O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Today’s Gospel, which you read in your home rite of Spiritual Communion this morning, tells the story of the risen Jesus making himself known to two dejected disciples as they walked home to Emmaus on the night of Easter. Rumors of the corpse of Jesus having disappeared from the tomb were circulating, and they weren’t sure what to think. But they were sure that the man they had believed to be the Messiah was dead, and that along with him had died their hope that a new creation would come about through his leadership.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia! This year we can’t all cry out those words together in a full church, but it is nonetheless true, and it is a proclamation that is even more meaningful right now: Death is conquered. Christ is risen.
I watched a webinar a week or two ago in which one of the guests was Dr. Lydia Dougdale, a physician at Columbia University who specializes in treatment of the aged and in medical ethics. She has a book coming out called “The Lost Art of Dying Well,” which responds to the fact that unlike countless previous generations, we Westerners whose lifespans have happened to fall in the past century or so have been uniquely able to skirt the topic of death, and especially to avoid talking about the fact that we ourselves will die. We have forgotten how to receive mortality as an opportunity to ask big questions, how to prepare intentionally for death.
And we need to relearn this, because mortality has once again taken center stage, along with its colleagues powerlessness, anger, and fear. Over 20,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the USA so far. There aren’t enough beds, there isn’t enough equipment. We don’t know what will happen -- to our businesses, to our retirement savings, to our plans for 2021, to our vulnerable family members; we don’t know, if the disease claims someone we love, if we will even be able to go to their funeral. And, as Dougdale says, contemporary people like us are not used to thinking about these kinds of things. We don’t easily ask, “Am I ready to die? Am I spending my life in a way that really counts?” But now, the times force us to pose such questions.
There are people who treat the Christian proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus, of Easter, as a sort of analgesic, designed to dull the pain of questions like that. A comforting story that helps us feel better and keeps us distracted from suffering. Some of us have probably had people try and use it that way on us, try to rush us out of our crushing grief at the loss of someone especially dear: don’t feel sad, he’s in a better place, just remember she’s with the angels now, you should be happy for her.
If we have anything to say (and this year especially) on Easter Sunday with integrity, it had better not sound like any of that. It had better start with the truth that Jesus suffered and died in agony. Like the people in ICUs all over the world, he gasped for breath on the Cross as his lungs filled with fluid. Like the people confined and quarantined, he faced his torment without his friends and colleagues, and in his final hour even without the felt presence of God, whom he said had also forsaken him. He was crushed by shame. He descended into hell.
This is what happened to God in Christ. We can’t skip over that. We shouldn’t ever, but especially not this year. Because we need that truth now -- not just to know that ever since then God is with us, completely with us in the sickness and the isolation and the powerlessness and the approach of death. We need so badly to know that God accompanies us there, that he understands completely the experience of isolation and powerlessness and fear.
But we also need to know something else. We need to understand that all this is what Jesus was raised from, raised through, raised against, raised to conquer. In his resurrection Jesus does not suddenly waltz onstage like some bespangled assistant we just saw a stage magician cut into three pieces, delightfully whole and cheery at the end of what only seemed an ordeal, waving and accepting applause and saying “See! I’m fine after all! Thanks, ladies and gentlemen!”
No. Jesus appears carrying everything he has been through, the wounds to prove it still gaping open. He appears bearing in his now risen and glorified body the entire incalculable weight of sin and death, soaked through with every drop of human fear and despair and hopelessness throughout the ages, his pierced heart full to overflowing with every wailing widow, every abandoned or abused child, every steadily mounting fever, every flatlined heart monitor, every gasp for breath that has ever been. In his risen flesh he is carrying it. Carrying it all, yet radiant.
By his death and resurrection Jesus has acknowledged, and taken into himself, and metabolized every atom of evil that has ever corrupted and destroyed the creatures of earth, and returned it as good. Every atom of death that has ever broken a human heart, and returned it as life. Not just more of this life, a few extra years to string out the distractions and the stresses we all used to take so seriously before COVID-19, but everlasting life, God’s own life, a life that is immune to evil. That life starts the moment Easter starts, the moment the tomb is empty, the moment Jesus’ lifeless and destroyed body becomes his risen body.
The life of the resurrection has not avoided, not downplayed, but faced and conquered evil, and it invades our world on Easter morning. It comes determined, having raised Jesus, to raise everyone and everything else with him. And it cannot be stopped.
Hear me right: the risen life Jesus has won for us today will not keep you from passing through death, or from losing your retirement savings, or from being hospitalized with COVID-19. God does not promise such things. But he does promise that none of that, when you face it anchored in the life of the Risen Christ, can conquer you. None of that can kill you. None of that can ruin you. Because Christ has already conquered, killed, and ruined death, and you belong to him forever.