Years ago, long before I ever became a pastor, I had a friend who was nearing the end of her life. During my last few visits with her, Clara would ask me over and over again, “Am I going to be alright?” I would always answer her with words designed to assure her that all would be well. Unlike some people I have known since, Clara never asked me what was going to happen to her when she died. Instead she would ask, “Am I going to be alright?” At the time, I thought that she was worried about the pain she might encounter or the fear that she might feel. So, I would assure her that the care that she was getting was the best there is and that the doctors and nurses would make sure that she could manage whatever pain came her way. I also assured her that her loved ones would be there with her, and furthermore I believed that the very source of her being, would be there to embrace her. My friend wasn’t particularly religious, so the words that I’d learned in church to offer as comfort, were not words she wanted to hear. So, I spoke of God, in vague and general terms. Even though back then, I still imagined God as some sort of supernatural being.
The last time I saw my friend Clara, I knew that the end was near. I was feeling woefully inadequate I wasn’t sure how long I could bear to be in the same room with my friend. I remember hearing a rattling sound as she struggled with each breath. My own breath slowed and became quite shallow as if my body was trying to mimic hers. It is a moment in time that lives in my memory not because of the intensity of my feelings at that time, but rather because of the way in which our parallel breathing took me to a place of knowing where the wizened dying body in the bed was transformed into a beautiful young woman.
All the stories that I’d ever heard about Clara were somehow there in the room accompanied by our breathing. I could almost see Clara dancing and singing, loving and laughing, stunningly beautiful, impressing folks with her passion for justice. Clara was an activist, for indigenous people back when we still called them Indians. We volunteered together at Project North in Vancouver, advocating for the settlement of land-claims. Clara was an old workhorse who learned her skills back in the sixties protesting the war in Vietnam. I first met Clara, when she was leading the struggle to end nuclear testing off the coast of Alaska. It was Clara who talked me into joining Project North. I loved her not just because she was my mentor, but because she challenged me and everyone she met to be better than we were.
Clara was about the same age as I am now when she lay dying of cancer. But as we breathed in harmony, I could see Clara in all her glory, it was a younger, healthier, more vibrant Clara that I could see, I remember thinking that I was seeing Clara’s very essence. Maybe it was the shallowness of my breathing, or maybe it was the magnitude of Clara’s presence, but I felt as if we might just be about to float away.
“Easter is not an occasion to celebrate something that happened once long ago. Easter is to be celebrated moment to moment in our daily lives.”
Easter is a myth. A myth is a story that communicates an essential truth. Easter is a myth that communicates an essential truth. It is not a fairy-tale designed to entertain us – that’s the job of the Easter Bunny. Easter the myth of dying and rising again is a truth that is in the DNA of life itself. Resurrections are the point of Easter stories. There are ordinary resurrections happening all around us each and every day.
The resurrection of Jesus is an extraordinary resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection is not made extraordinary by means of a physical resuscitation of a corpse. Even the Apostle Paul denies the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse. Listen again to the words of the Apostle Paul: “Perhaps someone will ask, ‘How are the dead to be raised up? What kind of body will they have?’ What a stupid question! The seed you sow does not germinate unless it dies. When you sow, you do not sow the full-blown plant but a kernel of wheat or some other grain. Then it is given the body God designed for it—with each kind of seed getting its own kind of body. Not all flesh is the same. Human beings have one kind, animals have another, birds another, and fish another. Then there are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. Heavenly bodies have a beauty of their own, and earthly bodies have a beauty of their own. The sun has one kind of brightness, the moon another, and the stars another. And star differs from star in brightness. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is a perishable body, what is raised is incorruptible. What is sown is ignoble, what is raised is glorious. Weakness is sown, strength is raised up. A natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up. If there is a natural body, then there is also a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:1-11)
Our preoccupation with a physical resuscitation of Jesus corpse is as Paul writes, “stupid”. The idea that we are to believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead misses the whole point of the story of Jesus’ resurrection. It is as Paul insists, “a natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up.”
The story of Jesus’ resurrection is extraordinary precisely because anything at all made it out of that bloody tomb. The Romans did their best. In an effort to stamp out any resistance at all to their Empire, history tells us that the Romans crucified tens of thousands of men who threatened the violent domination system that maintained the Roman status quo touted as the Pax Romana – which translates as Peace of Rome…peace achieved through victory…victory won through violence. Not one of the tens of thousands of men crucified by the romans made it out of their tombs. We don’t even have a record of their names. Jesus of Nazareth’s crucifixion, his death upon a cross could not kill his opposition to the oppressive violent domination of the Roman Empire. Jesus’ dream of the reign of God where peace is achieved not with violence but with justice, this vision, this passion of Jesus, is alive and well and lives in with, through, and beyond you and I by the power of the LOVE that we call God. The extraordinary resurrection of Jesus lived in the lives of his friends and followers because Jesus lived his passion for the reign of God in such a way that his presence could not be killed, not even by the Romans.
Jesus lived so fully, loved so extravagantly, and taught his dream of a new way of being in the world in ways that meant that his presence could not be contained in the tomb. We are not fallen beings. We are evolving beings. We do not need salvation from sin. We need the courage, the strength, the passion to evolve beyond the violence that we have settled for.
The passion of Jesus, and by passion, I mean Jesus vision of a way of being in the world that embodies the LOVE that we call God in the pursuit of peace through justice. The peace that Jesus sought is a way of being in the world where everyone has enough and all of creation can live in harmony. Now there are those who would say that this passion, this vision of peace, is little more than a utopian pipe-dream. The ways of the world require a strong hand, violence and poverty “they” say, are inevitable realities of human existence. The Romans certainly believed this. Empires believe this. Financial conglomerates believe this. Just like the Romans these supporters of power and violence, are more than willing to execute troublemakers the way that Jesus was executed, to strike fear into the hearts of other troublemakers.
It was the increased pressure of Clara’s hand as she squeezed my hand, that brought me back down to earth. Clara asked me where I’d been.
I told her that I was out on a march with her.
“Where were we marching to?” Clara asked.
“I’m not sure, maybe we were marching to a better place.”
“A better place, my dear. That would be paradise?” Clara made it sound more like a question than a suggestion.
“Paradise.” I answered.
“Paradise it is then.” Clara insisted. “We’re marching to paradise.”
And then like she always did Clara left me with a challenge: “Trouble is, I don’t believe in paradise.” It is true, Clara didn’t believe in paradise, but she sure knew what paradise looked like.
I’ve thought about Clara’s vision of paradise often over the decades since she died. You see in Clara, I met the risen Christ. Oh, she wouldn’t want me to say it quite like that. In Clara’s paradise, there’s no room for words that are laden with baggage. So, let me put it this way, in Clara, I met the LOVE that we call God, in Clara I met someone who lived so fully, loved so extravagantly and became all that she was created to be. In Clara, I meet someone who was living into her full humanity and was therefore truly DIVINE. In Clara I met the LOVE that challenges me to live into my full humanity, a LOVE that not even cancer could kill.
I am indebted to Clay Nelson for reminding me of “ordinary resurrections,” Bernard Brandon Scott for his excellent exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, and most of all to Clara Thomas for always embodying the LOVE that we call God in ways that continue to encourage me to wake-up and stand-up.