Along the shores of Manila Bay, Philippines there lies a shanty village sandwiched between water and a cemetery. The name of this particular makeshift town is Bagong Silang. Nestled in between, on top of and along the tombs are makeshift houses made of cardboard, sacks and plastic tarps that used to be home to an estimated 6000 families for over 40 years. Most of the residents are hardworking folks who dreamt of a better life promised by the urban metropolis only to find themselves making a living as fishermen and grave-cleaners. The government has recently cracked down on the tenements, evicting thousands of people and relocating them out of the area. Nevertheless, these houses along the graveyard have captured the interest of the international community and was even a subject of a documentary short shown throughout the world. It can be viewed as a testament to the tenacity of the Filipino people, our unbreakably happy and high spirit amidst abject social injustice and poverty. It is.
Or it can also be viewed, to put it mildly, as just strange. Let’s real here, what has captured people’s interest is the almost unbelievable fact that a whole generation has grown up among the graves, found their mates among the graves, had their children among the graves. Many expected and still expect to die and get buried right next to where they and their own grandchildren would play hide-and-seek. It is a life literally built on top of tombs, a life lived among the dead and decaying.
Luke’s gospel narrative recounts that on the Day of the Resurrection, a few of Jesus’ followers went into His grave to pour out love over their beloved, dead Master’s body. Finding it empty, they encountered heavenly messengers who told them:
“Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen.” Luke 24:5-6
Such a loaded question and statement. It should be. The Resurrection is everything to a Christian. It is the basis of our faith, our hope, our fight. Scripture isn’t vague in saying that without the Resurrection, our faith is worthless (1 Corinthians 15).
We even throw a big celebration around it, year after year. With loud shouts of victory we tell the whole world,and ourselves, that: “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” I love it – the celebrations, the special services, the streamers, the special dances and songs – everything. On Easter Sunday you get the feeling that yes, our God is the God of possibilities. If He can defeat death, He can defeat anything.
Then the Monday after Holy Week rolls around. Then the Tuesday. For many of us, it won’t be long before the endless possibilities of serving God and all the promises of victorious Christian living are tucked away in the attics of our mind. Our “regular”, every day life takes over again and we surrender to it until Advent season comes along.
This year, it struck me: “Why do you seek the living One among the dead?”
Those Christ-followers at the tomb that day, they were literally there to visit a dead man. There is a finality to death that those who have been close enough to it only know too well. When a loved one dies, there is an emptiness, a nothingness that is incomprehensible. There is a feeling of drowning, of pain that is inconsolable. These Christ-followers came defeated, heartbroken, devastated. They were gearing up to go back to their “regular” lives: fishing, homemaking, making a living – just living – apart from and without Jesus. But without Jesus, is living even possible?
We know how this story ends. That’s why we throw our Easter parties, we know Jesus is alive. We believe in it otherwise we wouldn’t be following Him. We accept this as truth. But I’m not sure many of us actually let this truth permeate and engulf everything else in our universe.
What I’m asking here is: when we profess devotion to the Living God, do our every day lives show evidence not only of that devotion but of the fact that He is, indeed, Living? When we seek Him, do we seek a risen Savior? Do we seek the One who has defeated the grave and sets the captive free, heals the sick, mends the broken heart? Do we walk victoriously, holding fast to Him in every circumstance knowing that the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the grave is able and willing to raise the dead in all of us?
Or do we go on seeking Jesus among the dead?
Do we continue to rely on our own, decaying, weak flesh to bring about the change we wish to see in ourselves, in our families and in our world? Do we continue to place our hopes in human institutions, in manmade rituals, in meaningless traditions that have no basis on truth? Do we go to church on Sunday and yet spend Monday to Saturday chasing fortune, fame and opportunity that this dying world offers us?
Are we like the people of Bagong Silang? Have we been building our life among the dead?
Apart from Jesus, there is no life. This world has nothing for you or me. To build a life around what the world offers, around its standards, around our own works and through our own flesh is to build a life among the dead. We find the practice of building houses on top of tombs strange. But wouldn’t saying Jesus is alive and yet not taking hold of the victory His Resurrection brings even stranger?
The Bible says that we are the living (1 Peter 2). We have been called out of darkness into His marvelous light. We are His ambassadors. Jesus is to be found among the living. When people who are looking for and need Jesus encounter us, are our lives witness to the living Jesus? Is the power of the Resurrection alive in us?
On my last visit to PA, my sister and I found the above nest among the shrubberies in Mommy Rhecy’s garden. Apparently it’s a thing that happens to regions that experience all four seasons – when the trees shed their leaves in the fall and are laid bare in winter, the nests of the previous summer’s birds are left exposed. When we saw it, I was fascinated, excited and also kind of sad. Empty nests are kind of sad, aren’t they? The kid in me wanted to see little birdies chirping. An empty nest filled with snow, sitting on bare branches just seemed so, well, dead.
Then I remembered. Nests are supposed to be empty. The baby birds are no longer there because, hopefully, they survived and are alive and well. I’d like to think they are somewhere warm and safe and getting strong enough to come back int the spring. The shrub was not dead of course. It will be leafy, green and ready for another nest next summer too. I should be happy that the birds did not stay in the nest because they are where they are supposed to be, they are among the living.
“Why do you seek the living One among the dead?”
By the way, Bagong Silang is a Filipino phrase that means “newborn”.
Are you among the living?
For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written,
“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:53-57
The above post is derived from a sermon written and given the Easter sunrise service at JSGO Los Angeles on March 27, 2016.