Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Death of Death

The scriptures referred to are 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 and Mark 5:21-43.

Richard Dawkins is a biologist with a doctorate in animal behavior and is a world famous anti-theist who wrote The God Delusion. Alister McGrath has a doctorate in molecular biophysics and another in divinity. He is a former atheist who is now an Anglican priest and a theologian. He has written The Dawkins Delusion. You would think a debate between the two would be tremendously exciting. But in a video you can find on You Tube, they are instead rather...British. Dawkins is much less bombastic than usual and distinctly wary in the way he makes his arguments. He knows that McGrath not only understands Dawkins' science but understands theology, which Dawkins certainly doesn't. McGrath for his part is very polite. And his response to Dawkins' persistent questions about the problem of evil is disappointing. Dawkins brings up disasters and the fact that some live and some die. Dawkins understands psychologically why parents whose child survives thank God for saving him but feels that begs the question, “Why didn't God save the others?” Unfortunately McGrath responds to the question psychologically instead of picking up on Dawkins' very limited use of the word “save.” For Christians there is another way of understanding the term “save.” We do not believe this life is the only one. The surviving child is “saved” in a physical sense but it does not follow that all the others were not “saved” in another sense. In fact, the survivor is only “saved” in the same way I “saved” a dollar by using a coupon. I didn't spend it then but that doesn't mean I will retain that dollar forever. I will spend it on something else later. The survivor, like all of humanity, will die later on. So the physical salvation that Dawkins feels would have been a valid proof of God is ultimately a temporary one. I bet that in cases where all people survive, such as in the Hudson River plane crash, Dawkins would simply shift his ground and ask why, if there is a God, anyone ever dies.

Let's face it. If this life is the only one, then there is no justice. Good people suffer, bad people sometimes get away with evil. If there is no God to judge and redress wrongs in the afterlife, then there is no reason to trust him. Paul says as much. In 1st Corinthians he writes, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people to be most pitied.” In fact, later in the passage, Paul says, “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” The resurrection of Christ is, among other things, a promise that we who follow him will likewise be raised. Perhaps McGrath did not want to get into this part of Christian theology because Dawkins would reject out of hand any hint of the supernatural. But the resurrection of Christ is the beginning of our faith. If Jesus stayed dead, we wouldn't be here.

Still, this does not eliminate all the problems that death brings, like separation and mourning. The 1st chapter of 2nd Samuel gives us David's very moving ode to Saul and Jonathan. And it is all the more poignant when you consider the complex relationships they had with David. Saul was the first king of Israel. Jonathan was his son. Saul acted as a mentor to David. Jonathan and David were best friends. But Saul got jealous of his protege and eventually David was forced to flee from Saul. Hiding in the hills, David did not take advantage of the opportunities he had to kill God's anointed king. But when the Philistines routed Saul's army, they killed Jonathan and badly wounded Saul with arrows. Rather than let himself be captured, Saul fell on his sword. When the Philistines found his body, they cut off his head and displayed his body on the walls of the city of Beth Shan.

David was now free to take the throne of Israel which he had been anointed to do by Samuel years earlier. But he is torn up by ignominious death of Saul and Jonathan. So he composes the “Song of the Bow,” which contains the famous line, “How the mighty have fallen.” You can feel David's shame at how they were defeated, his pride in how they fought to the end, his mourning of the passing of the king, and his loss of a close friend. Some have seen a lot more than friendship in the relationship of David and Jonathan. I'm afraid they are reading back into that time and culture the way male friends act today in the West. But in the Mediterranean even today, men are free to express their affection for their friends in much the same way women do in our culture: holding hands, greeting each other and saying goodby with a kiss, etc. Whatever they were to each other, Jonathan's death was hard for David.

At David's time, the concept of an afterlife was rather vague. All the dead were thought to go to the shadowy realm of Sheol. That word either derives from the Hebrew word for ask, as if it is asking the land of the living for more dead, or it may come from a Hebrew word that means “empty or hollow place.” Sheol doesn't sound pleasant. It is a place of dust, darkness, silence and forgetfulness. It is a joyless place where the dead exist in, at best, a quasi-life. To go there prematurely, as Saul and Jonathan did, was seen as punishment.

