All that We Forgot
A Meditation on Luke 24: 1 – 12
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019
Will there be resurrection? That is my burning question when I attend a performance of either of those fabulously 1970’s musicals Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar. Will there be resurrection? That was my curiosity as I attended a performance of Godspell last weekend hosted by the Actors’ Charitable Theater. Godspell is inspired by the Gospel of Matthew, with a little bit of Luke and John in the mix. Jesus is primarily a storyteller and rabbi rather than a miracle worker. He is the one who strips away all the pretenses of living a holy life to reveal its gritty truth. I would have been a little shocked if the director hadn’t found some way to bring Jesus back; this is the Bible belt after all. And the beautiful thing about theater is that everyone always comes back – for the curtain call. The dead will always return to join the living hand in hand. If it were only so simple as getting up off the floor, or removing some makeup or changing a costume. Rather than will there be resurrection, the better question may be: what form of resurrection?
Once the actors reach the crucifixion scene, in either Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar, you find yourself longing for something more. “Don’t let it end here,” you think to yourself. It is the pain of Good Friday without the hope of Easter morning. There are innumerable possibilities for Godspell’s ending. The film version of Godspell, with New York City landmarks as its backdrop, concludes with the cast carrying Jesus’ limp body away from their parking lot hangout into the unaware and noisy crowds. As you watch, something unexpected happens: the disciples’ emotions move from sorrow to joy, though their rabbi’s body shows no signs of life. Jesus remains dead, but his disciples have encountered life. The ACT’s production had Jesus triumphantly reemerging out of the depths of an enormous white banner that rippled across the stage, reminiscent of the brightness of Easter’s dawn. And I would say it was a relief to see Jesus restored, beaming from ear to ear. “Is there a “right” ending?” I wondered. How did the writers intend for their play to be interpreted and what are we to do with resurrection?
Stephen Schwartz, who composed the music and penned the lyrics described his vision: Godspell is about the formation of a community based on Jesus’ teachings. It is about the effect Jesus had on the people who followed him. Instead of a dramatic resurrection moment, the audience witnesses the body of Christ being carried out into the world. It feels uncomfortable. He is not breathing. He has not returned… and yet he has. They carry the unsettling yet nurturing body of Christ, the reassuring yet disturbing presence of Christ, the life-giving yet confounding teachings of Christ, out into the world.[i] They have become the face of Christ in the world. And an ending becomes a beginning.
The last shall be first. The hungry shall be fed. The lost shall be found. The sinner shall be forgiven.
In the gospels, the disciples interpreted the crucifixion as the ending scene. It had to be. Death is final. Death changes everything. No matter how many ways Jesus had explained what would happen to him, they couldn’t believe it. Crucifixion is the end, and if crucifixion is the end, then resurrection must be the beginning of a new story.But only if you want a new story. If you are ready for a new story. If you are brave enough to turn the page.
Jesus’ friends would have had a much simpler future if Jesus had stayed in the tomb. If he had just stayed where they had put him, everything would have been fine. The fishermen could go back to their fishing, which they did. They weren’t any better at it than they had been before they met Jesus. That hadn’t changed. The others could go back to their professions. The women could go back to the lives they had known. They could anoint his body with spices, and return home to knead the dough, and gather the eggs, and care for the family. Everything would have been fine and normal. But who wants to settle for “fine?”
Could it be that one emotion his followers were forced to recognize was a guilty sense of relief over his death? The death of a loved one throws us into a maelstrom of emotions. Grief, of course. But we may also feel lost. There is confusion and anger. But sometimes there is also relief, and I can’t help but wonder if somewhere, deep down, there was an infinitesimal sense of relief for Jesus’ disciples. “Let us mourn and wail and grieve, but let us allow Jesus’ body to rest.” Who would have blamed Jesus’ followers for experiencing that secret thought?
Life with Jesus had been anything but easy. No place to call home. Dependence upon the generosity of others for basic necessities. It isn’t a lifestyle you and I choose. They traveled with a man whom people alternately worshiped and feared. How many nights did they toss and turn, wrestling with the temptation to go back to their ordinary lives? And once he had been killed, it was the moment of decision for them…and for us. His death would be the ending that help the promise of a beginning.
Grief can cause us to forget so many things. Our brains become clouded and fuzzy. Even doing simple, ordinary tasks become monumental. It is no surprise then, that Jesus’ followers had become forgetful. They had forgotten how he had opened their eyes to more expansive ways of loving, deeper ways of forgiving. They had forgotten how he had taught them to see with holy vision, how to listen with a sacred and compassionate ear.
They had also forgotten the very clear words he had spoken about his death because they had not wanted to hear them. But in his persecution and death he would fully embody God’s empathy, mercy and grace. The thief on the cross beside him understood this. The soldier at his feet did, too. Their awareness and salvation were swift and complete.
For his disciples, those who had eaten with him and walked beside him and sat around an evening fire while he spoke of the kingdom of heaven, they would need a little time. They already knew the realities of disciple living. They knew what Guatemalan poet, theologian and peace activist Julia Esquivel refers to as the “threat of resurrection.” While “exiled during the Guatemalan civil war- a conflict that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people, the vast majority of them indigenous to the land,”[ii] Esquivel coined this powerful phrase, “the threat of resurrection.”
“When Esquivel wrote her poem, part of what she had in mind was that faithful discipleship in her native Guatemala was a very risky enterprise, that things would be much simpler and safer if one were not impelled by the resurrection to oppose injustice, oppression, and all forms of evil. The full message of Easter is both of joy and of challenge. It is the announcement of unequaled and final victory, and the call to radical, dangerous, and even painful discipleship.”[iii]
Hear Esquivel’s words:
They have threatened us with Resurrection,
Because they do not know life (poor things!)…
Join us in this vigil
And you will know what it is to dream!
Then you will know how marvelous it is
To live threatened with Resurrection!
To dream awake,
To keep watch asleep,
To live while dying,
To know ourselves already
Crucifixion is not the ending. Resurrection is not the ending. Resurrection is the beginning of everything complicated and mysterious and wild. It is the promise that all of this disciple living has purpose and fulfillment. But the tomb might as well contain a corpse if we refuse to allow resurrection to change us, expand us, renew us.
And so, with the theologian Walter Bruggeman, let us pray that God will
Easter us in honesty;
Easter us in fear;
Easter us in joy;
And let us
be Eastered. Amen.[v]
[i] Andrews, Rusty. http://www.musicalschwartz.com/godspell-notes-from-directors1.htm
[ii] Jarvis, Cynthia and Johnson, Elizabeth, eds. Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Vol. 2
[iii] Gonzalez, Justo, Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible
[iv] Esquivel, Julia; “They Have Threatened Us with Resurrection,” http://gatheringinlight.com/2012/04/06/they-have-threatened-us-with-resurrection-1980-by-julia-esquivel/
[v] Bruggemann, Walter, “We are Baffled,” Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth.