Living among the Dead

The first twelve verses of Luke chapter twenty-four tell the story of the empty tomb. There is a question that pulls our attention like a magnet to the middle of that account: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” empty tombWhat an abrupt question. Looking for the living among the dead—as though the women approaching the tomb were a bit dense, looking for something in the wrong place. “Why do you look for your socks in the T-shirt drawer?” “Why do you expect body checks at a curling match?” “Why do you look for a balanced budget from a Liberal government?” (I couldn’t resist) “Why do you look for spring in March?” “Why do we hope for peace and security in a violent world?” “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Why—why indeed?

I’m reminded of a story, not a biblical story, not a factual story—but one that’s true nevertheless. The story is a sort of meditation on the power of death and the deeply-rooted human instinct to violence. It goes a bit like this: sometime during the Second World War a civilian passenger plane is shot down in the tropics. The plane was evacuating British schoolboys. Some of them survive the crash and find themselves on a beautiful island. They discover that the island has everything they could possibly need. It has fresh water, material for building shelters, fruit, wild pigs that they can hunt. It is a good island.

But the boys know they have work to do if they want to survive. They gather together and elect a leader. They elect one of the oldest, a boy named Ralph. Ralph appoints another older boy, whose name is Jack, to be in charge of a team to hunt food. About the same time another one, nicknamed Piggy, finds a conch shell on the beach. They all agree that whoever holds the shell during their meetings will have the right to speak. Piggy wears glasses, and the boys decide to use the lenses to start a signal fire. They hope a passing ship might rescue them.

Lord of the FliesThe island may be good and the boys innocent enough, but problems quickly arise. Jack and his crew become obsessed with hunting, so obsessed that they forget to maintain the signal fire. When the elected leader, Ralph, criticizes him, Jack takes his embarrassment and anger out on Piggy. Jack strikes him across the face!

Some of the younger boys begin to worry that a beast prowls the island. Perhaps it hides in the forest or maybe in the sea. Moved by fear, the boys look increasingly to Jack, the hunter, the one with a spear, for assurance.

One night some of them think they see the beast—a vast billowing, glinting shape rising up out of the jungle. Pressed by this sense of danger the group is divided between those loyal to the elected leader Ralph and those who follow Jack the hunter.

Last week we remembered Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We were reminded of the violent and politically charged context in which Jesus performed his symbolic ride. We noted too that his cleansing of the temple and the cup and bread he served his disciples in that rented upper room were also purposeful symbolic actions. These acts placed his own life within the larger narrative of ancient Israel. They connected Jesus to stories of oppression, freedom and sinfulness. They connected Jesus to the stories of Divine faithfulness—those times when Israel had seen God’s strong hand at work. And they connected him to longings for such a thing to happen again. All of this firmly placed Jesus in the real world where fear ruled and where the innocent suffered.

Back on the island there is another important character we should meet, his name is Simon. Simon is smart and good. Simon also has seizures. During one such episode Simon imaginatively talks to the head of one of the pigs killed for food and for bloodlust. It is the beast, he believes in that moment, the “Lord of the Flies.”

Now there’s something we should know here: one of the names used in Scripture to speak of evil personified is ‘Beelzebub’. That is a transliteration of the Hebrew turned into a proper noun. The meaning of the Hebrew could be translated into English as “Lord of the Flies.”

The beast Simon talks to says that there is no escaping him. He is part of each of them. There’s no way to separate the beast out and defeat him. That may be true in one sense, but after his seizure Simon has a clear-eyed sighting of the thing in the forest the others had thought was the beast. It’s nothing. It isn’t alive.

Simon realizes that the beast has no power of its own. Through the lengthening shadows he takes his message to the rest of the stranded boys. Simon finds them in the midst of a shadowy celebration. They are reenacting their hunt. When Simon walks out of the forest the boys act as though he is the thing they hunt. There is a wild frenzy and Simon becomes a target. He is a scapegoat. They mob says he is the beast. All of them have a hand in it, and from this violence there is no turning back. Rules no longer matter, only weapons and brute force.

Without doubt this is a literary echo of the death of Jesus. We know that centuries before Jesus lived, Jewish revolutionaries, Maccabean nationalists, had denounced those Jews who compromised with their overlord Antiochus Epiphanes. The Maccabean revolutionaries said that those Jews were no better than pagans by the standards of Torah. They tried to force obedience to Torah with daggers and spears.

Jesus, this character at the center of Luke’s gospel account, has something to say about being faithful to Torah. Jesus has something to say about what it means to be God’s priestly, exemplary people. NT JVGBut he pushes things in a different direction than those who tried to secure their position through violence. Jesus says that those who try to play Caesar’s power games have already lost. Those who thought they could find freedom and peace through the use of weapons, they have been overly impressed with the power of violence. [1] God’s kingdom is certainly about justice. It does not ignore suffering. However, the kingdom of God manifests itself and extends itself differently. This is what Jesus’ passion demonstrates.

