[I originally posted the following on Easter 2003 when we were still living in northeast Pennsylvania. Aiden, our oldest, was seven months old. The friend with whom I exchanged the included emails is now one of my best friends and co-pastors.]
It's Easter, and in a few hours Amy and I will put on our Easter best (or we'll put on clothes anyway) and go celebrate the resurrection of God's Son with other believers in our community at Parker Hill. That's a good thing to celebrate; the best thing, really. I just have this sense that many of us are only tuned into to half of the story. Some may think the following thoughts would have been more appropriate to post on Good Friday, and maybe that's true. Only they weren't written until very late on Friday (early Saturday, actually), so that wasn't possible and I don't feel like saving them for a year. Besides, I think it's about more than Friday or Sunday, or any particular time of year. Our faith isn't seasonal, or at least it shouldn't be. The Easter remembrance is an appropriate time for this sort of focus, but I think this has as much to do with who we are and what we believe as it does with how we feel one Friday a year.
A friend sent me an email at about 1 am on Saturday that included the following thought:
By this time 2000 years ago, Jesus had been dead for several hours, and the disciples were freaking out.
That image really resonated with me, and I replied this way:
Your reminder about what was happening 2000 years ago is deep and meaningful for me, which is how I'm sure you meant it. I've really been in that moment tonight more than ever before, and your brief reflection on it is all the more real after what we experienced earlier tonight. Our church had a communion service, and it was basically a funeral. I know some people use the descriptor "funeral" to disparage certain lifeless worship services, but that's not how I mean it. This was intentional and necessary. The mood was purposefully somber, and we were encouraged to begin quietly reflecting on the cross and Christ's death from the moment we entered the building.
One of our pastors began by opening a newspaper and reading excerpts from the obituaries. He said that reading about all those dead people didn't affect him much because he didn't really know them. The paper was from his hometown, so he recognized a couple of names, but none of them meant anything to him. Then he went back to the paper and read a woman's name with the same last name as him – his mother. He said this: "The effect Jesus' death has on us is proportional to the depth of our relationship with Him." Indeed. If we're able to breeze by Friday in the Easter weekend without being deeply affected by the cross and by Christ's death, it's like flipping through an obituary with names of people we don't really know. For the Christ follower, "Good Friday" should have the kind of effect it had on him [my pastor] to see his Mom's name listed among the dead. He insisted that we not move on to Sunday too soon; that we live in the reality of Jesus' death for the next two days.
The imagery of the funeral was very powerful to me tonight. As it relates to Jesus, we've all done the birthday parties, wedding, feasts, and resurrection celebration, but why haven't we ever done His funeral? The resurrection is ultimately what gives us life, but it's life from death. The resurrection required the crucifixion. Our obsession with the end game has obscured devastation and grief over the death of Christ so that we consider it sacrilege to ruminate on His death without tying it up with the happy ending. We didn't do that tonight. I don't believe there was any mention of the word "resurrection" except to encourage a regathering on Sunday for that celebration. Death was enough tonight, and it was okay to mourn. We left as quietly and as somber as we came. I think that's good. I think God is pleased for us to be grief-stricken over the death of His only Son.
And yeah, you're right about the disciples freaking out at this point 2000 years ago. I was reading in Matthew tonight trying to imagine what all of this was like for them. Jesus seemed to speak so matter of factly about what was going to happen in the days leading up to Passover, but I think those cats were clueless as to what was about to go down. Although we always get to make fun of Peter's foible in insisting that he'd never forsake Jesus, I was noticing the bandwagonish description of the rest of the disciples in that passage. Jesus tells them that they'll all fall away and be scattered like sheep, and Peter jumps out front and swears he'll die before he denies Him…"and all the disciples said the same thing too." These guys were either terrified or totally lost or both.
And I think your focus on their reaction a few hours after Jesus died goes to the heart of experiencing his death. We gloss over the reality of him being dead because we have this simultaneous propositional teaching that the resurrection came three short days later. For people living 2000 years after the fact, three days has absolutely no meaning. No big deal – he went down for a few days, then he was back on the scene and we're all good to go. I don't think we have even a marginal understanding of the fact that He didn't go to sleep for a few days…He wasn't in a coma…He wasn't laying low, hanging out in Joseph of Arimathea's luxurious rock cave drawing up organizational charts and strategic plans for the early Church on the walls until Sunday.
He was DEAD.
You had people who had given their entire lives to following Him (in ways that none of us can begin to relate to, really) who were suddenly left with a dead body.
How do we follow a dead guy?
He had told them He would be back, but it's clear they didn't know how to begin believing that in any tangible way.
My inability to comprehend what that was like is pathetic. I'm trying to get into that world and experience that loss with them, but I'm not even close. Amy has a friend from grad school who just found out about three months ago that his one-year old son had a rare, terminal form of cancer. This week, only ten weeks after the diagnosis, he died. We found out yesterday, and it was pretty emotional because it's so personal to imagine watching our baby die. Thinking about the pain and loss they must be feeling literally makes me ache to my bones, and I don't even know them and can't begin to taste the depth of their suffering. It's as bad as anything I can imagine. As I think on the death of Christ, that's what I'm thinking about. This is something that we need to feel more deeply, I think.