During the last Christmas of his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was surprised in prison by a visit from his young fiancee’ Maria, who brought him a special gift — a Christmas tree for his cell. Unfortunately, young Maria had grossly miscalculated the size of the tree and the size of her beloved’s accommodations. Bonhoeffer took one look at the tree and began to laugh, remarking with a huge grin that if he was willing to sleep standing up throughout Advent, the tree might fit in his room, an observation that set even his guards to laughing. In the darkness of his prison cell Bonhoeffer could hear the laughter of God. When his captors led him to the gallows four months later, he could still hear the sound of God’s assuring laughter, and stated to his executioners that his end was his beginning, because of the resurrection power of God.
We might think it strange to look for a great theologian in the squalor of a Gestapo prison cell, but one of the fundamental themes of our Gospel is, never look for the great among the great. In God’s story, the divine presence and power almost always arise out of the lowly, the humble, the obscure, the outcast, the misfit. That is the precisely the theme of Christmas. When the shepherds and wise men seek the redemptive Savior of the world, they are directed to a manger in a stable.
But the great truth of Christmas must be coupled in Christianity with the powerful theme of Good Friday: love always entails the element of the tragic. Christ defined ultimate love as the willingness to lay down one’s life for others. Moreover, asserts our Lord, the only way to find fulfillment is in giving yourself away in love, and that is invariably a costly process. The more we love, the more vulnerable we become, the more we risk rejection in giving ourselves away. The more we love, the more we are willing to invest in others’ lives, and the more susceptible we become to suffering great sorrow in the face of loss. The theme of Good Friday is that redemptive love came into the world, and though the world needs love, the world does not like love, and the forces of darkness, including the subtle violence of apathy, indolence and deceit, conspire to quench love. Love is essential to human existence, yet a spirit of destruction afflicts our age and every age, evincing a hostility to love and trying to quench it. The forces of darkness always try to punctuate love with death. This is the message of Good Friday.
But the theme of Good Friday is coupled in the Christian understanding with a third and crucial assertion: Good Friday does not have the last word; it is accompanied by the ultimate victory of Easter morning.
Even though the powers of darkness strive to quench the power of love, God refuses to let death have the final say. Our investment in love is never ultimately stymied. The tragic success of the forces of evil and death is only temporary. A throbbing resurrection impulse lies at the heart of all creation. This resurrection impulse is accessed not only on Easter Sunday but amidst every common day. That is Easter’s great theme.
Resurrection is not merely one stage in the ceaseless, normal cycle of birth, maturation, climax, decay, death and rebirth. Superficial minds often equate the season of spring with Easter, but they are not synonymous. Splendid colorful blossoms always give way to mortal green mortal leaves that find their destiny in autumnal death. Resurrection by contrast surprises the created order; it confounds creation, introducing an unforeseen twist that usurps our expectations of normalcy. That’s why the empty tomb stupefied the women in attendance; that’s why the disciples first regarded the women’s story of a risen Christ as an idle tale; that’s why the world which first heard the Gospel dismissed the resurrection story as a lie; that’s why you and I sometimes camouflage our doubts about accessing the resurrection impulse in creation — because reports of a resurrected Christ challenge and contradict the way we think the world usually works. But in fact, the throbbing resurrection impulse that infiltrates all of creation is a sign of the ever-present laughter of God, the assurance that God is with us amidst every trial.
Indeed, the great truth of our Christian Gospel is that resurrection is a more normal constituent element of creation than out habituated sense of normalcy. Yes, the Father resurrected his Son Jesus Christ once in history, on Easter Sunday. And yes, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ the Father validated the Son as the ultimate revelation of the nature of God and all the universe. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not only an event that happened once in history, for God’s resurrection imprint is the very music of life that lets us hear from time to time the laughter of God. This resurrection impulse characterizes all history and experience. Resurrection throbs at the center of things, a constituent divine element that permeates and penetrates all creation, and to understand and enjoy life we must regularly attune our spiritual ears to hear the resurrection laughter of God. We know that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things — but most of all, love never ends! Death can quench love, but only for a season. Life and love emerge from the temporary darkness of death. This is Easter’s celebratory truth. God’s laughter cannot be quenched.
Christianity bravely places resurrection at the heart of its understanding of the universe. Our faith asserts that though disorder may seem to be the normal scheme of things, disorder is not normative. We desire to bring order out of chaos. Chaos may characterize a situation presently, (certainly, it seems so now!) but chaos is not viable as a way to live. Paul knew chaos. He could look upon the scars and whelps on his own body and know that tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword were more than theoretical possibilities. Nevertheless, he was convinced that God’s resurrection laughter could not be quenched. He asserted: “I am persuaded that nothing, not death, not life, not angels or principalities, not things in the present or things to come, not powers, not life’s heights or its depths – not in fact, anything in all creation can separate us from the love of God as found in Jesus Christ.” Paul knew that the laughter of God could be heard anywhere, any time, even in circumstances that are not laughable!