When Jesus is named the problem by cultural leaders, by religious leader and by imperial representatives he does not turn and cast blame on someone else. He does not push another person or another group into the circle of spears and clubs. He does not create more victims. And he does not do that because he doesn’t believe the Lord of the Flies has so much power.

Jesus doesn’t believe that death can pay for everything it orders. He believes there’s a more powerful currency. And when you believe that, death’s threats aren’t so impressive. They’re real, but not so impressive.

Many of you have recognized the story I’ve been using to throw a different light on our gospel text. It is William Golding’s novel The Lord of the Flies. Golding’s story ends with Ralph’s own life on the line. Chased by the others, Ralph runs to the beach, stumbles, falls and looks up, only to see the most surprising of creatures—an adult.

The adult looks at the mob chasing Ralph and says, “’I should have thought that a pack of British boys . . . would have been able to put up a better show . . . .’”

“’It was like that at first,’” says Ralph, “’before things . . . .’”

And then Ralph begins to cry. Golding writes, “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.” The rescuer looks away uncomfortably. He looks out to the sea, and his eyes rest on his naval vessel. Golding is suggesting, of course, that what looks absurdly dark in the story of these boys is nothing other than the world of adults. This is the world as it is.

It is as though Golding asks readers why we would expect anything else. Why would we look for the living among the dead? Why would we expect suffering, violence and scapegoating not to be the norm . . . the norm and the only currency that matters?

In I Corinthians 15 Paul says that death comes to us because we are human creatures. We are all ruled by death in as much as we are “in Adam.” PaulThat is, in as much as we are humans we are subservient to the power of death. In The Lord of the Flies not even the human power of science, represented by Piggy, nor the potential of mystical insight, represented by Simon—neither of these can escape the hegemony of death.

There is nothing within the system capable of breaking the evil cycle of inordinate desire, hate and violence. That is, there is no way to escape the power of sin and death. Look, if you don’t believe these things have power, read the newspaper. The world is not care bears and sunshine. We are among the dead. Each of our lives have felt death’s cold logic. We know the pain that comes with its way of doing business.

Here’s a mundane example: I sometimes am a bit uneasy when people new to our congregation introduce themselves to me and pay us some large compliment. Maybe they say they appreciate our social engagement, or our worship, or the sense of welcome, or the attention we give to Scripture or our tall handsome pastor. Part of my unease is probably due to my own introverted nerdiness, but another part of it is that I know they will eventually be disappointed. It isn’t that there’s anything in particular wrong with our congregation. It’s just that we, like everyone else, are dying people in a world marked by death. If you want a community without fault, without conflict or without annoyances you’ll need to look elsewhere. What’s more, this very Holy Week began with news of yet another terrorist attack in a well-governed, open country. Why would we look for life in this world or in this church?  Why would we look for the living among the dead? Why would we even imagine another currency?

In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul goes on (vv.22, 26) to say, “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. . . . The last enemy to be destroyed,” he says, “is death.”

Golding can’t quite envision it but he shouldn’t to be faulted for that. We know that the stone rolled away, the tomb without a body, the divine messengers in dazzling clothes—none of that can be proven like death can be. W goldingAt least not in the sense of being repeatable. The words of those women who visited the tomb seemed to the other disciples like “an idle tale.” No doubt, but that is precisely the point, or at least it’s on the way to the point. Something dramatically out of the ordinary has happened here. Something has been thrown into the gears, something the disciples couldn’t ignore, something that would change their entire approach to life. The resurrection changes things. It throws off our calculations. It disrupts the economics of our lives.

The apostle Paul believed there was another currency in the world, a currency other than that of violence, a currency other than the one controlled by the Lord of the Flies. He believed there was and is a currency of life. This currency exists on account of the fact that “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”

We believe this currency is real because the resurrection of Jesus is the first fruit, the first fruit of what will be a whole, huge harvest. It is the first fruit of what the prophet Isaiah refers to in chapter 65 as God creating the heavens and the earth anew.The Peacable Kingdom

We believe this currency is such that “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” We believe that one day, there will no longer be “an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.” Because of the risen Christ we believe one day there shall be no one who labors in vain or bears “children for calamity.”

Because of the risen Christ we believe there shall come a time when “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox” and the serpent shall eat dust. We believe, as the Lord says, there shall come a time when creatures that live by tooth and claw—“They shall not hurt or destroy on all [the Lord’s] holy mountain.”

All that is impossible of course. We can’t hammer out a list of action items to get us there. We couldn’t put together a national political platform based on the resurrection. The currency of life is hard to find in a world of death. But we look into the tomb and we find it empty. Maybe just maybe he is alive, and if so we need to recalculate. Things are different. The sting of death will subside.

–Hallelujah

[1] I’m borrowing here from N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 595.

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