Fanning the Flames of Discipleship

Martha Ellen Stortz
Southwest California Synod Assembly: ELCA
May 31, 2003

This has been a time of great loss and overwhelming sadness for our seminary, for its friends, and for anyone who knew and read and listened to Timothy F. Lull. At the same time we count ourselves graced with the presence of someone so full of energy, insight, a wild and wonderful sense of humor, and a taste in music that ran from Gabrieli to the Grateful Dead. Tim was an event. And now we are trying to have conversations with Timothy F. Lull, the way he had conversations with Martin Luther.

Not much happens by coincidence. It is not lost on me that we wrestle with the loss of Tim Lull in this liturgical season that celebrates death and resurrection. On Maundy Thursday, the Thursday in Holy Week, Tim learned that he had a very aggressive form of prostate cancer. The next day, as he led the Good Friday liturgy, it was clear that he had set his face toward immediate surgery. As we entered the season of Easter, the community prepared itself for the events that lay ahead, placing our hope in a resurrection we could only strain to see. Surgery went well, it seemed, and Tim felt good enough to give the charge to the graduates at commencement on May 17th. Three days later he died of a pulmonary embolism. His funeral was Sunday, the sixth Sunday of Easter, and on Wednesday, May 28th, the day before the festival of the Ascension we committed his body to the earth, “a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming” ("Burial of the Dead” in the Occasional Services: A Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship, 1982).

On Ascension Day I found myself wandering around a campus engulfed in fog that was thicker than the usual marine layer. This was a spiritual fog that shrouded the soul as well. I had a vision of Jesus ascending into heaven, trailing white robes and disappearing into the gathering clouds—with Tim cradled in his arms. It gave me great comfort.

The rest of us of course are left watching these two disappear into the clouds, and I am minded of a woodcut of the Ascension by the great German Reformation artist Albrecht Dürer. At the top of the piece are two feet dangling out of a great white cloud. The rest of Jesus has ascended beyond the frame of Dürer’s artistry. The focus of the picture is on the disciples, who stand in disarray staring at Jesus’ feet, looking up, reaching up into thin air. They are either trying to grab Jesus by the feet and pull him down or trying to hang onto his coattails and join in his ascent. The disciples look up, grabbing at thin air. According to the account of the Ascension from the Book of Acts, two angels stand in the midst of the disciples, and Dürer has them in his woodcut, wings barely contained by clothing. We know what they are saying: “Men of Galilee, why do stand looking into heaven?” (Acts 1.11)

I read the angels’ words as a rebuke: “Why do you stand looking into heaven? Don’t long for what is no longer with you. Don’t waste your time yearning for your resurrected Lord. Attend to what is here. Your ministry lies here, on earth and among your neighbors.” Wendell Berry said the same in his poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” “Practice resurrection."(Wendell Berry, Collected Poems: 1957-1982, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984) Practice resurrection.

What did it mean for those disciples to practice resurrection? What does it mean for us today? These questions haunt us, as we implore the Spirit to assuage our grief, to stay our confusion, and to fan the flames of discipleship. What does it mean to practice resurrection?

The question is fitting, both to the liturgical season and to this time of mourning. If you look at the events of between Good Friday and the descent of the spirit at Pentecost, you see a established a “pattern of paschal mystery” that begins to address the question: what does it mean to practice resurrection? (Cf. Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, New York: Doubleday, 1999)

Ronald Rolheiser speaks of the “pattern of paschal mystery” as the events stretching from Good Friday to Easter to the forty days between Easter and Ascension to Pentecost. I want to argue that these events set up a standing wave in the life of discipleship. Let’s draw on the metaphor you chose for this assembly, “Fanning the Flames of Discipleship,” and we can understand this as a line of combustibles: a row of fire-ready material which needs only the flame of the Spirit to ignite it and the breath of the Spirit to fuel it. The events between Good Friday and Pentecost establish a pattern for dealing with loss and new life, dealing with grief and blessing. The daily lectionary rolls through the familiar story, and we know the sequence of the events by heart. But if we can internalize the pattern of paschal mystery, we will recognize this pattern in our own lives, when we suffer great loss and endure great change. Mark Twain said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” If we internalize the history of Jesus, particularly from the events of Good Friday through Pentecost, we will be able to trace this pattern emerging in our own lives. We too can catch the rhyme, finding the consolation of blessing in the midst of overweening grief.

