“An Idle Tale?”
“The words about the empty tomb seemed to the apostles an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (Luke 24:11)
There is an Easter hymn included in our Presbyterian hymnbook with the following title, “In the Darkness of the Morning.” The hymn tells the story about Mary Magdalene discovering the empty tomb, about her weeping, about her seeing a stranger. The last two stanzas illuminate the drama of Easter:
“Asked the man standing in the garden, “Why are you weeping?” in a voice she vaguely knew. “He is gone, and I must find him,” she replied as morning grew. “Mary!” said the smiling stranger as her vision was restored. She cried “Teacher!” and she touched him: Jesus Christ, her risen Lord.
At the bottom of the page, the editors tell us that the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ gives evidence of the importance of women in Jesus’ life and ministry. As the first witness to the resurrection, Mary Magdalene became “the apostle to the apostles.”
This is an intriguing part of the Easter story. Jesus lived in a society and culture dominated by men and we are very much aware of the fact that he experienced three years of friendship and work with a small, tight circle of men. It is a surprising twist that the risen Christ appears first to Mary Magdalene and her friends before he reveals himself to those in which we had recently broken bread and shared the cup. Neither did he appear to the powerful and the pious. At this point of the Easter story we are reminded of something that is both critical and important about the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus and the message of the gospel undercut the status quo of his time and it frequently turns upside down what we so often believe to be the norm. The Christian who can no longer be surprised, who cannot perceive that God is always up to something in the world, who cannot think in new ways has lost sight of the meaning of Easter.
This was the initial crisis of the first Easter morning, the tension between belief and unbelief. The eleven represent the people today who argue that the personal account of Mary Magdalene and her friends can be attributed to nothing more than their human imagination.
As the women disappear from the story we read about Peter running to the tomb and discovering that it is empty. Peter returns home, totally bewildered. Jesus appears next to two unnamed disciples on the way to Emmaus and then, only later, to the eleven. Luke describes them as startled, terrified, frightened, disbelieving, still wondering if what they were seeing was really true and not their imagination. In the midst of this Jesus exposes his wounds, offers his friends the feel of touch, eats a piece of fish, instructs them to stay put until they receive the Holy Spirit and then blesses them. So much for idle tales.
All these years later, living in a world that is influenced by the advances and discoveries of science, we must come to terms in a personal way with the biblical account of the resurrection. Is it authentic or a fairy tale? There is a growing number of people who hold the position like that of the late Bertrand Russell, a respected philosopher, writer, and speaker, who believed that fear is what motivates us to move in the direction of faith. Russell argued that we see Jesus as our older brother who will stand by us in our times of trouble. He added that Christians fear what we cannot understand, we fear defeat, and we fear death. And he argued that science in the end will help us overcome the fear that has dominated the way we think and believe. finally, Russell also believed that science will ultimately teach us to look at our own efforts to make this world a better place to live. (Why I Am Not a Christian, page 22)
I bring the philosophy of Bertrand Russell to our attention because I believe we must be honest with ourselves and with our secular, agnostic, unbelieving friends. I respectfully offer the criticism that religious and pious people have the unfortunate track record of not always demonstrating the qualities Jesus advocated like that of loving God, loving neighbor, practicing love and grace, and standing up for the poor and the disenfranchised. There have been times and places when our critics have not always seen evidence of the resurrection life in us and therefore, they discredit our faith and allegiance to the risen Christ. Christians must never shy away from the problems of the world and in our communities, problems like human rights and radical ideologies, problems like hunger and homelessness. Instead, by way of living the resurrection we offer an alternative, the way of Jesus Christ and his way of sharing new life with others.
On another front, for skeptics who study and analyze the resurrection, who explain it away as myth, the apostle Paul offers a counter argument. It is a great mystery. Several years ago, I made a parish visit to the home of a good friend who was near death. He was a scientist and an engineer, and also a practicing Christian. It was hard for my friend to breathe. Cancer had invaded his lungs. Sitting by his bedside, I well remember his last words when he whispered, “Steve, I believe and I am not afraid. I just have a lot of questions.”
As Christians bound together in faith, hope, and love, may we join hearts and hands as we live the resurrection knowing that science has much to offer us and to the world but it cannot provide meaning and a sense of purpose to life, it cannot provide guidance in how to do justice, it cannot teach us how to love, and it cannot share with us the gift of hope. In a powerful statement of Easter faith, Hans Kung has written for inquirers, agnostics, unbelievers and believers, “The resurrection faith is a faith in God which does not stop halfway, but follows the road consistently to the end. It is a faith in which we, without rational proof but with reasonable trust, rely on the fact that the God of the beginning is also the God of the end, that he is the Creator of the world and all of humankind, so too is he the Finisher. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the real conquest of death.” (On Being A Christian, page 360)
Finally, as to the matter of fear, I like the description offered by our Christian friend Eugene Peterson who qualifies fear as nothing less than “joyful reverence.” On this Easter morning, may the gift and grace of “joyful reverence” be alive in your soul. Amen.