Skip to content

Death Has Been Swallowed Up in Victory

April 20, 2014

The resurrection

You don’t go to a tomb to rejoice. You don’t go to a graveyard, shortly after someone has been buried there, to celebrate.

And so, Matthew writes, “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.”

They have come to pay their respects and to remember their now deceased teacher. They have come to mourn–expecting to find comfort, perhaps, in being together, but not expecting much more than that.

Then an angel pushes away the stone covering the tomb–we can think of the tomb as a sort of underground walk-in closet. And the guards are so scared, they shake and are petrified.

“Do not be afraid!” the angel has to say to the unsuspecting women. “Jesus is not here–he is risen!” Come, look, the angel says, “see the place where he lay.” “Go quickly and tell his disciples–He has risen from the dead!”

As they hurry off, their fast-beating hearts a jumble of joy and fear, they see Jesus. “Greetings,” he says, nonchalantly. (“Hey, what’s up?”)

They kneel down, grasp his feet, and worship him.

They had gone to his tomb to weep.
Instead, they went away laughing and rejoicing.

They had come early that morning to encounter the stark reality of death.
Instead, they found the glorious miracle of new life.

They had come to process an immense and unthinkable loss.
Instead, they met a living Jesus, the triumphant victor over death.

These women, and then, in turn, all of Jesus’ disciples from that day forward, would never see death the same way again.

Death Swallowed Up in Victory: Paul’s Reminder

Some years later Paul would remind his church of the “gospel,” the good news of Jesus.

The good news, he says, is “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures….”

By this “gospel,” the good news of Jesus’ death and coming back from life to show himself again to his followers–by this “gospel,” Paul says, you are saved. You are delivered.

Where your life had been a prison,
you are freed.

Where you had once seen darkness,
now you see light.

Though you had come to a tomb, ready to mourn because of the end of things,
now you rejoice at a new beginning and fresh possibilities.

Where it had once been a long, hard, cold, relentless winter,
the spring of new life is finally here.

Because Jesus was raised on the third day, we will never see death the same way again.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Paul speaks of a day when that will come true, when death itself is finally and forever dead.

But the way Paul is talking–it’s so certain a fate for death, for it to be completely vanquished and drowned in new life… it’s so certain that he’s saying it’s true, in a sense, right now.

Through the resurrection of Jesus, death and evil have already been defeated.

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

Christ’s resurrection proved that, when God is at work, “dead” isn’t really “dead.”

Feeling Defeated by Death

And yet, such an idea was the farthest thing from the minds of the disciples that weekend.

How long Good Friday to Easter Sunday must have felt that year!

When you lose a friend, a brother, a spouse, a parent, a child, someone you love… the day of your dear one’s death is painful. Agonizing. Unthinkable. Whether unexpected or expected, there’s always a quality of “this is not how it should be” when a loved one dies. So much still could have been… should have been.

Then there’s something about the second day that hurts even more. Maybe the initial shock is gone (though probably not really), and reality sets in a bit more. This death wasn’t a bad dream you woke up from. You’re still here, and your good friend, your valued family member is really gone.

I bet that second day–Saturday–was even more difficult for the disciples than the Friday when they watched Jesus die a criminal’s death.

Jesus was not just any loved one…he was, to his followers, a teacher and friend and humble servant, but he was also supposed to be their deliverer, their shepherd, their light, their life… NOT someone who just goes dying on them.

Was he not who they thought he was?

Was their promised deliverance, their offer of hope and a new life, just a farce?

Was Jesus just one among many other teachers claiming to be divine, but in reality, mortal like everyone else?

Jimmy Chitwood HoosiersOne of my favorite movies, and arguably the greatest sports movie of all time, is the movie Hoosiers. It’s based on the true story of a high school basketball team in rural Indiana who in 1954 won the state championship, beating much bigger and more established schools along the way.

And even though I know how it ends, I still watch it, probably at least once a year. “Did they win again?” I’ve often been asked after watching it for the umpteenth time.

