January 15, 2021

Resurrection Faith in Challenging Days

I didn’t think we’d still be here. Back in March, I thought we’d have Covid wiped out in a few weeks, maybe before Easter. March rolled into April, then May. Surely by the summer, right?

I couldn’t imagine we’d be planning Advent and Christmas under a pandemic; actually, looking at rising numbers and a winter surge. I didn’t think the talk of virtual Annual Meetings was going to be a thing, but it definitely looks that way.

My entire relationship with Covid-19 and this global pandemic, you see, is built on my experiences. Even my rough-hewn optimism is founded on what I’ve experienced, what I’ve known. Back in January 2020, I remember talking about this strange virus – it was breaking into news cycles around that time – but the conversation was heady, intellectual; talking about something other people deal with, not us. “Do you remember SARS?” my conversation partner asked, “It’ll pass by soon enough. It won’t impact us.” The problem was that I believed that statement. I believed it because in my lifetime, to date, I’d never been impacted by something like that. It couldn’t happen to me because, well, it’s never happened to me.

Or so I thought.

There is an experiential dimension to the Christian faith and life, of course there is. There is something to be said for experiencing, knowing in one’s heart, body and mind the power and grace of God known to us in Jesus. John Wesley, that Anglican clergyman, was right that we should have “hearts strangely warmed…” in some way or other.

At the same time, however, whether one feels, experiences something is not the sole determining factor whether (or not) Jesus is at work in one’s life. I suppose Wesley’s argument with 18[1]-century Anglicans still goes on today, to a lesser degree: what can I say about the Christian faith if I don’t feel something, experience it? The Church of England in Wesley’s time didn’t understand why that was a question whatsoever; perhaps we still don’t get it. We tend to expect things we’ve experienced. And, in turn, we don’t anticipate things we’ve never known.

It was weird “celebrating” Easter without gathered throngs of people, children hunting for plastic eggs in the churchyard. It’s equally strange to do so at Christmas and throughout the new year. And what might seem less odd, simply because we’re getting used to virtual worship and social distancing, shouldn’t make us think that any of this is normal, or quite right. It’s all unusual, strange, odd and off-putting … and yet, at the same time, Jesus’ great good news story is still true.

That’s what I’ve always appreciated about the Gospel of Mark, this year’s selected bit of reading for our churchwide Good Book Club. Most likely, scholars tell us, the very first gospel written, Mark doesn’t bother with the extended stories that Matthew and Luke gather; nor does Mark go off on poetic bents like the Fourth Gospel. I’ve often wondered if Mark actually had all those stories but just didn’t include them in his account, such were the frenetic pace and anxious demands weighing on his heart and his community’s life. Mark is written hurriedly, almost anxiously: “immediately…” being one of the gospel author’s favorite turns of phrase.

The community of Jesus-followers for whom Mark is writing a story are dealing with terrible things, a round of persecutions and deep division, brokenness. Many are leaving the community, too many are being killed and persecuted for believing in the God of all creation, made known to us in the counter-cultural, counter-intuitive Way of Jesus. And yet Mark doesn’t call it a ‘story’; rather, scholars tell us, he invents a whole new genre: good news, euangelion, gospel.

And yet, even though the “news,” which is proclaimed by God’s power (not human might) is “good,” it’s not obviously so, and not always experienced or felt in your heart. Mark’s Easter story is really not a detailed account of Jesus’ resurrection but, rather, a hint and an invitation for the reader to wonder, seek, follow all the more. “…And they were terrified” is how the gospel originally ended (Mark 16:8), for the proclamation of God’s victory of life over death is off-putting, unsettling: we, the follower, have to fill in the rest of the story by our work and witness; it’s not readily apparent and not always felt.

Mark’s gospel is written, it seems, to a community of people whose hearts were, at one time or another, “strangely warmed” by the good news of Jesus Christ. And yet this same community, these same women and men are facing challenging times and a remarkably uncertain future. They’re scared and bewildered. They are unsure and being tested. They don’t know what God’s future looks like … and yet, somewhere deep inside, they’re certain that God does have a future envisioned, a much better, brighter, more hopeful future. So what, then? What, then, do they do? What, then, do they believe? How, then, shall they live?

And in the great, good wisdom of the Spirit of God, Mark’s gospel is also perfectly written, equally so, to a number of Jesus followers who claim The Episcopal Church as their home – albeit 21 centuries after Mark first sat down to write. The Episcopal Church is, or at least should be scared and bewildered. We are unsure and being tested. We really don’t know what God’s future looks like … and yet, somewhere deep inside, we’re certain that God does have a future envisioned, a much better, brighter, more hopeful future. So what, then? What, then, do we do? What, then, do we believe? How, then, shall we live?

This blog is part of a series for the Good Book Club. Learn more about the Good Book Club here.

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