Some of us may have seen the movie The Iron Lady starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. There is no doubt about it: Margaret Thatcher could be one tough cookie. Her resolve to fight the Falklands War, her battle with the unions, her determination to restructure the British economy, her treatment of cabinet ministers all gave the appearance of being cold and unfeeling. But there was another side to Margaret Thatcher, a deeply sensitive side.
During Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister, terrorism was a fact of life in Great Britain-not from Islamic extremists but from the IRA. Car bombs and other kinds of incendiary devices had rocked London and other major cities. Perhaps the worst act of terrorism occurred when a terrorist’s bomb exploded in the conference room where many of the government meetings were held. Margaret Thatcher survived this blast, but some of her cabinet ministers were killed.
The following Sunday, Thatcher went to church as she always did. But that particular Sunday seemed different. As Thatcher sang the hymns, listened to the sermon, saw the candles upon the altar and the sunshine streaming through the stained-glass windows, she began to weep. She wept because everything around her had been changed by the loss of her friends. She knew she would not only miss her friends, but also the wonderful times they had together. And so, Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, wept. (1)
If we can relate to Thatcher’s grief, maybe we can relate to the grief of Jesus’ disciples and friends on that first Easter morning. Our gospel tells us that early Sunday morning, three women, Mary Magdalene, Salome and Mary, the mother of James, made their way to the tomb with spices they had purchased to anoint the body of Jesus.
Jesus was dead. There was no doubt about it. They had seen him die on the cross. They had heard him cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They had witnessed his lifeless body put into a borrowed tomb, with a huge stone that closed the entrance. But when they got to the tomb that Sunday morning, they were shocked to see the stone rolled away. Then they heard the message that Jesus was not there. He had been raised from the dead. Their reaction was what yours would be: they were amazed and frightened. They ran from the tomb too afraid to talk with anyone.
What are we to make of Mark’s Gospel? At first glance, it’s a bit disconcerting. After all, there is no appearance of Jesus, just the proclamation that he has been raised from the dead. But notice what else the messenger says to the women: “Go tell his disciples…that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him…”
Now what might that phrase “he is going ahead of you” mean for us today as we struggle with disease and disability, financial problems and marital concerns, and a host of worries and anxieties that never cease to stalk us? What does it mean for us as we grieve the loss of a loved one, struggle with unemployment, or try to pick up the pieces of our lives after a broken relationship?
We begin by focusing on the most important truth of our Christian faith: Jesus has been raised from the dead. Easter moves us beyond the inevitable question, “Why?” — Why did this happen to me or to my loved ones?” – to the more fundamental question, “How?” – How can I face this pain, how can I handle this loss, this challenge, this hurt?” The resurrection provides the answer.
When I was studying divinity at Trinity College, I was asked to lead an overnight retreat for a group of inter-varsity Christian fellowship students. Many of those students came from conservative churches that tend to be suspicious of Anglicans as not real believers. But somehow, I got invited to give this retreat.
On Friday night after supper, one of the students cornered me and asked, “Do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus?” My response was automatic. “Why, of course,” I said. “The resurrection is the foundation of the Christian faith.”
“That’s not what I mean,” the student persisted. “Do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus?” I responded impatiently, “I just told you. The resurrection is the foundation of Christian faith.”
“You’re not hearing me,” the student said. “Do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus?” This time I shouted, “Yes, by God, I do believe in the resurrection of Jesus!”
“Right on!” said the student. “I wasn’t sure you Anglicans really believed that stuff.”
My reaction was completely different from his. I had often prayed St. Paul’s prayer: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” At that moment I realized that my prayer had been answered. My belief in the resurrection of Jesus was not simply a matter of accepting the witness of the Bible or the teaching of the Church; it came from the very depths of my heart. The result was what I can only describe as a “super-naturalizing” of my world. Nothing had changed, yet everything had changed. If God had raised Jesus from the dead, then there was nothing that life could throw at me that could not be surmounted by the power of his resurrection.
One of my jobs as a parish priest is to minister to people in the catharsis of pain and grief and tragedy. I have to confess that I don’t see how a person can face all the sorrows of this world without a belief in the resurrection. We simply cannot insulate ourselves from the heartaches and heartbreaks of life. Someday they will be too much for us. When we are young we go through life thinking we are immortal, but there comes a point when the pains and problems are just too much to bear. And then we realize: someday we are going to die.
I will never forget when that moment came to me. I had just turned 50 and was hiking a nature trail outside San Diego. I felt a chill run up my spine and stopped walking. I realized that I had reached midlife and in fact, my life was more than half way finished. After all, how many 100 year olds did I know?
Of course, death can take us at any age, at any time. You go for your annual check-up, and the doctor tells you about a lump in your breast or a tumor on your liver, and you begin to count the days you’ve got left. Most of us attend more funerals than marriages. People we know and love die all the time. We see the news stories of accidents on highways, fires and floods, tornadoes and hurricanes that wipe out communities. Let’s not fool ourselves. We live by a slender thread, which at some point will break for each of us.
Which is why the question, “Do I believe in the resurrection?” is the most important question we can ever ask. Our security, our eternal security is in the resurrection of Jesus. If he lives, we live. If Jesus goes before us, then we follow him to heaven. In fact, the Bible promises that we shall see him face-to-face. He stands with us and goes ahead of us in our trials and temptations, in our frustrations and failures, in our disappointments and defeats. Quite simply, our God is a “Go Ahead God” – for wherever we go, God is already there. God is always and forever going before us and leading us through the depths of this life to the heights of the life to come.
Maybe you’ve come to church this morning seeking a good dose of hope. Life can break your heart. We can feel we’re alone, struggling to survive, trying to hold on, and keeping things from falling apart. I know. But I’m here to tell you not to give in to despair or to give up on life. As the saying goes, “hope springs eternal.”
Jesus goes before us, and because of that we can live in the assurance that no matter how tough life gets, how unfair life treats you, God’s victory is sure. St. Paul was right: we are more than conquerors through Jesus who loves us. At the end of our days, death never has the last word in our lives. God does.
There was a small article that appeared in Holy Cross Magazine several years ago. A father was mourning his son David who was killed in Vietnam. Years later that same father, still mourning, found himself on a mountain in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. He could hardly bear the terrible beauty of rock and snow, water and cloud that lay before him, and in his heart he said, “David, I wish we’d seen this together.”
Then he heard David whisper back to him, “Dad, you haven’t seen anything yet.”
Dear people: the best is yet to come. That’s not wishful thinking. It’s faith based on fact. Jesus goes ahead of us. You and I are going into a future where Jesus has already gone, and when we arrive there we’ll find Jesus waiting with open arms to welcome us home.
1. Todd Outcalt, The Best Things in Life Are Free (Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, 1999) 163
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.