But we also see another theme in the Old Testament. God is able to deliver the righteous from Sheol. Psalm 16 says, “For you will not abandon my soul from Sheol, nor will you let your holy one see decay.” Psalm 49 contrasts the fate of the wicked, who go sheep-like to Sheol, with the righteous. It says, “Surely God will redeem my soul from the hand of Sheol, for he will take me.” Take him in what sense? The use of contrast in Hebrew poetry would make it logical that he is taken by the opposite of the hand of Sheol. So the righteous dead are in God's hand.

However there are a few verses in the Old Testament that give us a glimpse of something more. In the 12th chapter of Daniel, an angel tells Daniel in a vision, “And many who sleep in the dust of the earth will awaken, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” And Isaiah 26 says, “Your dead ones will live. Along with my dead body they shall rise. Awaken and sing, dwellers of the dust. For your dew is the dew of dawn and the earth will give birth to the dead.” This is a glimpse of something the patriarchs scarcely dared to hope for: resurrection.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” And he demonstrated this on at least 3 occasions: the raising of Lazarus, the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, and the raising of the girl in today's reading from Mark. This miracle is also told in Matthew and Luke. It is linked with the healing of a very gutsy woman. In both cases, Jesus is not afraid to break the taboos of his culture and religion to bestow healing on someone.

The woman with the bleeding would have been ritually unclean for the whole time of her ordeal. She would not have been able to enter the temple or participate in worship or in any kind of corporate life. No one—family, friends, or even strangers—would be able to touch her without also being considered unclean. If she had been married, her husband had probably divorced her long ago. She certainly shouldn't have been in the tightly packed crowd surrounding Jesus. She would make unclean any who jostled her, not to mention Jesus, whose garment she deliberately touches. That's why she is afraid when Jesus asks who touched him. But Jesus only wants to find out who touched him in faith. He commends the woman, who is restored not only to health but to the community.

Touching a dead body would also render Jesus unclean. But he presses on, even after messengers tell Jairus that his daughter has succumbed to her illness. This was a huge blow to Jairus. As a ruler of the synagogue, a position akin to a vestry or council member, it had to be hard for Jairus to come to Jesus. He was a controversial figure who acted without official sanction by religious authorities and who indeed butted heads with them. It would be as if our senior warden or council president went out to seek a roving street preacher for a healing. But his daughter was so sick that Jairus swallowed his pride and threw himself at Jesus' feet, begging for him to rescue his child. N. T. Wright says Jairus must have been hopping from one foot to the other in anxious impatience when Jesus paused to find and then speak to the bleeding woman. Then some friends and relatives arrive to tell him the worst. “It's too late. Don't bother the teacher any more.”

What Jesus says to this is crucial: “Don't be afraid; just trust!” The opposite of faith is fear, not unbelief. That explains why Richard Dawkins is emotional about what others believe rather than indifferent. He is afraid. He would say he fears the irrational and and destructive things that some believers do, such as suicide bombing. (I wish McGrath had pointed out that this practice was started by the Tamal Tigers, Marxist atheist terrorists fighting for a homeland in Sri Lanka.) But I think deep down Dawkins is afraid that we might be right—that there is a god, that the reason science works is not that human minds are finding patterns in randomness but that we are discovering evidence of a creative mind at work on every level of existence. If God exists—and when backed into a corner by logic Dawkins admits a god could exist—not only would he have to renounce many of his books, though not his scientific findings, but he would also have to live his life differently. Just as science determines what you can and cannot do physically, so a creator and redeemer God would determine what you can and cannot do morally. And that is what a lot of skeptics fear and rebel against.

But in the context of the story, Jesus is saying to Jairus, “Don't let fear get a hold of you; keep trusting in God and in me as his representative.” And Jairus was faced with a dilemma. Who should he trust? The friends and family members who gave him the awful news are trustworthy. Nor would they bring this devastating news unless they were absolutely sure. They knew death well. Unlike our society, everyone back then saw death with painful regularity. Half of all their children didn't make it to adulthood. Most adults didn't live to see 40. They knew the girl was gone.

