coming back to life.

24 Apr

Coming Back to Life – an Easter Sermon

Delivered at First Unitarian Church on April 24, 2011

Listen to part one and part two of this service.

We can piece together the details of the crucifixion from the various gospels of the New Testament even though they don’t entirely agree with one another. They tell us that Jesus was brought to the “Place of a Skull” to be crucified and a man named Simon carried the cross for him. Jesus was crucified with two thieves, with the charge of claiming to be “King of the Jews.” The gathered crowd mocked Jesus, and the soldiers divided his clothes. When Jesus died, he called out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!” or, variably “It is finished.” A soldier pierced Jesus’s side with a sword after his death, before the body was removed from the cross. Joseph of Arimathea requested the body from Pilate, which Joseph then placed in a new garden tomb.

Of course, the story does not end with the death of Jesus. As it was foretold, Jesus was resurrected after three days.

As is the case with the crucifixion, the gospels give various accounts of the resurrection.

The gospel of Matthew claims that Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” went to see the tomb, and there was a great earthquake. An angel came, rolled the stone back, sat on it, and told them that Jesus was not there. He showed them the empty tomb and sent them to spread the news. But before they had gotten very far, Jesus appeared to them.

The gospel of Mark shares that the women were at the tomb in order to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. They were wondering how they were going to get into the tomb, when they saw that the stone had already been rolled away. The angel was waiting for them in the tomb. Again, Jesus appeared to the women first, but the male apostles didn’t believe them until Jesus appeared to them as well.

The gospel of Luke follows Mark, except that there were two angels, and they appeared to the women just outside the tomb.

The gospel of John doesn’t mention any angels at first. Mary Magdalene appeared at the tomb, saw that it was empty, and rushed to tell the others. When they all ran to the tomb to check it out, the angel appeared and told them not to fear. Jesus then appeared to Mary Magdalene, but she did not recognize him at first.

The gospels also describe various appearances that Jesus made over the course of 40 days after his resurrection. There was an appearance to the apostles in an upper room, where Thomas did not believe it was actually Jesus until Thomas was invited to put his finger into the holes in Jesus’ hands and side. Jesus also appeared on the Road to Emmaus, where again, he was not recognized by his apostles until well into the appearance. The resurrected Jesus also appeared beside the Sea of Galilee to encourage Peter to serve his followers. His final appearance was when he ascended into heaven.

This is the story as it is told in the various Christian Scriptures. And yet there are many aspects to the story that remain unaddressed. For instance – what was it like for Jesus to awaken from the dead? Was he in the tomb? What were those first moments of realization like? How did he decide to proceed, once he realized his situation? What was it like for him, having returned from the dead?

These questions remain unanswered in all the scriptures. And yet I believe that these questions address some of the core aspects of the resurrection that are applicable to us today. What might the experience of Jesus’s coming back to life have to teach us today?

Understanding, for me, comes from a variety of different places. In these questions about the particular experience of Jesus coming back to life, I find insight in a different savior story – a more contemporary story – the story of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as told through storyteller Joss Whedon. I believe that when we look at the question of the experience of Jesus in his resurrection, and compare it alongside the experience of Buffy, we can learn some important things about what it means to metaphorically come back to life.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Prophecy of the Slayer states, “Into every generation a Slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their numbers. She is the Slayer.” Buffy Summers, of Sunnydale, is the slayer for our generation, and she saves the world time after time again. So often that it becomes a richly exploited cliché.

In the finale for the fifth season, Buffy commits the ultimate sacrifice necessary to save the world by offering her life in the place of anothers, and she dies. Her body is buried in a traditional grave.

The start of the next season presents a sad state of the world. Unlike Jesus, Buffy has been gone for a while – It has been five months since she died. Life has gone on for the residents of Sunnydale. Just as the apostles began to fall apart at the death of Jesus, so too do Buffys friends, the Scoobies, fall apart as they try to continue Buffy’s mission. They need their leader, their guiding star, the one with the super-powers who held them together. Demons are overrunning Sunnydale after the death of the slayer, and the world is falling apart. So they do some magic to bring her back to life, thinking that she will appear before them, magically unharmed, the way they remember her. But the spell is interrupted and so they don’t think it has worked. They are forlorn.

Meanwhile, a very confused Buffy awakens in her body, in the casket, in the ground. There is no angel to roll away the stone to let her out, but then, the gospels disagreed on this anyway. Buffy awakens in the dark, scared and suffocating. Thanks to her special powers, she is able to claw her way out of the grave. She wanders around the town that has been taken over by demons, confused and scared, like a wild animal.

When she appears to her friends, Buffy is not the same. Again, echoing the resurrection of Jesus, only one of the Scoobies, her dearest friend Willow, recognizes her. Buffy returns to the scene of her death and Willow is afraid for her. Will she try to sacrifice herself once again? But Buffy does not and memories of her life return to her as she stands there, confused and bewildered.

