Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
April 26, 2009
Last night, I read a sermon I preached ten years ago. It was from a Sunday a few weeks after the tragic killings at Columbine High School. I had been on vacation myself the week of those terrible shootings so I had the advantage of a few more days to gather my thoughts before speaking about it publicly. Now, ten years later, I’m not sure my thoughts about that sad, sad day are any clearer than they were then. How could they be, given that there have been 31 school shootings in the past ten years since Columbine, resulting in 87 fatalities. Aren’t those staggering numbers - an average of three school shootings per school year in the United States? It reminds me of the lines from The Four Quartets, written by T.S. Eliot:
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness. I have said before
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations—not forgetting
Something that is probably quite ineffable:
The backward look behind the assurance
Of recorded history, the backward half-look
Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.
“We had the experience but missed the meaning.” Truer words… I wonder if the disciples had a similar sentiment on their minds after Jesus’ death – knowing that something monumental had happened to them, to the world even, only they couldn’t quite get their hands around it, couldn’t turn it into something meaningful, let alone transformative. They’d had the experience but the meaning, the meaning of it all eluded them, that is until Jesus came back to them after his death.
The resurrection stories in Matthew, Luke, and John are so filled with symbolism and mystery and strange details, their meaning is all but lost to a Church so hungry for magic, it can scarcely see meaning on the one hand and so mystery-averse, it reduces everything to formulas, recipes, and rituals of process. Is it true? Did Jesus appear to the disciples as the gospel writers described it? as they wanted us to believe it happened? Jesus came to the disciples in an Upper Room and breathed peace on them. Jesus appeared in a garden “while the dew is still on the roses”. Jesus appeared at breakfast on the shore, asking Peter questions about love and trust. Jesus told Thomas to put his hand in the wound on his side and into the holes of his palms and feet. Jesus walked along the dusty road to Emmaus with two disciples who didn’t recognize him. Jesus, stranger, friend, forgiving the disciples for their betrayal, for their obtuseness, their anguish at his violent death, interpreted for them the Scriptures and things that had happened in light of the Scriptures. Yes, they had the experience, but it was Jesus who told them what it meant, in retrospect.
Columbia Seminary New Testament scholar David Bartlett has written, “we are reminded that the difference between Christians and non-Christians is not that we see different things but that we see the same things differently.” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XII, Abingdon Press, Nashville, p.268) So when Jesus interpreted the events of his life to his disciples, he was asking them to see those experiences differently, through the lenses not only of his eventual betrayal and execution, but through the lenses of trust in God, that ineffable experience of calm, of reassurance, of serenity when there is no visible, tangible reason to trust.
If Dr. Bartlett is right, our Christian faith, built on these few, odd stories about Jesus and his grieving disciples after his death, means that we look upon the events of, say, Columbine High School and all thirty-one school shootings since then - we look upon the matters of consequence and heartbreak affecting and damaging human life, the same matters upon which non-believers cast their gaze, and we see them differently. We do not see different matters. We see the same matters differently. But how?
Some Christians see history as episodes leading to God’s final judgment, whether on earth or in heaven, a kind of Armageddon, or Rapture. Others see historical events as merely moments on the path of human history into which God does not intervene, except through the work of those who interpret God’s will and seek to apply it to the course of human history. Still others mentally throw up their hands as if to say, it’s in God’s hands, what can we do? a kind of faithless fatalism. And still others look at human history as a series of lessons from which we either learn or, more likely, don’t learn so as to change course before other similar tragedies and mistakes occur. And still others look at history and faith as if looking at slide rules and apples. And still others look at history as something to be transcended or even perhaps forgiven. Wasn’t that the purpose of Robert S. McNamara’s amazing book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Viet Nam (Random House Publishers, 1995)? “We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong.”
There is no one right Christian way to view history though there are hundreds of wrong ways. The resurrection appearance stories do not record what Jesus actually said to his disciples when he interpreted the events that led to his death (don’t you wish he had?) only that he gave those experiences meaning. Both this story I read moments ago, and the story of Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus, also told by Luke, describe encounters between disciples and Jesus during which Jesus “opened their minds”. He opened their minds.
One final point this morning, and then we’ll be done with the resurrection stories until next year, next Easter, when their confusing and magnificent mystery will be met again. Luke wrote that Jesus appeared to his disciples after his death several times. Luke told us that during those appearances, Jesus opened their minds to the understanding of the scriptures and interpreted for them the events of their lives together. Jesus said to them, “peace be with you”. He broke bread with them. Then, Luke tells us, Jesus vanished. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I think one of the most difficult dimensions of the Easter stories is not that Jesus appeared to his disciples but that he then disappeared again from their sight. And they were left to carry on, to try to figure out what they would do the next day, and the next week, and the next month and the next century. You see, the difficult part about living as a Christian, is not looking back, not having retrospective moments, but rather, turning back again from the past to the future, and, having had the experience and NOT missed the meaning, go on to change the world. In retrospect is just the first and frankly easier step. More difficult and more importantly is to turn forward and say, “now then…” Amen.