On the other hand, Jairus just saw Jesus heal, inadvertently, a woman who had been sick most of her life. In a small town like Capernaum, Jairus may have known her or knew of her because she must have been wealthy once. We are told that she had “suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and spent all she had.” Everyone in town knew this sad case. And here, in a roiling crowd, like those pressing in on a modern celebrity, the woman had been cured. “Daughter, your faith has healed you,” Jesus said. So he could heal the living. But could he do anything for the dead? Could Jairus bear to have his hopes dashed a second time?

Jesus, possibly having the other disciples hold back the crowd, takes Peter, James and John with him to Jairus' house. The mourners have already been assembled. They have already started crying and wailing loudly. Again this is a culture that does not believe in holding back your emotions. And when Jesus, who has yet to see the girl, says she is not dead but asleep, they break into bleak laughter. She is pale. Her lips are blue. Her eyes are fixed. Her body is limp. There is no breath, no pulse, no heartbeat. They are not stupid. They did not give up on her prematurely. They have seen death more often than many healthcare professionals today have. The women have bathed and prepared and prayed over many a dead friend and neighbor and family member. “She is dead,” they laugh bitterly.

Jesus throws them all out. That's what the Greek says. Taking 3 disciples and the shocked parents into the girl's room, Jesus at last sees the person whose prognosis he so confidently pronounced. Jesus takes the corpse's hand and in her own language, Aramaic, not the more formal Hebrew, nor some magical mumbo jumbo, says, “Little girl, rise.” And she does. She gets up and walks around. She is alive once more. Everyone looking on is, according to the Greek, “instantly amazed and exceedingly ecstatic.”

Jesus then gives 2 orders. First, tell no one. How they are to pull this off, we do not know. As I said, everyone there knew the girl was dead. But Jesus is thinking of his ministry. He doesn't want it to end just yet. What will the authorities do if they hear of this? What would a bunch of doctors do if a local guy were effecting real cures without a license? Leaders are more interested in preserving their power than in promoting truth.

Then, possibly to snap the parents out of their wild and unhinged astonishment, Jesus reminds them to give the girl something to eat. Maybe the girl was dehydrated and emaciated after her long wasting away. Some commentators feel this smacks of an eyewitness account. It's such a weird detail--”Don't forget to feed your daughter”--that it seems like something that struck someone who was there and stuck with them.

The little girl and the bleeding woman were on the lowest rung in status of anyone in their culture. They should have been beneath Jesus' notice. Their conditions should have kept him from touching them. But he did. And he raised the child from the dead, something so astonishing that 3 out of the 4 gospels include it. And all 4 gospels tell us of dead people that Jesus raised. But Dawkins' question remains: why them? Why not save all the dead?

My observation of Dawkins' assumption stands as well. Mere physical rescue is not enough. It is more revival than resurrection. These people had to die all over again some day, though without the fear of death most of us have. Only the final conquering of death will redress the injustice of this life. The Jews of Jesus' day knew that. And they believed that one day, at the end of the current evil age, God would resurrect all people and judge them. And that's what was so mind-blowing about Jesus' resurrection. No one expected God to raise one person before the last day, much less the Messiah, who wasn't even supposed to die. Everything had to be rethought.

The facts are these. The resurrection of Jesus showed that all that he had said was true. He is the Messiah, God's anointed son sent to save the world. His death transforms our deaths. The age of the kingdom of God hasn't waited politely until the present evil age has played out. It's barged its way in, just as Jesus barged into that house filled with folks who made a perfectly reasonable diagnosis of the situation: it's all over; we live in a world with no miracles, no escape, no hope of any higher good than physical life.

Jesus overturned their assumptions and opened their minds to the fact that we don't know everything. The past doesn't put a straightjacket on the future. We do not live in a closed system. Just because God created a reliably regular world doesn't mean he can't break the routine when he feels it's necessary. That routine can be comforting. But when Jesus rose from the dead, all bets were off. Anything he wants to do is possible. And he wants to recreate the world. He wants to infuse life into our dying world. He wants to make us alive now before our life plays out. And when he's done with us, a merely physical life is irrelevant. Whether we live or we die, we are the Lord's. Death cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Jesus' resurrection spelled the death of death. That should be exciting. And maybe a little scary. But Jesus said to Jairus, “Don't be afraid. Just trust.”    

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