The Way … Out
The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
Luke 24:5

One of my closest friends and most trusted advisors was a recovering alcoholic and former cocaine and gambling addict who passed from this life to the next in 2022. He used to tell me that for many of his young adult years, he was in the grip of this “triple threat.” Through the help of friends, a community of faith and trust in God, he escaped their clutches, recovered and went on to live a life that no one, not even he, could have imagined when he was in his darkest moments. In my pastoral work when I encounter someone with similar addictions, I will pray with them and offer what spiritual comfort I can, often my next step is to connect that person to someone like my late friend because, like him, those recovering healers have been there and can help show them the way out.

As we have traveled this Holy Week together, we have been reflecting on several views of the Christian story through the prism of a God who wants to be in a relationship with us so much so that he finally came in human form. To quote the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey once more, “Here is a Messiah who by becoming one of us knows all about human weakness, about human life and development. He knows all about sadness, temptation and the grubby facts of life. I can take comfort in this, knowing that my Lord has entered into our humanity and brought it home to God.”[1]
It was this same Messiah who was able to survive betrayal, torture, execution, even hell itself. When it was all over, Jesus stepped from the grave to show that God’s power was, and is, greater than any darkness of which we humans can dream. That is why, when all is said and done, it is so important that we who bear the name Christian turn to Christ. He has been where we will go and can help show us the way out.

We begin our Lenten pilgrimages on Ash Wednesday with the stark reminder -- “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those words are supposed to remind us of our deaths and the sin that causes them. Death was not God’s original plan; we started all of that by turning from God to self. Once that happened, there was no turning back. Sin infected humanity and still does today.

Thankfully, God loved us so much that he could not just leave us in our sin and death, but sent Christ into the world to save sinners like you and me.[2] Love compelled God to share creation with us, and love compelled God to come — in the person of Christ to live among us — so that new life might be restored where it had been corrupted. As my mentor John Claypool used to say to me, “Remember, the last things are not the worst things.” How to face those last things? Turn to Christ and, lo and behold, we encounter the expert not just in survival, but resurrection. Take his hand and hear his words, “Peace be with you,” as he steps from the grave, and we will come to know not just the possibility, but the reality of Resurrection.

When I was young, one of my favorite movies was Audie Murphy’s, To Hell and Back, which told the actor’s own incredible story of defeating an army of Nazi soldiers virtually on his own. A few years back I visited his grave at Arlington National Cemetery, and I remember goosebumps appearing on my arms as I stood close to the remains of a man who had faced death up close and personal and yet had survived.
Our story says that Jesus really did go to hell and back, but his remains are nowhere to be found because, for Jesus, death was not the last word. Jesus responded to our betrayal with forgiveness, to our torture with endurance, to our execution with submission, to death with commendation, and to hell with embrace. But when it was all over, Jesus pronounced victory over each. He has been there, lived through it all, and finally conquered it all.

I suppose some people might question my trust in certain friends who had lived in so many dark places. But I do not — for what I have witnessed in their own lives that emerged from darkness to light, revealed them to be trustworthy and so trusting in their journeys — and their ability to help others, I felt, made it worth the risk.

And I suppose some people might question my giving my life and life’s work to one who claimed to make it to hell and back. But I do not, because I have come to know him as best as my faculties and faith will allow, and I have found him to be trustworthy. And I feel it is worth the risk.

But then is it a risk? Not really. I love the scene from Luke’s gospel when the women find the tomb empty. At first, they are terrified, but the angel says, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, He is risen.”[3]
Wow! Those are good words for any who face darkness in their lives. And they are even better words for all of us who might find the idea of death just a bit daunting, if not terrifying, because Christ has been where we will go and if we turn to him, he will show us the way out.

A Question to Ponder
What does the promise of Easter mean for the empty tombs of your life? And what does it mean for you as we all face the door of death?

A Prayer
Most Glorious Lord of Life! That, on this day, Didst make thy triumph over death and sin; And, having harrowed hell, didst bring away Captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, dear Lord, with joy begin;
And grant that we, for whom thou didst die, Being with thy dear blood clean washed from sin, May live forever in felicity!
And that thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love thee for the same again;
And for thy sake, that all like dear didst buy, With love may one another entertain!
So let us love, dear Love, like as we ought,
Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught. Amen.”
Edmund Spenser, d. 1599

[1] Carey, "I Believe," 104.
[2] 1 Timothy 1:15.
[3] Luke 24:5-6.
The Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson, Jr.
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