Harry A. Freebairn is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Easton, Pennsylvania.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 9, 1986, p. 350. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
"The post-Easter blahs that most churches face": Freebairn sees Easter as a process. Two of Jesus’ followers meet a stranger on the road and their hearts are strangely warmed in an hour of empty coldness. Then they began the task that changed this world.
Life is a long series of transitions. The healthy person accepts this, and deals with it so that life ultimately thrusts forward. Unhealthy people fight and put off, even deny, transitions. But changes come, whether we choose them or not: children are born; relationships change; jobs terminate; roofs leak; people die. No permission is sought; transitions simply happen.
John Hughes contends that "saying ‘Hello’ and saying ‘Goodbye’ are the two major learning tasks all humans need to accomplish." He continues:
Some children come into this world and have no one in their family really say "Hello" to them. . . Others never learn to say "Goodbye." Some have never said "Goodbye" to Mama or Daddy! Hence, even though he or she has long since passed on, he or she still continues to dominate this person’s life [Alban Institute, 1978, p. 13].
The postresurrection accounts represent how Jesus and the disciples said farewell to each other. For years I have been put off by their spooky nature, and have, therefore, skirted the profound psychological insights to be found in the passages. The way that Jesus says farewell to the disciples in Luke 24 helps them take hold of their new life and new relationship with him.
Because the rich fellowship they have known is no more, he comforts them. There will be no more intimate conversation with him as they wrestle with his person and mission. Now it is their opportunity to work out their own salvation and to realize that God is at work in them. He takes the time to say goodbye so that they may be Easter people with resurrection in their eyes. That model of care becomes a paradigm for us.
Tragedy is often like a giant eraser, cleaning our mental tapes of preceding data. Luke tells of two followers walking hurriedly away from Jerusalem, hoping to hit Emmaus by nightfall. Their journey was fueled by the adrenalin that one possesses when life crumbles and survival is the order of the day. They are together, yet alone.
We feel the poignancy of their comment when they meet the stranger and tell of their troubles. "We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel," they say. Though the women had told them about the empty tomb, they are unwilling to entertain the notion. He is gone, they say, and we are going home to put our lives in order. Nothing dies harder than a dream, if only dreams have died in a young life. These people had staked their lives on the idea that God would again reign in Israel in the person of Jesus. Now they plow through the mixture of foolishness and hurt. "Why us, Lord? Why did we believe?"
The stranger -- the yet-unrecognized Jesus -- does not respond by peppering them with homey advice ("It’s always darkest before the dawn") ; nor does he indulge their self-pity ("Here, here, tell me all about it") Instead he draws them back to what they know, the Scriptures, and teaches them again the things that drew them to follow him in the first place. Something clicks; they want more. They ask him to spend the night with them to continue the theological search. He agrees to stay for dinner. We know the story. The time comes for the guest to break the bread in the act of fellowship, and suddenly they recognize him.
Then, just as suddenly, he is gone. But the mighty current of hope surges anew and they rush back to the others -- no matter what the hour or the dangers on the road may be. They may not be ready to go change the world, but they have enough to accept the goodbye and to move to the next hello.
All joys and all sorrow lead to God, the sorrow of death more than any other experience. The joy of my life, my marriage with Old, was transformed into sorrow for his death. But my faith that I would someday, like Old, be called to God’s kingdom transformed this sorrow into joy.
Now I live with death, not with horrible loathing, but using it as a criterion to determine what is important in my life; as a stimulus to cheerfulness, for through it I shall recover those I love; and as a way of giving meaning to my work, since my efforts, no matter how minor and unimportant, may serve God’s final goal [John Knox, 1974, p. 63].
Each of us lives with death. We began with it in our baptism as we died with Christ and were raised with him to new life. We shudder as we put our child on the school bus and as he or she begins the perilous transition into adulthood. Something dies when the children leave home for college or to take their first job. Something dies when we reach age 30 or 40 or 50 or 65. Each time, we bid farewell to a past that informed our future. We must take off in order to put on; we must let go in order to grow in new ways.
The disciples had to let Jesus die so that he could live in another way. They could no longer be dependent on the fellowship that they knew with him at the center, that sheltered time of teaching. Now they had to seize the life that he had promised them, a life in the world that would challenge their faith beyond anything that they ever dreamed they would know. His death enabled them to claim the resources for growing in a way that his life among them prevented. As they experienced God’s purpose from the inside, they understood it. They now prayed on their own, for his prayers were beyond their hearing. His death forced them to "mature into ripeness for God."
Neither are we spared that maturation process. Called to die with Christ in the beginning, we are then raised with him at our day’s end. Called first to die to fear, we are raised to courage. Called to die to greed and covetousness in childhood, we are raised to generosity and thankfulness in maturity in Christ.
We die to the past to be raised to God’s future. Hope and grace live as despair and self-degradation die. We say goodbye to a self that will save itself by building bigger and better barns, and say hello to the new creation that Christ loves into being by his death and vindicates by his glory.
On a dismal road to Emmaus, two people felt their hearts to be strangely warmed in an hour of empty coldness. Then at a table they met their risen Lord. There they said goodbye to one dream, but began to embrace the possibility of a more profound reality. Aware of resources that, in anguish, they had forgotten, they start to claim the resurrection -- first his, then theirs. They then began a task that changed this world.