Follow me on Twitter @revbrock

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Resurrection Stone

The Resurrection Stone
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
The Thirteenth Sunday of Pentecost

            I had the opportunity to travel to Greece in 2007 for a course on Paul and his Grecian churches. Much of the religious culture that we encountered there was Greek Orthodox, a branch of Christianity that seems to be a throwback to ancient times with its Greek liturgy and fascinating architecture.
            What has stuck with me from the tours we took of various churches in Athens, Corinth, and Thessaloniki, is the sense of historical participation that is build into the Eastern Orthodox liturgy and worship. In many of the churches we toured the sanctuary is painted from five feet off of the floor to the very ceiling with images of people praising Jesus Christ. At the highest point in the room, usually a domed ceiling in the center of the space, Jesus Christ sits surrounded by angels. Surrounding this image are circles of worshippers: the Old Testament heroes, the Apostles, the Fathers, then the saints of the Orthodox faith whose feet are painted just below eye level on the walls of the room. The effect of all this painting is that as you stand anywhere in that room you are drawn into a sense of participation in the eternal worship of Jesus Christ. You are the next generation, the next circle of the faithful looking upward and singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” along with all of those who have gone on before. One gets a sense of the immense scope of tradition and history that is celebrated in the liturgy of Greek Orthodoxy just by standing in the room where worship happens. My voice, my eyes, my spirit was added to those of the great cloud of witnesses painted on the walls. Standing in those cathedrals you can hear the voices of long-dead saints hanging both in the air and before the Throne.

We don’t do saints well in Baptist life. We have heroes, it is true, but our heroes generally represent our own pet causes more than our devotion to godly faithfulness. We unofficially canonize preachers who preach our brand of theology or those who champion the social causes that we support. We are wary of saints as we are of creeds - in our denial of either we belie our de facto devotion to both.
            I have been so moved by the painting of the Greek churches because I crave membership in a great tradition, one that has icons and saints, smells and bells, demands and devotion that is deeper than the individualistic, consumer-based model of spirituality that I have come to embody. Baptists have such a poor sense of history that we often ignore or even mock those we call “traditionalists” for their dusty and inflexible devotion to irrelevant forms of Christianity. We are a people who rely on the conversion experience as a moment more important that any moment which has come before. We set the date of our baptism as a watershed event and measure everything as being before or after we “met Jesus.”
            But I want tradition. I want spirituality. I want, no, I thirst for something deeper and bigger and dustier than the flashy, polished, needs-meeting ministry of my culture. I want to be able to look and saints and heroes of the faith in the way that the author of Hebrews does - as imperfect examples of how to live a godly life in the world that is being redeemed by the Spirit of God.
            Perhaps we can learn something from our Catholic and Orthodox cousins. Be appropriating a Baptist version of sainthood we can avoid our Baptist navel-gazing and re-conceptualize spirituality by providing ourselves with a stronger sense of spiritual lineage, that is, a sense of purposeful connectedness with the past and the future. Our commitment to scripture as the primary authority for Christian faith and practice will enable us to avoid treating these spiritual heroes as icons in stained glass; rather, we will tend to conceptualize the lives of such saints as windows through which to gain a fresh perspective on scripture and on the life and teaching of Jesus himself. So long as we see the Saints and spiritual heroes as examples, as windows to the true Godly life made real in Jesus we will avoid the perils of misguided honor and worship.
            We would do well to examine the lives of the saints and those spiritual heroes who have journeyed this way before us. Through such reading and prayerful examination we may learn what being a member of this Baptist priesthood is all about. We will surely find a connectedness across the broken years of history to the people and traditions of our Faith from which we have been separated because of our peculiar Baptist experiences here. We will find that the examination of the lives of the faithful is useful, beneficial, and even desirable. More than this, though, is the sense of participation that will fill us.
            We should not engage the writings of and about Christian saints and heroes out of historical curiosity; rather we should examine them to help us understand our own lives as examples to those who come after us. Morgan comments that, “The long Christian tradition of sanctity views exemplary Christians as bridges between earlier lives of righteousness, even the life of Jesus Christ himself, and future righteousness.”[1] We Baptists are much more familiar and comfortable with this idea. We speak of “witness” and “testimony.” We are to be living examples of the transforming and redeeming power of Jesus Christ for others to see. Surely it is not so strange to think of ourselves as participating in someone else’s “great cloud” one day, though I confess it seems arrogant to do so. Perhaps by examining the lives of those spiritual heroes we will see ourselves, at least in part, as real participants in what God is and has been doing in the world.

