My dear friend, Jenna, is a pastor in West Michigan. This Easter Sunday morning, she told me the story of one of her parishioners, who was deep in grief that holy weekend. Her adult son had just died of lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain. He died around noon on Good Friday. She told Jenna that there was something about his death on Good Friday that brought her comfort. Jesus welcomed her son into his arms on the very day and at the very time that so many churches and Christians were remembering Jesus’ arms stretched out on the cross.
This story caused a resurrection morning shift in my spirit. On Good Friday, I had reflected with you, the Reformed Journal blog community, on the disarming love of God in Christ. I shared Samuel Wells’ observation that at two of the most pivotal moments in Jesus’ life, he was not able to use his arms: at his birth (while swaddled with cloths) and at his death (while nailed to the cross). “Jesus is God disarmed.”
My doctoral project focused on the concept of the disarming love of God – a love that helps us to lay down our arms and take off our armour so that we do not enter conflict with swords and shields. Rather than attacking or defending, we enter difficult conversations and relationships with curiosity and hope. One of the participants in my study project reflected on the necessary posture for having hard conversations in the church. “Do we face this conversation face-on or do we put our fists up in front of our faces and fight it?” And then she answered herself and said that our time together had taught her the way to do it: “face-forward with no fists.” I basically ended my dissertation with her quote. She’d nailed it. All face. No fists. All presence. No armour or arms. The very last sentence of my dissertation? “Oh, the mystery and majesty of the disarming love of God!”
Yes, AND! Our arms are not only potential weapons; they are also potential instruments of love and embrace! On Easter Sunday morning, when Jenna shared this story with me, it was like I was remembering after having forgotten – for a span of several years – that Jesus’ arms are embracing arms. He took children in his arms, and laid hands on them and blessed them. With his hands and arms, Jesus’ touched dead people and sick people and made them alive and well. He broke bread and fed people. Jesus wrote on the ground with the finger of his mighty hand and pulled Peter from the water with the strength of his outstretched arm.
Nearly every funeral service I lead includes some reference to the one who has died being received by and held in the arms of Jesus.
Jesus is God disarmed, yes. Born of a virgin and swaddled. Yes. Bound and crucified. Yes.
And Jesus is also God with physical arms. Blessing and healing and feeding and embracing. Risen again from the dead and seated at the right hand of God the Father. Operative through human hands and feet as we, the church, embody Christ in our work and witness.
Now, thinking about Jesus’ arms in this way is all well and good for baptisms and funerals. It also applies quite nicely to the hugs we share at the ends of family squabbles.
But how do we imagine Jesus’ embracing and loving arms (and, by extension, our own arms) in the midst of entrenched conflict? An embrace at the end of yet another conversation with someone whose views I find unacceptable? Well, that seems at best, awkward, and at worst, painful or abusive.
I have shared meaningful and hopeful (and consensual!) hugs with some people in the midst of or after conflict. There are others, though, with whom I seem to share only a growing distance. I imagine Jesus’ arms around me as I grieve the loss of relationship. I imagine Jesus’ arms around them. But as far as I can tell (and as far as it depends on me), Jesus is not bringing us together right now.
These distances haunt me.
In the haunting, I try to remember what my parents told me once, when I was mourning the lack of reconciliation in a relationship: “Heidi, there are some relationships that will only reconcile on the new earth.”
The new earth. The place of the greatest Resurrection Shift. I trust that it will be a place of Union and Reunion. The place where we get to see Jesus face to face and feel his embrace. The place where I get to hug my mom again, and Jenna’s congregant will wrap her arms around her son.
But I also dream of Resurrection Reconciliation (I’ve actually had dreams like this). I have a dream that I will see the people who have hurt me, the people whom I have hurt, and with whom I now experience only distance. And because we all will have been embraced by the forgiving and reconciling arms of Jesus, we will be able to embrace each other truly, fully, and forever.
Oh, the mystery and majesty of the arms of God’s love. The God who turns hauntings into dreams. And dreams into reality.
Perhaps in this life.
Certainly in the life to come.
*Header Image: Anton-kurt, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons