RISEN: A Day Without Death

RISEN: A Day Without Death

At the end of Act I in the 2016 film, Risen, a cynical Pilate probes his Tribune, Clavius, “Your ambition is noticed. Where do you hope it will lead?”

“Rome. Position. Power,” says Clavius.

“Which brings?”

“Wealth, a good family, someday a place in the country.”

“Where you will find?”

“An end to travail. A day without death.”

But death reigns in Risen, as an ever-present element in the Roman Tribune’s life. He is either delivering it, mourning it, trying to prove it, or outrun it as the film unfolds. I think that’s what makes it my new favorite Easter movie. It does not shrink from the stark reality of death and the impossibility of escaping it.

Risen follows the tradition of The Robe and Ben Hur by inserting a fictitious historical character into the Biblical narrative as an eyewitness to events. And while it doesn’t aspire to the epic proportions of those classics, it is a good story well told.

Joseph Fiennes (Luther 2003, On Wings of Eagles 2016) turns in a phenomenal performance as Clavius, the Roman Tribune charged by Pilate (Peter Firth) with insuring that Jesus stays dead, the Sanhedrin remains mollified, the mob remains pacified. And Caesar stays in the dark about all of it. The cinematography is excellent. The plot is believable, the film is well-paced, and even though special effects got the shallow end of the budget pool, the script and the acting more than made up for it. Pilate’s cynicism is palpable, but not overdone, as he and Clavius play a high-stakes game of political chess with the equally cynical High Priest. We come away reminded of how quickly truth goes by the boards as the players manipulate the message in a never-ending battle to shape public opinion.

Risen does have several historical flaws and anachronisms. Except for the High Priest once a year during the Yom Kippur ceremony in the temple, Jews would never speak the name, Yahweh. Mary Magdalene appears as a redeemed prostitute, another commonly made historical error. And those concerned with fidelity to the biblical text will note a glaring omission in the words of Jesus just before the ascension. But these are minor problems, offset by biblical faithfulness throughout the rest of the script and an excellent supporting cast. Watch especially for the drunken guard’s testimony in the bar.

Far more important, however, and ultimately more moving than any of these things is Fiennes’ Clavius. He is utterly convincing as a man’s man intimately acquainted with the brutal parts of life on a fallen planet. The moment he catches the disciples in the upper room is worth the price of the film. It’s the most compelling portrayal of a cynical man’s encounter with the risen Christ I’ve ever seen. And everyone who watches will struggle with him to reconcile two irreconcilable things: “A man dead without question, and that same man alive again.”

EASTER: ALL ABOUT GRACE

We are uncomfortable with grace. We cannot get our minds around it, or adjust our feelings to it. It upends our inner scale of justice because most of us live under the merit system.

A murderer gets the death penalty and we’re okay with that. It makes sense to us. We resonate with reward, and punishment. Do good, work hard, keep your nose clean, and you will be rewarded. Be selfish, be mean, be slack, be criminal, and you get what you deserve.

But deserve and reward are words that have no meaning under grace. That is the scandal –- even a Timothy McVeigh can receive a full pardon from God.

“For the wages of sin is death. But the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Death is something we earn. Life is a gift.

If you have trouble absorbing that, consider these three thoughts.

Grace Is Costly

Justice was done. Sin was paid for but not by us. “He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us.” (2 Cor. 5:21).

In the film The Last Emperor, a young child anointed as the last emperor of China lives a magical life of luxury with a thousand eunuch servants at his command.

“What happens when you do wrong?” asks his brother.

“When I do wrong, someone else is punished,” the boy king answers. To demonstrate, he shatters a jar, and one of his servants is beaten.

God reversed that pattern. When the servants sinned, the king was punished. Grace is free only because the giver has born all the cost.

Grace Is Extravagant 

Think of the parable Jesus told about the lost sheep (See Luke15). The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in the open country, vulnerable to theft, wolves, and wandering, to find the one, and then celebrates with friends.

That’s extravagant.

I would say, “Miserable little ingrate sheep. Let him wander. Wolves would do me a favor if they ate him.” But not God. God’s grace is extravagant.

Grace is Overwhelming

Some of us have done things that we are ashamed to admit, and some of us have done things–violent things, cruel things, and heartless things–that, in the clear light of day, horrify us. Not only would we never tell someone else about them, we can hardly tell ourselves. Some of us still find ourselves, long after putting faith in Christ, doing things we regret deeply and cannot explain.

