Bishop Julian Gordy: No Death That God Cannot Overcome

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History announced recently that it will begin restoring Thomas Jefferson's edited version of the New Testament. The book was hand-made by the great Founder just after his term as president. It is a chronological life of Jesus, carefully cut and pasted from English, Latin, French and Greek bibles. It includes those things Jefferson valued - Jesus' teachings - and excludes those he doubted - Jesus' miracles. Jefferson included the crucifixion and burial of Jesus but not the resurrection, Good Friday, but not Easter.

That omission was likely because, current attempts by some to make the nation's founders evangelical Christians notwithstanding, Jefferson was an empiricist. He acknowledged reality as he saw it, and that reality included innocent suffering and death. That part of the story of Jesus rang true for Jefferson. But Jefferson's observed reality did not include resurrection, so he left that part out. 

More than usually this year, I have some sympathy for Thomas Jefferson. This Lent has seen its share of suffering and death, innocent and otherwise, from the tsunami and earthquakes in Japan to the deaths of unarmed protesters in Lybia and Syria to the storms here in the South. At one point this Lent, I was pretty sure that almost every rostered leader in our synod was either ill, had lost a parent, or had a seriously ill spouse. Suffering and death aren't hard to find in our world. They aren't hard to believe in.

My own Lenten journey this year was sharpened when I found a misplaced CD that Elizabeth Short of St. Andrew, Franklin, TN, had lent me long ago to listen to on the road. It was the well-known story of Raoul Wallenberg, a story I though I knew, but a story that had unusual resonance with me this year. 

Wallenberg was a member of one of Sweden's most influential and wealthy families. In 1944, near the end of World War II, this business man asked to be sent to Hungary where Adolf Eichmann was intent on killing as many Jews as possible before Germany's by-that-time-certain defeat in the war.

In Hungary, over the next several months, Wallengerg rescued of Jews by housing them in buildings - "safe houses" - he claimed were property of and protected by the Swedish government. He issued "passports" to Jews, documents he had made himself with the neutral Swedish government's seal, offering them safe passage and claiming they were under the protection of the Swedish government. 

This formerly quiet, introverted man creatively used bribes, threats of extortion, counterfeit documents, and anything else he could contrive to save Jews. He faced down Nazi guards and righteously and loudly demanded that they release their prisoners from the very trains taking them to extermination camps. As Eichmann stepped up his efforts to exterminate the Jews of Hungary, Wallenberg took more and more risks to save them. It's a story too amazing for fiction. 

In some theoretical world, when the Russian army liberated Budapest from the Nazis, Raoul Wallenberg would have returned to Sweden to be welcomed as the hero that he was. But in the real world we live in, he was arrested and disappeared, likely to have died or been executed in the Soviet Gulag. 

You can see, in the real world, how someone like Thomas Jefferson might get Good Friday but have doubts about Easter, might be certain of the reality of innocent suffering and death but not so sure about resurrection. You can see how despair might be a reasonable response to the real world. 

In Matthew's gospel, on the first Easter morning, two women went to the tomb to mourn the death of an innocent friend, the victim of the worst that the oppressive and cruel Roman empire combined with the fear and envy of the religious establishment could do.

Martin Luther profoundly pointed out that our human reality is seen in that cross on which Jesus died. You look at Jesus' cross, at its agony and its innocent suffering and its death and you see what the real world can do. As Ernest Hemingway said, "Life breaks everyone." 

We still live in the real world of injustice and hunger, tsunamis and tornadoes, illness and division, brokenness and death. The cross of Jesus demands that like Jefferson, we not deny any of that. It is our reality. Said Luther, "In the midst of life we are surrounded by death." 

But that isn't the whole story. The resurrection has its power precisely because it is spoken, not into some theoretical world of goodness and light, but into the real world of suffering that you and I experience and in which we live. 

In Jesus God chose to be present with us on the cross, in the worst we could do, in the worst we can experience. And in his innocent death, we proclaim that God has acted to defeat death and everything associated with the reign of death: illness, abuse, greed, oppression, cruelty, hunger and want. Because Jesus lives, we too shall live. The world is becoming new. Our possibilities are God's possibilities now and not our own. 

The empty tomb that the two Mary's saw - evidence to the contrary notwithstanding - proclaims that God has acted to defeat death. "Embraced by death, he broke its fearful hold, and our despair he turned to blazing joy. Hallelujah!" Jesus lives and meets us here in the real world of loss and suffering and death and offers us his life now and forever.

That is the hope of the gospel, the hope on which we Christians hang everything. Not that everything in the world is OK, but that in the midst of the bad, even in the midst of death, we are surrounded by life and by the eternal love of God from which nothing can separate us. The Christian faith does not teach that you and I are immortal souls. It teaches that even though we die, yet shall we live.

On the cross, Jesus died. That's life as we know it. That's reality as Thomas Jefferson experienced it. Sometimes for us as for Jefferson, it's hard to believe the Easter message. But Easter is not about us and our power. It is about the power of God in Christ to die and to defeat death. Death no longer has dominion over him - or for us whose lives are hidden with Christ in God, joined to him in baptism. Because death wasn't the last word for Jesus, it isn't the last word for us either.

That's our hope. That's Easter's good news, not that there is no death, but that there is no death that God cannot, will not overcome, that even at the grave - even this year - we make our song Alleluia! Alleluia!

[Taken with permission from the Blog of the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Originally posted 4/27/11]