April 24, 2011


“What Do You Say?”

John 20:1-18


Dic nobis Maria, quid vidisti in via; sepulchrum Christi viventis et gloriam vidi resurgentis.[1]




We will have to deal with the question sooner or later, so let’s get it out of the way: Do you believe in the resurrection?


Try to put yourself in the place of Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian.  He hears  about the demise of a messianic leader or prophetic leader, and is told that this leader has been raised from the dead.  He is going to ask, “what do you mean he’s been raised from the dead?”  He will not be satisfied if the answer is, ‘well, I had this vision,’ or ‘I felt my heart strangely warmed,’ or ‘at that moment I realized that God had forgiven me.’  Josephus would say,  “well, fine, I am glad you had that experience.  But why did you say that he’s been raised from the dead?”  The point is that in the first century, resurrection is something that had a very specific meaning.  It was something that every pagan knew doesn’t happen, no way, no how.  Those who affirmed the resurrection did not think it was just a way of saying how special Jesus was.  It meant something else.


Even though Josephus was an ancient historian of some respectable notoriety, even though he had different purposes than our so-called objective view of history, Josephus has to offer a plausible hypothesis of why the disciples used the language of resurrection to describe what happened after this Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.  My own hypothesis is that there were two things that demanded explanation:  First, an empty tomb, and second, the sightings of Jesus.


Now, an empty tomb, in and of itself, doesn’t mean anything.  Nor do visions, many people have visions, particularly just after someone they love has died.  Given the accounts of the empty tomb and the sightings, however, I think that the historian is faced with the beginning and an end to the story, but the essential scene upon which the whole story turns is missing. 


If we are honest about our scripture, that which is within the canon, we have to notice that there isn’t anyone who observes the resurrection itself.  And, the gospel that does[2] never is received into the canon, perhaps because of that very reason, it describes something that every other account says happened without a witness.  And yet these two parts of the story, the empty tomb and encounters with the risen Christ demand an answer.  “Do you believe in the resurrection?”


The historian Josephus cannot prove the resurrection the same way that he can prove that Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70.  But I think that the historian can say, “Here are the plausible explanations…”  And there is an extreme implausibility of virtually all the rival suggestions, such as the one that James, the brother of the Lord, was walking around in the garden at the same time and because he looked so much like Jesus the women saw him in the half lit light of dawn and thought it to be Jesus.  That story is not going to last any more than an hour or two.  Yet the story you hear this morning is the same story you heard last Easter and the Easter before that.  The resurrection truth has transformed lives, moved people to action, and given others hope in the face of every kind of evil.  It has been repeated.


It bears repetition.  Watching the same story over and over is not that unusual.  A few weeks ago I was watching an old western starring Clint Eastwood.  It was “High Plains Drifter.”  My wife came through our TV room and asked, “Is it going to turn out different this time?”  I scowled.  I never ask her if the “Wizard of Oz,” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” is going to turn out different!


So it isn’t going to turn out different, why the persistent re-telling of this tale?  I think we retell it to reinforce what we believe.  See, morality can be taught without it; generosity can be learned even if you never heard it; and meditation can be practiced without this story.  It is retold to emphasize the essential element of our faith.


I would like to think that without the proclamation of the resurrection here in church you would not get any Easter news.  Sure, there is plenty of so-called Easter stuff out there on the street.  I know you do not need to come in here on Easter Sunday to hear something like Easter.  Elsewhere you can get a basket and some eggs, maybe some of that plastic green grass.  But Easter, without the resurrection, isn’t worth much.


I know that the little bunnies and the chicks, the eggs and the green grass are meant to remind you of new life.  So maybe they get you pointed in the right direction.  And, new life is the essential message of Easter. Even when you listen to St. Paul speak of ‘new life’ you know that resurrection is a sign that death has been defeated and that life is offered to us.  That is the point of 1 Corinthians 15.


In that text, Paul reminds us that “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”  If there was no resurrection, if that is not the point, then just forget the whole thing.  If the resurrection is not truth enough for you to believe that in some mysterious way Jesus is with us here, now, then let’s just drop the whole thing.   Without the resurrection, our mission is little more than helpfulness, our fellowship is nothing but friendliness, and our ministry is equitable to social action.


If, on the other hand, we put resurrection at the center of our life together and if we are willing to accept this idea proclaimed for 2000 years over and against every criticism and condemnation; if through some patchy glimpses and strange sensation you are compelled to embrace this idea over and against any alternative, then we have something to work with.


Earlier in John’s gospel, chapter 9 to be exact, Jesus heals a blind man.  Remember that lesson, just read it a few weeks ago.  With spit and dust, and then a wash in the pool of Siloam, the man’s life is transformed.  “Where is this Jesus,” the religious authorities ask.  With another truth that bears repeating in nearly every honest Christian’s life, he answers: “I don’t know.”  Even in faith, when we can agree on saying, ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body,’ we sometimes say ‘I don’t know.”


Then Jesus raises Lazarus.  Do you remember that?  Mary and Martha are, of course, despondent.  Jesus simply says: “Your brother will rise again.”  Martha responds, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, yet though he die, shall live; and those who live and believe in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”  What do you say?


Listen, subsequent generations do not have to be satisfied with a thin diet of reading ancient stories.  Nor do we have to limit ourselves to liturgical remembrances of the wonderful days when Jesus himself was here and said, “Why are you crying, who are you looking for.”


We were not there, this is true.  But we are here today, and our ears and our faith may be just as receptive as Mary’s.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  Resurrection moves us from a place of timidity to a place of boldness.  Resurrection moves us from discouragement to hope.   Resurrection refuses to be satisfied by injustice and cruelty.  For everything in our world that sounds like death, Resurrection shouts no, and sings out life.


Still, I cannot make you believe in anything.  I  only invite you to try it.  Faith, you see is always first generation.  Our parent’s faith, our ancestor’s faith, will not carry water for us.  We need our own.  Our faith in the resurrection has an immediacy about it that does not distinguished between our being there and his being here.    John writes, “Now Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are recorded in this book.  But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.


I do not know how you answer my question.  I know how St. John answers.  In John’s Gospel, every time he came to his friends they became stronger, wiser, kinder, more daring. Every time he came to them, they became more like him.  Thus, you have resurrection.   For the disciples, it is not so much is there life after death, but is there life before death!  How do you answer?  I know how some of you answer, then and now, I know there are some who run from the door of death to proclaim a word of life. 


To that, I say, Amen!

[1] “Yes, tell us again, Mary: what did you see on your journey? I saw the tomb of one who still lives and the glory of the risen one.”

[2] The Gospel of Peter records the resurrection itself: 9.And in the night in which the Lord’s day was drawing on, as the soldiers kept guard two by two in a watch, there was a great voice in the heaven; and they saw the heavens opened, and two men descend from thence with great light and approach the tomb. And that stone which was put at the door rolled of itself and made way in part; and the tomb was opened, and both the young men entered in.

10. When therefore those soldiers saw it, they awakened the centurion and the elders; for they too were hard by keeping guard. And, as they declared what things they had seen, again they see three men come forth from the tomb, and two of them supporting one, and a cross following them: and of the two the head reached unto the heaven, but the head of him that was led by them overpassed the heavens. And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, Thou hast preached to them that sleep. And a response was heard from the cross, Yea.”