When the bar owner broke ground, the church broke into prayer groups.
When his walls went up, they routed petitions and sought injunctions, anything in the legal world to stop it.
Yet all of their efforts seemed to fail until, lo and behold, the night before the bar was to open, it was struck by lightening and burned to the ground.
The church then held a public praise service and “gave glory to God” for all to hear… until later that week, when they were slapped with a lawsuit which alleged that they had “either directly or indirectly” caused the lightening to strike and the building to burn.
On the day of their trial, after the opening statements had been made in which the bar owner pressed his case against the church and the church denied any responsibility, the judge finally looked over the top of his glasses at the two parties, and stated, “This is the most interesting case I’ve ever tried. On the one hand I have a bar owner who believes fervently in the power of prayer, and on the other, a whole church that doesn’t.”
After 15 years in the saloon business, there isn’t very much about how “bar people” look at God that surprises me. This last Easter evening, however, was different.
My wife Nancy and I invited our friends from the Bull’n Bear – a saloon which we own and operate – to our home for a meal and “campfire” by Rock Creek, which runs behind our house. We have done this for years on Christmas, but this was our first Easter campfire.
I led those gathered – believers and non-believers alike – in a couple of bible-camp-ish songs with guitar, read the Easter evening Gospel, and gave a little talk about the death and resurrection of Jesus our Lord which, as usual, flowed into an “around-the-campfire” discussion about the reason we were there and what I had said.
In my mind, I had hoped and prayed that here too, just as on that first Easter evening, eyes would be opened by the work of God’s Spirit and that Jesus would be seen by at least some in a new and present way. After all, the similarities to the Gospel lesson and our setting abounded – friends sitting around a campfire, talking about the amazing events of the day. Nearby there was water where fishing was the custom (“I am going fishing” is an often quoted scripture around here!). All in all, what more could you ask?
But as far as I can tell, the only eyes that were opened this past Easter evening were my own. What I saw was not as stunning as what the first disciples saw, but it took me by surprise nevertheless. It has not left me alone since.
You see, in all of our talking about the resurrection of Jesus – and with few exceptions – neither those who would call themselves Christian, nor those who would not, seemed to find any relevant connection between their lives and beliefs and the proclamation of the basic Christian doctrine of the bodily resurrection – either that of Jesus’ body on that first Easter, or their own, looking ahead to that last day. It was as if the idea of the bodily resurrection as a new work of God simply did not compute.
After the fire died down and everyone had gone home, I sat alone and wondered why it was that there was such an obvious disconnect between the Easter story and the stories of their own lives. After all, at our Christmas campfires, the story of Jesus’ birth, and what it meant in terms of God coming to be “with us and for us” had always been received with joyful, even eager ears underneath the cold December stars.
On Easter evening however, it had seemed as though the greater share of them couldn’t get away from talk of the resurrection from the dead fast enough, as though it was threatening. As I thought about it, it suddenly dawned on me that the reason for this had simply to do with control – or better, with who is in control. It had to do with the first commandment.
At Christmastime, Jesus is a baby “meek and mild” and we all love babies. We can cuddle and hold them and put them where we will.
Even a grown up Jesus crucified isn’t so tough for most to handle. After all, you don’t have to look very far to see other examples of ones who have given their lives for the sake of others. We can wrap our minds around and admire such self-sacrifice.
But Easter! To raise someone from the dead requires both a power and will that is far beyond what we can control. Easter requires, without too much theological or doctrinal thinking, that we take God seriously when he says that commandment that is also a promise: “I am the LORD your God!” for with it comes also the necessary corollary: “I am the LORD your God…” AND YOU ARE NOT!
In Easter we find a God who won’t share control. In Easter, God alone is God, doing what God alone can do. That seems to be uncomfortable for both the churched and the un-churched alike.
But there is more to this “problem” of Easter that affects especially the un-churched (the “bar people” if you will). It comes from how we as the Church seem to talk about our hope of eternal life.
In the campfire discussion about Easter, it was clear that one could just as well have taken God completely out of the equation, making God unnecessary for our life (except, perhaps, as “first cause” since God created us). For those at the campfire who would not describe themselves as Christian, the resurrection story was little more than a spiritual metaphor about our continuing “spiritual” existence after we die; something which is true not because of God’s power and continuing activity on our behalf but simply because that is the nature of things. Such thinking is evidenced in many ways. In some, it is the belief in reincarnation. In others, you hear it in comments often made at the funerals of friends or loved ones (“I bet she’s looking down at us right now smiling…”). We see it even in popular television shows.
What surprised me was that those who do believe in Jesus had almost exactly the same attitudes and beliefs regarding eternal life as those who don’t, giving little thought to the new creation which God is doing now and will do also in the future. The truth is that, so far as I could ascertain, God’s continuing or future work was pretty much irrelevant for these believers as well. Their soul would live on, apart from the continuing work of God. Any talk of the “resurrection of the body” and all that it implies simply didn’t matter. All that will be, already is.
Now the reason that this matters so much in a “crossing the bar” sort of way (that is, for reaching out to those around us with the Gospel of Jesus), is that when our eternal life is perceived as something innate to our being, God becomes unnecessary in our everyday life. For if, when we die, we only (and automatically) trade one form of existence for another, then both our need for God’s saving work and the radical-ness of what God has done in Christ are greatly diminished.
When this diminishing runs its course, one is left with people looking at the risen Jesus “like cows looking at a new gate” (Keifert), not knowing what it is that is standing right in front of them – God whom they desperately need to be their God; God who alone has the last word on both their death and their life.
When the Gospel of Jesus’ resurrection is reduced to simply some sort of immortality that naturally occurs in the first place, it allows us to have neither any real need for God, nor any expectation that God will be exercising God’s power and will in our day-to-day lives. We have in effect done an end run around the grave that waits for us all, and put God on the bench once again.
Such a view about our innate immortality is not, however, what Christians believe. We believe in the resurrection of the body where God alone is God. No one else, including ourselves, can break the bond that holds us all in its death grip. We can’t do it for ourselves, and it won’t just happen on its own!
God must choose to be our God. God must act.
And this God has done.
Those of you who are reading this know that full well, for this is the Gospel you preach. But there are an awful lot who don’t know that this is our message of hope, who don’t know the One who has done – and continues to do – it all. And there’s the rub.
If the Christian Gospel of the resurrection of the body is reduced to something that is indistinguishable from the common belief in the immortality of the soul, then that which we have to proclaim about Jesus is robbed of its power to save. If Jesus gives us only what we have anyway (simply because we are human), why would we possibly need him?
But, if Jesus has done more than this, then it is perhaps time once again that we stop our incessant explaining to the “bar people” in our lives what it is that we believe about God, and once again start simply proclaiming just what it is that God did for us all in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we do that, who knows what mighty works God may yet do? We can be pretty sure that they will work to give us the life for which we have deeply longed yet so vainly tried to get for ourselves.
Jim Johnson is a Church Innovations consultant, a former pastor and owner of the Bull ‘n Bear Saloon in Red Lodge, Montana.
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