In 1667, the city of Dubrovnik, which sits on the Adriatic Sea, was drowned.* During the earthquake which caused it, the sea receded from the harbor four times leaving it dry, then rushed back to slam against the cliffs and docks and the ships that moored there. At least 5,000 people died. A good deal of the city was ruined. The Cathedral was destroyed. The Marketplace obliterated. The famous library housed at the Franciscan monastery was lost.
I have not lived through a devastation such as this. Perhaps I can get some sense of it through the power of imagination, but I cannot know unless I live through it. I can have some sympathy for those who suffer, but I do not know the struggle to survive in the way the survivors of the disaster know it. This is true of any cataclysmic disaster, such as the one the swamped Japan this year, or the loss of the twin towers in New York City. If it did not touch my life directly, I might be aware of it, but I do not KNOW it.
Many aspects of life are like this. I have to live life to gain the knowledge I need. I cannot know in a good deal of cases unless I keep choosing to live in spite of what I do not yet know.
Here is an example: when I was young I conceived of marriage as the place I could finally, legally have sex. I didn’t know anything, really, about the deeper power of intimacy after many years of partnership with my wife, and how much more profound, tender and meaningful sexual expression would be as a result. I had to live it to know it. People could tell me about it who had lived it. I could try to imagine it. I could argue against those who doubted its importance, or whose experience was otherwise, but it would only have been an argument by faith rather than by knowledge of having that faith become reality.
We find another example in entrepreneurship. Can I really know what owning my business is like until I actually do so? Can I truly understand the extra hours it requires and the new responsibilities that accompany new freedoms until I become an owner? Probably not. I can imagine what it would be like. I can listen to the stories of entrepreneurs who succeeded and failed and try to make sure I don’t repeat their mistakes. Even then I won’t really know until I live the adventure of ownership.
We might wonder what it will be like to have a new pastor at the helm of a congregation. We might try to grasp what it would be like to sit in the boss’ chair, or to live in another city, or to make more money. We could try to imagine what it is like to be a grandparent or to retire or to own a boat–any of these life experiences we have not yet had–but we won’t really have knowledge about them and we certainly can’t testify about their reality–until we actually live them.
Perhaps the greatest of these arenas is death and the afterlife. Even if you read a believable account of someone who died and was resuscitated and found themselves in the very court of heaven in between, you don’t really have personal and intimate knowledge of death, the resurrection and eternal life with God until your adventure in living takes you there.
In such moments where we know that we don’t know something, we have to choose who and what we will believe, living in faith that those who have been there already are reliable and motivated by their desire to minister to us by passing along their wisdom. In such moments we have to know that we don’t know, and live in faith regarding those who do.
I think of it as if I live on the backside of a tapestry with all its tangled, colored strings. I have to trust that there is an ordered and beautiful picture on the other side. If I study the backside of the tapestry, I might get some sense of it, maybe enough to recognize the real picture when I finally see it, but I still do not know what it is really like until I do. Still, I know enough from what I do see to trust that it is really there.
Living with this kind of faith is a spiritual discipline–a way of living humbly and offering what you know for the benefit of others, even while they offer what they know and you don’t so that you too can benefit. For instance, I do not know very much about soil composition and how its health is maintained for the benefit of food production. I am glad for those who do know, however, and for those who treat this is holy work done for the glory of God.
Perhaps you don’t know very much about how to lead groups in making decisions–groups like a church family. Yet, you can agree, can’t you, that trusting people who do now how to lead groups in decision-making is far more desirable than repeating methods you know do not work and only end in greater conflict?
And here is one of the most sensitive of them all: letting others into your hurt. Some of us live with hurt because we think no one knows what it is like for us. The result is we don’t really know what mercy, forgiveness or compassion are like, because we can’t imagine that other people have had similar experiences and could be sorrowful alongside us. As a result, instead of weeping together in our great disappointments, or instead of sharing together the joy of forgiveness and resurrected hope, we end up being hard on another. We get all legalistic and impatient and judgmental with those we falsely think do not understand us, and this reinforces the belief among us that no-one understands and makes us even more intolerant of each other.
The apostle Paul takes on this issue of fear because of lack of knowledge in his first letter to the Corinthians. Some Corinthians Christians were uncomfortable with the idea of a resurrection and eternal life with God. Because they did not witness the resurrection of Jesus why should they be expected to believe such a thing could happen? More specifically, if a resurrection was promised to them, just how would it work? They knew bodies aged, deteriorated and expired. They had never seen a body re-fashioned and refreshed. So, even though they were Christians, they kept challenging the possibility of the resurrection, demanding that someone explain the mechanics of how a resurrection was conducted, and the makeup of the resurrection body (1 Corinthians 15:35).
Paul’s response was, “That is a foolish question!”
Take a moment and go back through the list of subjects we’ve discussed already this morning. We’ve considered subjects like how one deals with cataclysmic catastrophe, prepares for marriage, decides to own a business, or becomes a joyful grandparent. Is it wrong to wonder such things? In most cases, no. But to use our questions as a means of avoiding the risk of loving someone, or putting our gifts to work for others, or using gifts God wants to give us is wrong. It is foolish to refuse to live simply because we are afraid of living! What kind of life is it to die before you are dead? How does that bring any glory to God?
This is the type of foolishness Paul speaks against. Just because a person doesn’t have direct, personal knowledge of something doesn’t mean they can’t have faith in those who do. Why deny the possibility of a resurrection just because one has not yet died personally, been resurrected or seen a resurrected person? There were too many witnesses to the resurrected Jesus to simply throw the story away, and Paul takes pains to document the list of those witnesses.
