Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The View From Easter

"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."  (John 12:24)

Our society does not like that message at all, and yet it is the core of the Gospel.  According to our dominant social values, the purpose of life is to accumulate things and pursue pleasure.  This is hardly a new thing under the sun - people have pursued such goals for thousands of years, but we have elevated it to an art form.  In the process we have exalted greed, calling it "ambition;" we have erased common morality, calling it "realism;" we have applauded naked aggression, calling it "drive."  In pursuit of such goals we have been willing to look the other way when corners are cut; we have been willing to tolerate the demands of employers who require loyalty to job ahead of family; and we have been willing to resign ourselves to the inevitability of the situation.

Into this climate the words of Jesus come, calling us to another set of values.  “Those who want to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35)  “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:31)  The words hit our numbed modern ears, and seem strange.  Or quaint.  Or naive.  And yet, the words call us to something that seems familiar.  Often we can't quite place it - a tune we heard once and were transported, a comment that spoke sanity in the midst of chaos, a principle of living that made sense of apparent absurdity. 

There is a principle here.  The English novelist Charles Williams referred to it as "The Great Exchange - my life for your life".  He saw it as integral to the very structure of the universe: the vision of the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world, made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, visible in his life, his ministry, his death, his resurrection, but also in the workings of nature and human nature.

Williams restated for our time that which Jesus taught at every opportunity - that the visible, material universe, in which we believe ourselves to be so much at home, relies for its very existence on a spiritual framework, a kind of infrastructure, that gives it shape and form and substance.

Jesus looked at the society of his time, and found there the same corrupting elements that are so troubling in our own.  He saw a society on the edge of collapse, in large measure because of the pursuit of the same goals and purposes that trouble us.  He saw the desperate desire of men and women to secure their material existence leading them into practices that destroyed their spirits, and in the end failed their material goals as well.  He saw them enslaved by false goals and objectives, and in desperate need of being released from their bondage.  He predicted that their failure to change this orientation would lead to their destruction, and his prediction was fulfilled within the lifetime of most of his hearers, as the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, and sent her people into exile.

And so he taught them with simple, earthy analogies.  The hoarded grain spoils and goes rotten.  The planted grain bears fruit.  Life spent on behalf of others has meaning that transcends the material circumstances of life.  People mean more than things.  Accomplishments are always replaced - acts of love leave a permanent mark.  These are not ideals, he said, they are the spiritual physics upon which the universe runs.

The weeks from Easter to Pentecost provide us an opportunity to sense these principles, and reflect upon what they mean.  They give us a chance to think about the ultimate questions, and in the events remembered we can discern the eternal answers to the questions.

Our society is in need of a massive reorientation of purpose, and to the degree that we have bought into our society’s outlook; we in the church need the same.  The good news of the Gospel is that such reorientation is within reach.  Indeed, it is God’s will for us as persons, and as members of the Body of Christ.  If we will but acknowledge our need, and turn to face God, our Lord will meet us with open arms.  Then comes the challenge of the Gospel, as you and I are called to be messengers and ambassadors of this old/new reality, making our life together a light by which the world about us can see the way to real wholeness and the healing of even the deepest wounds.

Howard MacMullen
© May, 2011

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