Too much to take in

9.9 million viewers watched the premiere of season six, the final season, of Downton Abbey in January. Numbers like that made it the most-watched drama series in the 45-year history of PBS, and a noteworthy TV event that brought together fans of Masterpiece Theatre with a British accent and lovers of soapy stories. In our home, I wasn’t the biggest fan, but I must admit that I’ll miss Lady Violet and her zinging one liners. What was it about this lush period piece that kept so many of us tuning in, every January, for six years? I don’t know, but I think the experience was a very reassuring one for many. We were watching the disintegration of aristocratic British society in the early 20th century, and we could empathize with the family of Lord and Lady Grantham as well as with the men and women downstairs. We were watching change of global proportions rolling through the little world of the big house, and it all turned out alright in the end. In the final episode we got to see Anna Bates, holding her newborn baby, tucked happily into the luxurious bed of Lady Mary whom she served as lady’s maid. Hard to imagine for poor, old Mr Carson, the butler, but the walls of the house did not collapse and life continued with a new generation who would grow up in this strange new world, and for them it would simply be the world. There are lots of reasons why we’ve been watching this show, but I believe one big reason has been that we ourselves are living through a period of dramatic changes on a global scale, and it’s immensely reassuring to see things turn out alright for Lady Edith and Daisy, and even Mr Barrow. As Lady Violet, the acid-tongued Dowager Countess, declares at the end of Edith’s wedding to Bertie, “There’s a lot at risk, but with any luck, they’ll be happy enough. Which is the English version of a happy ending.”

We love happy endings. Lillian Daniel kept a crumpled up newspaper story with a Vancouver dateline, August 25, 1996; she kept it like a treasure. It told the strange tale of a couple whose airplane crashed in a remote lake, leaving an oil slick and some of the couple’s possessions floating eerily on the water’s surface, their bodies drowned and disappeared. As their obituaries got written and funeral plans were finalized, a coroner was flown out to the crash site days later to write the final report. And there, lo and behold, on the shore a full quarter mile’s swim from where the plane had made its fiery nosedive, there they were, the stranded couple, waving their arms in the vast wilderness, hoping to attract the attention of somebody on that lonely plane flying by overhead. The coroner came to write a death report, and he got to tell a story of life. “Tears turn to laughter as dead couple returns,” reads the headline.

We love happy endings, because they help us not give in to the many unhappy ones. They help us hold on to hope. But I’m not done yet with that little story. When that Vancouver couple returned home after their plane crash and their time in the wilderness, their eight-year-old son, Lewis, greeted them with a cake in the shape of an airplane, and written on it with sweet icing were the words, “Bugsy and Sheila, Welcome Home. You are grounded.” [1]

You know what he meant; he may have picked up some of the pilot lingo or he may have heard those words addressed to himself a few times before. But whether he knew it or not, he also told them a deep truth about this extraordinary moment of escape from death. They were grounded in ways they hadn’t been before the experience. Grounded in gratitude. Grounded in recognizing how beautiful a gift life was. Grounded in embracing what really mattered to them, rather than being distracted by a million things that clamored for their attention. All that used to seem important had slipped to the bottom and suddenly, as though a veil had been pulled away, the ordinariness of daily life revealed life’s glory.

“You are grounded,” Lewis had written on the cake, giving words to their experience of having discovered something real to stand on. I imagine there was a long group hug, and they kissed and they cried and they laughed. They were grounded in the joy of being alive. Grounded in their love for each other. If this were a movie, this is where you’d want to start rolling the closing credits. We love happy endings, because we know that in real life it’s just a matter of time before that grounding in gratitude gets overwhelmed by the craziness of daily demands and weekly schedules.

Why am I telling you all this? We love happy endings so much, we may come to this day with a season finale mindset. But the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not a happy ending. In Luke, as in all the gospels, the Easter morning scenes come at the end of the story, but the resurrection is no happy end; it is the reason the whole story is being told in the first place. The resurrection is a whole new beginning to the story of life.