One can only wonder what specific thought impelled Paul’s immortal words. Was he thinking of Philippi, where he and Silas hung in chains, sore and bloody from a fierce scourging, where around midnight the laughter of God moved them to sing hymns of praise that planted the seed of Gospel faith in the heart of the man who had jailed them? Was he thinking of Lystra, when enraged inhabitants dragged him out of the city and stoned him into such a bloody pulp that they assumed they had killed him? But then the resurrection energy of God raised him to rise and walk back into the city from which he had been expelled. Or was he thinking back to the start of his pilgrimage with Christ, when he sat in the darkness, blind, waiting for some man of compassion to come lay hands on him and give him not only sight but a theological destiny? The resurrection of Jesus Christ was for Paul the event upon which he based his entire existence. Yet, resurrection for Paul was not only merely an event in the past, but a thrilling power that frequently broke into his life in the most unlikely of circumstances and gave him strength and joy. He could not have lived with such faith unless his ears were constantly attuned to hear the laughter of God.
On one side of the tally sheet Paul endeavors to list all of the dangers, threats and vulnerabilities that attempt to eclipse God’s redemptive love. On the other side Paul balances those threats with an awareness of God’s resurrection laugher. Yes, there is death and its power over life; there is also the God who in Christ has proved that He has the final word. Yes, there are principalities, demonic and human structures, that try to warp and disfigure life; but there is the resurrecting God who brings wholeness and healing. Yes, there are powers, earthly and spiritual, that try to reign sovereign over humanity; but there is also the God of resurrection impulse who reveals all mortal powers as feeble. Yes, there are moments that represent heights of success; but there is also God present to reveal all earthly victories as ephemeral. Yes, there is the abyss of loss; but there is also the God of resurrection laughter who reveals that all loss is but for a season. In all that has happened, in all that is happening, in all that will happen, God is present. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Paul does not say with many superficial Christians that God will separate you from adversity. Rather, Paul asserts that adversity will not separate you from God! Whatever darkness afflicts us, the laughter of God can penetrate it! In this triumph, we are more than conquerors!
We are more than conquerors through Christ who loves us. What does Paul mean by this strange phrase? Certainly, because we are baptized into Christ Jesus, we are baptized into his death and are raised to walk with him in newness of life. If we have been buried with him in a death like his, we can surely be raised with him in a resurrection like his. But such a moment is one of victory and deliverance. That is where we conquer! But Paul says we are “more than conquerors.” What can he mean? He means that we can hear the resurrection laughter of God not only amidst moments of deliverance, but in moments like now, when deliverance from this coronavirus is a dim and distant possibility. Even so, we can hear the resurrection laughter of God amidst dark circumstances, and in that we are more than conquerors. We don’t just hear God’s laughter at the end of our triumphant story. We can hear it in the middle as well – even amidst circumstances that are not laughable.
To be more than a conqueror is what famed American humorist James Thurber experienced on the day his doctor told him that he was going to go blind. He was riding home on the train, his heart heavy, his thoughts dark, when he heard a perky young woman say to another, “Well, I’m not going to sit here and hide my head in the sand like a kangaroo.” Thurber said, “This was just my tortured spirit needed. I was . . . saved by this twisted and inspired simile: whenever I think I hear the men coming with the stretcher or the subpoena to take me away, I remember those kangaroos with their heads in the sand, and I am ready to face anything again.” Amidst his darkness, striving to gain mastery of his fear, suddenly James Thurber heard the sound of God’s far-off laughter, freeing him to be more than a conqueror.
About six weeks ago I lost the man I regard as my second father. His name was Frank Tupper. Dr. Frank Tupper. He was my mentor, my friend, and the professor who shaped my life and theology more than any other person on earth. While he was doing all that, his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, a cancer that would eventually take her life. One day amidst the throes of battling her disease, she was sitting on her bed, lost in a meditative prayer that lapsed into a prolonged reverie. Suddenly, amidst her reverie, she heard the sound of children laughing loudly. It was in the middle of the day, a school day at that, and the sound of children’s laughter seemed so disturbingly out of place that she rose and looked out the window to confirm her impression that the street was indeed empty. That is when she knew where the laughter had originated. When her husband Frank saw her that evening he knew that something profound had happened. The fear that had gripped her was gone, replaced by a profound confidence that transcended her circumstances. She said to him, “I am now at peace. Whether I live a short time or long time, I know all will be well. For I know I have heard the sound of children laughing on the other side.” She had heard the resurrection laughter of God, having been granted the revelation of children laughing in heaven.
If God is for us – if God is for us — what have we to fear? If God is for us, how can we not live with an attitude of joy that attunes our ears to the resurrection laughter of God that yes, broke forth on Easter Sunday, but also penetrates and permeates all creation? God’s resurrection power, the joy of Easter, is not simply about what happens to us when we die. Easter is about the laughter of God that penetrates us every day in whatever darkness we find ourselves. Like Paul, we can be certain, that not death, not life, not angels, not principalities, not powers, not things present nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. We can always hear the resurrection laughter of God that comes to us from “the other side.” We simply must train and attune our ears to hear it. And we are made by God for that purpose.