by Rev. Doug gray
In the city of Hanover is a graveyard which has been closed for a number of years—the Garden Churchyard. Because of its beautiful and unusual stone monuments and a number of celebrated residents, the graveyard draws the curious. A few paces east of the unassuming little church in the graveyard is a monument to Henriette Juliane Caroline von Rüling, built in the form of steps, and the massive stones are secured by heavy iron clasps. The monument was erected in the year 1782. Besides the usual family inscriptions, at the base of the monument, are engraved these words: “May this tomb, purchased for all eternity, never be opened.” That’s how lots of us feel about death—that there is a wall beyond which we may not want to go. John Ortberg, in his book, All the Places to Go: How Will I Know, writes, “We all know about the wall. The wall is our finitude, our problems, our limitations, our disappointments, and ultimately our death. The great question in life is whether the universe has a door in the wall.”
Lots of us look for the door in the wall by focusing on the nuts and bolts and arguing from logic. Being a scientist at heart, I start here. Could Jesus have risen from the grave? Some have argued that Jesus didn’t really die. Others have argued that perhaps disciples stole the body. Still others have looked for a way to explain the resurrection. A woman once wrote author and pastor, Dr. J. Vernon McGee, “Our preacher said that on Easter Jesus just swooned on the cross, and the disciples nursed him back to health. What do you think?” McGee quipped, “Dear Sister, beat your preacher with a leather whip for thirty-nine heavy strokes. Nail him to a cross. Hang him in the sun for six hours. Run a spear through his heart. Put him in an airless tomb for three days. Then see what happens.” No, Jesus was truly dead. The common denominator in all these ideas is that we want an explanation that makes sense of Jesus’ resurrection in a way that we can understand. What we want is to use what we can see, taste and touch to explain life and its meaning. No matter how we try to explain it, this approach merely distracts us—it cannot find the door in the wall.
Lots of us try to pretend there is no the door in the wall, by making ourselves more secure. So we build layers of security around ourselves and our families. Perhaps we invest in home security, a better job, work longer hours, look for high safety ratings on our cars, try to lock in a better future. Ortberg tells a story “that a king once sent a pearl to the era’s most famous rabbi, Rav. Rav sent back a simple mezuzah. (A mezuzah is a small case you put on the door of your house. Inside is placed the Bible verse, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One and you shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might. For those that have a mezuzah, they touch it as the go in or out, to remind themselves that they are loved and they are called to love.) The king was furious at the great discrepancy in value. Rav explained. ‘The gift you sent me is so valuable that it will have to be guarded, whereas the gift I sent you will guard you.’ He quoted Proverbs…’When you walk it will lead you; when you lie down it will watch over you.’” Isn’t that the irony of our time? That we buy stuff, and then we need stuff to store our stuff, and then we need a house to store our stuff, and then we need stuff to keep track of our stuff. No matter how much stuff we have, it doesn’t help us find the door in the wall, nor give us certainty about what’s on the other side.
The problem we have when we try to find the door in the wall is that all too often, as the angel hints today, we are looking for the living among the dead. How can anything made by human hands take us beyond the humans that created it? Limited by the wall, we humans cannot make our own door. Bruce Larson said, “The events of Easter cannot be reduced to a creed or philosophy. We are not asked to believe the doctrine of the resurrection. We are asked to meet this person raised from the dead. In faith, we move from belief in a doctrine to a knowledge of a person. Ultimate truth is a person. We met him. He is alive!”
Maybe that’s why we can’t find the door in the wall. All our lives we are looking for the escape route from reality, the meaning of existence, the door in the wall, and it’s really a person. But Jesus said “I am the door. Whoever enters by me will be made whole and find meaning, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” But this Person, this relationship, this door in the wall, changes everything, especially how we relate to each other. A venerable, old sage once asked his disciples, “How can we know when the darkness is leaving and the dawn is coming?” “When we can see a tree in the distance and know that it is an elm and not a juniper,” ventured one student. “When we can see an animal and know that it is a fox or a wolf,” chimed in another. “No,” said the old man, “those things will not help us.” Puzzled, the students demanded, “How then can we know?” The master teacher drew himself up to his full stature and replied quietly, “We know the darkness is leaving and the dawn is coming when we can see another person and know that this is our brother or our sister; otherwise, no matter what time it is, it is still dark.”
Perhaps the pronouncement on the tomb in Hanover was written in a time of deep sorrow and hopelessness—Henrietta who was buried there was after all only 26 when she died of tuberculosis. However the inscription was written, a beech seed found its way into a crevice of the foundation. In the course of years, this little seed grew to be a strong, luxuriant tree, mocking the proud inscription of the monument, as its roots raised the massive stones from their foundation, and broke the strong iron clasp on the tomb. This famous, open grave is a reminder that we, humans, sometimes don’t have much of a sense of humor and that we never get in the last word. God’s last word will echo the ones from that first Easter Sunday: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is risen and He goes ahead of you.” The door in the tomb is open so we can find the door in the wall.
Ortberg, All the Places to Go: How Will I Know? (2016) p. 232.
Source unknown. http://ministry127.com/resources/illustration/the-swoon-theory
Ortberg, All the Places, p. 243
I cannot find a source for this fabulous quote. It is, however, often quoted J
N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (2008), p. 249