Dead or Alive: It Makes a Big Difference (Nov-Dec 1999)

By Matt Dabbs

Mike Cope
November – December, 1999

“It makes a big difference whether we think someone is dead or alive,” writes Luke Timothy Johnson in his new book, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel. “The most important question concerning Jesus, then, is simply this: Do we think he is dead or alive?”

Johnson is right. It’s that simple. What we believe about that question makes all the difference in the world.

Growing up I always knew the sermon on Easter morning was going to be a warning against celebrating Easter. While I don’t agree with that conclusion, I have a growing respect for the main reason that was usually given: that we should be celebrating the resurrection of Christ every day of the year. For if Jesus is dead, then our faith and our lives are in vain (I Corinthians 15:17).

Having said that, however, I now appreciate the wisdom of the people of God through the years as they have celebrated the resurrection of Jesus on the first Sunday after Passover — the day he was actually raised by his Father from the grave.

This is the sixth year that we’ll gather at a West Texas cemetery early on Easter morning. The “We” is my wife and I, our two sons, and friends who helped care for our daughter as she was dying in 1994.

We’ll do what we always do: tell a few stories about Megan and how she impacted our lives, read I Corinthians 15, listen to Sandi Patty’s “Was It a Morning Like This?” and pray. Then we’ll join our church family at Highland to remember that Jesus is our living Lord who is present among us through the Spirit and who is coming again.

Our family desperately needs Easter this year. We need the hope it so boldly proclaims. For as Diane and I go to our daughter’s cemetery in West Texas, my brother and his wife will be going to a grave in Southwest Missouri where their son, Jantsen Barrett Cope, was buried last summer after he died suddenly at the age of fifteen of a heart malfunction.

No one could have imagined it … not when my little brother stood next to me as my best man … not when I stood before him to perform his wedding ceremony … certainly not when we shared a room together growing up in Missouri. No one could have imagined that we would be united in grief like this.

He sent me a note recently that said: “Some folks want to be buried with a special piece of jewelry or some other memento that meant something to them. I want to be buried with a fattened calf.” I understood immediately. The father in Luke 15 killed the fattened calf because he was overwhelmed with joy to see his son again. He wanted me to know that when he dies, he’ll be celebrating to see Jantsen again.

I wish there was some way to shield people I love from grief and loss. But there just isn’t. As Joy Gresham says to C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands, “The pain is part of the happiness. That’s the deal.”

And the death of a child, while traumatic, certainly isn’t the only kind of loss people in the community of faith suffer. We experience the loss of youth, the loss of love, the loss of dreams, the loss of health, and the loss of relationships. We grieve for mothers who have miscarried and for marriages that have failed; for people who have lost their jobs and for teens who have lost their bearings.

But thanks to the resurrection of Jesus, we can search for meaning in the midst of our losses. We relearn how to be in the world. We reinterpret our personal stories, taking into account the losses we’ve suffered. Ironically, these very losses often make life (and what matters in life!) much clearer. David Wolpe is right on target when he writes:

My deepest prayer to God used to be to spare me from the pains of life that I so dreaded. Now I see that that is the prayer of a child. As a man I do not pray for a life without pain. Instead I pray: “Dear God, I know that there will be pain in my life, and sadness, and loss. Please give me the strength to create a life, together with those whom I love, where loss will not be empty, where pain will not be purposeless. Help me find the faith to make loss matter. Amen.”

In our losses, we cry, lament, groan, question, and wait. But there’s one thing we won’t do: despair. For we live in hope. We are the people of Easter: those who have already believed in and experienced the Resurrected One. We long for his power to be completely manifest and for every tear to be wiped away. So we pray, “Marana Tha … Come, O Lord.”Wineskins Magazine

Mike Cope

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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