resurrection

The Real Message of Easter

Empty tomb of Jesus, Tiffany Chan / Shutterstock.com
Empty tomb of Jesus, Tiffany Chan / Shutterstock.com

In Christianity’s passage through Holy Week to Easter Day, a moment of truth will arrive.

Every detail is well known, thoroughly studied, and dramatized by Hollywood and homespun pageants — and the familiar story will reach across the divide and touch, or try to touch, every person who is listening and watching.

Many will get it, especially if they live in circumstances where people get falsely accused by the self-righteous; where the weak and vulnerable get mistreated by the powerful; where physical suffering is a daily occurrence; where death seems like the only next option.

That audience could well comprise the bulk of humanity — those who endure poverty, starvation, and violence of epic proportions, those who live in more prosperous lands and yet are the oppressed, the ignored, the expendable.

For that audience, the Gospel message is profoundly good news.

The Holy Week Journey

Crucifixion image,  Matt Gibson/ Shutterstock.com
Crucifixion image, Matt Gibson/ Shutterstock.com

“Liturgical celebration is a re-entrance of the Church into the event, and this means not merely its ‘idea,’ but its living and concrete reality.”

—Fr. Alexander Schmemann

You and I bring our life experiences with us when we gather with other Christ followers for worship. Everything that has happened to us on our pilgrimage in this world accompanies us, in fact, wherever we go.

Our past is part of what makes us unique persons. What we have endured and felt and accomplished informs our conversations and often helps determines our actions in the present moment. This is what it means to be human.

Fifty Days of Grace

HOW SHALL WE engage with scripture through all 50 days of Easter? There are clues in the haunting story of Jesus' appearance beside the sea of Tiberius. After Easter Day many of us are ready to let things quickly revert to normal. It is, strangely, both reassuring and uncomfortable to hear that those disciples, whose business had been fishing, wanted to get back to their boats so promptly after the horrors and wonders they had witnessed in Jerusalem.

Jesus is waiting for them by the shore with breakfast already cooking. All is ready, yet he wants them to bring some of what they haul up in their nets, so he can include samples of their own catch in the menu. And what a catch it was!

Easter is our time to experience the grace that is always ahead of our game and is underway for us before we are ready. Yet grace does not exclude what we bring to the table. Grace expects and includes the work of our hands, the weavings of our imaginations, and the gifts of our unique experiences. In one sense, Eastertide is more truly a season of repentance than is Lent. One thing we might need to repent of is our passivity—those times when we expect God to hand us on a plate the meaning we are hungry for. We need to bring our own bits to the cooking fire if we are to really eat with Jesus. It is part of the mix of grace that we must participate, not just receive.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.

[ April 7 ]
Trust But Verify
Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

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At the River We Stand

FROM THE RIVER to the rope. From the creek to the cross. From the dove and a "voice from above" to death by state execution and profound silence.

This is Lent. This is the Jesus Road, the Christian way. O Lord, how can we follow you?

Lent is time of remembering ourselves. In the ancient church, those preparing for baptism were publicly challenged: Do you renounce your bondage to Master Satan? Do you reject the slave-mind and all its glamour and subtle temptations? Will you allow Christ to buy your freedom?

The catechumen turned to face the east and the dawn, answering: "I give myself up to thee, O Christ, to be ruled by thy precepts."

It is Lent. We go down to the river to pray. We step into the waters of repentance. We surface as a new creature in Christ. From that moment onward, we imprint on Jesus. This is our survival strategy as newborn disciples. We follow him, like ducklings behind their mother.

After his baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus is driven straight out—into the unloved places, into the wilderness. There he is pricked by demons to toughen him up. He is being prepared. He must look into his own despair. Satan is the supreme surgeon for separating us from our hope.

This too is Lent. Staring into the face of our existential desperation. We also are being prepared, forced to release our grip on hope. All the life-scenes are smoky grey, splayed across canvas from an uncertain light source. How can we stand? We just do. We follow Jesus. Even if we do it with a thousand-yard stare.

We reach into our fast-ravaged gut and find bread to share. We mix honey and oil as a salve for the sores on the soles of the lost. We carry bitter tears to the house of the one who is weeping. We listen—even when all we hear is silence. And follow him.

"This, then, is our desert," writes Thomas Merton, "to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the Cross."

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House of Prayer and Dreams

A rendering of the reconstructed cathedral.

WE WERE LOOKING at cathedrals while others were mourning and burying their dead.

It was the first day of the international design competition that would help choose a few architectural plans that might be used to rebuild Notre Dame de l'Assomption, Our Lady of the Assumption, Port-au-Prince's most famous cathedral. This cathedral was so central to the city that, before it was leveled in the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, its turrets could be seen from most places in Port-au-Prince, as well as from the sea, where mariners used a light on the cupola of the church's north tower to help bring their ships home.

During the 2010 earthquake, the Catholic archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot, was killed inside an administrative building adjoining the cathedral, along with priests and parishioners. It was the images of their crushed bodies and their loved ones wailing around the perimeters of the cathedral's rubble that motivated me, a non-architect and non-Catholic—but a lover of cathedrals—to agree to join a development strategist, a preservationist architect, a structural engineer, a priest and liturgical consultant, the dean and associate dean of two architectural schools, and the editor of a magazine that discusses the dual issues of faith and architecture to help select three out of the 134 moving, elegant, and in some cases totally out-there designs that we had received from architects all over the world. Among the panelists, three of us were Haitian born, and many of the others had either worked in Haiti or in the Catholic Church for years.

