C.S. Lewis writes in his novel, The Great Divorce, about a bus trip from Hell. Literally. The novel tells the story of a group of Hell’s inhabitants, who climbs onto a bus and heads for – where else? – Heaven. Lewis is masterful in his description of both places, as the bus trip unfolds. In his fanciful creativity, Hell is a dull, drab, cloudy cityscape. Less about fire and brimstone, Hell is colorlessness and void of imagination. Lewis imagines it as a city so massive, not merely because the number of inhabitants is so large, but because when its inhabitants disagree, they just move up the street, or to the next street over, or far enough away to avoid their neighbors. Of course, as soon as they move, they begin to disagree and pick at their new neighbors as well.
In the course of the story, those who reside in Hell are given the opportunity to leave their home, climb aboard a bus, and take a field trip to Heaven. Once they are in Heaven, they speak to those who reside there, they squint in the brightness of the sun, and they marvel at the mountain grandeur and deep forests and rivers. In one of the most fascinating scenes, one of the field trippers finds himself running into difficulty even walking on the grass, as its sharp edges poke and bother someone who has become so used to the blandness and rounded edges of his colorless existence.
Throughout the novel, Lewis is suggesting that those in Hell are those women and men who simply do not appreciate the depth of the world around them. They are those who love to live in their tiny, boundaried, manageable, cramped world. In fact, in Lewis’ imagination, Hell itself is miniscule compared to the vastness and openness of Heaven. It is not an equal place, or even an appreciably different place, but simply a tiny, dull dot of nothingness in the middle of Heaven, surrounded by those who have learned to see the beauty, life, and love of their Maker and to worship God in all that they do.
And in one of the most damning revelations of the story, Lewis writes that those who are on the field trip from Hell have the opportunity to stay in Heaven. Their trip is actually a recruiting trip, in order to show them what they are missing, and convince them to stay. However, in almost every single case, every one of them chooses to go back to their colorless Hell, because at least there they know what to expect.
As Lewis writes:
“Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it, or else, for ever and ever, the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves.”
I think the writer of the Gospel of John would appreciate Lewis’ story. John 20 tells the story of the Resurrection, but does it in a way similar to Lewis’ description of Heaven. It is filled with powerful images and delights all five senses. When we read the story, we can almost feel the softness of the linens that were wrapped around Jesus head – now empty. We can imagine that metallic taste that we get in our mouths when we sprint, as we race with the disciples to the empty tomb. We can smell the damp dew in the garden with Mary, quietly weeping. And we can hear Jesus speaking Mary’s name, and see the look on her face when she recognizes it is the Lord who calls her. In John 20, the Resurrection is not a disembodied, intellectual, colorless concept, but a visceral, verdant, tangible experience.
Serene Jones tells us that this is how we must experience the Resurrection. Not as a disembodied, colorless, controllable concept. But instead as a vivid, real, visceral experience:
As he did with Mary, Jesus comes to us not as a general idea or an imagined ghostly figure, but as a presence that reaches beyond our mind’s overt powers of knowing and touches our lives in ways we cannot see. They are felt- tasted, touched, smelled, heard, seen in image, and as such, often as unconscious as they are visceral. God is known in the muscle memory of our tissue, in the turn of lip in that garden smile, in the slang-tinged voice of a trusted friend, in the fall of the foot’s arch in wet grass at sunrise.
Jones paints a picture of Resurrection that explodes beyond our colorless, tiny myopia, and makes every blade of grass itself worth celebrating. Every color-filled moment of God’s grace worth recognizing. For just in the same way that Mary knew it was Jesus when he whispered her name, we know God because God has chosen to first know us. To create us. To love us. And how can we help but celebrate that when we hear God whisper our name as well? When we hear God speaking to the most personal and hidden places in our lives?
When we gather in worship in this place, on a morning like this morning, it is not simply to intellectually comprehend a concept of Easter. It is to touch Easter. To feel Easter. To smell Easter. [To hear Easter splashing around.] To experience Easter. And to know that the Resurrection that we experience and celebrate has made possible a Resurrection life that we don’t abandon when the final strains of the Widor have faded. We gather in this place to celebrate the fact that we take Easter with us. To revel in the glory of a life colored by Resurrection.
Over these last weeks, we have been exploring the Lord’s Prayer, and J.D. Crossan’s description of it as “The Strangest Prayer.” The disciples watched the strangeness of their Lord again and again, but until the Resurrection, they hadn’t seen strange, yet. The story of the Resurrection is the apex of strange. Of unexplainable. Of peculiar. Any faith that would choose to make its symbols the empty cross and the empty tomb must, simply must realize that there is more to life and more to eternity than that which we can explain.
Yet, in the words of this strangest prayer that we pray every Sunday, we capture a piece of that which is unexplainable, unknowable, and only worship-able. “Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever. Amen!” The last phrase explodes beyond mere words into an imagined experience that is brighter, louder, more verdant and more visceral than we could ever imagine. The Kingdom. The Power. The Glory. These are words not describing a dull, colorless existence that prides itself on being, above all, predictable. They are describing a land in which the sun is almost too bright to stand. The grass is so fresh and inviting that one must simply lay in its softness and be enveloped by it. Its inhabitants are so awed by and devoted to their Creator and Master that their spirit is infectious. A land in which the power of death has been defeated and the power of love reigns supreme.
And, like in Lewis’ imagination, we have the opportunity today, in this moment, to choose:
• We can choose to go back to our colorless existence, one where we criticize, struggle against, and belittle one another, or grumpily move away to find someone else to disagree with.
• Or we can glory in the experience of a Resurrection life. The sounds and smells and experience of Easter can cause us to reject the “makers of misery” and embrace instead a life of joy!
This Easter, and in the days ahead, invite you to be Resurrection people!
I invite you to be Easter people.
I invite you to pray the prayer of Walter Brueggemann, who wrote:
Yours is the kingdom… not the kingdom of death,
Yours is the power… not the power of death,
Yours is the glory… not the glory of death.
Yours… You… and we give thanks
for the newness beyond our achieving.