This essay is adapted from the sermon "Love: The Sine Qua Non," delivered at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017.
By Scott Black Johnston
After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ —Matthew 28:1-10
Last week, an intriguing article appeared in The New Yorker magazine entitled, “The God Pill.” The author, Tad Friend, describes a fascinating scene. On a warm night back in March, a group of venture capitalists, medical scientists and Hollywood stars gathered for a series of presentations. The speakers and the listeners shared one illusive, but enticing goal: eternal life.
These well-bankrolled “immortalists” divide themselves into two camps. On one hand there are The Meat Puppets—people who believe that we can retool our biology and live longer, maybe even forever. Then there are The Robocops—people who believe that we will eventually be able to download our minds into a robot or “the cloud” and so attain a sort of eternal consciousness.
One of the operators of a hedge fund, Dr. Yoon Jun, described his perspective like this: “I have the idea that aging is plastic, that it’s encoded. If something is encoded, you can crack the code.” To growing applause, he went on, “If you can crack the code, you can hack the code!”
It is, I suppose, the ultimate hack: immortality.
A number of prominent biologists have criticized “immortality research” for employing sketchy science. Still, you cannot help speculating: What if they were to succeed? What would it do to population growth? What would it mean for the planet and its resources? What implications would it have for the economy?
Mostly, though, The New Yorker story left me wondering: What is behind this impulse? Why do we want to hack our way to immortality?
Death: The Common Enemy
One clue lies in a common thread woven through the lives of leading immortalists. Nearly every one of them experienced the death of a parent when they were young. Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle, the fifth-wealthiest man in America, someone who has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to aging research, lost his adoptive mother when he was 22. Ellison recently told his biographer, “Death has never made any sense to me. How can a person be there and then just vanish—just not be there?”
Death is a thief and a swindler. Death robs us of those we love. Death cheats us out of the opportunity to do more living. Death is a senseless, separating, life-shredding force. Death passes out pills to addicts. Death lists 13 reasons a bullied girl might check out. Death lights the fuse for nuclear tests in North Korea. Death is a cloud hovering in the back of your MRI.
Death is our biggest enemy. It must not be allowed to win. We must beat back death.
On this point, most of us agree. Countless individuals have dedicated their lives to beating back the forces of death. I am talking about doctors and nurses, yes, but also about soldiers and relief workers, counselors and teachers. I am talking about every courageous soul who has ever put her shoulder to a door and said, “No. No, death: you can’t come in here.”
But beyond resistance, what is our next move? What’s our strategy? Figure out how to hack our DNA? Is there another way? Another play? Today’s a good day to ask.
According to Scripture, death works overtime to orchestrate the events of Holy Week. It skulks in the background, applauding the betrayals, trials and torture of Jesus. It grabs the conductor’s baton when Christ climbs the hill named Golgotha, “The Skull.” And finally, when the curtain falls on Good Friday, death takes a cynical bow.
But two people—two women—refuse to let death have the last word. In their act of resistance, they travel to the tomb of their executed friend. They have come to wash the body of Jesus—to anoint him with spices for burial, to comb out his hair, to straighten his clothes. They have come, motivated by love, to push back against the power of death.
Come to find out, God has been pushing back, too. Immediately on entering the garden, the women witness a frightening upheaval. The earth trembles. The skies crackle. The stone in front of the tomb rolls back. Guards are tossed aside like tin soldiers and an angel appears. He looks, Matthew writes, “like lightning.”
The last time we saw angels in the Bible they were trumpeting the birth of Jesus. They were singing of God’s glory and announcing peace to all on earth. They were drawing a map for the shepherds: Do not be afraid, but get going! Lace up your sandals and run (as fast as you can) to Bethlehem, to see the newborn baby—to see God’s love.
The shepherds run, and the angels exit. As the story of Jesus unfolds, the angels relax backstage—until today. In the midst of a cataclysm, an angel appears at Christ’s tomb. This angel delivers a familiar, two-part message: Do not be afraid, but get going! Lace up your sandals and run (as fast as you can) to Galilee, to see Jesus who awaits you there.
And the women, like the shepherds, do exactly that. They run. They put death behind them and run out into the world. They run and run and run—smack into Jesus. They grab him by the ankles. They will not let go of God’s incarnate love.
Today’s immortalists want to hack your DNA and make you live longer. Easter wants to hack your heart, your head, your ethics, your daily routines, your relationships, your way of looking at the world. Easter doesn’t simply want to extend your life; Easter wants to send you running (as fast as you can) to embrace life.
Love: The Sine Qua Non
On Jan. 9, in Tampa, the Clemson Tigers beat the Alabama Crimson Tide in the national college football championship. The Tigers came from behind with a touchdown pass with one second left on the clock. It was the most exciting football game I have ever watched.
Afterward, an ESPN reporter fought her way over to Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s head coach. After the stress of the season and the wild end to this final game, Swinney’s face was rippling with emotion. Then came the evitable question: “You just won the national championship, how does it feel?”
“It’s indescribable,” said Swinney, wiping his nose. “You can’t make it up. I mean, this… only God can do this.”
Here we go, I thought, another sports figure thanking the Good Lord for magically tinkering with the outcome of a game. But then Swinney surprised me.
“I told my guys tonight, I told them the difference in the game was going to be love. It’s been my word. My word all year has been love. I said, ‘Tonight, we’re going to win it because we love each other.’ I told them this at half time, ‘Guys, we are going to win this game. I don’t know how, but we’re going to win it because we love each other.’”
It was the most peculiar post-game speech I have ever heard. Right on the heels of a violent game and a hard-fought victory, this man stood in the center of the field, in the middle of confetti and chaos, with tears running down his face, talking about… love.
Sometimes we summarize the story of Easter like this: Jesus came. Jesus taught and healed and preached about love. Jesus was killed by the powers of the world. But God raised Jesus from the dead. God put Jesus on the throne of heaven. God took Jesus and uploaded his consciousness into some cosmic cloud and, from this point on, our Lord waits there for us to join him.
There is some truth to this story, but, my friends, I want to be clear: That is not the story of Easter.
We Are Going to Win
On the cover of today’s bulletin is a reproduction of a classic Easter icon. In it, Jesus stands on the doors of hell. He has kicked the doors down. The hinges, nails, and locks that have imprisoned humanity are shattered. Bending his knee, Jesus grabs the hands of people standing in shallow tombs. He helps them escape.
“Don’t be afraid,” says the angel. “He is not here. He is out there. God set him loose on the world. He’s out there breaking locks, pulling people from tombs, standing alongside everyone who has their shoulder against the door, saying, “No. No, death: you cannot come in here.”
And with that, the women run from the cemetery, looking for their Lord. They are eager to join him in his lock smashing, life-changing work. They are eager to stand alongside him to do the hard, virtuous, audacious work of love.
The world is a hard place. It is full of pain and death. Most days it is awful enough to make a sane person want to duck and cover. Maybe, we think, maybe the best we can do is to feather our own nests, protect our own skins, extend our own lives.
Then along comes Easter. Easter shakes the earth. It breaks the locks. It frees us from our tombs, and sends us running (as fast as we can) to search for the love whom God has loosed on the world.
Easter sends us into the chaos with crazy grins on our faces, stammering, “Friends, we are going to win this game. I don’t know how, but we’re going to win. We are going to win because we love each other.”
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