It’s a little easier to watch through the suspense and nail-biting overtime games when I know the outcome. But for the characters in the movie, of course, the players and fans that the actors played, there was no guarantee of a good ending.

It’s hard for us to get at just what those women, characters in the story, must have been feeling as they went to the tomb. We know how this story ends. We know what (or, rather, who) is waiting for them at the tomb.

But they felt firmly wrapped in the grip of death, of disappointment, of shattered dreams, of hopes delayed or even demolished. Perhaps their trust had been severely misplaced, after all.

They’re blindsided when they see the angel, the empty tomb, and then… Jesus. That’s why Matthew says they are both filled with joy and scared out of their minds.

It’s not that they had weak faith, but Jesus was dead! Not just mostly dead, but dead dead.

Jesus had cheated death before by slipping through hostile crowds and, for all we know, dodging stones thrown his way, but this was not supposed to happen, or so his mourning disciples thought.

The Last Scene Was a Victory

Resurrection 2But a tomb was not the last scene in this story.

The apostle Peter would later preach to a crowd in Acts, “But God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life, for death could not keep him in its grip.”

Death did not have dominion, mastery, or the power of intimidation over Jesus. Once Jesus got a hold of death, it would never be the same.

Through his miraculous coming-back-to-life, Jesus showed that even death cannot stop him. Through Jesus’ resurrection, Paul says, “Death [was] swallowed up in victory.” As one preacher wryly (but accurately) said, “Jesus beat the hell out of sin and death.”

And so “dead” for Jesus didn’t really mean “dead.” It wasn’t the end. There was life on the other side of it.

We who follow the risen Jesus, then, do not need to be afraid. Though death is maybe one of the scariest, or most painful things that many of us can think of, the Christian’s death does not actually end in death. We, too, have been raised with Christ.

As one Christian martyr put it:

The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I will die. And the fact that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, will be raised on the day of judgment. Our salvation is ‘from outside ourselves.’ I find salvation not in my life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ. Only those who allow themselves to be found in Jesus Christ — in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection — are with God and God with them.

“Death has been swallowed up in” the victory of the life of Christ, a life in which we are invited to participate, a life which we can receive by believing in the risen Lord. As we see the living Jesus and hear his invitation to life, how else can we respond but to do what the two Marys did, and throw ourselves at him and praise him?

Death is cause for lament and mourning–you don’t go to a tomb to rejoice–yet just as death no longer has dominion over Jesus, it no longer shall have dominion over us.

Jesus’ resurrection means that death is no longer our intimidator, master, or schoolyard bully.

Evil loses, and death is dead.

Paul taunts death in the Corinthians passage, “Whatcha got, death? I’m alive with the resurrected Christ–how you like me now?”

Paul had to remind his church of the powerlessness of death, just like we need to remind ourselves, because it so often looks like death and sin and evil and inhumanity reign supreme in the world around us. Death and evil are still talking a big game.

But that’s all it is–it’s just talk.

Sin is no longer the undefeatable foe it might have once seemed to be. Evil is not inevitable. Death is not really the end.

We do not have to be afraid.

Through the victory of the resurrected Christ, the lifeless are made alive. Darkness becomes light.

Mourning turns to rejoicing.

Winter turns to spring.

The impossible becomes possible.

Dormant dreams can spring back to life again.

Good outcomes can result from bad things happening.

Because of Jesus’ decisive victory over the powers of evil and death,
even what looks like a cold and empty tomb
contains within it a glimmer of hope,
and the promise of new life.

The above is the sermon I preached on Easter Day 2014.

Palm Sunday Tension: A (Very) Short Note

April 16, 2014


Even after many years of doing it, on Sunday I was once again moved in the Palm Sunday worship service by singing with others, “Hosanna!” and then–moments later–shouting with others, “Crucify him!”

