It’s hard to believe that it has been 10 years since Dr. Bob died. Robert H. Smith was a theologian, Biblical scholar of the highest order, exceptional instructor and guide into the mysteries of ancient Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, a Professor in every good sense of the word. You can read a brief bio on Wikipedia that will give you the highlights of his career but it won’t tell you how much he was loved by his students or how in his Christlike way he managed to include so many of us into his circle of friends and yet make each feel uniquely appreciated and held dear. That Wiki bio also won’t tell you about what it was like to be in class, reading and translating our way through a text with him—a text you know he had been through hundreds of times before—when suddenly he would pause, cock his head a bit, then share some “small” theological insight that would rock your world and forever change the way you perceive things.
I vividly remember just such a moment from 20 years ago, my last semester of seminary. We were comparing the different gospel accounts of the Resurrection and discussing why they were so different from each other. Naturally, everyone had a firm opinion on which gospel account was her or his favorite. We were seminary students. We had firm opinions about everything in those heady days before real life in the parish softened some of our edges and sharpened others. Dr. Bob listened thoughtfully as we debated the merits or drawbacks of each account until, inevitably, someone piped up and asked, “Dr. Smith, which is your favorite account?” After a moment’s thought he said, “The one that haunts me most is the original ending of the Gospel of Mark.”
In the oldest manuscripts Mark ends in the middle of verse 8 in chapter 16. Most scholars concur that everything that comes after that was added by a later hand, a person or persons who were just plain uncomfortable with the unresolved feeling of the original ending. In that orininal ending the women find the tomb empty. A “young man dressed in a white robe” tells them that Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead of them to Galilee and that they will see him there. But the women flee from the tomb “for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
“Why is that your favorite Resurrection account?” we asked Dr. Bob. “I like it for what’s not there,” he replied after another thoughtful silence. “I can just picture those women, trembling and frightened as they stare into the empty tomb. There’s a young man dressed in white—and who is he? They don’t know, but he’s not Jesus. A young man dressed in white tells them Jesus is raised and that he has gone ahead of them to Galilee and they will see him there. But that’s how it ends, with trembling and fear and a promise. No emotional reunion. Just trembling and fear and a promise. In the end that’s all any of us have in the face of death—trembling, fear, maybe half a hope, and a promise. You either trust that promise or you don’t. I like this version because the empty tomb leaves a hole in all assumptions.”
A hole in all assumptions. Those words stuck with me. They have worked in me slowly and gently over the years, wearing down many of my adamantine assumptions like water polishing stones in a stream.
A week later I attended Easter worship at a small church in Oakland along with Dr. Smith, his wife, Dr. Donna Duensing, and several others. The pastor, a dear friend of us all, was fairly new to this congregation and was doing her excellent best to turn around a declining congregation with aging membership, but on this particular Easter Sunday it was clear that she had her work cut out for her. The pews were far from full.
This is a dying church I thought. But the hole in all assumptions was already at work in me. Well aren’t all churches dying churches? Isn’t every pew and seat in every church in the world filled with the dying? And isn’t this the day when we stand before the empty tomb, even our own empty tomb, with nothing more than fear, trembling, half a hope, and a promise? Faith equals trust. Look at these people who have come here today. Think of all the friends and loved ones who have filled these pews with them over the years. Think of not just their faith, but the faithfulness and love that brought them here today. Yes, this is a dying church in a dying world. But we have the promise, the Word of Resurrection. Jesus has gone ahead of us. You either trust that promise or you don’t.
Easter in a Dying Church
April 9, 1996
They come because they have always come…
and on this day of days,
not to pass through the beckoning door,
not to let their careful footsteps drum
old echoes from the wooden floor
would deny the pattern of their ways
and all the times that they have come before.
They sit where they have always sat…
each in the customary pew,
with room enough for all,
even for the visiting few
who do not hear the sweet, unearthly voices
singing Alleluia in memories so loud;
room enough for those who do not recall
the passings, the accidents, the choices
which have thickened the witnessing cloud
and left this sparse, embodied remnant of the hosts
surrounded by their ghosts.
They come to meet where they have always met…
to taste the wine with a beloved friend
who has faded from sight
but still shares the cup in the world without end,
to break bread with the cherished spouse
who, though swallowed by the light,
still prays beside each member of this house,
to meet children, uncles, sisters, mothers,
cousins, aunts, fathers, brothers,
in soul or body distanced from their common place—
to allow for them a sanctioned space.
They come to be seen with the unseen…
to testify to the most revered of their presumptions:
that before and beyond here and now
the empty tomb
leaves a hole in all assumptions.
Postscript: For what it’s worth (a lot, I think) that little “dying” church is still going.