Returning to the world of the living, Buffy now has to face both the mythical and the mundane realities of being alive – there are bills that have not been paid, her beloved mentor has left town, and things have fallen apart in her absence – not to mention the demons taking over the town.
Once again, it is Buffy’s responsibility to set things right. It is a heavy burden. But Buffy has a secret, and the secret must come out – as they usually do. The secret is that she was in heaven before she was brought back. “There was no pain, no fear nor doubt, till they took me out.” Her friends, she says, took her out of heaven, and brought her back to a world filled with pain and suffering, and they expected her to save them, and the world, once again. I bet she wished she could ascend back into heaven, the way Jesus had, after only forty days.

So what might the Buffy story teach us about Jesus’ experience of coming back to life, and what might both these stories have to teach us today?

First, this is not the story of rebirth. Rebirth implies something cyclical in nature – the flowers returning after the cold of winter. Though there are many parallels between the story of Jesus and the god of neo-paganism, whose lifecycle is represented in the wheel of the year, on this point they are very different: the neo-pagan god is reborn as an infant, to start a new life from scratch, whereas when Jesus dies, he returns as an adult in a very unnatural manner. People around him have certain expectations, and he can’t just start over. Metaphorically, the story of Jesus is not the story of rebirth we may experience upon retirement, or in a new relationship, or upon finding our vocation. Resurrection comes after a death. We die to our old life, and yet when we come back, we still have our old life hanging over us. We may have been in the land of the dead for a short time, or a long time. The longer we have been gone, perhaps, the more difficulty we have coming back, as the mundane realities demand our attention. Coming back to life is not clean and neat, but messy, and confusing. Possibly even overwhelming.

Second, I think we can know that coming back to life is not easy. It took magic to bring Buffy back, and then she had to claw her way out, confused. The gospels disagree on what happened with Jesus. But at some point, the stone in front of the tomb is rolled back, and Jesus is not there. Where is he? How did he emerge from the tomb? Is he struggling to remember who he is? Wondering why he came back? Like Buffy, did he return to the scene of his death, puzzled?

This is what we do when we come back to life: we look back at what it was that killed us. We return again and again to that painful place even as we are trying to climb out of it. Whether dealing with the death of a loved one, awakening from depression, emerging from some other trauma, we don’t just magically get up one day and are all better, as much as we may wish it were so. While there might be angels to help us – usually in the form of beloved family and friends – the best they can do is support us in our process, they can’t do it for us. Coming back to life is a struggle – and sometimes we have to claw our way out. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by excruciating day.

The third thing we know about coming back to life is that it is painful. In the novel Beloved, by Toni Morrison, Sethe is pregnant, a slave, and is running away from Sweet Home. She collapses on the side of the road, more than half dead. When all hope is about lost, she receives unexpected aid from a poor white girl named Amy. Amy helps Sethe to a lean-to and massages her damaged feet, telling Sethe to endure the pain because “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” Think about it: whenever we have an injury, the healing process is irritating at best, painful at worst.

Return to the story of Jesus again, for a moment. He had had a crown of thorns crushed onto his head, he had been nailed to a cross through his hands and feet. A sword had been thrust into his side. And when he came back, these wounds weren’t magically healed! His apostles were able to put their hands into them, to feel them. The wounds were not even scarred over. Though the gospels don’t talk about this part, imagine what it might have felt like to Jesus, to have his friends touch his wounds in this way. It had to hurt.

Buffy was ripped out of heaven and returned to a world filled with suffering and pain. It was too much for her, so even though she was alive physically, she shut down emotionally. She wanted, desperately, to live, to feel the fiery passion of life, but the fire just froze her – she looked into it and saw darkness. She was dead inside. It was not until she allowed herself to begin to feel the pain – to talk about and process her experience with her friends – that she began to come back to life emotionally. Coming back to life is a painful process, and it hurts.

Finally, when we come back to life, we are not the same person we were before we died. Addicts in recovery know that they have to change who they were, all their habits. Emerging from the initial grief of the death of a loved one, we are changed by the process. Someone who suffers a major health crisis may come back with a different lifestyle, and maybe even physical changes that make them unrecognizable.

Only Willow recognizes Buffy when she comes back initially, but Buffy’s coming back process is long, and it means that her personality is virtually unrecognizable for an entire season of the show. She struggles as she tries to find her new self, her new place in the world. Jesus is also not recognized – in two of the different narratives. And though he appears to his apostles multiple times, he is not described as hanging out with them anymore. He is different – set apart.

We come back as different people – stronger, perhaps, but not always. Often confused as we try to find our new place in life. Sometimes, we come back with an awareness of the sacredness of life, but not always. When Buffy finally embraced the pain, she began to heal and found deep strength and compassion in her role as the slayer. Jesus, in his appearances, seemed more convinced about his own role in God’s story – he spoke less in parables and more in concrete urgencies. When we make it, when we survive the coming back to life process, we are not the same people we were when we died. We may have different priorities, different habits, a different understanding and experience of the meaning of life and our place in it.

This is what the story of Easter can teach us as we imagine the experience of the resurrection through Jesus’s perspective: That there is a difference between coming back to life and rebirth; That coming back to life is not easy; That it is an excruciatingly painful process; and that it changes us. In at least these ways, this timeless story has something to teach us all, even today.

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