Luke 24: 1-12 Easter Sunday 2016
I took a trip to CVS this week to peruse the Easter and Passover cards available; it could have just as easily been Walgreen’s or Rite Aid. The cards are, of course, divided into the Easter section and the Passover section, but then within both of sections there is another division: the religious and non-religious cards for each festival.
If you were from another planet inspecting these cards you might suspect that Easter and Passover were some kind of Rites of Spring. All the cards had flowers and bunnies and butterflies on them, nothing about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ or of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Pharaoh’s oppressive rule. One Passover card had Snoopy in a yamulca wishing you a Happy Passover. One of the most profound Easter cards reminded the recipient that “somebunny loves you.” Most had basic “buck-you-uppo” kind of messages. You know, “Spring is here, the grass is riz, I wonder where the bunnies is. Life is good. Live it up.” Can’t you imagine Jesus dragging his cross along the Via Delarosa, turning to his disciples and saying, “Chin up boys, tomorrow’s a new day. Every cloud has a silver lining.” You’d think you could at least get Jesus out of the tomb.
At Easter it was especially comical to look in the religion section of the newspaper or to drive around witnessing sermon titles on church marquis’ for Easter morning. In any number of these sermon titles and messages words appear like renewal, rebirth, and revival. These words are used far more than the word resurrection, if at all. We hear of a new season, new growth, and new life. We hear of sap rising in the trees, the singing of birds, and the warmth of the lengthening days. We hear of “a new season in the earth and in the heart of humanity.” We hear that “the early Christians came to understand that love is stronger than death.”
Seriously now, does that turn you on? Is it possible that ideas like this would have taken hold of a tiny, badly beaten, demoralized, disgraced, discouraged, beleaguered, scattered band of disciples and transformed them into a mighty force that within a few years was striking fear into the hearts of Roman emperors? One journalist writing in the NY Times described Easter as a spring festival celebrating “the ancient myths of the Mediterranean imagination.” Would that cut it for you? Is that what turned the disciples around?
Put yourself in the place of the women who went to the tomb that Easter morning to anoint the body of Jesus. Do you think they were expecting anything? Maybe the daffodils were blooming and the crocuses were pushing up. The cardinal was serenading them with her sweet song. Do you think they drew comfort and inspiration from that? Is it likely that they looked out over the fields and then at one another and said, “Maybe the Master is going to come again like wheat that springeth green”? Not on your life. When I take flowers to my brother’s or my father’s or my grand parent’s graves, I do not expect to see an empty grave. And if I did see one, it would not occur to me that the body was raised from the dead. Of course not. I’d assume grave robbers or vandals had been up to mischief.
That is why the two men dazzling at the tomb in today’s reading said, ““Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (vv. 5b-7). Here was a word from God. His body wasn’t stolen. It was raised, just like he said it would be. Then they had a Homer Simpson moment and went, “Doh. Of course. Remember he told us this.” And they ran back and told the eleven and a bunch of others who were there as well.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” One woman who was asked what Easter meant to her after coming from an Easter Sunday service said, “Easter is when you throw off winter’s robes.” Is this enough for you? I confess it is not enough for me. And it is not enough for people who have had to bury someone under the most tragic circumstances. Can you imagine if you had to bury someone killed in the terrorist blast in Brussels this past week? Or if you have had to bury a beloved spouse of forty plus years? Or a nine year old girl who died of Leukemia? Would some nebulous religious hope about an afterlife have the power to stare down the stark ugliness of death, never mind a premature or gruesome one? I think not.
I instead like the phrase that African-Americans use to describe God’s power—“God makes a way out of no way.” I don’t know its origin. Martin Luther King often used the expression when he preached and Andrew Young titled his book on the civil rights with it. “God makes a way out of no way.” This is the message of the Exodus and of Easter.
The people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went in after them into the midst of the sea…Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians… So Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea…and the Lord routed the Egyptians… (Exodus, vv. 22-27, 31).
Who can make a way out of no way? Only God can. The American civil rights movement staked their lives on it and depended upon God’s power in their darkest hours. Often we do not actually see the power of God at work. More often we see evidence of it in hindsight. No one saw the actual resurrection of Jesus, but they were witnesses to the evidence and power of it. We live in hope of a future we do not yet see except by faith. The Exodus was “only a hint of what will come in full power at the end” one commentator (Brevard Childs) remarks. The church is a church of Easter faith. We have seen the evidence of the saving power of Christ and we stand upon its promise for the full future reign of God. Who can make a way out of no way? Only God can. Who can bring the dead back to life? Only God can. Who can burst a tomb? Only God can.