A Personal Reflection on Dietrich Bonhoeffer: What I’ve Found This Lent

April 15, 2014


Bonhoeffer with Confirmands, 1932

Bonhoeffer with Confirmands, 1932

I knew when I was preaching through the Sermon on the Mount recently that I would make good use of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. I had no idea that a single question I asked would lead me–in my quest for an “answer”–so far into the life and writings of Bonhoeffer.

Of War and Peace: Which Bonhoeffer? (Revisited)

Russia invaded Ukraine in early March, just days after the Revised Common Lectionary reading was Matthew 5:38-48, which reads in part:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

I wondered: does “turn the other cheek” apply just on an interpersonal level, or at a state level? I turned to Bonhoeffer, who rejected a privatized read of Jesus’ words. In 1937′s Discipleship he wrote:

The overcoming of others now occurs by allowing their evil to run its course. The evil does not find what it is seeking, namely, resistance and, therewith, new evil which will inflame it even more. Evil will become powerless when it finds no opposing object, no resistance, but, instead, is willingly borne and suffered….

Should Ukrainians (or other oppressed peoples) just let themselves be invaded (or oppressed)? I struggled with Bonhoeffer’s words:

There is no thinkable deed in which evil is so large and strong that it would require a different response from a Christian. The more terrible the evil, the more willing the disciple should be to suffer. Evil persons must be delivered to the hands of Jesus. Not I but Jesus must deal with them.

And yet in 1945 he was hanged for his involvement in a conspiracy to kill Hitler. This was not the “no opposing object” and “no resistance” that Bonhoeffer had talked about in Discipleship.

But maybe Bonhoeffer differentiated between evil done to him and evil done to others? Should the Christian be willing “to suffer” in the former instance but willing to act and resist on behalf of another in the latter instance?

As I asked these questions a month and a half ago, I found my own response to Matthew 5 and “turn the other cheek” to be more tension-filled than I would have liked.

Is There a Resolution to the Tension in Bonhoeffer? 

I had been hoping that further study of Bonhoeffer would help me to find some writing where he would essentially repudiate his non-violence stance in Discipleship, saying instead something like, “But when others are oppressed, take up force to eliminate evil, if necessary.”

Bonhoeffer never said any such thing. In fact, on July 21, 1944, the day after a bomb intended for Hitler failed to kill him, Bonhoeffer wrote from prison (about that 1937 book) to his good friend and biographer-to-be Eberhard Bethge:

Today I clearly see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by it.

He still stood by it. Did he mean he also stood by the line from that book, “Not I but Jesus must deal with them”? Was not his involvement in an effort to bomb Hitler a way of trying to deal with him? (Note: I’m not sure I fault Bonhoeffer either way.)

After a Lenten discipline of reading Bonhoeffer (and sections of his biographies) slowly and meditatively, I’m no closer to a resolution of such tensions than I was when I first discovered them. If anything, I’ve been encouraged to see other readers of Bonhoeffer wrestling with the same sorts of questions. This question of whether a ready-to-use-violence Bonhoeffer is consistent with the turn-the-other-cheek Bonhoeffer is, in fact, a fruitful question in Bonhoeffer studies.

What I’ve Found Instead

Tension in Bonhoeffer notwithstanding (and I’m actually coming to appreciate it), I’ve been deeply moved at nearly every turn as I’ve delved more deeply into the life and writings of an activist pastor.

I’ve found:

  • An inspired and passionate preacher, not afraid to tell the truth about life and about Jesus
  • A brilliant writer, already evident at age 19 and age 21
  • An eloquent catechist and Christian educator
  • A brave and gutsy man, who valued the life of others more than his own
  • A gifted poet with incisive awareness of the human condition

His preaching has encouraged mine. His deliberateness in pastoral care and visiting congregants has inspired me. I used one of his catechisms for our church membership class (his writing in that context was met with appreciation by all of us). His courage has bolstered mine, even if I don’t face the sort of trials that he did.

