We Christians have just experienced the single most important day of our year, that one called Easter. Even during this year of pandemic, we attempted to emulate years’ past with trumpets (outside and distanced), the Hallelujah Chorus (in our case via car choir, an ingenious and technological marvel enabling us to sing from our individual cars with our voices mixed marvelously by a wonderful technician), and a fine sermon offered by our pastor, though recorded alone in our vast and empty sanctuary. It was hardly like Easters of our memory, but it was Easter all the same, employing the same 2000-year-old story of a triumph over death, that is, death in all the forms it may take. It was without question the story we know so well. It is the story that has motivated our belief and action as we live our lives in the world.
Please note that I said it is the story that has motivated us—not the supposed facts of the story, whether or not Jesus was raised from death to life in history, but the story that God has triumphed over all the deaths there may be in our lives. It is the story that counts, not the spurious struggle over the so-called “historical facts” of the story. This reality is demonstrated all too well in the complex and decisively different accounts of the tale as found in the four canonical gospels. In Mark, in response to the empty tomb, the terrified women who have come to offer proper burial flee the tomb, shocked and amazed, and tell precisely no one about what has happened. In Matthew, the eleven disciples assemble on a mountain in Galilee, following the command of the angels in the tomb, and in the midst of worshipping the risen Jesus, we are told that “some doubted!” In Luke, two discouraged disciples trudge away from Jerusalem, imagining that all their hopes have been dashed by the barbarous murder of Jesus, but instead are accosted by a stranger whom they recognize as that same Jesus only when they share a meal with him. And in John, Mary meets a man in the garden whom she thinks is a gardener, but who turns out to be Jesus when she hears him speak her name. Instead of thinking that these four are mere slight variations on one basic tale, they are in reality four different tales, expressing four quite different reactions. Their common thread is that Jesus, by the power of God, has not been defeated after all, but his ministry must continue in the persons and actions of his followers. We live by and thrive in that story.
Of course, the particular ways in which we define Jesus’s ministry is the rub. In those definitions lie the seeds of the enormous distinctions and disagreements between the literal billions of Christians since that first Easter that 2000 years of Christianity have offered up. Such a muddle of what we Christians actually believe and practice has led any number of commentators to wish that the whole “Christian thing” would just dry up and blow away, leaving humanity to tackle the huge problems of racial equality and planetary disaster and threats of war and on and on to the supposed neutral forces of secularization, forces that do not turn to any kind of divinity by which they may get about the necessary business of cleaning up the multiple messes that human beings invariably have made. After all, they say, you Christians have never been able to get clear about just who that God may be and what that God has asked you to do. Does that God demand that we never practice abortion or does that God allow a woman her right to choose what happens to her own body? Does that God call on us to love and secure the earth against forces that would threaten its destruction, or does that God care at all about the earth, giving the people the right to do what they want with earth’s resources, believing that somehow God will always provide? Does that God privilege certain people over other people, the white over the black, the rich over the poor, the powerful over the weak, or does that God call for equality and equal access for all people, regardless of their place in society or the color of their skin? These very basic disagreements remain alive among us Christians, and I am hardly surprised that those who refuse to participate in Christianity with us are heartily sick and tired of our bickering while black people are mistreated and killed, while poor people become poorer while rich people grow richer, and while the planet continues to warm and the seas to rise and the forests to fall. Little wonder that those who call themselves Christian are a decreasing lot, and the “nones” are on the march.
We simply have to get our story right, because other powerful stories are readily and ubiquitously available. The assault on the capital in Washington D.C., urged on by Donald Trump and his associates, not only on that day but during the months preceding that day, demonstrated all too easily the power of a story. The election had been “stolen,” they were told, by a cabal of left-wing media, a manipulated collection of voting machines, and a passel of Trump-hating Democrats who would not allow another four years of his presidency. Hence, Trump was cheated. That was, and is still, a story circulating in our nation. Just last night (April 11, 2021) Trump himself repeated the story at his post-White House home in Florida. It makes little difference that the story is not supported by any facts; indeed, all evidence suggests the contrary: Joe Biden won the 2020 election quite handily in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Yet, the story lives on, as stories do. Those who stormed the capital did so under the direct influence of that story, and the simmering hatred that the story engenders is alive and well: witness just yesterday (April 11) a rally for “White Lives Matter” not 20 miles from where I live at Manhattan Beach, CA, sparked by some material distributed by the Ku Klux Klan.
We all swim in stories; our stories determine who we are and how we act and live. The story of an exceptional US America remains alive among us, how our land has been uniquely chosen and blessed by God to be the world’s premier and model nation. Any realities that call that story into question are rejected by the followers of that story: the pain and horrors of slavery, the genocide of the first Americans, the vast gulf between rich and poor are simply avoided or said to be overemphasized or seen to be tools of those who cannot accept the full power and truth of the central story. The story of a terrifically generous US America, far outstripping all other nations as supporters of the world’s poor and destitute and oppressed, is a story alive among us: the fact that US America is seen by all accounts to lag behind many countries in such measures of generosity are rejected as inimical to the story. Despite that fact, many public figures retain the tale of the exceptional America. After all, many votes may be garnered with such stories, because the story is widely spread and just as widely believed.
We progressive Christians need desperately to get our story straight about who God is, what Jesus came to do and say, and demonstrate clearly and directly what we believe about God and Jesus by the ways in which we act. We fancy ourselves a “resurrection people” in these liturgical days of the Easter season. To tell that story with power and energy, we must continue to demonstrate clearly and directly what it means for our world actually to be people of the resurrection. When we hear the tales of exceptional America, part of our task is to remind those who hold such a view that the God we worship loves the people of Cambodia as much as the people of US America. When we hear the tales about a “stolen election,” we must help those who claim that pseudo-reality that the facts do not bear out the conviction. Besides, God is a God of freedom, who brought Israel out of the house of slavery, and bid them live their lives in an equal freedom, a freedom from error and lies, a freedom to vote without painful restrictions, when democracies began to appear. Free and fair elections are the bedrock of any democracy, and because that is so, our elections, under this God, must be devoid of undue financial pressures and any sort of intimidation. This God calls all of us to continue to work toward the day when our elections will be seen by all to be fair and free.
Because this God created and loves the planet on which we all live, that God calls all people to seek ways to nurture and savor and secure the planet for future generations. Yesterday, Mexico decided to return to the fuller use of fossil fuels to power its energy needs, including coal and oil as the main drivers, leaving wind and solar behind. The God we proclaim bids us to challenge that decision, not simply because it is dangerous to the warming planet, but because we are called by that God to love and preserve the planet, not to desecrate and destroy it. That is the God of our story, that story that urges us to live as we live. Our part of the Christian family holds fast to that God story, a God of full inclusion of all the world’s peoples, the gay and the straight, the rich and the poor, the black, the white, the yellow, the brown. We live by that story, and because we do we must call all antithetical stories into the most serious question, for that is part of the call of our God, too.
Stories are protean things; their emphases shift and change. We Christians know that fact all too well. However, our constant vigilance over our story is crucial if we are to speak our truth into a world that, according to our understanding, is in desperate need of that story. When those women left the empty tomb in Mark’s telling, and spoke not a word to anyone about the astonishing deed of God in Jesus, he by implication left it to us to speak that truth. Well? Let us so speak.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)