And just because one does not yet have a resurrection body does not mean there is no resurrection body. Why waste time demanding to have knowledge that one cannot yet have? It is better to understand why it is we do not yet have such knowledge (because haven’t yet lived long enough), and to trust that life will eventually bring that knowledge to us just as it has to others.
In this case, the Corinthians were foolish to focus on the material makeup of a resurrection body when such a body does not come from the construction of a fallen and corrupt world. Imagine what it would be like to be resurrected with this deteriorating body we have now. That would be much more a picture of hell. This is Paul’s point too. He tells us the body we carry now is rooted in corrupt Adam and a human race that is stained by sin, but the body to come will be rooted in the one who destroyed all these things and who has the power to redeem and make all things new. And here is a fact that some of us know better than others: the longer we live and the closer we get to our grave, the more we know how frail this body is and the more we anticipate going home to be with God even while we continue in loving service to others here on this earth.
We end up avoiding so much of the joy that life could send us because, like the Corinthians, we ask such foolish questions–not just about the resurrection, but about many things and all because we are afraid of what we do not know.
We say don’t know enough to make a decision. So we keep on delaying what we know would be good for us.
We keep asking for someone to confirm the truth of a matter to us, even though many people have already confirmed it. We are too comfortable with the undesirable reality to have to reach out and embrace the more desirable reality that might be available.
We deny that something is possible only because we have not yet seen it ourselves. This type of blind denial often leaves us looking more foolish than ever.
Let’s get even more specific. The apostle Paul says asking what the resurrection body will be like completely misses the point. Here are other questions we are likely to ask that are all too familiar, and which keep us from enjoying the fullness of life granted because of the resurrection of Jesus:
Tithing? What if I run out of money?
Volunteer for the church? What if it requires too much of my time?
Who would I be if I stopped (choose one or more of the following: holding grudges, feeling sorry for myself, letting my illness be an excuse for my behavior, letting my druthers rule my happiness, etc.)?
Get married? What if the one who loves me gets all ugly or gets sick and cannot work?
How can God really love me given all the bad I have done?
How will I know this is the job God has for me?
Is peacemaking really possible in this violent world?
These are foolish and misdirected questions because you and I cannot know the answer on this side of the question. To find the answer we must live into them.
–We cannot know the blessings of God’s provision until we first begin living a firstfruits lifestyle.
–We cannot know the joy of sacrificial service among God’s people until a church family is our first family.
–We cannot experience transformation as a person without letting go of the old, familiar self and the way it operates.
–Spouses cannot know the fullness of giving and receiving in marriage until they actually begin doing so (This is a word of advice for married and for those considering it). We can also point to those who determine to enjoy the single life as a chaste servant of God. We can’t know what that is like until we begin living into that enjoyment.
–We cannot know the full extent of God’s love if we still hold to our will and our self as the chief master.
–We cannot know how God will work through us in our work–any type of work–until we seek to do God’s will–what we already know to be God’s will–wherever we are and whatever we are doing.
–The quiet strength of peacemaking will be unknown to us until we give it a try in the face of violence.
It is Easter. Now is the time we remember that God conquered death and the grave. We cannot know our resurrection body yet, but we can start living according to what we already know about life on the topside of the tapestry God creates for us. As people of faith we can embrace what we do not yet know and be people who not only have hope, but offer hope to the hopeless, strength for the weak, and good news to those who think they are too lost or too broken to be rescued. A-men.
-mark l vincent
*Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: a Journey Through Yugoslovia, New York: Penguin, 1940
More with Less is a phrase Mennonites converted into a widely-loved cookbook franchise and spiritual guide to eating. I borrow that phrase here in thinking about the resurrection of Jesus.
The Apostle Paul writes 1 Corinthians 15 twenty-five years or so after the Sunday morning when Jesus rose from the dead. His account of this resurrection precedes the written accounts recorded in the four gospels. He tells his readers that the gospel of Jesus makes no sense without a resurrection (of which Jesus is the first to be resurrected), and that if we embrace this gospel we need to live as people of hope.
So if we are going to be people of the resurrection, we need to return to a more with less:
- Less self-preservation and more God exaltation.
- Less Condemnation and more commendation.
- Less self-deception and more holy conception.
- Less diet in trash, slash and clash, and much more class.
- Less fear of tomorrow and more hope for today.
- Less navigating through life by what we don’t like and more steering toward our calling.
- Less suspicion and more permission.
- Less critique and more applique.
- Less aspersion and more conversion.
- Less destructive behavior and more consulting the Savior.
- Less hedonism and more paying heed to our sins.
- Less gossip, slander and sharing our “concerns,” and more praise, encouragement and doing of good turns.
- Less treating our body as a god and a temple and more treating our body as a temple for God.
- Less lust for possessions and more trust for provisions.
- Less titillation and more telling the nations.
- Less unwillingness, reticence and unavailability: more inspiration, preparation and perspiration.
- Less hoarding and more rewarding.
- Less spiritual blindness and more merciful kindness.
- Less complaining, infighting and judgment and much more penance, repentance and recompense.
- Less consternation and more communion.
- Less sorrow over our loss and more anticipation of reward.
- Less holding the line and more going where we are sent.
- Less supervising others and more loving our neighbor.
- Less hovering, worrying and wringing our hands and more embracing, praising and bending our knees.
- Less grouchy-gripies and more joyful smilies.
- Less of the grave and much more of the resurrection.
It is our ability to keep bringing life into death, light into shadows, and hope in apparent hopelessness that brings notice to the message Jesus taught his followers and offers to all. Unless our hope is meaningfully lived in front of others, it is as if the stone at the tomb remains firmly in place.
-mark l vincent