Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel, qui aperis, et nemo claudit, claudis, et nemo aperuit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
Key of David, and sceptre of the house of Israel, you open, and no one shuts, you shut, and no one opens: come, and lead the prisoner from jail, seated in darkness and in the shadow of death.
Every day, riding to and from work in North Carolina, I’d pass a Baptist church. The reader board carried some version of, “If you died tonight, where would you wake up?” One that sticks in my memory every year at this time said, one one side, “Grandma got run over by a reindeer.” And the other side said, “Yes, but where will she spend eternity?” It’s a macabre question, don’t you think? “Are you saved?” is short hand for “If you died tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” God only cares about your soul when your dead.
Jesus, however, seems to have a different take in the scriptures. He restores people, not just bodily, but also socially: he touches lepers, an act that makes him ritually “unclean” in his person; he eats with sinners, more “uncleanness”. Jesus heals gentiles and Jews, complimenting the faith of the former, condemning the lack of thanksgiving in the latter, but never “unhealing” anyone. When Jesus “only” heals someone of bleeding, paralysis or even death, he is restoring them to communion with their friends and neighbors who imagine such illness to be a judgement from God. Take a look at the Ger’asene Demoniac (in Luke 8:26ff). Jesus casts “Legion” out of the man, and the family find him “sitting clothed and in his right mind”. The man wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus says no, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:39). Go restore communion, which, by the way, is going with Jesus.
In all these things – illness, demonic possession, death – Jesus restores the communion of persons. We are in bondage, kept in isolation cells: locked each within our own self, unable to engage in communion. And, in a real sense, that lack of communion is death. This is the jail from which Jesus calls us and while, yes, I believe the Warden in this universal prison is Satan, he needs no minions as screws: we each do his bidding daily, denying communion, one with the other, in so many acts; creating division, one from the other, in so many confrontations. Any human who creates an “us” and a “them” has done Satan’s work for him, locking not just a few but all of us in yet another cell. Eventually any issue grows from “good students” and “bad policeman with pepper spray” into supporters of one side over the other and – especially in today’s media-rich environment – everyone in the world is asked to take sides. I can create a new prison just by posting on Facebook or Twitter. Jesus wants to take humanity out of our us-and-them problems. This is not a life-after-death issue, but a here and now issue. It is a life and death issue now. Every us-and-them is a little death undergone by all of humanity.
Truth of the matter is, however, that we like things this way. That’s what Faith is: letting God describe reality and living there, not making it up yourself. One of my favourite writer/philosophers, the late Robert Anton Wilson, speaks of “reality tunnels”: constructs created in the human brain by religion, politics, science, etc. His end goal seems to be to liberate humanity from all such constructs. Even the ones created by language, sex, and other things that can’t be erased. For all that I can disagree with R.A.W.’s end point, his starting point is very Christian: our human reality tunnels keep us from seeing the real reality: God’s. Blessedly, unlike R.A.W. Christians have a deity who claims to have described (and created) this real reality for us, with a purpose. Now… of course, that’s only another tunnel in R.A.W.’s worldview. But in today’s verse, other tunnels are the jails from which we need to be liberated. We sit in darkness as long as we let culture or our perceptions of political issues keep us from communion in God’s reality.
Locked off from such communion, we die in this world, now. Not later: not eternity. But now.