Monday, April 05, 2010

April 5, 2010 - An Idle Tale?

Preparing my Easter sermon based on Luke 24:1-12, I was struck by the reaction of the male disciples to Mary Magdalene and the other women who brought them news of the empty tomb and of the angel’s message: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

Their first response was to consider it “an idle tale.”

“Idle tale” translates an uncommon Greek word whose meaning is “nonsense” or “delusional.” If the women’s breathless announcement is in fact the first Christian proclamation, then it means we preachers started out with a score of 0 and 1 from the get-go.

Which is no big surprise – because the resurrection isn’t exactly an easy truth to absorb. In contradicts one of the most foundational of human experiences: that dead is dead, and there’s no coming back.

I thought about that sort of thing a lot when I was feeling ill from my chemo treatments. What if the treatments were unsuccessful and I was soon going to die, I asked myself? What if, someday soon, I was going to shut my eyes not only to this world, but to everything else? What if this life, this consciousness, that is me would suddenly blink out of existence? What would have been the point of it all?

My mind danced with that bleak idea from time to time, but didn’t invite it home. I kept returning to the truths of my faith, and especially this truth that is the resurrection.

I told the folks in our church yesterday that this whole “idle tale” response is actually a sort of backhanded testimony to the truth of the resurrection. If you were to set out to make up a story about a man being raised from the dead, would you be so quick to admit that some of the people who most wanted to believe it to be true rejected it, at first?

Similarly, if you were going to go out and make up a story about a man being raised from the dead, would you include details that made you, yourself look like a clueless doubter – as was the case with Peter? If you were interested in spreading a made-up story in the intensely male-dominated Roman world, would you make women the first witnesses of the resurrection – women, who were considered, back then, to be second-class citizens, whose testimony the male-dominated society considered unreliable?

Of course not. There are an embarrassing number of loose ends connected with the Easter narrative. Four different gospels tell the story, as well as certain passages from the letters of Paul – all of them differing from the others in one detail or another. If your purpose were to make the whole thing up, you would have managed your sources a little better.

The result is that it’s impossible to put the various Gospel accounts together in a single narrative – just as it would be if there had been multiple witnesses recording their impression of a single, dramatic incident, each from a different angle.

The resurrection is jarring and unexpected. The great Reformed theologian Karl Barth says somewhere that it’s “not a natural ‘therefore’ but a miraculous ‘nevertheless.’” Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams – a distinguished theologian as well as senior leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion – likens it to the Big Bang. When we celebrate Easter, he writes, “we are really standing in the middle of a second ‘Big Bang,’ a tumultuous surge of divine energy as fiery and intense as the very beginning of the universe.” (Tokens of Trust, p. 95)

These are outrageous claims – but in their very confusion, contradiction and sheer outrageousness, they’re true to life, in an odd way. Such a mind-bending, paradigm-busting event could never be encapsulated in a tight, little spin-controlled story.

With all those lights of inquiry shining upon it from so many different angles, the resurrection is like a person moving across a room, lit up by a strobe light. You know how that looks: a person lit by a strobe seems to move in a series of jerky, disjointed snapshots, rather than the seamless, smooth motion of movie film. Under such lighting, you can get a general sense of what’s happening, what various events are taking place – but not how they flow from one to the next.

There are still significant gaps in our understanding of the resurrection – and always will be, this side of heaven. That doesn’t mean it’s not true. It means it’s a truth too big, too complex, too wonderful for us to fully comprehend.

1 comment:

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