An older minister sits alone at a restaurant at lunchtime, thinking about his upcoming Easter sermon. Although he’s the minister of a liberal church and his congregation, for the most part, doesn’t believe in the traditional meaning of Easter, he still feels obligated, living in a predominantly Christian culture, to give some kind of Easter sermon.
The minister has already ordered lunch. A bowl of vegetable soup, which he asked the waiter to make sure is extra hot. “I like a really hot soup,” he told the waiter. He also ordered a hot beef sandwich, with corn, mashed potatoes and gravy.
“Here you go, sir,” the waiter says, as he places the vegetable soup in front of the minister. “Extra hot, just the way you like it.”
“Thanks,” the minister says, as he opens a little bag of oyster crackers, dropping them on top of the soup. The minister scoops up a spoonful of soup and an oyster cracker and brings it toward his mouth, when he feels a tap on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, Will,” the minister hears, as he turns his head, reluctantly putting the spoonful of hot soup back in the bowl. The minister recognizes the young man standing next to him and smiles.
“Well, hello Liam,” the minister exclaims. “It’s good to see you again. How are things at your church?”
“Great,” Liam replies. “And yours?”
“Great as well,” Will answers.
Liam is the new young minister at a conservative church in town. The two ministers – one older, the other younger; one liberal, the other conservative – have had some friendly theological chats in the past, neither one converting the other.
“Have a seat,” Will says.
“Oh, no; I don’t want to interrupt your lunch,” Liam responds.
“Nonsense, I insist,” Will offers. “Have you had lunch yet?”
Liam answers as he sits. “No, I’ve given up lunch for Lent.”
“Whoa. You’re going to waste away,” Will reacts, noting his thin table mate.
Liam chuckles, “You know, some people could benefit from giving up lunch for Lent, whether they believe in Lent or not.”
“I know,” Will sighs, self-consciously rubbing his belly, as the waiter brings his hot beef sandwich, corn, mashed potatoes and gravy.
Liam chuckles again. “Oh, you ordered the diet plate, I see.”
Will chuckles, too, and jokingly says to the waiter, “This man is bothering me; have him removed immediately.”
Liam laughs and they both order tea.
Then Liam says, “So, I’m curious. What’s a liberal minister preach on Easter Sunday? Does he talk about the miracle of Spring, flowers being resurrected, leaves coming back to life?”
Will replies sheepishly, “Pretty much.” Then he goes on. “Now be honest, Liam. Just between you and me, you don’t really believe Jesus physically rose from the dead, do you?”
Liam immediately responds, “Yes, I do. Or I’d go sell shoes. And I believe Jesus died for all of our sins. Including the sins of liberal ministers, who pretend that people’s sins don’t really matter. Don’t you take the Bible literally?”
Will reacts. “No. I take the Bible liberally. And I know the word for sin in the Bible just means missing the mark, making a mistake, committing an error. We’re not perfect. And God didn’t intend for us to be perfect. If God would’ve wanted us to be perfect, God would’ve made us angels and not humans.”
Liam scooches his chair back a little bit and chuckles. “I better sit back here, to make room for the lightning strike.” He continues, “So, you don’t believe Jesus died for all the sins of the world, ever since Adam and Eve took a bite of the forbidden fruit back in the Garden of Eden? And you don’t believe that God demanded a human sacrifice to atone for people’s sins?”
Will shakes his head and says, “Nope.”
The waiter brings them each a cup of tea. They thank him.
Liam continues, “And you don’t believe in John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’?”
Will replies, “No. But I do believe in 1 John 4:16, ‘God is love.’ And I do believe that Jesus is the son of God.” Will watches Liam’s astonished look, then he continues. “Of course, I also believe that you are the son of God. And that your wife is the daughter of God. And that all of us are the sons and daughters of God.”
Liam laughs nervously, “Oh man, I don’t think I can scooch my chair back far enough.” He asks, “If you’re wrong, don’t you fear God?”
Will answers, “No. Because I believe God is a Supreme Being, not a supreme bully. Could God squish me like a bug? Sure. But that’s what I would want to do to people if I were God and they said things I didn’t like: I’d want to squish them like a bug. But if God does the same thing I would do, that doesn’t make God any better than me. And God has to be better than me or God wouldn’t be God. So I’m not afraid of God. Besides, didn’t Jesus say, ‘Perfect love casts out fear’? And isn’t God perfect love?”
“Okay,” Liam responds. “But what about Jesus dying for all our sins so that we can have everlasting life. You don’t believe that, either?”
Will answers matter-of-factly, “I believe we all die for our own sins.” He continues, “If you kill someone in Texas, the state isn’t going to say, ‘Well, I reckon we’ll send your son to the gas chamber instead of you. We call it substitutionary atonement.’ That’s not going to happen, right?”