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Second Line


Blindfolded and gagged, tossed in the back
of a car—it's how they gather up young men
and after tire irons and chains, leave some

lying in the road like dirt, rained on all night.
Some are bundled-up, tossed off a bridge
into the river whose muddy swirls warn:

kick, fight, breathe, twist your arms free.
Some do. They rise, spit out the rags
stuffed in their mouths, limp back to town,

and one begins to sing—slow at first— Lord,
I want to be in that number
... Another moans
a low muted tone where words won't go.

And there's a bridge from verse to verse,
where bodies rise out of thicket and ditch,
out of jail cell, ravine and watery grave,

where gone, invisible hands seem to lift
like drum sticks, and soul sax blood brass
begin to flow, a band improvising

resurrection, until the dead
take to the streets, a spirit insurrection,
dripping river muck and frayed rope—

with crow-pecked eyes, burnt flesh, charred bone,
they rise, every flown soul finding its way
back through troubled air to swell that song.

Betsy Sholl, former poet laureate of Maine, lives in Portland. Her most recent poetry collection is Rough Cradle (Alice James Books).

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From the Archives: April 1985

IN THE EARLY weeks of the Eastertide lectionary, there appears a series of texts from the third and fourth chapters of Acts ... Peter and John, on their way to temple prayers, heal a man begging at the beautiful gate. His joy begets a sermon from Peter on the resurrection, at the close of which the disciples are arrested and spend the night in jail. The next day in court they again testify boldly, refuse to comply with the court's order, and are released after calculated threats from the authorities. Their release prompts prayers of thanksgiving in the community.

It shouldn't be, but always is, a surprise that healing in the New Testament is cause for political trouble. It is for Jesus. His healings are carefully surveilled; they are the topic of elaborate "grand jury" investigations (John 9). More than eyebrows are raised; they conjure conflict and plottings against him. In John, it is the raising of Lazarus—the ultimate in healing miracles—that finally precipitates Jesus' arrest.

Why so? You'd almost be led to suspect that political authority rules by brokenness, infirmity, blindness, division, and by death itself. Authority over death would be an affront to any such rule.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann was a United Methodist pastor in Detroit and a Sojourners contributing editor when this article appeared.

Image: The stone being rolled away from the tomb, Cardens Design / Shutterstock.com

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'Memento Mori' and Living Today to the Fullest

Crucifixion image, Heather A. Craig / Shutterstock.com
Crucifixion image, Heather A. Craig / Shutterstock.com

I awoke in the middle of the night last evening and walked the house in the dark. Kenneth and Caitlin were still stirring, as the older children sometimes do on the weekend. As I climbed the stairs back to our room I felt a wave of gratitude.

Here we are all under one roof for who knows how much longer, yet such a privilege to still be together even as four of seven attend college and work hard and make us proud as they figure out what's next.

I got back into bed and Debbie put her arm around me in her sleep. I said "I love you," and she whispered, half-asleep "I love you, too," and for that moment all was well, and I had a sense that all would be well in the future, come what may.

As I lay there in the stillness, an encounter from five years ago came back to me in vivid color. I had just preached the funeral of a man taken unexpectedly following a routine surgery. I was at the wake afterward and sat next to an unassuming man in his mid-50s whose suit was impeccable and whose polite manners suggested a quiet grace and a bearing of humility in his obvious accomplishments, but also a bit of world-weariness.

The Scales of Rejoicing

"THIS IS THE LORD'S DOING; it is marvelous in our eyes. On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice in and be glad in it." We will be singing these words from Psalm 118 on Easter Sunday, and they pinpoint a critical issue in our religious witness. Do we have the courage to have God be the subject of sentences, or is God usually the object of our reflections? There is a difference. Do we make ourselves really the subject of our sentences, so that religion is about our doings and ideas and needs? The scriptures insistently talk about what God did and is doing and will do in Christ, the crucified and risen one. Our role is to rejoice in the way God acts upon us, with us, around us, behind us, above us, ahead of us, through us.

Praise is the litmus test. If God is experienced as the one who is acting, the impulse to praise is inevitable. This may help us understand the importance of the psalms in our lectionary. They aren't mere supplementary devotions. As supreme words of praise, they test the authenticity of our reactions to the good news. They test and they can train. The psalter is the church's manual to help practice the "scales of rejoicing," to borrow a phrase from W.H. Auden's "Christmas Oratorio." A phrase on Auden's tombstone comes back to me: "In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise." The psalms come to life only where this teaching is taken seriously.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.

[ March 3 ]
Singled Out for God's Punishment
Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

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Sleeper Awake!

IN THE TITLE song of Aimee Wilson's new album, Unto Us the Sun, the music begins soft and gentle, like a slight shaft of light breaking over the morning horizon. Gradually the song intensifies, both instrumentally and vocally, until it reaches an almost ecstatic crescendo—a musical embodiment of the process she lyrically portrays of the subtleties of nature opening up its unspeakable beauty, a grand chorus of creation praising its Creator. It is also hardly incidental that the song evokes biblical language of resurrection, while both the title and images such as "tender as the shoot" subtly hint at the presence of Christ—not a heavy-handed doctrinal Christ, but the saving incarnation of a loving God.

Wilson is part of a remarkable network of young, spiritually rooted musicians (such as the Psalters) who are fashioning a very new and dynamic musical language of radical faith—a faith that is searching, exploring the edges of experience, probing human hurts and joys as well as divine mysteries and manifestations. Wilson's personal journey has taken her from the hills of her native Tennessee to inner-city Philadelphia. Her songs cover a range of moods, many reflecting her mystical apprehension of God's presence in creation. Other songs, drawing on her experience working with women who have struggled with homelessness and mental illness, convey the power of grace amid human brokenness.

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