Sermon for Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013 on Luke 24:1-12
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but
when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “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.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
As of Good Friday, if you did a Google search for “Jesus” you would get 817 million results in less than half a second. Who knew that searching for Jesus could be so easy?
As it turns out, if you search for “happiness,” “joy,” or “meaning in life,” you get, in order, 244 million, 696 million, and 1 billion, 140 million results from Google.
So, it’s a cinch nowadays to find everything you need, from “Jesus” to “meaning in life;” Google can help you find it, in half the time it takes to say “one, one thousand.”
Reasons for Doubt
But can you believe what you find in these search results? Anybody can post anything on the internet for Google to find. In fact, if someone wrote in their blog that they did not believe in Jesus, at least not in his resurrection from the dead, nor in happiness, joy or meaning in life, then his blog post would be one of Google’s search results for each of the terms: jesus, happiness, joy and meaning in life. Searching for “Jesus” on Google may therefore lead you to find blogs by people who have stopped searching for Jesus.
Some people have indeed stopped searching for Jesus. Who could blame them? After all the things that have been said and done in Jesus’ name, by people who claim him as their reason or their excuse, it’s a wonder that anyone believes they can find the real thing.
For everyone who came here today with real doubts; with problems believing that this Easter story we tell is true, hear this: I completely understand. In fact you are in very good company.
This story has never been easy to believe – it certainly wasn’t easy at first for the original characters in the story, and it has been made harder to believe by thing s that have happened
since: from church-sponsored Crusades in the Middle Ages, to clergy sex-abuse scandals in our generation. The church has some repenting to do; it has been, in the past, anti-science, anti-women, anti-gay, and way too cozy with power politics.
I almost can’t believe I’m here. I grew up in an uber-Christian, bible-believing, evangelical, Protestant local church that had everything from clergy sex abuse of minors (heterosexual, in this case) to extra-marital affairs by two successive pastors. My parents subsequently took us to a different church where I was baptized by a pastor whose extra-marital escapades only came to light only years later.
I have had plenty of times of doubt. But I take great comfort in the fact that doubt is baked in to the cake. It’s part of the original story.
Think about those women in Luke’s story, who came to the tomb on the first day of the week with Mary Magdalene; they came with spices in their hands. Yes, they had heard Jesus’ words about resurrection, but they expected to find a dead body to anoint.
As we read, they found only an empty tomb – which seems like Luke is giving us reasonable “clue number one” that there was more to the story than the those women had been able to believe. Will Luke present us with a detective-crime-story with physical evidence and logical deduction? Not really.
Just then, when the story of the women with low expectations at an empty tomb seems believable, two angels appear. I have never had an angel appear to me, let alone hear one speak, and frankly, their appearance at this moment in the story makes it harder, not easier to believe that Luke is giving us literal description.
As the story continues, the women go back to the eleven remaining disciples and report all this. They find them hiding out, for fear that there are more crosses being readied by the Romans with their names on them. What was the reaction the women received? Luke tells us,
“But these words seemed to them an idle tale”
The words “idle tale” are a church-friendly way of saying something quite strong, like “you are out of your mind” or “no way!” or “B…” – well there are a number of ways people can tell you they think what you just said was not true, that are not fit to be repeated in church. Anyway, the point is that all of them doubted both Jesus’ prior words about resurrection and they doubted the first eye-witnesses to the empty tomb (after all, they were from women! right?).
So, Luke tells us that Peter runs to the tomb, looks in, sees the shroud of Turin – (maybe, maybe not) – anyway, a linen shroud, without a body in it. Another crime-story physical clue. But what then? Luke says he went home “amazed.” Going home “amazed” is not the same thing as going home “believing.” There was room for doubt from the beginning, even at the tomb itself, even by Peter himself.
Why? Because you don’t have to be a modern person to know that dead people stay dead. Even if you believe in angels and ghosts and all sorts of things, everybody knows what death is. Death is death; once you go there, you don’t come back. This is not a modern discovery. This is an unlikely story.
Moons and Music
I was just coming back from Mobile Thursday evening. Driving across the bay on I-10 the sky was black, but cloudless, and right there in the middle, like you could drive right up to it, was this huge round full moon. It was beautiful. And it stirs something in me to see beauty and vastness like that. It’s as though the moon whose gravity pulls the tides, has another kind of pull as well, on the heart. You feel like this car and this road and this world are not the only reality; not the only world we were made to inhabit.
Music often does the same thing to me; it has the power to send me to a place – beyond words. It feels like I was born for a world other than this one. A world that this one offers a glimpse of, hints at, guesses, but no more. A world that is transcendent; beautiful – to the point of being painful. A world I only grasp in longings, unfulfilled. Tastes, not full meals.
Something in me believes there is a world in which there is beauty, completely without cynicism. It is the world where there is such a thing as justice. A world of goodness, of love, of faithfulness, of peace.
There is no hard proof that this other world exists just because we long for it, any more than there is hard proof that love itself is real. Nobody can claim any certainty, and yet there are “hints and guesses” that seem important.
Seeking a Source
I don’t know where our sense of justice comes from, or of goodness, or fairness or love. But it seems to me unlikely that they come from some source that is lesser than they. A stream does not rise higher than its source. The Source could be more than these things that I can imagine, but certainly not less. The Source may be more than personal in ways that we understand personhood, but certainly not less.
And so it well may be that the Source of Beauty, of Justice, of pure Goodness and of Love exists, and, as our ultimate Source, has our best interests at heart. It is not preposterous to believe that this Source entered our world.
This is the Christian story. Told by frail, doubting humans. Told, like the way humans tell stories, with details that are hard to line up and elements that make you scratch your head. A story of a person who did not stay dead.
Was it true? Most if not all of those cowering, doubting disciples came to believe the story, and were willing to die for it. That’s surely something to consider. Even under threat of immediate arrest and crucifixion, they went out and started proclaiming this very unlikely story to everyone, in public. Something convinced them. Nevertheless, they leave us with a story; not with proof.
So here is the choice we have. We each have one life. It’s like being down in Biloxi at the casinos with one, one-million dollar chip in your hand. You have to decide how you are going to play it. Since there is only one chip, it’s all or nothing. You either set it on the table on the bet that there is another world, the one our longings point to, that there really is such a thing as beauty, justice, goodness and love. Or you bet with your single life-chip that there is not.
The Easter story is a redemption story. It is the story of an intervention from beyond. It is the story of a person who bet everything on the reality of Goodness, Beauty, Justice, and Love. He was willing to die for that bet. The Easter story says that he was proven correct. His bet was vindicated. He didn’t stay dead.
This story becomes our story when we do what Jesus did: place our uncertain, but hopeful bet on the side he chose. It is a bet on hope; the hope that this world is not all there is; that we were made for more.
The very serious and practical consequence of that choice is that we are betting that Jesus was right about what he taught. Resurrection from the dead not only vindicates Jesus’ bet on God, it validates Jesus’ whole ministry.
So we find ourselves called to go all in. Betting on the reality of Goodness, we work for the good. Betting on the reality of Justice, we work for justice. Betting on the reality of Love, we work to bring God’s love, God’s care, God’s compassion to people in need. Betting on the hope that we were made for a purpose, we see ourselves as people with a mission, people with a purpose that goes way beyond ourselves. Betting on a future life, we open our hearts and our hands to help people in this life, just as Jesus did.
Betting that Jesus was right, we search for him, not on Google, but where he said we would find him: in the unlikely disguise of “the least of these” who are hungry, or sick, or undocumented strangers, or victims of unjust systems. That’s where we find the risen Christ. That is what this Easter story calls us to; not to certainty without doubt, but to love, without holding back.