Being a real participant in the real work that God is doing in our world can be a little intimidating. My tradition of Baptist life has formed me to think of the Gospel as evangelization with little afterward. The idea, then, of being ushered into a Kingdom where people do real work that does real good for a very real God seems more than I can bear. It is in those moments when the work of God lands me in the middle of very real and very powerful situations with families and communities that I need the cloud of witnesses to be real.
            The people mentioned in the Hebrews list are far from perfect. They are not holy; they are not canonized. They are real. They are prostitutes, adulterers, doubters, deserters, murderers, and thieves. They are like that rowdy lot in Tiger Stadium or Cameron Indoor, pressing in on both home and away players, cheering and chanting and pleading in their imperfection for us to taste and see that the Lord is good. They are pleading for one more foot to land in front of the other. They are cheering us on and worshipping the Lord in the same breath. They cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” as though it was an invitation hymn.

In the final book of the Harry Potter series the main characters are introduced to a magical object called the resurrection stone. This curious little rock has been imbued with the power to call forth the dead at the pleasure of the living.
            When Harry comes to the end of his own journey, in a moment when he faces the embodiment of evil, he uses the resurrection stone to call forth courage. What the stone reveals to him are the spirits of his long-dead parents and his recently killed friends. He does not call them forth from the beyond to deny them peace or rest; he calls on them in his moment of need.
            “He closed his eyes and turned the stone over in his hand three times.
            He knew it had happened, because he heard slight movements around him that suggested frail bodies shifting their footing on the earth, twig-strewn ground that marked the outer edge of the forest. He opened his eyes and looked around.
            They were neither ghostly nor truly flesh, he could see that. Less substantial than living bodies, but much more than ghosts, they moved toward him, and on each face there was the same loving smile…
            Lily’s smile was widest of all. She pushed her long hair back as she drew close to him, and her green eyes, so like his, searched his face hungrily, as though she would never be able to look at him enough.
            “You’ve been so brave.”
            He could not speak. His eyes feasted on her, and he thought that he would like to stand and look at her forever, and that would be enough.
            “You’re nearly there,” said his father. “Very close. We are…so proud of you.”
            “Does it hurt?” The childish question had fallen from Harry’s lips before he could stop it.
            “Dying? Not at all,” said Sirius. “Quicker and easier than falling asleep.”
            “I didn’t want you to die, “ Harry said. These words came without his volition. “Any of you. I’m sorry…”
            A chilly breeze that seemed to emanate from the heart of the forest lifted the fair at Harry’s brow. He knew that they would not tell him to go, that it would have to be his decision.
            “You’ll stay with me?”
            “Until the very end,” said his father.
            Harry looked at his mother.
            “Stay close to me,” he said quietly. And he set off.”[2]
This tender scene is how the “great cloud of witnesses” functions for me. It is easy to think of Abraham and David and Joshua and Paul and Matthew as holy characters who seem too different from me to be a part of my own spirituality. I need people a little closer to home. I need some holy heroes that point the way along this Way because they have been that way themselves. I need heroes, witnesses, saints not made in my own image but in the image of those seeking the image of Jesus Christ.
            That is the essence of our Christian discipleship - the imitation of Christ. Such imitation is in the practices of Jesus himself, but it can also be found in observing the lives of those saints who were closer to that image than I am. It is in mentoring the believers who follow behind us on the journey of faith. It is in showing the way even as we stumble along and look ahead for guidance. It is to stand at the base of that great basilica and see ourselves as the next generation of believers in a very real God who does very real things and sing our part in that Holy, Holy, Holy that never stops.

            In our troubles and in our struggles we are not alone. In our successes and failures we are not the only ones. We belong to a community that extends from God’s first words to Abram through the call we each have heard to run that good race. This extended community includes those whose faithfulness has actually ended in success.[3] It includes those saints who have found the solid footholds and who have, through their writings, come back to guide us along the way.
            We are not alone. The journey is too much for any of us to do alone, but it is enough to have a cloud of witnesses to guide and to cheer us on. Together, standing with one another and in the midst of this host, we will walk the Way and do the work of God in this place. Is not God a God who is nearby? Is not this great cloud of witnesses with us?
Take heart, then, my dear friends. Let us do that holy work of moving forward in our faith and help others find their way. Keeping our eyes on Jesus, our feet on the path, and our ears tuned to the sounds of that great crowd saying, “you’re almost there.” Dear God, “stay close” to us. Amen.

[1] From Morgan, Ron, “The Great Cloud of Witnesses: Evangelical Christians and the Lives of the Saints.” Fides et Historia, 35 no 2, 19-27.
[2] Adapted from Rowling, J.K., Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic, 2007, p. 698-700.
[3] Renwick, David A., “Hebrews 11:29-12:2.” Interpretation, 57 no. 3, 300-302.

No comments:

Post a Comment