Moving From Darkness To Light

by | Apr 4, 2024

On this most Holy Night, in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to live, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer.
Easter Vigil Liturgy, Book of Common Prayer

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Mark 16:1-8

Resurrection is the mysterious process of life rising out of death. It always begins small. In the darkest hour, a seed of life begins to stir, and we rise. Before we know what’s happening, we’re moving toward what lies on a far horizon. To anyone watching us, we’re just going about our day, and we are. But something has changed and we know it.

Faith in the resurrection doesn’t require us to cast a blind eye to all that is not or has yet to be redeemed. For starters, we needn’t pretend that the world isn’t on fire. We know that as we gather here in relative safety, others are huddled in fear for their lives, and we can hold their grief, and ours, with us now. Nor do we have to surrender our perplexity or skepticism in the face of all we don’t understand.

Recently I spoke by telephone with an old friend, someone I’ve known and loved for over 30 years. She and her family were active in the congregation I served in Toledo, Ohio for the first five years of my ordained ministry. She is our younger son’s godmother.

After catching up on family and other things, I asked her if she had plans for Easter. (By the way, she and her family had stopped attending a long time ago.) She said, “Well, this wasn’t the conversation I wasn’t planning on having with my friend the bishop, but since you asked, I need to tell you that of all Christian holidays, Easter is the one I struggle with most. I don’t know how to make sense of the idea that Jesus died for our sins. It doesn’t bother me to be around people for whom it does make sense, but it’s a real stumbling block for me, and I’ve been thinking about it since we spoke.

I was in my car while we were having this conversation, and all I was really asking was where she was going to have dinner. So I wasn’t sure where to begin. Finally I said, light-heartedly, “You know, you are the very first person I know who has struggled with this.” She laughed, which was good. Then I assured her that Jesus dying for our sins has been a subject of intense debate among Christians throughout the ages, and thus there are many ways to think about it.

I was already thinking about a few articles and essays on the resurrection that I wanted to send her. “Before we talk in earnest about this,” I said, “it would help me to know what you mean when you say ‘Jesus died for our sins.’ It can mean very different things to different people.” I was thinking of all the times when people say to me that they don’t believe in God and I ask them to describe the God they don’t believe in, because chances are good that I don’t believe in that God, either.

By then I had reached my destination and we had to stop. But I’ve been thinking about our conversation since then, and it occurred to me that there was one story in particular that I wanted to share with her, because that best expresses my understanding of what the phrase ‘Jesus died for our sins’ means. It doesn’t speak to me intellectually, but poetically. It doesn’t answer all the questions I have, but it resonates in my heart.

So let me close by telling this story to you. In doing so, I honor a dear friend who shared it with me years ago and who died last summer. It’s not my story, but it feels like mine—that’s how deeply it speaks to me of forgiveness and love and what Jesus makes possible for us.

This is for you, Perry Epes.

The story is found in a trilogy, The Seed and the Sower, written by the South African author, Laurens van der Post. It begins with the haunting confession of a young British soldier:

“I had a brother once and I betrayed him.”

He goes on, “The betrayal in itself was so slight that most people would find ‘betrayal’ too exaggerated a word. Yet as one recognizes the nature of the seed from the tree, and the tree by its fruit, and the fruit by the taste on the tongue, so I know the betrayal from its consequences and the tyrannical flavor it left behind in my emotions…

So this is a tale of shame, the shame that this young man, who was blessed with physical beauty and intelligence, felt about his younger brother, who was, in contrast, slightly deformed, quiet and self-conscious. His brother’s only gift, it seemed, was that of song, hardly anything in comparison to the other’s many talents. Few noticed this gift, and it was a source of curiosity among other boys. The young man felt his brother’s deformity as a threat to his own identity, and while he was on the surface protective and affectionate, inside he felt embarrassed and resentful.

The time came for his brother to join him at boarding school, and when the hazing rituals began—a humiliating experience for any boy—his brother was particularly humiliated and scorned. He felt that he ought to say something, but he did nothing but watch from a distance, avoiding his brother’s increasingly desperate eyes that searched for him in the mocking crowds. Afterwards he made light of his brother’s pain and they never spoke of it again. Nor did his brother ever sing again.

Years past and during World War II, the older brother found himself in Palestine as a soldier in the British Army. There he met an old priest who became his friend. The priest told him that every year at Easter, he walked the seven mile walk between Jerusalem and Emmaus, to remember Jesus’ encounter with the two disciples on the road. “I walk only at night,” the priest told him, “to remind myself of all the ways I fail to recognize Jesus in the daylight of my life.” That Easter night the soldier joined him. It was an unremarkable experience, but shortly afterwards he became quite ill with a recurring bout of malaria.

Fevered and hallucinating, he dreamed of the Resurrected One on the road. “Where is Judas?” Jesus asked in the dream. “We can’t go on without him.” The soldier listened as the other disciples explained to Jesus that Judas was dead, that he hanged himself in shame. Jesus responded by looking up to heaven in prayer. “This cannot be! If I fail in this, I fail in all else besides. His deed, too, must be redeemed.”

Then the man in his dream stepped forward. “I am Judas.” Jesus smiled. “Good. Now we can both be free.” “But I am not free,” the man confessed. “I had a brother once, and I betrayed him.” Jesus nodded slowly, in understanding kindness. “Then you must go to your brother and make our peace with him, even as I have had to do with my need of you.”

On his next furlough, the man traveled back to South Africa, found his brother on their family farm and acknowledged his guilt. “You came all the way here simply to say this to me?” the brother marveled. When the soldier left to return to his military post, he heard his brother singing.

What I love about this story, and why it speaks to me of Jesus’ dying for our sins, isn’t that it ends in such a satisfying reconciliation. That almost never happens for me. What I love is Jesus’ question: “Where is Judas?” and his insistence to God, “We can’t go on without him.”

I love that the accomplished brother carried in his soul the secret of his guilt, and it was there, in that dark place with no one save the priest who heard his confession, that Jesus met him and set him free. I love that forgiveness came with a path of restitution, a way of making things as right as we can and to join with Jesus in helping others to rise, too.

So yes, I believe that Jesus died for our sins, not as a substituting sacrifice, but as an expression of sacrificial love that will not let us go, no matter who we are, what we have done, or what has been done to us.

To be a person of faith in this world is a daily discipline of taking small steps each day toward life, even if it isn’t the life we wanted or imagined, even when the worst thing possible has happened. It is a grace that meets us where we are, but does not leave us there.

Resurrection asks us to stake our life on hope when hope feels small. The poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize, once wrote, “Say to the down-keepers, the sun-slappers, the self-soilers, the harmony-hushers, ‘even if you are not ready for day, it cannot always be night.’”

It cannot always be night. Even though it’s still dark, the light of Christ is calling us, asking us to be the ones to move out in faith. Who knows what will be lost if we don’t? And what might happen when we do?

Read Bishop Mariann’s full Easter Vigil sermon here