The Apostle Paul was like that. He confessed, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst,” and “ … I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing … What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”[1]

That same grace — God’s Amazing Grace — is here, now, offered to us. The resurrection proved that it is true. That is why we celebrate Easter.

[1] 1 Timothy 1:15; Romans 7:18-19, 24-25.

WHEN A WARRIOR FALLS

When a pastor’s phone rings late at night it is never good news. That was true one year ago this week, when Marilyn, the wife of my friend Hank called from the local emergency room, clearly in distress. I jumped in the car, heart racing, uttering the only prayer I could manage: “Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.” I knew from past experience that when the nurse had me turn left, into the staff lounge, instead of right, to the exam rooms, that Hank was gone.

I have lost so many youngish friends and family like this, suddenly and without warning, that making sense of it has been a lifelong endeavor. You know the deal: a few seconds one way or the other, a decision to go left instead of right, a slight medical miscalculation, fragmentary details that tip the balance between life and death. That huge two letter word IF. Who can calculate the odds? And what does it mean?

Some things can only be understood by faith. I want to share my conclusions about that shortly, but first I want to remember my friend Hank.

Hank the Warrior
Hank gave a talk at our 2014 men’s retreat on success and told us about several occasions with various companies where he had been given the privilege to, “resign to pursue other opportunities.” He said that most of us would share that privilege and told us how to handle it: “Never lose your confidence. Get up, brush yourself off, and say, ‘Well, that was fun,’ and get back in the game.”

For that and many other reasons, I saw Hank as a warrior. Not a Seal Team Six kind of warrior. Hank was a spiritual warrior, an Ephesians six kind of warrior.

Eph. 6:10-12 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Hank was the kind of guy that the world could just throw stuff at and he could stand there and take it, and not lose his cool, and not betray his Captain, Jesus, and then lead.

For me and our church he had so many of those spiritual warrior qualities that a Church and a pastor need: A cool head, sober judgment, sound theology, engaging personality, the gift, with Marilyn, of hospitality, the abilities to teach, and lead and administrate. Hank was a good and faithful steward of everything that was and is our church, and all that with the heart of a servant. Because of that he was my personal friend and mentor, a guide stone when I was clueless, and a true partner in faith and ministry.

So what do you do when you lose a man like that? What do you make of it? Here are some of the conclusions I’ve come to.

When a Warrior Falls Remember:
That Hank and you and I and every other follower of Christ serve the Creator of the universe in the Great War between good and evil. Jesus is our great Captain and we serve at his pleasure, in life or by death. He chooses the day we depart.

That He loves us beyond anything that we could ask or imagine.

That He takes care of his widows and orphans. How well I know this.

That in his own life of poverty and service, and unjust and brutal death, Jesus has identified with all who suffer, with all who are taken “before their time.”

That His resurrection proves that this life is not all there is. That Hank now lives in a world more real and so glorious that when we see it, all of life on earth will seem a mere shadow.

When a Warrior Falls Remember:
What the Apostle Paul wrote in the last few days before his martyrdom:
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day– and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Tim 4:6-8 NIV)

Remember that he goes to a reward, to be with his Captain. Remember to long for Christ’s appearing.

When a Warrior Falls Remember:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Phil 1:21-24 NIV)

I know that Hank prefers his current location over this world. And I have this great fear that I’m going to outlive everyone that I love. But that is up to my Captain. Either way, I will keep doing what he made me to do.

When a warrior falls remember to keep doing what your Captain made you to do.

Hank became an elder at our church in 2005 and I wouldn’t let him resign until 2014. Our board meets twice a month and begins every meeting by praying; first for the needs of people, then the various ministries of the Church, and finally for ourselves and the things before us a board. We go around the table and pray.

It’s easy for prayers like that to become perfunctory, like saying grace at meals. Sometimes you’ll hear yourself or another man drop into a pattern and you wonder if he’s “checked out.”

Hank developed a pattern over that last year, a close to his prayer that sounded a common theme, but it was never perfunctory. In fact it was so urgent within him; it was coming from such a deep place, that it became at once a riveting call as well as a benediction from my friend. It went like this:

“Father, no matter what we are able to do as a Church, no matter what we get involved in, never let us lose sight of Christ. Always draw us back and keep us centered on Christ and his Cross; the salvation and grace that come through him alone.”

And now dear friends, we cannot tell you how much we long for you to have the same hope and to follow the same Captain that Hank now knows face to face.