"Their Words Seemed Like Nonsense"
Easter Sunday 2008

For Sunday March 23, 2008

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Acts 10:34–43 or Jeremiah 31:1–6
           Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24
           Colossians 3:1–4 or Acts 10:34–43
           John 20:1–18 or Matthew 28:1–10

           “Christ is risen!” proclaims the liturgist.

           “He is risen indeed!” the congregation responds.

           That's the Christian story in three words — Christ is risen. And that by his resurrection he vanquished sin, death, and all the powers of hell. When Christians celebrate Easter, says Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, "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."

           Like the first Big Bang, it's a story that's incomprehensible and unbelievable. Paul conceded that by the normal canons of human reason it was scandalous and foolish (1 Corinthians 1:23). We will cheat death, according to this story. In raising Jesus from the dead the whole creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay (Romans 8:18–22); all things and the entire cosmos will be reconciled to God, "whether things on earth or things in heaven" (Colossians 1:20, 1 John 2:2). This is not a story with an asterik at the end that hedges the bet or explains caveats. Rather, it's the Ultimate Grand Narrative.

           After three years of teaching, preaching, and healing, Jesus repeatedly warned his followers that his journey to Jerusalem would end in persecution, death and then resurrection on the third day. But his closest companions "did not understand any of this” (Luke 18:31–34). When Jesus did rise from the dead, they not only didn't understand him, they didn't even believe in him.

           It's in the disbelief of the first believers that I base my own belief.

           Since all the disciples had fled, the women who supported Jesus — Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna and others — were the first witnesses of the empty tomb. When these women told the eleven disciples that they had seen the risen Lord, “they did not believe the women, because their words seemed like nonsense” (Luke 24:11). When two witnesses later reported their encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, "they did not believe them either" (Mark 16:13). Even after the Lord appeared in person to the disciples and rebuked them for their doubt, “they still did not believe it ” (Luke 24:41). Thomas, of course, was obstinate in his doubt (John 20:24–31). And at the great commission some of the eleven doubted his resurrection (Matthew 28:17). No wonder that Jesus "rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe" (Mark 16:13–14).

           Doubts about the resurrection didn't begin with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophes, nineteenth-century Darwinists, or with twentieth-century post-modernists. Only our modern hubris, what the British historian EP Thompson (1924–1993) called "the enormous condescension of posterity," could believe that we today — finally! — have advanced beyond the crude superstitions of illiterate peasants who in 33 AD were so gullible that they didn't know that corpses don't rise from the dead.

           No, lots of people doubted the resurrection, beginning with Jesus's closest followers. The doubts of the disciples and the disbelief by many of their contemporaries read more like a "no spin zone" than a propaganda ploy. Their tell-tale presence lends an air of authenticity to the original Easter proclamation. They give it the ring of truth.

           At first blush the idea that Jesus had risen from the dead "seemed like nonsense" (Luke 24:11). But then something happened. Luke writes that Jesus "showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive" (Acts 1:3). The disbelief of these "unschooled and ordinary men" (Acts 4:13) gave way to their bold conviction: "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact" (Acts 2:32). When the religious authorities commanded them to cease preaching, Peter and John replied, "We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20). They claimed that they had eaten with the resurrected Jesus (Acts 10:41), and that many witnesses could attest to his public appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5–8). So, "with great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 4:33).

           A few people believed their testimony, but many mocked and scoffed. The religious authorities were "greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead" (Acts 4:2). At Athens some philosophers believed Paul's preaching, but when others heard about the resurrection of the dead "they sneered" (Acts 17:32). Porcius Festus, the Roman governor of Judea under Nero (59–62 AD), was "at a loss" about what to do with the prisoner Paul: "They did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive" (Acts 25:19–20). Peter rejected charges that he followed a "cleverly invented story" (2 Peter 1:16), while Paul instructed Corinthians who said that "there is no resurrection of the dead" (1 Corinthians 15:12). So, there's nothing new about contemporary disbelief in the resurrection.

           Most people today don't believe in the resurrection. As with the initial disbelief of the original disciples, such words sound like nonsense. There are alternate explanations. One proposal that was “widely circulated” (Matthew 28:15) after Jesus's death was that the disciples stole the body and created the fiction of Christ's resurrection. Others argue that the life and teachings of Jesus are “immortal” in the sense of being sublime or intensely inspirational, much like we describe the literature of Shakespeare or the music of Mozart. Others suggest that the spirit of Jesus lives on in us as a powerful memory and presence, like the spirit of Gandhi or a favorite uncle who deeply influenced us when he was alive.

           These alternate explanations have in common the idea that the resurrection accounts are more myth and metaphor than history, more like religious poetry than straightforward narrative, something to be taken figuratively but not literally. But that's not what those first doubters came to believe, not by a long shot. To them, Jesus was truly and literally raised from the dead. Even if they couldn't fully understand, describe or explain it (just as we can't today), they freely admitted that their “gospel” was a sham and that they were liars if Jesus was not raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:1–28).

           For the early Christians, encountering Jesus meant “to know him and the power of His resurrection” (Philippians 3:10). Paul prayed that the believers at Ephesus would know God's “incomparably great power toward us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Ephesians 1:19–20). Or to use William's analogy, like a second Big Bang.

           It's possible that the first believers were either badly deluded and wrong, or blatant liars and immoral — "deceived or deceivers," as Pascal put it (Pensees 322, 310). Neither of those explanations have the ring of truth to me. The only thing they stood to gain from preaching the resurrection was political persecution, intellectual scorn, and social marginalization. No person should believe a lie about the resurrection, Paul said, and they certainly shouldn't preach a lie (1 Corinthians 15:12–19). If Jesus is not raised, the Christian faith is a cruel hoax and a silly fiction.

           The women who were the last at the cross were the first to believe. Mother Teresa believed. So did Martin Luther King, Jr. Others like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have their own biblical precedents in the condescending scorn of Festus. The Cambridge mathematician Bertrand Russell rejected the message and wrote a famous essay about his unbelief ("Why I Am Not A Christian"). Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, believes the apostolic message and tells why in his book (The Language of God; A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief in God, 2006).

           I believe those original disbelievers, and stand on the shoulders of other Christians across time and space, who have believed, confessed and taught that God raised Jesus from the dead. And so with JwJ readers from over 200 countries who have similarly believed, I join the chorus, "Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!"       

For further reflection:

* Meditate on Hebrews 2:14–15: "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death."
* Consider Paul's words that with his resurrection Jesus "destroyed death" (2 Timothy 1:10), our "last enemy" (1 Corinthians 15:26).
* Contemplate Isaiah's poetry, that the Lord Almighty will "swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces" (Isaiah 25:8).
* See Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust; An Introduction to Christian Belief (2007).