The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee watched as he was crucified; they saw where his body was laid. And they sat that long day after Friday, small jars of ointment and bags of fragrant spices in their laps; they just sat waiting. Luke says they rested, but we know it wasn’t a Sabbath of rest for them, let alone a Sabbath of peace. With hearts heavy with grief, they were waiting for the world to turn so they could go to the tomb and anoint the body, so they could do with love and care what had to be done in a hurry before sunset on Friday. At early dawn they came to the tomb and nothing was like it was supposed to be. The stone was rolled away, but when they went in, they did not find the body. This was no remote lake where the deep sometimes does swallow drowned bodies, this was a tomb hewn from rock. Bodies weren’t supposed to disappear.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the two messengers said. “He is not here, but has risen.” The tomb didn’t speak with its wide gaping mouth, its only message was the absence of Jesus’ body. The heavenly messengers did speak, but their words only added new questions to an already profoundly confusing and perplexing situation. And then they said, “Remember how he told you that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” And the women remembered and Jesus’ own words helped them begin to unfold the wondrous thing God had done: The world of sinners had had its way with Jesus, but God raised him from the dead. In response to the world’s loud and violent No, God spoke a vindicating Yes. And in response to the world’s proud and self-assured affirmation of its own way, its own truth, and its own life, God affirmed the way of Jesus as God’s own way. God affirmed the way of compassion and mercy. God didn’t just raise somebody to reveal God’s power to bring life out of death, God raised Jesus who lived to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor to all. And the women found the stone rolled away not because somehow this was necessary in order for Jesus to get out of the tomb; no, the stone was rolled away so they could get in, we could get in, and then come away with a new word from that place where all things come to an end. They came away with the word of life, with the good news of resurrection, the good news of a new creation in Christ, the promise of life redeemed and fulfilled. The stone was rolled away so we would get out of the tomb of our fear and despair and find the living one among the living.

The women remembered Jesus’ words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Their response? The translations vary, just pick one. “These words seemed to them an idle tale, empty talk, a silly story, a foolish yarn, sheer humbug, utter nonsense, and they did not believe them.” Luke Johnson detects “a definite air of male superiority in this response,” and he’s not the only one. But there’s more here than just common sexism. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a newness so radical, our language fails to capture it. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead will either ground our experience of the world and our knowledge of God, or it will remain a strange word that doesn’t fit any of our categories. The resurrection of Jesus is a reality that is too much for any of us to take in, but it has a way of taking us in.

The gospel reading from Luke for this day ends with a curious verse:

But Peter got up and and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went away, amazed at what had happened.

Now why would he get up and run to the tomb after they had all just dismissed the women’s words as utter nonsense? What was it that made him get up and not walk, but run to the tomb? Put yourself in his shoes for a moment. You’d been with Jesus pretty much from day one. You heard him teach, you watched him eat with sinners and you shared in those meals, you saw him heal and forgive and embrace, and before dawn on Friday you denied three times that you even knew him.

‘Hey, Peter, what made you run to the tomb?’ Here are some answers people have given:

I went because I was curious.

I wondered if the women might be right.

I hoped they might be right.

I wanted to see for myself.

I went because I felt guilty.

I had to apologize.

The Holy Spirit drew me.

I wondered if I was the reason Jesus was alive. [2]

The resurrection of Jesus isn’t something we can take in, but it is a reality that takes us in and grounds us completely in the risen life of Christ. We are grounded in grace and forgiveness. With wave after wave of unprecedented change rolling through our world, we are grounded in God’s redemptive purposes for all of creation. With the daily news giving us little to hold on to but our fear or our sarcasm, we are grounded in love that never ends. We are grounded, and we have never been freer to live fearlessly.

 


[1] Lillian Daniel, “You are grounded,” Journal for Preachers 27 no 3 Easter 2004, 20-21.

[2] See Anna Carter Florence, Journal for Preachers 27 no 3 Easter, 2004, 35-37.

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