A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Easter in the Valley of the Shadow of Death
April 16, 2020
A staple in our Service of Witness to the Resurrection (aka “funeral” or “memorial”) is the reading of Psalm 23. The evocative language of the King James Version is especially apropos: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”
This year Easter arrived amid the deadliest viral outbreak in more than a century. Death is everywhere at hand, and we don’t yet know when its assault will slacken. By the time the pandemic subsides, most Americans will know at least one person who died from COVID-19. Truly, we are walking today through the valley of the shadow of death.
The original Easter season, between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, was an ambivalent time for his followers. Death had come closer to them than ever before, and everything in their vocational playbook was shot to pieces. The future would look nothing like the past, they knew, but they had no idea what it would entail. As they huddled together in their hiding place, their dominating feeling was fear of being the next to die. (John 20:19)
Socially isolated. Locked down. Terrified by death’s nearby talons. No idea when it will be safe to venture out, or how to make ends meet at that juncture. This was the disciples’ Eastertide situation; sound familiar?
Perhaps we can enter the Easter story this year with unprecedented authenticity because of our current predicament. We usually write ourselves into the story as front-row witnesses to Jesus’ death-shattering victory. We shout out loud songs of triumph over death, and they are all appropriate. But what if we write ourselves into the Easter story with the disciples whose joy is mixed with fear, whose faith is assailed by doubt, whose understanding is clouded with uncertainty?
It is precisely in this situation that Jesus appears to the disciples Easter evening, and breathes on them the power of the Holy Spirit with the authorization to carry forward his mission. (John 20:22-23)
Immediately they rise up, grab hold of resurrection life, and become world-changers. Right? Not exactly.
A week later Jesus shows up again, and they’re still huddled in self-quarantined fear. (John 20:26) Nothing has changed for them. Eventually they head out to Galilee, where they decide to abandon Jesus’ program entirely, attempting a return to their former ways of fishing. (John 21:2-3)
When we hear the word of Jesus’ resurrection, and receive the promise of the Spirit, it can take a while for it to soak into us and begin its work. Our first steps out of our crisis situation may point backward rather than forward. If we can’t pick up where we left off before everything went wrong, let’s return to what used to work for us way back in the old days.
As we emerge into our “new normal” over the coming months, the only thing we can be sure of is that it won’t be back to business as usual. We may feel tempted to go back to old paths long-abandoned. If so, the Easter story invites us to consider that God may not let us go back. The Spirit that Jesus breathes upon the Easter disciples may not immediately elicit revolutionary new ways of living out his mission. But in the end it is as irrepressible as the resurrection life of Jesus himself.
This Easter season, we may seem far from being a Spirit-filled army ready to turn the world upside down with the Gospel. Amid the COVID-19 outbreak and all the economic devastation it is unleashing, we may feel like we are struggling through the valley of the shadow of death.
If so, we are in good Easter company. The Easter story tells us that the Spirit that Jesus breathes into the disciples who see the risen Lord will eventually transform them and all that they do, empowering them to be his ambassadors of healing and reconciliation in a world reeling from brokenness and alienation. That’s what happened in that first Eastertide season. May it happen again today, as the 2,000-year-old Easter story gains fresh purchase on us amid our current distress.
Yours in Easter hope,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister