting in some way about something, even this morning. I am sure of that.

But then, thank God for Easter all the more. The Marys were on their way to anoint a dead body when they were surprised by life. Easter is intensely realistic. That day in the hospital I was called to be a witness, not to death, but to hope. I looked down at that woman in the bed and knew that what mattered was not who I was, but the faith I represented. What they wanted was a prayer – for her spirit, a prayer for confidence, and a prayer recognizing their love for her. A prayer that life might somehow come out of death. I prayed that prayer with the family. And today we claim that prayer for each one of us. Do not be afraid. Life can triumph. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.