DAY OF THE LIVING DEAD
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
April 7, 2013; 2nd Sunday of Easter, Year C
Psalm 41; Revelation 1:4-8
“Grace to you and peace from… Jesus Christ,
the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead.”
I have to admit there are times I feel like I’m just a bit out of the loop, when it comes to certain aspects of pop culture.
Like this whole vampire-and-zombie thing. I get it that there’s a whole world of books and movies out there, in which some of the main characters are teenaged vampires. And I think I see how the fictional characters of vampires — who stand apart from the rest of society and have their own ghastly subculture — may resonate with certain teenagers, who often feel society treats them the same way.
What I’m not so sure about is this whole zombie thing. I’m no fan of horror films. I’ve never even seen the movie that started it all, way back when: Night of the Living Dead. Nor do I want to, especially. The thought of undead creatures with strips of rotting flesh falling from their bodies and oozing skin-wounds, dining on the bodies of terrified human beings, just doesn’t seem like my idea of a good time. You may differ. To each their own.
What I really don’t understand is this event that takes place in Asbury around Halloween each year, known as the Zombie Walk. It’s a charity fundraiser. I’ve never seen it, but I’ve seen the news photos and videos. Thousands of people show up for this thing, dressed in rags and made up to look like dead people. In 2010, Asbury Park even broke the Guinness World Record for zombie walks, topping out at more than 4,000 zombies.
The Asbury Park Press article reporting on last year’s event focused on parents who come to the Zombie Walk with their young children. You’d think the kids would have been scared, but evidently not. One couple came as a zombie bride and groom, with their 7-year-old daughter as the zombie flower girl. “We showed her a picture of zombies before we came last year to see if she would be scared,” said the mother, “but she said she wanted to come. And she had so much fun, she wanted to come back again this year.”
One mother came carrying her 5-month-old zombie daughter. “She has to experience her first zombie walk sometime,” said this ever-practical mom, as her baby daughter “poked through [her mother’s] blood-soaked shirt with a brain dangling from her wrist.” I am not making this up.
Gotta love pop culture!
I even learned in the article that many of the zombies come dressed as celebrities: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Snow White and her undead dwarves, and — note this one well — zombie Jesus.
Zombie Jesus: just let that sink in for a moment or two. What is wrong with that picture?
I’ll tell you what’s wrong. Marilyn Monroe and Elvis you can almost imagine — in the worst of all possible worlds — digging their way out of their graves to prowl the earth looking for human flesh to eat. But Jesus? Unlike the others, his body isn’t in the ground!
It’s an image like the one that may come to mind when you hear the singular phrase from today’s scripture reading, that Jesus is “the firstborn of the dead.” Sounds kind of creepy, doesn’t it? But John’s not talking zombies. He’s talking resurrection — which is something very different.
The promise of Jesus’s resurrection is that, one day, the dead will do more than merely shuffle, zombie-like, across the land. The promise of Easter is a new, perfected and eternal life!
Well, who is it who works this wonder? It is Jesus, of course, and in describing him, John uses four titles.
The first is “Christ,” or christos in the Greek — a word which you probably know means Messiah. To all the faithful who understand the centuries-old yearning of the Jewish people for a Messiah, John is saying those prophesies are now fulfilled.
The second title is “faithful witness.” Now, that could mean several things. It could mean Jesus witnessing to God’s love. Or, it could mean Jesus bears a certain testimony to the truth about the way the world truly is. More likely, I think, is that the word means “martyr.”
In the Greek, the words for “martyr” and “witness” are the same. What are the martyrs, after all, but faithful believers who, by sacrificing their own lives under persecution, show forth the truth of God’s love and power?
It’s a message John’s first readers, in those seven churches of Asia Minor, would have been hungry to hear. In Revelation 2:10, John addresses their specific situation:
“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
What does an apostle say, to group of believers he knows are likely to be rounded up by the Romans and put to death for their faith? “Be faithful unto death,” he tells them. If they do this thing, they will receive “the crown of life.”
Let’s jump over the third title John uses, for now, and go directly to the fourth. John calls Jesus “ruler of the kings of the earth.”
It’s an audacious phrase to use, considering what’s happened to Jesus. You remember, from the story of his passion, how the Roman soldiers roughed Jesus up, stripped him, then threw a kingly cloak around his shoulders and jammed a crown of thorns down upon his head. The soldiers mocked him, bowing down before him and saying, “Hail, O King!”