As Liam ponders that, Will continues. “If God knows everything, God must’ve known that we would all sin, that we would all miss the mark, that we would all make mistakes, that we would all commit errors. I don’t believe Jesus died for those sins. I don’t believe that’s why Jesus died.”
Liam chuckles, “So, why did he die, Will the theologian?”
They both sip their tea.
Will states, “Well, you’re not going to like it, but I believe Jesus died because he spoke truth to power, because he told the rich to give to the poor, because he told anti-government grumps to pay their taxes, because he told warmongers to make peace, because he told haters to love, not just their neighbor, but also love their enemies. I mean, they killed Jesus less than a week after he overturned the money-changers tables. You don’t mess with people’s money and live to tell about it. And I think all those types of people would kill Jesus again, if he came back espousing the same things.”
Liam wonders, “You mean the Jews would kill Jesus again?”
Will counters, “Jesus wasn’t killed by the Jews. To put it in contemporary terms: Jesus was killed by religious extremists, who adhered to the words of the Bible, but missed its spirit; Jesus was killed by anti-government militias, who think the government is robbing them when it collects taxes; Jesus was killed by the rich, who think their taxes are going to the poor, because the poor are too lazy to work; Jesus was killed by defense contractors, who need wars or rumors of wars to make money.”
Liam responds, “So, you’re a cynic.”
Will reacts, “No. I’m a realist.”
Liam asks, “So who cleanses our sins?”
Will answers, “Well, if our sins need cleansing, the grace of God cleanses our sins. God forgives our sins even before we commit them.”
Liam wonders, “So you don’t believe in Hell?”
Will states, “I believe in hell on earth. I believe some people live in hell on earth through no fault of their own. Children living in poverty, women living in an abusive relationship, men who’ve been unemployed for months and even years; they’re all living in hell on earth. I also believe people create hell on earth for themselves by their hellish actions. Mob hit men, rapists and people who scam old ladies out of their life savings; they’re all living in hell on earth.”
Liam interjects. “Well I believe evil people – Hitler, John Wilkes Booth, John Wayne Gacy – go to a literal hell when they die and they remain there forever and ever. Amen.”
Will offers, “And I respect your belief. I respect all your beliefs. Even the ones I don’t agree with.”
Liam asks, “But you don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead three days after he was crucified?”
Will counters, “I do believe Jesus rose from the dead. Just not physically. Spiritually. And immediately. Not three days later.”
Liam reacts, “But his disciples saw him. Physically. And then hundreds of people saw him, too. Physically.”
Will responds, “I agree with Christian theologian Marcus Borg, who believes Jesus’ disciples and the others felt Jesus’ spiritual presence intensely. But they didn’t see him physically.”
Liam asks, “So they all lied?”
Will sighs, “No. I don’t think they lied. I think they believed intensely. For them, it wasn’t a matter of: You’ll believe it when you see it. For them, it was a matter of: You’ll see it when you believe it. They believed it and then they saw it. Or they wanted to see it. It’s like when people first fall in love. They only see what they want to see. They believe their beloved could walk on water.”
Liam chuckles. “But you don’t believe Jesus walked on water or raised Lazarus from the dead or turned water into wine, right?”
Will asks in response, “Do you know who William Sloane Coffin was?”
Liam answers, “Yeah, some liberal commie pinko minister, like you.”
Will chuckles. “I wish. He was the chaplain at Yale in the ‘60s and the Senior Minister at Riverside Church in New York City in the ‘70s and ‘80s. William Sloane Coffin said, ‘If you ask me if Jesus literally raised Lazarus from the dead, literally walked on water and changed water into wine, I will answer, ‘For certain, I do not know.’ But…I have seen Jesus change beer into furniture, sinners into saints, hate-filled relations into loving ones, cowardice into courage, the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope.’”
Liam rolls his eyes.
They both drink some more tea.
Will continues, “You might not like that, but I do. I like it that people’s intense belief in Jesus made them turn their lives around. I mean, you could say those people were born again. Or that their old lives died and were buried and that their new lives were resurrected. I think the modern-day Easter message is summed up in Romans 12, verse 2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Liam chuckles, “You know a verse in the Bible? I’m impressed.” He continues, “So how come it’s easier for you to believe that Jesus rose from the dead spiritually but not physically?”
Will ponders that. “Hmmm? Good question. I think it’s because I believe each one of us has a spirit, a soul, that does not get buried or burned with our body when we die. It lives on. Somewhere over the rainbow. And somewhere on this side of the rainbow, too. I’ve sometimes felt the spiritual presence of loved ones. Or perhaps of God. Or maybe of Jesus.”
