In the Midst of Death, We Are in Life – Br. James Koester

Mark 16: 1-8

It’s not unusual for me to get something in my head, and be convinced that I have it correct, only to discover that I have it backwards. For the last few weeks, I have been repeating to myself a phrase, which I was positive I had right, but was actually wrong.

In the midst of death, I’ve been telling myself, we are in life. The phrase comes to us from the Prayer Book burial rite, and we Brothers sing it at the midday service on Holy Saturday. The problem is, I have it backwards. What the text actually says is, in the midst of life we are in death.[1]

It seems however, that the trick my mind has played on me, has some merit. This past year, has been one long, long season of death. It will not surprise you to hear that the number of cases of Covid-19 in this country alone, will soon reach 31 million, with over 555,000 deaths.[2] In the midst of death.

Nor may it surprise you to hear, that since the beginning of the year, there have been 125 cases of mass shootings[3], with a total of 481 people wounded, and 148 others killed.[4] In the midst of death.

We see unfolding in the news, reports of anti-Asian hate crimes rising. The other day the George Floyd murder trial began. In the midst of death.

We are good at dying. This past year alone, we’ve had lots of practice. We know what to do in the face of death. We know what’s expected, even when gripped by shock and grief. In the midst of death.

In a way, we are no different from the three women, who made their way to the tomb, that first Easter morning. They too, knew what to do when confronted with death, even a death as horrific as the one Jesus had died. When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.[5] They knew how to perform the rituals, and carry out the customs, that went with a death. They came prepared, with the necessary spices. At least one of them was practically inclined, for they had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’[6]

Like us, these women had seen death. They had lived with death, and they knew what to do, what was expected, how to behave. Death, it seems is simply part of living. In the midst of death.

I imagine these three, even when numb with grief, were beyond shock. Death, even a horrific death, could not shock them. Yet Mark is clear, the women are alarmed, terrified, amazed, afraid, and speechless, so much so that they fled, probably dropping the spices, and they said nothing to anyone.[7]

What is significant however, is that it wasn’t death that frightened them. No, what shocked them was life, and the possibility of life. It was life that terrified them, and life that made them speechless.

Like us, these women were beyond shock when it came to death. They knew what to do, what was expected, how to behave. What they could not handle, was not the death of Jesus, but his life. With the outrageous claim of the angel, that Jesus had been raised and was going ahead of them to Galilee where they will see him[8] everything was turned upside down, and they no longer knew what to do, what was expected, or how to behave, and the unknowing terrified them.

Like those women, we are good at death. Death, whether it comes quietly, after a long life, well-lived; suddenly, in a blaze of bullets; agonizingly, with a knee at the neck; or slowly, gasping for breath, alone in a hospital room, no longer shocks us. Yes, we may grieve, but no, it does not shock.

What shocks, alarms, terrifies, amazes, and makes us afraid and speechless is life, and especially the kind of life Jesus offers us in the resurrection.

Father Benson reminds us, and I am fond of reminding you, that our coming to Christ changes everything.[9] If, as Father Benson encourages us, we live in the world as [people] who have been with Jesus,[10] then the risen life of Jesus, is no mere abstract idea, but a concrete reality. Such a life is shocking, terrifying, and alarming, because rooted in the dying and rising of Jesus, it manifests itself, not in some conjurors trick with a bag of missing bones, but in Spirit filled lives which are unpredictable, risky, and reverse the ways of the world. Such a Spirit filled life reminds us that life does emerge from death, joy can be found in sorrow, and a life given away, is a life given back. In that reversal, we discover divine fulfillment is indeed found hidden in things that the world counts as barren and negative.[11]

No wonder the women fled in terror. Something told them that following the Risen Jesus to Galilee, even in the hope of seeing him again, would cost them their lives. And it did. And it does.