It is fashionable today to deride the stories of the empty tomb. Members of the notorious Jesus Seminar tell us that there was no Resurrection, Jesus was not buried in a tomb and his body was probably left on the cross, or thrown in a common grave to be eaten by scavenging dogs and birds. They are a small band of some seventy-odd revisionist New Testament scholars who take delight in scandalizing the faithful. What the disciples experienced they propose was the disciples experienced a “spiritual rising of Jesus in their hearts.” This kind of stuff drives my wife nuts. She is a professional historian and too often hears people put down folks from the past as if they were stupid. “They thought they saw the resurrected Jesus, but what really happened was a marvelous existential moment.”
Yet the Jesus Seminar is not without formidable critics. The late and preeminent New Testament scholar Raymond Brown has written that there is not a scintilla of evidence that any of the early Christians thought Jesus’ body was moldering somewhere. If it was so, all their enemies would have to do was find it and produce it. That would have crushed the movement in its infancy.
Now, it is true that most of the Easter narratives and all of the Apostle Paul’s testimony focus on the appearances of the risen Jesus, rather than the empty tomb. Instead, they seem to be two independent stories that were circulating in the early church that describe the same thing from a different perspective: Christ is risen. Although the Gospels agree on the core facts—women finding the tomb empty and Jesus appearing to various disciples—they diverge on many of the details surrounding those facts. The testimony of the gospels is not unlike that of the courtroom. The same event looks different to different people, especially in hindsight. To many scholars the fact that the gospels agree on the central fact of the Resurrection in spite of disagreement on the details points to their authenticity. If the story were a fabrication by the early Church, you would expect everyone’s story to be consistent and complete.
The New Testament bears strong and credible witness to these two important pieces of information: an empty tomb and reports of post-resurrection appearances of the Risen Christ. That is much different than saying that this is incontrovertible objective proof that Jesus rose from the dead and was declared to be God’s Messiah. But it does provide a basis beyond mere fantasy or wishful thinking upon which a resurrection faith can stand. Ultimately, these things remain in the realm of the unprovable and the mysterious. They are matters to be grasped by faith, but with an intelligent faith informed by the credible witness of the Gospels.
And so I am a believer. I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. That is not to say that I am a literalist. I don’t believe that Jesus was a resuscitated corpse. Nor am I a skeptic. I don’t believe his followers made it up. Nor do I believe that they had some kind of interior spiritual experience that made them believe that Jesus was alive. It takes too much faith to believe that than to believe the essence of the Gospel narratives. No I believe that Jesus was raised in a spiritual body, a resurrection body, something so unique and spectacular that the Gospel writers could barely find the words to describe it.
I also believe in the Resurrection because of the changes it brought and continues to bring. Matthew’s gospel has the angel saying, “Go quickly and tell his disciples he has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him. This is my message.” I do not believe that any other message could have reversed the devastation of a crucifixion. Jesus was brutally murdered and his disciples were crushed. I do not believe a made up story of an empty tomb and some appearances in an upper room could have transformed the disciples into a mighty band, galvanizing the whole Mediterranean world. I don’t believe there is any other news ever uttered with the human tongue that could convince us even to this day that Death, against all evidence and against all reason, has been driven from the field. Even skeptics who want to make the Resurrection into something completely bloodless will admit that something happened. But what was it?
I have a friend who lost a child to leukemia some year’s back. I asked her once when life began to seem normal again. She said it took her four years before she could laugh freely and spontaneously again. What message do you think brought her comfort? Did ‘the ancient myths of the Mediterranean imagination” do it? What would she rather hear, a message about rebirth in nature, or this: “His soul was not left in hell, neither did his flesh see corruption; this Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we are witnesses” (Acts 2: 31-32). Would you rather hear about the earth replenishing itself, or would you rather hear this:
“Behold I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall all be changed… Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your sting? O grave where is your victory?” (I Cor. 15: 51-55).
So this is no day for innocuous sentiments about springtime blooming in the human heart. This is a day for trumpets and timpani and organ fanfares to burst the eardrums of Evil. This is no day for wistful thoughts about the possibility of an afterlife; this is a day for Paul’s cry of triumph.
If Christ is not raised, our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…If Christ is not raised, you are still dead in your sins; but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive!” (I Cor. 15: 14-22).
And the same power of God that led the Israelites through the Dead Sea raised Jesus from the dead. This is the God who makes a way out of no way. This is the God whose power raised Jesus from the grave as though death were but a piece of cheesecloth. But this is not just “my” belief. It does not belong to me. It is the Church’s belief and so it belongs to you too. Jesus is the Lord of the Universe and he has turned the key in the lock of the gate of Hell. His promise to establish his reign forever and ever is true, not because I am faithful, but because God is faithful, and God’s faithfulness is powerful enough to break down barricades and overthrow tyrants and raise the dead to life, yes, and to give each of his children, from the least to the greatest, hope and strength and courage and defiance in daily life against everything that would ever hurt or destroy you, God’s beloved creatures.
Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!