Jesus Christ is risen today!
Our triumphant Holy Day!
It’s nice to be triumphant every now and then, isn’t it?
So much of the time we walk around feeling defeated – defeated by the powers that be, overwhelmed by our workload, subjugated by our domineering spouse (I’m talking in general terms, of course).
Likewise, the church as a whole seems to be generally in a state of defeat or at least of ongoing decline. Our message and values are seen as being increasingly irrelevant, our Atheistic detractors seem ever-more robust in their logic, and any claim we might have thought we had to moral superiority collapses under the weight of the Royal Commission’s enquiry into the ecclesiastical sexual abuse!
But today, on this day at least, we regain the high ground! On this day – Easter Day – we celebrate. We are victorious, triumphant, and on the right side of history, or so it would seem. For the odd thing is that when we get to our Gospel reading – the proclamation around which our entire Easter celebration revolves – there is not a hint of joy or celebration or triumph or anything of the sort!
We read from Luke’s account of the resurrection today:
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. (Luke 12:1-3)
We’re told that the response of the female disciples who had made the trip to the tomb was that they were ‘perplexed’. We’re told though that their perplexity quickly gave way to terror as they noticed two rather spectacularly dressed men who had suddenly joined them in the tomb!
These characters seem to know something about the missing body of Jesus – “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.” (Luke 24:5b-7)
The women, we are told, then exit the tomb, but they do start to put the pieces together in their minds. When they tell the men though what they have seen and heard (or rather, what they have heard and what they have not seen) they are met only with cynicism. Peter though does rush to the tomb, looks in, sees Jesus’ clothing there but no body, and he, we are told, is amazed (or confused, depending on how you translate it). In other words, he was left with lots of questions and very few answers!
And so our resurrection narrative closes, against this backdrop of questioning, confusion, cynicism and fear …
It’s not what we might have expected of the official account of the resurrection. Indeed, apart from celebration and triumph, the only other thing missing in this resurrection account is an actual account of the resurrection!
That’s true of all the Gospel accounts of course. All four feature accounts of the resurrection that don’t include any actual account of the resurrection. Instead we get hints and second-hand information and our imagination is left to fill the void!
How did Jesus rise from the dead? How did He get through those grave-clothes? Did he transubstantiate through them or some such, or did He take them off Himself and then fold them all up again? Evidently the Gospel writers didn’t have a clue and so they say nothing!
And where exactly was the body of Jesus at that time the women visit, and who were those strange men, and how exactly did the Spirit of God go about breathing life back into the tortured body of Jesus? Or did it not really happen that way at all? Was Jesus simply given a new body? Again, we have no idea!
What is reflected in our piecemeal Gospel accounts are the confused and disjointed experiences of the disciples themselves, and it appears that even with the wisdom of hindsight those women and men were simply not capable of filling in all the blanks! It all starts in fear and confusion, and it seems that while the fear does pass, the confusion never entirely dissipates!
We don’t know how Jesus rose. We don’t know who those two men were, and we have no idea why things happened the way they did, but we do know that the impact on Jesus’ disciples of the events of that resurrection morning were that they left them feeling anxious and confused!
I know that any number of psychologists since Freud have been keen to explain away religious belief in terms of it being a form of wish fulfilment. We really wish that we had a Heavenly Father watching over us, just as we really wish that we didn’t have to die. Hence in our wanting and wishing these things to be true we allow our imaginations to run wild and make them true!
It is astonishing, the extent to which this wish-fulfilment analysis just doesn’t square with these Gospel accounts! There are no accounts of Jesus disciples sitting around wishing, wanting, waiting for Jesus to come back! On the contrary, all the Gospel accounts are at one on this point – that when news started to circulate that Jesus was back on the scene, this was not something that the disciples initially embraced with any enthusiasm!
We could do our own psychological analysis at this point as to why the news of Jesus’ resurrection generated such an ambiguous response in His disciples, but let it suffice for now to say that genuine religious experience often leaves people feeling a little ambiguous.
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”, says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews (10:31), and this is true of much religious experience.
I can tell you that when people are reaching the end of their days in hospital, often the last person they want to see is a priest or chaplain!
Contrary to popular dogma in psychotherapy, there is a certain freedom that comes with disbelief! It is, in truth, somewhat liberating to think that we are ultimately responsible to no one beyond ourselves and that we are free to design our own futures, build our own kingdoms, and that we are not ultimately responsible for the well-being of our neighbours, let alone our enemies!
The thought that our Heavenly Father is watching over us, while comforting in some respects, is invasive in a very real sense as well! We want to be captains of our own ships, masters of our own destiny, answerable for nothing and to no one, and so it is often with great reluctance that we are dragged towards the conclusion that God the Father and the Lord Jesus are laying claim to our lives!
The great Oxford Don, C.S. Lewis, articulated this reluctance in a particularly memorable way, noting that he was brought into Christianity like a prodigal, “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.” (“Surprised by Joy”, London: Harvest Books, p.229).
“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (“Surprised by Joy”, p. 228-229).
Now we can’t know for sure how closely the emotional state of C.S. Lewis approximated to that of Jesus’ first century disciples, but what we do know is that these early followers of Jesus – both men and women – reacted to the initial news of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead with both confusion and fear.
Gradually they put the pieces together. Over time their cynicism gave way to joy and their confusion gave way to slightly less confusion, but it took time.
I read a lovely story recently of an American pastor by the name of Clint Tidwell who apparently pastored a church in a small rural town in the South.
Tidwell was apparently blessed with having the 80-year-old owner and editor of the local paper as a member of his congregation – a man who admired Tidwell’s preaching so much that he would publish a weekly summary of the Sunday sermon in his paper so that those who were not willing or able to attend his church might nonetheless benefit from his pastor’s homiletic insights!
This column was apparently the source of constant embarrassment for the pastor, largely because the weekly summary of what Pastor Tidwell had said often differed enormously from what pastor himself thought he had said!
Even so, the most embarrassing report actually came not when the newspaper editor misunderstood Tidwell’s preaching but when he understood it very clearly! It was the Easter edition of the paper, coming out the day after the pastor’s Easter Day sermon. Emblazoned in bold letters across the front page of the paper was the headline “Tidwell Claims Jesus Christ Rose From The Dead!” (Thomas G. Long, “Whispering the Lyrics”, Lima, OH: CSS, 1995)
Evidently it does take time for the penny to drop in some cases. And evidently in some cases the confusion never entirely dissipates. But that’s ok, I think. Indeed, I believe that’s the gospel model!
We stumble forward. We regularly have little idea as to what is really going on. We continue to struggle with feelings of defeat, cynicism, confusion and fear. Yet the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not quenched that light yet!
“He is not here. He is risen!” No, that doesn’t answer all our questions but it does change everything!
If Jesus is risen then the universe is not ultimately as hostile as we thought it was! If Jesus is risen then maybe the good guys do win in the end after all!
If Jesus is risen then even the torturous situation of modern-day Syria is not grounds for despair, as we know that death and lies and murder and violence in the name of religion are never the end of the story!
If Jesus is risen then everything is cast on to a broader canvas! Our own pain, and the death and suffering of those we cherish become a part of a larger story where Christ ultimately triumphs on our behalf and points us to a brighter day and a bigger world!
And we don’t have all the answers, and it still can be very confusing, but this is indeed our triumphant Holy day, and it’s good to be triumphant every now and then!
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on March 17, 2013.
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