Death in Eastertide

Death in Eastertide May 5, 2019

This post is a little bit about Rachel Held Evans, in some indirect and sober way.

A few years ago a person who had some very sad and terrible ideas about God and the Bible left his local church, believing himself to be aggrieved and angry about how he had been treated and what he thought God was calling him to do. Over the months that followed many people went to him and begged him to return, to repent. But he would not. He was very angry. The church was refusing to acknowledge what he knew to be true about God, and what God said about him, and the church must repent.

Many difficult and painful things were said and felt over two long terrible years. For the better part of every day many people who loved this man prayed for him to come back. Nobody really believed he would, and yet they prayed.

Then, when the lights went on at the Great Vigil of Easter, after the long walk through the Old Testament and the Exodus, as Alleluias were ringing out, there he was, at the back. And at the peace he came forward down the long aisle and said he was sorry, he had been wrong. He confessed his sins and took communion. And in the two weeks after he was restored to the fellowship of that body. And then, and this was and still is very shocking, he suffered a massive heart attack and died. It was as though his life was forcefully, almost brutally wrenched from him.

Nobody had had any warning that he would die. No one expected it. Everyone was appalled.

And yet it was Easter.

Which it is even now. We are into the third week of Eastertide, and yet there is still death. There is still sin. There is still the confused muddle of humanity within the church and without. There is still complicated, soul-entrapping grief.

The first part of Easter, even though it lasts but a day, is Good Friday and the desolate truth of the cross. We, who were far off, are brought near to God by a work that we could not, and did not want, to do. God took it upon himself to reconcile us to himself by a perfect and obedient life, a public and shameful death, and a glorious rising. But the cross part is bitter—a bitter indictment of the human heart. We could not pay the debt of sin and rebellion. We could not restore ourselves to fellowship with God. He had to come and do it for us.

The cross is humiliating, because the person hanging there should have been me. I know this from reading the Bible over and over, from lining up all the things I think and feel alongside the text and then bowing my head before what it says. This itself is a kind of death—a terrible one, often painful, very rarely easy. Every time I run my eye over the page I am bound to face Good Friday and the disconsolate grief of the incarnate Christ who died because I was a sinner.

I said this post, in some very indirect way, is about RHE. I prayed for her for many years, being angry with the way she undermined and twisted the scriptures. She wanted to be a help, as we all do, and wanted to make sense of a church that I think, from all that I have read of her writing, failed her, as it does so many. To make a place for herself, then, she read the bible with a revising, judging eye, inviting others, like her, to stand in judgment over the text.

This angered me, deeply, because when you stand over the text, the text can never stand over you to judge the truth about you. And if the text never can judge you, you can never catch hold of the hope of the resurrection—that though the Lord died, he rose, he defeated death itself.

Most of us flip through the fluttering, thin pages of scripture and find that the most sure and certain thing is ourselves and our own estimation of God and who he is. We gather bits from here and there and plant our spiritual feet on what we are sure must be true. The scriptures, like God himself, seem like gusts of wind—impossible to catch hold of.

But it is we who are ephemeral, who go away in a night, who are a breath, a sigh. It is God, and his perfect word, who carry us on past the ashes of each ruined moment. But not the God of our own imagining, untethered from every jot and line of his holy and perfect word. We have to take him as he is, we have to trust that what he says about himself is true, is enough to take us over the threshold of death into everlasting life.

I say angry—a lot of people are angry for a lot of different reasons. The chief being that we want life on our own terms and are never allowed to have it. We want God on our own terms and he refuses to do as we want him to. We want the Bible to be easy and yet it is not. We want the body to stand up to the terror of death and win by the power of its own life force. All of us drink out of this cup of bitterness every day as we each go down to the grave one by one. There is no distinction, no escaping it. Indeed, it was all this anger that God gathered up and used as the very means by which he destroyed the thing we hate most—death.

And so I prayed before, but now I mourn, and hope that Rachel turned in her final hours to the true Christ, the living Word, the resurrected One who overcomes death, even in Easter.

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