Life is so much easier when we know what to do, what is expected, how to behave. But a life lived empowered and emboldened by the Spirit of the Risen Jesus is unpredictable and risky, for that life, is no longer ours, but Christ’s, who lives in us.[12]

Having found the tomb empty, and heard the message of the angel, the three women fled alarmed, terrified, amazed, afraid, and speechless, not because of what was there, a dead body, but because of what wasn’t, the Risen Lord. It was life, and the promise of new life, which terrified them, as it should us.

We are good when it comes to death, because death no longer has the power to shock us. We know what to do, what is expected, how to behave. What has the power to shock us, is not death, but life, at least the unpredictable, risky, and unexpected Spirit filled life which Jesus’ resurrection points us toward. That life, that Spirit filled life, his risen life lived in us, should alarm, terrify, and amaze us, as it grips us with fear, and renders us speechless. That is the life he promises in his resurrection. That is the life we proclaim at Easter. That is the life which will shock us back to our senses and rouse us from death.

In the midst of death, we are in life, not because we know what to do, what is expected of us, how to behave, but because we are willing to take the risk that Jesus did, and give our life away, only to have God give it back in unexpected and unpredictable ways. That is what should alarm, terrify, and amaze us, and render the us speechless.

In the midst of death we are in life[13], and that should shock us.[14]

Lectionary Year and Proper: Year B; Great Vigil of Easter

Solemnity or Major Feast Day: Easter Day
Occasion: Great Vigil

[1] In Media Vita, Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 484

[2] 0.69i59j69i57j0i433j0i433i457j0i402l2j0i433j69i60.6750j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8; downloaded 3 April 2021

[3] While no definition of a mass shooting exits, it is generally defined as an occasion when 3 or more people have been injured.

[4]; downloaded 3 April 2021.

[5] Mark 16: 1 -2

[6] Mark 16: 3

[7] Mark 16: 8b

[8] Mark 16: 6,7

[9] Spiritual Readings: Christmas; page 260

[10] Ibid, page 260

[11] SSJE, Rule of Life, Engaging with Poverty, chapter 8, page 16.

[12] Galatians 2: 20

[13] In the midst of life we are in death; of whom may we seek for succor, but of you O Lord,…

[14] For a slightly different take on this text, see The Unsettling Power of Easter by Esau McCaulley at 4 April 2021.

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  1. Reed Saunders on April 11, 2024 at 10:11

    Thank you Br. James for opening my eyes to the true nature of my new life in Christ. I am in awe, terrified, thrilled and prepared for the unexpected.

  2. Arthur J Knight on April 11, 2024 at 07:22

    We don’t need your politics for prayer—“knee at the neck?”

    • Galen on April 11, 2024 at 19:42

      Sorry, sir, but I see this differently. We need reminders like this. How about our shameful history of lynchings, of which the knee on the neck is part of?

  3. Lily DeYoung on April 11, 2024 at 06:56

    Yes. And thank you.

  4. Francis on May 10, 2023 at 08:49

    Thanks for sharing such an insightful understanding with followers of the Way of Jesus, the Christ. It reminds me that we are to follow the teachings and examples of Jesus and those guidelines (rubrics, doctrinal ideas, rules, etc.) that help us to keep our eyes on the teachings of Jesus. I know we have divided ourselves because of “doctrinal ideas” which help to keep us afraid of facing life in death. It seems to me that living in order to get future rewards does not help us to live in the sacrament of the Holy Now.

    • John B. Fritschne on April 13, 2024 at 02:30

      Thank you James.

  5. carol carlson on April 19, 2022 at 10:14

    What a zinger of a sermon, Br. James, and so true. We need to read Mark’s version of the resurrection every year, beside the romanticised others, and be shocked again by – and into – life. thank you!. One thing to note: if you and your brothers and all other good preachers got into the habit of referring to these witnesses more as ‘disciples’ and less as ‘women’, we’d be further along toward telling more of the truth of the gospel. NB, and thanks again.

  6. Barbara Kennard on April 19, 2022 at 10:04

    Wonderful reminder of why we are are all here! Thank-you Br. James for your powerful reminder of life in the midst of death.

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