How can John refer to one such as him — this weak and tortured man who’s anything but kingly — as “ruler of the kings of the earth” (or, we could say, king of kings)?
He’s able to do so because of the power of the resurrection: for, in returning from the dead in full strength, Jesus has done something no king on earth has ever done before. Even the mighty Julius Caesar, conqueror of the world, whom some worshiped as a god, fell down upon the floor of the Roman Senate when his friend Brutus ran a sword through him, and never rose up again. Moments before, Caesar had been the mightiest man on earth. Now, as his life-blood flows out of him, so too does his Imperial power.
Now, let’s go back to that third title John uses for Jesus, the one that’s our principal focus this morning. Jesus is “firstborn of the dead.” Think back to the Hebrew scriptures, and you’ll realize how important, how weighted with meaning, is this word “firstborn.” Remember that story of Jacob and Esau, how Esau was the firstborn, but Jacob managed to deceive their father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing?
The firstborn is the forerunner. The firstborn gets the best of everything, in that culture: the first bite of food at the banquet, and the lion’s share of the family inheritance. The firstborn has pride of place in every Jewish family. The firstborn son is a good person to know, because eventually he will come into his inheritance and be richer than you could imagine.
When Julius Caesar bled out on the marble floor of the Roman Senate, he joined the ranks of the dead. If Jesus is the firstborn of the dead, it means he occupies a position mightier and more prestigious than even Caesar. When God raises the dead, one day, it will not be the Caesars of the world who will lead the marching column, but this humble rabbi, whose only crown in life was one made of thorns: that tore his flesh, causing him to taste his own blood as it cascaded down his face.
When the dead return, with Jesus at their head, it will not be a shuffling zombie walk, but the triumphant march of those truly, triumphantly and joyfully alive forevermore, by God’s grace!
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, is one of the best preachers alive today. She’s won renown as a writer and teacher, but has never aspired to one of the storied “tall-steeple churches.” Instead, she has spent long periods living on the small Georgia farm that she and her husband operate.
Like many farmers, they raise chickens, and that means Barbara has a front-row seat, on a regular basis, for the drama of new life coming into being. Listen to her describe what this looks like, and feels like, as she sits and watches eight chicks in the incubator struggle out of their eggs and stand, while the one remaining looks like it will not survive. This one…
“…had such a hard time leaving the shell that a piece of it dried to her head, trapping her half in and half out. The cardinal rule of being a Bird Mother is that you cannot help, because the fight to escape the shell somehow kick starts all of a keet’s systems. Those that cannot manage by themselves may die anyway, but if you help them then you wreck their odds.
In what had to be one of the most agonizing tests a pastor can undergo, I sat there in my imaginary straitjacket watching the chick struggle while her shell hardened around her. Her labors grew weaker as the time between them increased. Finally she laid her head down on the plastic shelf of the incubator and did not try any more. Figuring she was a goner, Ed lifted the keet, shell and all, and placed her in the straw-lined wooden box with her siblings. Huddled under a 60-watt light bulb, they were in constant motion, all climbing on top of one another as they each tried to crawl closest to the light.
When the trapped keet heard them cheeping, she cheeped too and the heads of the others swiveled in her direction. Then they called to her (“Lazarus, come out!”) and the sound galvanized her. She lifted her head off of the straw, shuddered all over and heaved free. On orange rubber legs, she staggered over to the pile of warm feathers and dove underneath them, leaving her old shell behind her like a shroud.
The other babies welcomed her by treading on her. This looked harsh, but turned out to be just what she needed. With nine pairs of keet feet, they dried and revived her better than any Swedish masseur could have done.
Within an hour, the keets were all eating. One by one, they walked over to the red plastic water trough and sipped from it as if they had studied instructions on its use in the shell. None of them asked for a chaplain. They did not even need a mother. My job, as it turned out, was not to crack shells, extract keets, dry feathers or pour mash into mouths. My job was simply to make a safe place, keep the predators away, and let the community do what it knew how to do. I hope I can remember that the next time I feel the urge to rescue someone from being born.”
Friends, the good news of this Easter season is that there are greater powers at work than you or I could ever imagine. Christ is risen, and God is about the business of calling the redeemed into a new and perfect life! What is there for us to do but marvel at the signs we all around us of this rebirth taking place, and to lose ourselves in wonder, awe and praise?
Copyright © 2013 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.