The Alpha & Omega Of Love
1 Corinthians 13
The message this morning is about a young man who thought he was Jesus Christ returned in the flesh.
Not too long ago, in the company of several other ministers, I saw an old film named Ordet. It's a Danish film made in 1954 with subtitles in English.
The story centers around a rural Danish family. One son whose name is John has gone to theological seminary to become a minister. While there, he becomes totally smitten with the theology of Soren Kierkegaard, whose main theme is the power of faith when it is lived completely.
Because of all that study of Kierkegaard, something snaps in John's mind. He suddenly assumes that he is Jesus Christ returned to earth. At the seminary, they are sure he has gone mad, so they send him home. His family doesn't know what to do with him. He wanders about the house, seemingly in a trance of religious ecstasy. At the dinner table he will rise and preach, saying, "Woe to you who do not believe in me."
His family is at their wits' end with concern and embarrassment. They can't have friends in; they dare not let him go into town. When he does get out of the house, they find him down on a sand dune, preaching to the wind. Or they find him in the woods, preaching to the trees. They gently guide him home in his demented state.
The rest of the family are very devout in their ways. The elderly father of the family had prayed that his son would become a minister, but is now terribly broken to see what has happened to him. After all, what could be worse than to go around claiming you were Jesus Christ.
The daughter of the family, John's sister, has married an atheist who is nevertheless a very loving husband. They have two children and are expecting a third. Their oldest child is a girl of ten who has a deep faith and trust that can happen so poignantly at that age. She says to her Uncle John,
"If you are Jesus, you can heal people and raise them from the dead, can't you?" And John says, "Oh, yes, my dear, I can."
Now, tragedy arrives when John's sister dies in childbirth. And before the start of the funeral, her body lies in its coffin in the family living room. The neighbors have gathered. They are standing around, wafting for the local minister to start the funeral service when John, our demented Jesus figure, returns from his wanderings. He seems to have returned to his senses; he recognizes his parents; they greet each other warmly, explaining to him what has happened to his sister.
Now, the 10 year old daughter of the deceased has the most supreme faith of all, simply because she has the powerful innocence of childhood. So she says to her Uncle John, "You'll have to hurry if you're going to bring my mommy back to life."
In his return to reality, John is shaken, because he still believes in the power of faith, so he says to his niece, "Do you think I could do it?" And she says, "Oh, yes, Uncle John, remember how you said you were really Jesus and you could bring people back to life?"
And so he stands before the bier, takes the little girl's hand and says, "Now we will pray and when I say the name of Jesus Christ, you look at your mother."
He prays, and when he says "Jesus Christ," the camera first shows the little girl looking serenely, faithfully, and expectantly at her dead mother. Then the camera moves to a long shot of the casket and slowly moves in to a medium shot. The moment is breathless with anticipation, and as the field of vision narrows to a close-up, the body stirs in the coffin, and indeed comes to life. She rises in her coffin; the miracle is accomplished; the family is reunited. The atheist husband becomes a believer, and that's the end of the film.
Now, as I sat watching this picture building to its moment of resurrection, as the camera dollied in from long shot to close-up in those frightening moments, I kept thinking to myself, "Surely they're not going to really bring her back to life. If they go through with this thing, it will greatly cheapen faith. Resurrections like this just don't happen. We accept that one resurrection 2000 years ago. That's central to the Christian faith, but no, not this. Better to disillusion the child right now than have her think this could actually happen. Death is death. It has happened, so this child should realize she will have to learn to live life without her mother. It happens across the world frequently."
But there it was. She got up out of that coffin and embraced her husband. I felt terribly uncomfortable with the implication that if our faith is indeed total enough, that if we are really at one with God, we can indeed pray people back to life. Scientific truths kept crowding into my mind. We all know what happens to the human brain shortly after death. We know the physical deterioration that takes place in all our functional organs just a short while after death.
But I quickly eliminated the scientific hang-up, because if faith can indeed bring back life, it can bring back life restored, all bodily and mental capacities back to normal. But, of course, faith is not intended to bring back life as it was. Faith is not a means to make things happen as we might wish them to be. But faith is the function of hope that God's plan for this earth and for us will be fulfilled. And death, in its own good time, may be a part of that plan.
The impact of that film stayed with me for a long time, which I think indicates a very important statement was being made, a statement about faith. I think the writer of that film was saying that our faith does indeed get rusty from lack of use and that there is much more to be accomplished in life through faith than many of us now imagine in the stark realism of our adulthood.
The little ten-year-old child was the star of that picture as far as I am concerned. A little child did indeed lead that small community of faith, and while I cannot return to my childlike faith, I can value it very highly.
As Paul tells us in our scripture lesson this morning in those stirring verses of 1 Corinthians 13, "When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways."
One interesting interpretation of this is that Paul is expressing sadness that the faith of childhood is lost to us as we grow to adulthood and put aside childish ways. Paul goes on to say, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face," meaning that in our adulthood we have lost our ability to see clearly. We see matters of faith only dimly through that mirror clouded over with all the problems of chicanery and suspicion that adulthood forces upon us.
Back then, in our childhood, we were face to face with full faith; but eventually death shall bring us once again to the purity of our childhood faith. Now we know only in part, because we have forgotten the totality of our childhood's faith. But in that unknown future, we shall get back to the purity of our childhood faith and understand fully. And that is the alpha and omega of faith and love.
One final thought comes crashing in. If that dead mother had not come back to life, there would have been no point to the picture. If, in that dramatic, highly charged moment, that body had stayed dead, the minister would have mumbled the usual "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord," and then carried her off to the cemetery. After all, we must be realistic about this.
But had she not come back to life, I would have been left with only this world. And I want an occasional glimpse into the next world. Maybe I was given that glimpse through the total trust displayed by that little girl ... a trust that made that resurrection believable.
Our reality could not accept that resurrection. But a child's faith certainly tests the constant validity of our reality. Our reality needs challenging from time to time. That's what faith is all about.
That young girl was a shining example of total openness, an excellent characteristic of childhood. And when her uncle John and she held hands before that casket, it was the coming together of total commitment and total openness, a combination that really enlivens life, that circumvents deadness. And the resurrection in the film was the symbol of the constant renewal of life through the combining of commitment and openness. It is interesting to me that total commitment and openness go together, each needing the other.
John was totally unbending in his demented belief that he was Jesus Christ come again. He was thought to be loony; he certainly was not accepted. All anyone could say was, "Poor John, poor demented fool." But when he came to that funeral, he recognized his father, spoke to him rationally. He had come back to his senses. The little girl said to him, "You'll have to hurry, Uncle John, if you're going to bring my mother back to life." In his return to sanity, he was doubtful certainly a characteristic of sanity. He was not sure he could do it. It is in our sanest moments, our moments of pure reality, that doubt can be very real.
He said to the girl, "Do you think I can do it?" And in her trusting mind, there was not the slightest doubt. "Of course you can do it." The roles of openness and commitment may have temporarily shifted. He suddenly became open to her trust in him, and she became totally committed to the idea that he could do it, and he did in the film thus symbolizing, or even proving, that when commitment and openness interfuse, life lives! Life overcomes. Life transcends the mundane. Think about that for the enhancement of your own faith.
The film was, of course, a lovely fantasy. It is not a pattern for you and me to follow. We do not have the kind of faith that can bring about resurrections no one does. But there is an inspiration to be drawn from it. You and I, with the faith of total commitment and openness, can make a church come more alive than it is, can make a friend feel resurrected from the depths of his despair, can believe more fully that caring for one another can bring our relationships to higher levels of strength and power.
In the turmoil of today's world, the very idea of freedom needs a new resurrection in the hearts of people under the thumb of dictatorship and tyranny. We may have to fight for it in unthinkable ways. But we must be committed to it as if we were indeed capable of raising the dead.
Let the message of Christ continually grow in our hearts.
Donald B. Ward