And, best of all, he has pointed away from himself and to the cross of Christ, so that my appreciation for Bonhoeffer doesn’t finally center on Bonhoeffer himself. Rather, through the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer–no doubt inhabited again by the Holy Spirit–I have come to see and know and love Jesus more deeply.

As Bonhoeffer says of the early disciples, listening to Jesus on the mountainside:

They have only him. Yes, and with him they have nothing in the world, nothing at all, but everything, everything with God.

Now Reading: Elie Wiesel’s Night

April 14, 2014

Elie Wiesel_Night

Amazingly, I made it through high school and college without reading Elie Wiesel’s Night. Having just found a copy in good condition at a local used bookstore, I plan now to read it. My recent reading of Bonhoeffer has revived my interest in Holocaust and genocide studies.

(Yes, I know it's a reality of "white/male privilege" to be able to choose when to think about oppression and to make "studies" out of genocide.)

I may or may not report back here again about Night, but I expect it to be a powerful read.

The First Place on the Web to Go for Septuagint Studies…

April 13, 2014


…besides the Septuagint itself, is this spot right here. It’s the Web presence of The International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies (IOSCS). The IOSCS is “a nonprofit, learned society formed to promote international research in and study of the Septuagint and related texts.

Membership in the organization is affordable (especially for students). They put out an annual journal (some volumes of which are freely available here), offer a yearly prize, and link to some useful LXX resources here.

The IOSCS home page is updated fairly regularly with news of publications, conferences, and other announcements. Check it out.

What My 3-Year-Old Thought I Was Going to Feed My 1-Year-Old

April 11, 2014

Apologies in advance for the scatalogical nature of this post. But I’m trying to get back to Family Fridays on this here blog, and nothing says family (at least our family) like this actual conversation that took place in the kitchen yesterday:

3-year-old son: Daddy, can you help me?

Me: Hold on… I’m getting your sister some food.

3-year-old son: Some poop?

Me: <Trying to stifle laughter>

3-year-old son, wanting to be heard and still awaiting my response: POOP???

Me: No… some FOOD.

3-year-old son: OHHH. I thought you said you were going to give her some poop.

Can’t make this stuff up.

A Short Review of R. Bethge’s Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life

April 11, 2014

Bonhoeffer_A Brief Life

Renate Bethge’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life, is about as short a Bonhoeffer biography as there is. Renate’s husband was the late Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s dear friend and biographer. Renate is also Bonhoeffer’s niece.

Whereas Eberhard’s bio is well over 900 pages, Renate’s Brief Life is under 90. It’s laid out nicely, with lots of photographs, wide margins, and quotations from Bonhoeffer’s writing and correspondence. Given how little text is actually on a page, it’s a quick read.

The book offers a succinct overview of Bonhoeffer’s life, yet it does not lack substance in its brevity. Highlights for me were the overview of his parents (and their character, and its effect on Bonhoeffer), a chapter called “Contacts with Jews,” and the personal touch of including some of Bonhoeffer’s correspondence. His beautiful poem “Who Am I?” is re-printed here in its entirety.

There are brief mentions of his writings: Life TogetherEthics, and Letters and Papers from Prison (but not, surprisingly, Discipleship). Page 87 offers a nice one-page summary chronology of Bonhoeffer’s life.

If you want to look at a couple sample pages from the book, Logos Bible Software has put some up here and here. (This book will soon be offered in Logos as part of its forthcoming Bonhoeffer Studies Collection.)

Someone looking for biographical detail will want to look elsewhere, but this only claims to be a “brief” biography, which has value especially for folks like me who are coming seriously to Bonhoeffer for the first time. As I continue to read through Eberhard Bethge’s biography, it was nice to put it aside for a bit to get a quick overview of all of Bonhoeffer’s life.

The above book was an unexpected  but welcomed gift from somebody (not a review copy from the publisher). It’s on Amazon here. See my other Bonhoeffer posts here.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 687 other followers

%d bloggers like this: