In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
I recently read an article by a pastor and “life coach” named Andy Thompson entitled, “No Guts, No Glory: Four Ways Faith Can Help You Conquer Fear of Risk.” I don’t normally read this sort of thing. It occurred to me years ago that there are only so many hours in the day, and that at any rate, I was not in my lifetime going to make it through the collected works of the Church Fathers. And hence spending time reading less exalted works – like self-help books, or even the newspaper – was an extravagant indulgence.
Even so, I found myself indulging in this article, and I found it interesting. Thompson begins his piece with a discussion of risk, and what it means to take risks, and why people are generally so risk-averse. Taking a risk, in essence, means pursuing a course of action with an unknown outcome, because we think that the outcome might be a positive one; and that the positiveness of the potential positive outcome outweighs the negativeness of the potential negative outcome, which is also a possibility. Hence the risk.
But, as Thompson notes, risks need to be calculated. It wouldn’t have done, for example, if Orville and Wilbur Wright had simply thrown themselves off the nearest tall building in pursuit of a really neat outcome, namely manned flight, without first sitting down and doing some calculations and running some experiments.
But Thompson also notes that very often the fear of failure can paralyze us into inaction. The problem, of course, is that if nothing is ever risked, nothing is ever gained. Think where we would be if, for example, Christopher Columbus had been too preoccupied with the possibility of shipwreck ever actually to set out to “sail the ocean blue.” But he did set out, and here we sit on Easter morning, five hundred and some years later, in the New World.
Or, more prosaically, where would I be if my father had not risked getting slapped when he stole a first kiss from the high school girl who would, some years later, become my mother. I would not exist. Taking risks is necessary.
But risks are also risky. Thompson notes that apparently 9 out of 10 startup companies fail. And the average millionaire goes bankrupt three times before hitting it big. Nothing risked, nothing gained. Or, as Thompson puts it, “No guts, no glory.” But in addition to taking the time and the care to sit down and calculate the risks, Thompson exhorts his readers to allow FAITH to overcome the fear of failure. And we begin to approach the crux (literally – “crux” = “cross”) of the matter. Thompson quotes the episode in Matthew’s gospel where Peter walks on the water. Believing in Jesus, Peter took a risk and stepped out of the boat. But when he notices the wind and the waves, fear creeps in, and he begins to sink. But he has the presence of mind to call out to Jesus for help, and to take the Lord’s outstretched hand, and so disaster is averted.
So what does any of this have to do with Easter? Well, Jesus is the one who risked everything in faith to achieve the most positive outcome imaginable in the history of the universe. And today we celebrate that outcome: the death of death, and the promise of immortality.
I sometimes like to play a game with Christians who like to think of themselves as orthodox (in the loose sense). I will ask: “How many wills did Jesus have?” The question has almost never occurred to anyone, let alone the answer. How many wills did Jesus have? If you answered “One,” you would be a bad heretic – called a “Monothelite.” The right answer is that Jesus, unlike the rest of us, had TWO wills: a divine will, and a human will.
This is important because it’s the only way to make sense of what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before Jesus died for us.
“Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsem’ane, and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here, while I go yonder and pray.’ And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zeb’edee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.’ And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.’” (Matthew 26.36-39)
“Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” Even though Jesus is God, nevertheless his human will had to be brought into conformity with his divine will. And the harmonization of the human will of Jesus and the divine will of Jesus causes him great agony, as he said, “even to death.” The Gospel of Luke insinuates that the agony was so intense that Jesus even began to sweat blood in the midst of it. We have hear a graphic example of FAITH overcoming Jesus’ own agonized distress. And today we reap the reward of that faith.
The analogy with Andy Thompson’s account of risk-taking breaks down if we press it too far. Jesus was not taking a risk in the sense that he was unsure of the outcome of the action he was about to take. But he did have to exemplify a heroic and unwavering faith in the omnipotent love of his Father that would not allow the powers of death and hell to have dominion over him, even in the very midst of death and hell – in other words, even in the midst of the most catastrophic failure imaginable.
This is what we are celebrating today. In mundane, almost gauche terms: the success of the Jesus enterprise. But it’s a success unlike any other. Indeed, its only a “success” in a qualified sense. We are celebrating the fact that the man Jesus Christ was faithful to God right to the very bitter end. And it was a very bitter end, indeed. But even in the midst of what the whole world gathered around saw as an abysmal failure – and not just “in the midst” of it, but BECAUSE of it, in VIRTUE of it – we have been given supernal light, eternal glory, immortality.
Scripture goes even beyond this and claims something for us in virtue of the cross that sounds almost scandalous: that because of the cross of Jesus, we may now “escape from the corruption that is in the world… and become PARTAKERS OF THE DIVINE NATURE,” (2 Peter 1.4). Jesus held on in faith, risked everything, and has made us DIVINE in the process. And now he lives and reigns with the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. No guts, no glory.
Lastly, I would just like to point out that if all this is true – and I doubt you would be here today if you didn’t, at the very least on some level, believe it – but if this central claim of the Christian faith is true, that Jesus was dead but is now alive forever, then life can never return to normal. This message must have an impact on the way we live our lives. Not in the sense that you now have no excuse for not being a millionaire, or a philanthropically minded person, or a civil rights hero, or anything in particular of the sort. You may be any of those things, or you may not. But what you MUST be, now that Jesus has been raised from the dead, is a co-operator with the superlative gift that has been given to you by means of Christ’s death. Life can no longer return to normal. YOU have been snatched from the jaws of hell by the fidelity of God’s only Son – even to the point of death and beyond. He gives you what he is, risen, glorified, exalted. Be true to that gift.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.