Liam demands, “Prove it.”
Will responds, “Well, I could give you some examples from my own life. But I’d rather tell the story of a U.S. soldier that I saw on the CBS Evening News the other night. Maybe you saw that, too.”
Liam counters, “Nope. I only watch Fox News.”
Will chuckles. “Fair enough.” Then he thinks about the story he saw and continues.
“Tony was a U.S. soldier, badly burned in an explosion in Iraq ten years ago. His two best friends, Kenneth and Charles, were killed instantly in the explosion. But…as Tony lay there, being burned, dying, he says his two dead friends, Kenneth and Charles, kept telling him: Get up. Get up. It's not your time yet. Tony credits Kenneth and Charles with saving his life, even though they were dead. After recovering from his burns, which left him disfigured, Tony wondered who could ever love him. But a beautiful woman fell in love with him, they married and had a son. Tony named his son…Kenneth Charles.”
Will pauses before continuing. “I love that story. And I believe that Kenneth and Charles weren’t there physically urging their friend Tony to get up, but that they were there spiritually doing that.”
Liam agrees. “Yes, that’s a nice story. Even though it really doesn’t follow traditional Christian teachings. I mean, we don’t know if Tony and Kenneth and Charles are all Christians. Some Christian teachings tell us that if Kenneth and Charles were Christians, they would have immediately gone to heaven to meet Jesus. If they weren’t Christians, they would have immediately gone to hell. That’s what traditional, orthodox Christianity teaches.”
Liam pauses and then asks, “Will, why do you call yourself a Christian minister, if you don’t believe in traditional, orthodox Christian teachings?”
Will thinks for a moment. “Well, I really don’t call myself a Christian minister. I call myself a follower of Jesus.”
Liam interrupts, “Well that’s better than nothing.”
Will continues, “Of course, I also call myself a follower of Gandhi and a follower of Buddha and a follower of Dr. King and a follower of Mother Teresa and…”
Liam interrupts again, “But of course. We’re all God’s children. Kum Ba Yah and all that.”
Will chuckles. “Well, I believe we are all God’s children. And I believe God loves all of God’s children, just like I believe good parents love all of their children. Here’s my theology in a nutshell.”
Liam interjects, “Emphasis on the nut.”
Will chuckles, then continues. “To me, religion is like fruit. For some people, blueberries can satisfy their hunger. For others, it's strawberries or pears or apples or bananas. (And for still others, fruit doesn't satisfy their hunger at all.) And it's all okay, because fruit is only one possible way to satisfy their hunger. Other food (vegetables, grains, etc.) can also satisfy their hunger.”
Will and Liam drink more tea.
Will goes on, “In the same way, for some people, Christianity can satisfy their spiritual hunger. For others, it's Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam. (And for still others, religion doesn't satisfy their spiritual hunger at all.) And it's all okay, because religion is only one possible way to satisfy their spiritual hunger. Other soul food (silence, nature, etc.) can also satisfy their spiritual hunger.”
Liam chuckles. “So, you think religion is made up of fruits and nuts, huh? Speak for yourself.”
Will chuckles, too. “No. I just try to respect everyone’s different taste in the spiritual, in the divine, in the holy. What works for you, I respect and bless. I just think what works for you might not work for somebody else. And I respect and bless what works for them. To me it’s all just different branches in the same tree of life.”
Liam reacts, “Well, aren’t you just Mr. Open-minded. You know what they say, though: Make sure your mind isn’t so open that your brains fall out.”
Will counters, “Yeah, I’ve heard that. What I say in return is: Make sure your mind isn’t so closed that no new thought enters in.”
Liam responds, “Yeah, yeah. Listen, I gotta run. It’s always good to chat with you.”
Will replies, “And also with you.” Then he stands and the two men hug, as Will adds, “Happy Easter, my friend.”
Liam reacts, “The same to you, my brother.”
As Liam walks away, Will sits and looks at his cold vegetable soup and his plate of cold food, chuckles and thinks: Well, people pay good money for gazpacho and those in third world countries would love to eat a cold beef sandwich, corn, mashed potatoes and gravy.
A bit later, after finishing his food, paying for it and walking out of the restaurant, it occurs to Will that his talk with Liam at least gave him enough material for an Easter sermon, a sermon that will attempt to discern the miracle of Easter for the skeptical people of today. Perhaps the Easter miracle is simply this…Resurrection happens on Easter Sunday and every day of the year, when people from all walks of life respond positively to someone or something – God? Jesus? The Holy Spirit? Kenneth? Charles? The still small voice within? – saying to them each morning: Get up. Get up. It’s not your time yet.