Why Do You Look for the Living among the Dead?

Review Holy Week:

Palm Sunday street theater parade while Pilate enters on the other side of town. Which parade have we joined? Not easy to be in Jesus’ parade, as Peter found out on Maundy Thursday. Sam Rennebohm last week invited us to stare in the face all the challenges of our time and our individual lives and dare to rejoice nonetheless—as Jesus and the disciples did coming into Jerusalem.

We can keep asking ourselves, Which parade have we joined? There are no bystanders. After Krystallnacht in 1938, when the Nazis’ oppression of the Jews became unmistakable, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked, “How long, O God, shall I be a bystander?” (H. Stephen Shoemaker, Feasting on the Word, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 181)


Maundy Thursday: farewell at Last Supper. No longer about Jesus being in his one body but about sharing Christ’s body, through communion (co-union—with Christ and with each other), to do the work of God in the world. Peter on trial: panics, denies Jesus. Jesus on trial: remains steadfast.

Easter: The story was supposed to be over now. Anoint his body, grieve, and then … ? Disperse? Go back to their old lives? What? But that’s not what happened.

Fact vs. truth: We don’t know what happened, whether resurrection played out this way. What we do know is that the story didn’t end, and when these gospels were written some decades later, they had to convey that Jesus died and that still didn’t shut him up. It just shifted the work into other incarnations of the divine, aka the disciples. So we don’t get hung up on the details; instead, we seek the truth of resurrection. And the only reason we even keep talking about resurrection is if we’re exploring how this story has any bearing on our lives today, 20 centuries later.


Nancy Claire Pittman writes

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angelic figures say to the tops of the women’s heads. We are just as guilty of such a fruitless search. We too want to tend the corpses of long dead ideas and ideals. We cling to former visions of ourselves and our churches as if they might come back to life as long as we hold on to them. We grasp our loved ones too tightly, refusing to allow them to change, to become bigger, or smarter, or stronger. We choose to stay with what we know in our hearts to be dead, because it is safe, malleable, and so susceptible to burnishing through private memory. The words of the unworldly messengers are a challenge to stop hanging on to the dead and to move into new life. They are reminders that the Holy One dwells wherever new life bursts forth. [Nancy Claire Pittman, Feasting on the Word, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 351.]


Pittman again:

Resurrection . . . is an invitation to live as Jesus lived, a doorway to a life in which meals are shared with enemies, healing is offered to the hopeless, prophetic challenges are issued to the powerful. Only now it is not Jesus who does these things—it is we ourselves who see at last the subversive power of the resurrection in order to live it now. [Ibid., 353.]


“The subversive power of the resurrection.” Jesus came preaching the subversive message of God’s love and grace for everyone, and that was such a threat that the people chose to have Pilate release a prisoner who was in for insurrection and murder. Jesus’ ministry was more of a threat than that. This is powerful stuff.


The Rev. Benjamin Cremer writes,


We want the war horse.

Jesus rides a donkey.


We want the eagle.

The Holy Spirit descends as a dove.


We want to take up swords.

Jesus takes up a cross.


We want the roaring lion.

God comes as a slaughtered lamb.


We keep trying to arm God.

God keeps trying to disarm us.


The Book of Revelation creates a vision of Christ riding in on a cloud with a double-edged sword to mete out justice and judgment. But the Christ we meet in the four gospels is not like that at all. Instead, we get the bastard son of an unwed mother from Nazareth—Nazareth, such an out of the way wide spot in the road in remote Galilee that it’s not even mentioned in the Old Testament. We get, not Pax Romana—peace through military oppression—but Pax Christi, the peace of love and inclusion, grace, forgiveness, salvation for all. Note that this kind of love is so radical and such a threat to the powers that be that they choose to release Barabbas—accused of insurrection and murder—rather than this nonviolent preacher and healer. This is the power let loose in the world through Jesus’ life and death and resurrection in all who bear witness, all who choose to follow this parade, all who are willing, like Jesus, to pour out their lives in the service of the greater good.


Here are two stories of people living into the resurrection.

Christian Chavarria Ayala of El Salvador paints crosses. Lots of crosses. As of 2016, he had painted over 130,000 of them. They hang in the offices or homes of bishops and former presidents all over the world. His crosses have spread to over 100 countries. One was given to Pope Francis. When he was a child in a time of civil war, soldiers raided his home. They saw that he was painting white doves—a sign of peace and resistance during a time of war. He had to say they were not doves. After he lost two siblings to the fighting, Christian and his mother fled to Honduras, where they lived in the woods and later in a prison-like refugee camp. She managed to send him to Sweden for school, and for the first time in his life, he knew what it was to be free. He was a foreigner, but he wasn’t pursued by gangs or soldiers.


Eventually Chavarria returned to El Salvador. He paints these crosses as a sign of resistance to evil and oppression. On the one that he painted in 2016 for the Lutheran and Catholic joint commemoration of the Reformation, he depicts God’s hands holding the Earth. Doves fly throughout, as a symbol not just of peace but of resistance. White doves were forbidden in paintings during the civil war. This cross also shows Christ sitting at the communion table, inviting all to come. People of all colors mingle freely and joyfully. Grape vines weave through the base of the cross as a reminder that Christ is the true vine.

The crosses he paints tell of the hope for a different world than the one he lives in.

“The situation here is like a dark cross which we carry every day, but we have to transform it” the artist says. “We make crosses with strong colors, to show the beauty of God’s creation. The cross must not remind you that Jesus died on it, but that he died and has risen. It is a symbol of life for us.”

Of the Lund cross, he points to the [fact] all people of the world are represented. “Despite their race, culture, skin color or age, they are together and invited to the table of the Lord.” 

[The Salvadoran Cross | The Lutheran World Federation]


Here is a second story of someone living into resurrection.


Gary Brown was arrested during the Clinton Administration in the 1990s for some drug issue. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. On his sentencing papers, his release date said “deceased.” That was his low point.

From this hopeless place, Gary kept faith. He used his time at the Lorence Correctional Facility in Colorado to mentor young people; he didn’t want them to repeat his same mistakes. He also led anger management classes, rescripting his story even while in the valley of the shadow of death. After serving 26 years, against all odds, Gary was granted clemency. After his release, Gary would find ETC [Exodus Transitional Community, which works with people impacted by the criminal justice system] and work his way into management, living a powerful story of liberation and resilience. [Jose Humphreys III, Sojourners, May 2022, 51:5, 17.]


We choose our parade—Pilate or Jesus, Pax Romana and oppression or Pax Christi and liberation. We answer the invitation to participate in communion, to become one with Christ’s body and to carry forward Christ’s work and way in the world. We celebrate resurrection, not as a denial of death but as a statement of faith in God’s ongoing presence and our hope that we, with Christ, can work for the inclusion and liberation of all of creation. Christ is risen—in us. Hallelujah!

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