When Grace and Death Collide
Hans Peterson, a good friend of mine, died two months ago in a work-related accident. Hans was this compact little distance runner with white blond hair and a smile so bright that even the very best clichés couldn't describe it. I had coffee with Hans while I was in San Francisco two weeks before his death and part of me still can't believe he's gone. And a really big part of me doesn't understand why he's gone.
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But this past Monday night I dreamed of Hans. It was one of those dreams so real it takes awhile after you wake up to realize it was a dream. We were just sitting around chatting like normal when all of the sudden I remembered he had died. I walked up to him, kissed his scruffy blond cheek and said, "Sweetie, I'm so sorry you're dead." To which Hans simply looked me in the eyes and replied, "It's okay. I lost myself in a collision with God's grace." Then I woke up.
It's okay that I'm dead because I lost myself in a collision with God's grace. I have no idea what that means. But I think it's beautiful and maybe true.
We hear of the Widow of Nain in Luke's gospel (Luke 7). She is a nobody from nowhere. What we know is that her husband has died. What we know is that she has but one son and now he too is dead. What we know is that without husband or son she has no real place in society. Without a man to define and defend her she is now barely visible. And it is from this nobody status in the midst of her grief for her dead son that she is joined by the townspeople in a funeral procession.
Of course the entirety of the gospels is about Jesus of Nazareth. What we know is that he was born of an unwed virgin. He is a nobody from nowhere. What we know is that he has left his mother and her guardian. He has left his home and siblings and has no real place in society. It is from this status of outsider that he has gone about the countryside healing the sick, raising the dead, and always touching things he shouldn't in blatant disregard for biblical teachings. And he is joined everywhere he goes by the crowds and hangers-on in a march of mercy. This day is no different.
For it is on this day that the childless widow of Nain is joined by a swarming crowd of townspeople in a funeral march as they move toward the city gate -- her dead son carried on a plank of wood. I imagine her, walking with the crowd, looking up to heaven and wondering, why has God abandoned me? Where now is my God? I imagine her, knowing that there is no one left to protect and provide for her, questioning why this had to happen. From her isolation in the midst of the throng she searches the heavens for answers to why God has abandoned her. Yet the crowd keeps moving.
Meanwhile, coming toward her, a crowd following Jesus makes their way closer and closer to the same city gate. They just keep following this God-man who heals on the Sabbath, insists we should love our enemies, and then backs that ridiculous claim up by raising a Roman centurion's servant from the dead. Like a flash mob of grace, this great multitude following Jesus move from outside the town toward inside the town while at the same time a great multitude of the funeral procession move from inside the town to outside the town. Like an epic battle scene, two great forces, two formidable armies move Braveheart-style toward one another.
I wonder if the crowd following Jesus that day knew they were about to collide with a death march. I know that we ourselves make such brave attempts in our death-denying culture to avoid the inevitability of death, as though we can all live forever with the right combination of positive thinking, herbs, diet, exercise, and elective surgery. Then when death happens we wonder, like the Widow of Nain, where is our God now?
But here's the thing: as she walked with the multitudes in a march of death searching the heavens for answers, she suddenly walked smack into God in the flesh. Death and Grace collided.
And at the moment of impact Jesus sees her. He sees this husbandless, childless widow, and the text says he has compassion on her -- only that's an unnecessarily polite translation of a Greek word which means something closer to "his guts churned for her." He looked upon this woman who has lost everything, and his reaction was intestinal in nature.
And at this same moment of impact the widow does not receive answers to her questions. But she receives God's own self. We too might have a lot of questions in our grief and isolation and despair, but the faith is not where we find answers to questions. The Christian faith is where we have a collision with God, who insists on being in the places we are sure are God-forsaken. Andrew Root says that "Christianity is faith in a God who enters death."
See, Jesus can never seem to just keep a safe distance from death and impurity. The funeral procession and the march of grace collide, he sees the widow, his guts churn for her, then he totally ignores the rules in the Bible and reaches out and touches the wooden plank holding the dead body of her only son. Jesus defiles himself by touching death. Now ritually impure, Jesus hands the young man back to his mother foreshadowing when he will give his own mother a new son from the cross. So in this collision, rather that Jesus fighting death, which death would expect, he simply touches it. Like on the cross, Jesus enters death as though to say, "I will even be found here