Will Scott: Easter in the valley of the shadow of death

Easter is really a season, not a day — because how can we fit all of Easter into one morning service of worship? An egg hunt, a nice dinner, a spruced-up sermon, and then it’s over. The theologian Karl Barth called Christians “Easter People.” And to be Easter people, we need more than a day; we need a life.

What follows in much of the New Testament, then, isn’t just an homage to the day. It’s a continuation of Easter in the lives of Jesus’ disciples.

Take the book of Acts. It’s full of stories about how formerly inept disciples become reminders of Jesus’ resurrection. They do things that were once only possible for him.

In one of these stories, the Apostle Peter is told to come right away to the town of Lydda. Tabitha, one of the saints of that community, has died. Peter sees the grief of Tabitha’s friends. They show him all the things she had made them — clothes and knitting, thoughtful gifts. The work of her life was displayed in friendships and tangible products, all trying, all failing, to reflect the life lost. All her friends can do is remember and grieve. Peter finds himself in the neighborhood of death, because that’s where the best witness to the resurrection is.

This is why we have funerals. This is why we visit the sick in hospitals. This is why we help people in distress. Disciples of Jesus are meant to be in places near death to offer witness to something beyond it.

This is where they put you when you prepare for ministry. I spent my third year of seminary as a chaplain at a hospice, spending time with people who had terminal illnesses.

In those days I would spend weekends at an inpatient facility, listening to people tell stories about their lives. One time I remember going to the room at the end of the hall and knocking on the door. I introduced myself to the person in the room who invited me to sit down. We got to talking and found out we had a lot in common. She, too, was a seminary student; in fact she was a student at the same seminary I attended— another Presbyterian preparing for ministry.

I noticed there were some books at her bedside, and a laptop. She said that she had been working on a paper that was due soon. Like Tabitha surrounded by her knitting, she was determined to finish her work. (It made me wonder if God was trying to tell me something. Did I value my own work enough that I would think to continue it on my deathbed? Or is it that we sometimes lose track of time and focus on things that have less importance than we think?) We talked for a little while, prayed, and I left. The thought never left me — what is God trying to say?

I returned next week and she was gone. But as I knocked on the door at the end of the hall and responded to the “come in” I introduced myself to the patient who had taken her place, a Presbyterian minister. (At this point I’m thinking — OK, God, now you really have my attention.) And as with the last occupant of the room we spoke, shared stories, talked about school, talked about church. The minister asked if he could help me in my preparation for ministry. It was hard to be pastoral with him since he was trying so hard to be pastoral with me, kind of like how doctors make the worst medical patients. His work wasn’t finished either. He offered to pray for me. And then I left.

There were no Presbyterians in the room the next week.

Easter, and thus all Christian life, is a matter of life and death. We confess that, despite the worst of creation, Jesus Christ was raised and is now present to us through resurrected life by the power of his Spirit. The resurrection is the basis of all that we say and do. It puts us places of acute need, trusting that God is at work to redeem those things that the world has forgotten or prefers to do its best to avoid. It puts us beside one another when we need help, or are grieving, or hurting. It puts us near places of death —because that’s where witness to the resurrection happens.

Peter says, “‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.” It’s just a word, a word from God that brings things to life, because disciples of Jesus are near places of death to show that there is something else behind it. That’s why Easter can’t be seen in a day — only a life.

Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Friday of the month.

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