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death grief jesus religion resurrection

While It Was Dark

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She got up two hours before sunrise. She couldn’t sleep, and lying wide-eyed in the dark was not doing any good. She had to be up and getting ready. She dressed quickly and took up the basket she had prepared the night before. She checked it again to make sure everything was there. She didn’t want to come back for anything.

The outside air was cool after the closeness inside. She pulled her cloak close around her. No one would be abroad at this hour. No one except the other women, who, like her were going to the garden. Her grief, still painful but now kept at bay by the task at hand, went with her like a dead child she had to carry.

As she walked she examined her feelings. She felt bereft, of course, but there was something unexpected, and she realized it was anger, not just anger that he was gone. No, it was the senseless, uselessness of his death. His friends had warned him. They all knew that the authorities were looking for any pretext to get rid of him. But he would not listen. He insisted on going into the city, teaching in the temple, and deliberately antagonizing the religious leaders. She was angry at him.

She couldn’t fathom it. He had been so different. He had done such extraordinary things. She had almost believed that he was the anointed one the Prophets had talked about. Who was she kidding? She did believe it. But now, how could it be true? He was going to restore the kingdom. He was going to rule with his closest followers. She had heard him talk about it in that confident, so-certain voice that made you sure whatever he said was true.

That was enough to make her angry, feeling they had all been duped. The fickle crowds had praised him only a week ago and demanded his execution just two days ago. His death could have been avoided. It was all so pointless, so hopeless. She couldn’t see any way forward for herself.

That was the worst part. He was utterly different from any man she had ever known. With him she felt seen, felt heard, felt respected. She could hardly articulate it to herself. There were men she felt comfortable with. There had been men she had loved. But there was only one man who made her feel so present. She didn’t know how she could go back from that. Part of her grief was for a loss she had no words for, a loss of her very self.

When she got to the garden, she saw that she was the first to arrive. She didn’t have long to wait. The other women, looking as forlorn and empty as she felt, soon approached.

“We’ve been talking,” Joanna said. “The tomb is sealed by a great stone. Who will roll it away for us?”

“Maybe we will find someone to help us,” she replied. “Let’s just go and see what needs to be done.”

When they got to the tomb, they found the stone already rolled away. At first they thought it would make everything easier, but they soon realized why it was moved. His body was gone. Someone had come in the night and taken his body.

“Who would do such a thing?” she cried. But she knew. The religious leaders feared his followers would steal his body and claim he had risen from the dead as he had said he would. To prevent that, they must have moved the body themselves. She thought about Peter and the other men, how devastated they had been. There was no way any of them could have done this.

The other women were conferring together, deciding what to do. They agreed to go tell the men and urged her to join them, but she wanted to be alone. “I’ll just stay here,” she said, and that seemed to satisfy them. She wondered if they could read the anguish in her heart on her face.

After they left, the grief would no longer be held back. She cried. Her whole body shook with sobs, and she made no attempt to conceal them. Her misery and despair seemed as vast as the sea. She did not know how long she cried. A voice behind her startled her.

“Ma’am, why are you crying?”

“Because they have taken away my lord,” she said without turning around, “and I don’t know where they have laid him. Please, sir, if you know where he is, please take me to him.”

“Mary,” said the voice, and that one word sent an impossible thrill through her. It couldn’t be. She turned, hastily wiping tears from her eyes. It was! He was there, looking more alive than ever. Without thinking, she threw her arms around him and buried her face in his warm chest. She was sure she would die. Then she thought perhaps she already had, and this was that heaven he had so often talked about. She did not know how long she held him and felt the vitality of his body. She kept looking up into his face, trying to see in it the horror she had seen him undergo. She saw him smile, and she held him even more tightly. Then he gently pried her arms from around his body.

“Don’t hold on to me now,” he said. “I have to present myself to my Father. Go and tell my disciples, especially Peter, that you have seen me.”

She stepped back looked at him, trying to take in every detail. The marks of his torture were still there, but his face! His face! She knew she would never forget his face and never be able to describe it. So great was her joy that her own face mirrored his, though she did not know it. She could barely take in what he said to her. He had given her a task. What was it? Ah, yes. She was to tell the men that she had seen him. She turned and ran toward the city, her basket of embalming spices forgotten on the ground. The sun was up, and the world was filling with light.

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children Christians faith injustice jesus love patience religion Saint Paul Satan spiritual life theology

God Is Not In Control

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Well, of course, God is in control. He’s the supreme being, the maker and ruler of the cosmos. How could he not be in control of what he has made? It depends somewhat on what you mean by “control.” Does God determine everything that happens? Is he responsible for earthquakes and tsunamis, witch hunts and revolutions, murders and rapes? Does he get some kind of twisted delight out of tragic accidents or childhood cancer or Covid-19 deaths? If he does not cause disaster and evil, then does he permit it? And if he permits it, isn’t that the moral equivalent of causing it?

These are deep questions, and I am ill-qualified to answer them, but like many others, I can’t help trying to come to terms with them. As a Christian who trusts God and believes he is all good all the time, it does not sit well with me to imagine he created terrible evils or permits them. Perhaps, then, he allows evil because he can’t put a stop to it. In other words, God is not in control.

I’ve written already about who rules the world. Here I would like to introduce another bit of evidence, this time from the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught his followers to pray, “Your name: be hallowed; your kingdom: come; your will: be done. As in heaven, so on earth.” Yet who prays for what they already have? If God’s name is already highly esteemed, if his kingdom is already manifest throughout the world, if his will is already being done, then why make a petition of it? Christians pray for God’s will to be done because it’s not being done. How is it that omnipotence cannot do whatever it pleases whenever it pleases?