After all, the disciples were not left comfortless, and neither are we. Indeed, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, descended in tongues of fire at Pentecost, granting the disciples gifts designated for ministry in the world. These gifts enabled them to practice resurrection. I want to look more closely at this pattern of paschal mystery that is established between Good Friday and Pentecost.

Consider the events of Good Friday, where the disciples face a overwhelming loss. They grieve the death of their beloved friend Jesus. This is real death, the end of life as we know it. Easter is the beginning of new life, life as we can barely imagine it. Easter brings with it resurrection, but resurrection does not restore the Jesus the disciples knew nor does Eastert resuscitate his old life. Resurrection bestows new life. Resurrection creates life on new terms entirely: life in the Resurrection Zone. Living life in the Resurrection Zone takes some getting used to, and it’s clear the disciples were not entirely ready for this. For example, at the tomb Mary Magdalene wants her old friend back again. She reaches out to touch Jesus—and he won’t let her (John 20.17). Gently but firmly Jesus forces Mary Magdalene to adjust to life in the Resurrection Zone. Or another example: the apostle Thomas refuses to believe, unless he can touch Jesus. This time Jesus obliges his disciple, but just barely. Thomas escapes with a scold and a challenge: get used to life in the Resurrection Zone. Both Mary Magdalene and Thomas wanted what they had had before, the familiar Jesus, the comfortable Jesus, the old shoe Jesus. And in the back of my mind, I hear the plaintive voice of my mother: “I don’t want new shoes,” she would wail. “I want my old shoes back again.” Resurrection nevers gives us our old shoes back again, resurrection gives us new feet. We have to learn to walk all over again.

The good news is that God gave the disciples time to adjust to life in the Resurrection Zone. The forty days between Easter and Ascension are God’s concession to our longing for the old shoes back again. The forty days are God’s concession to our comfort zone, our default to the familiar. The forty days between Easter and Ascension gives the disciples time to reorient their lives to life in the Resurrection Zone. Jesus appeared to the disciples many times, consoling them, cooking them breakfast, and persistently leaving them peace (John 20). It’s as if he knew that in the days ahead they would need peace, consolation—and a good breakfast! The disciples got a chance to grieve the loss of the old Jesus, the familiar Jesus, the old shoe Jesus. They got a chance to get used to life in the Resurrection Zone.

With the Ascension the disciples let go of their old habits once and for all—not that letting go is any easier, but at least the disciples were more prepared. Perhaps the hands in Dhrer’s woodcut of the Ascension are hands that have just released Jesus from his earthly home, released him like you’d release a helium balloon: Jesus sails serenely into heaven. With the Ascension the disciples let go, refusing to cling to the old. With the Ascension the disciples let this great loss bless them.

I want to linger for a moment over this piece of the pattern of paschal mystery: letting their loss bless them. It’s the lesson that the Ascension bears—and it’s an important one to learn: letting your loss bless you. I remember speaking with a friend who lost her husband and life partner suddenly and cruelly. She worked through her grief and anger to a point where she said: “I could finally see how, if this had to happen, it had happened in the most gracious way possible. Things that were not usually in place, were in place on the day that he died. We’d made love in the morning, pruned our roses after breakfast, and then parted with a kiss. Things that were not usually in place, were in place on that day.” I was stunned by her equanimity. She had internalized the paschal mystery. She caught the rhyme in her own life. She stopped clinging to her sorrow, her anguish: she was ready to let go. She was letting her loss bless her.

I suspect the disciples did the same, as they watched Jesus ascend into the heavens. They had had forty days between Easter and Ascension to adjust to life in the Resurrection Zone. They could let the loss bless them.

The disciples are not left comfortless. With Pentecost the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ descends upon them, granting them gifts so that they can live life in the Resurrection Zone. The disciples are freed to practice resurrection.

This is the pattern of paschal mystery: losing something and grieving the loss, letting go and letting the loss bless you, receiving the spirit of resurrected life, practicing resurrection. We see it in the life of the resurrected Jesus; we see it in the lives of the disciples who surrounded him. With the Spirit’s help we might find it in our own lives, if we would but look.

Prodded by the concurrence of events, I find this pattern of paschal mystery in the series of events that surrounded Timothy Lull’s death. It gives me great comfort, and I offer it to those of you who grieve his passing and to all who mourn.