One conclusion that many people come to is simply that there is no God. This view has several advantages—a simplified morality where nothing is Good or Evil in some universal, cosmic sense but merely good or bad to or for particular outcomes in particular situations; a sense of intellectual superiority to the vast majority of mankind who throughout history has believed in some kind of god; freedom from arbitrary rules about how to live and behave; and the seductive promise that the pain and despair of existence can’t last forever.

It has disadvantages, too. Without God, there is no ultimate justice. The uncaught murderer will forever go unpunished. Without God, the longing we all have to be fully comprehended and to be loved can never be satisfied. Without God, we each and also collectively face the daunting task of deciding for ourselves what is good and what is evil. Without God, there is no lasting life, no meaning to everything. We can only look forward to the heat death of the universe and perhaps—if some models are correct—an endless cycle of new universes that come into being, grow old, and die over unimaginably vast stretches of time and space.

At this point, I think it is helpful to introduce a distinction between power and authority. Power is the ability to act in a situation or context. Authority is the right to act in a situation or context. To act in a way that is good and right requires both power and authority. For example, a police officer might respond to a call about a domestic dispute and discovers that one of the participants is an undocumented immigrant. However, her city is a sanctuary city, and the police are specifically prohibited from detaining undocumented immigrants unless they are in violation of a city ordinance. The police officer has the power to act but not the authority.

The opening chapters of Genesis reveal a God who, in the act of creating, made creatures enough like himself that he could commune with them and love them. He subjected the world he had made to their authority, and when they rebelled against his good governance, they ceded that authority to God’s enemy. Thus Satan became the ruler of this world, and by his schemes and deceptions he has brought much evil into the world.

If God were like us, his judgment would have been swift and severe. He would have overpowered and immediately crushed the serpent, slain Adam and Eve for their disobedience, and restarted the whole project afresh. But God is not like us. He responded with love like a parent with disobedient children. He gave them consequences for their actions and waited to see what they would do. Would they repent and seek to re-establish the communion they had had with him? Or would they continue in rebellion? Throughout history, some have chosen repentance and some have chosen rebellion1Of course, the Christian understanding is that everyone defaults to rebellion, but some choose repentance and life. In his efforts to persuade rebellious humanity, God even sent his own son as an emissary, not with violence and threats, but with gentleness and love, to persuade the rebels to lay down their arms and surrender. He commissioned his church to the same task, calling them out from their accustomed lives to live a new life in obedience to God by displaying his own loving character in their words and deeds.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9

For this reason, those who claim to be Christians but act with judgment and condemnation toward others have not rightly understood the mission of the church. The church has not been tasked with making society righteous by advocating for laws that reflect Bronze Age values from the Law of Moses. Indeed, Paul taught that the Law no longer held sway over those who commit themselves to Christ2Read just about any of Paul’s letters but especially those to the Romans and the Galatians. Therefore, when Christians spew forth vituperation and anger toward those whose political views differ from their own, they are revealing how much their own hearts and minds are still in bondage to the sinful nature. They are still in rebellion against God, who is patient with everyone but especially with those who have never known his goodness and love. Just as parents are gentle with young children who have not yet learned how to behave but harsher with older children who certainly know better, so God has more patience with sinners who have not known him but has less patience with those who have tasted his mercy and forgiveness.

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

Brennan Manning, attributed
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jesus law religion righteousness salvation sin spiritual life

Fulfilling the Law

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“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

Matthew 5:17-18

One of the charges leveled at the early church—and indeed at Jesus himself—was that they taught people to ignore the demands of the Torah, referred to here as the Law and the Prophets. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contrasts the behavior expected of his followers with the behavior demanded by the Law. He makes it clear at the outset that his intention is not to get rid of the Law or supersede it. Instead, he is going to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.

What does it mean to fulfill the Law and the Prophets?

Of course, the immediately obvious answer is that the Old Testament contains numerous references to a coming Messiah, so Jesus could be proclaiming himself to be that Messiah. But Jesus doesn’t refer only to prophecy. He refers also to Law, to the rules God gave through Moses for governing human behavior. He claims that he has come to fulfill those rules. What can it mean to fulfill the Law?

One of the repeated themes of the Old Testament is that no one is righteous. Paul summarizes it in Romans 3 where he quotes eight Old Testament passages about the universal depravity of human beings. No one, Paul claims, keeps the Law. Is it because the demands of the Law are too difficult to be kept? Is it because, as many of the poor in Jesus’ day apparently believed, only the wealthy can afford to meet the Law’s demands? Regardless the reasons, the Torah is clear that everyone is guilty of not keeping the Law.

Despite these warnings from the Torah, the Pharisees and religious leaders in Jesus’ day thought of themselves as keeping the Law. They were confident that by keeping the commandments and doing pious acts, they were meeting the requirements of the Law and would be saved. Jesus again and again exposed their hypocrisy and pointed out that they were deluding themselves. In fact, far from being righteous enough on their own merits, they were actually in worse shape than the “sinners” they so despised.

Jesus fulfilled the Law by keeping it, not as the Pharisees kept it by assiduously following the rules to the letter while gratifying their own lust and greed and desire for power. No, he kept it as it was intended: as a guide to loving God and other people. He kept it by doing good. In the end, he fulfilled the Law by meeting its demands for justice in his own body, a blameless, unblemished Lamb sacrificed for human beings’ inability to fulfill the Law on their own. To those who by trusting in him accept his sacrifice, he gives the ability by his Spirit to see him as he is and become like him, doing good wherever they go.

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