Resurrection: Not an Evidence Based Practice

Resurrection faith came slow to most of the disciples. But when it did come it changed everything.  They recognized the incredible scope and enormous implications of the biblical witness that when God raised Jesus from the dead God was creating a new reality; overthrowing death, sin, and all that would oppress us; and declaring once and for all that life is more powerful than death and love more enduring that tragedy. The Christian faith isn’t an evidence based practice. It can’t be proven. It can’t be documented or tabulated.

John ‘s Easter Narrative:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid  him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

Luke’s Easter Narrative
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

One of the common elements of the resurrection story shared by all the Gospels is that even though Jesus predicted his death and resurrection, several times, no one expects the resurrection. No one greets the news that God has raised Jesus from the grave and defeated death and the devil by saying, “Praise God!” When they hear that their friend and Lord has been raised to life no one shouts “Hallelujah”. Upon hearing the news that death itself could not hold captive the Lord of Glory, absolutely no one says, “I knew it – just like he said!”

No one expects resurrection and no one, quite frankly, believes it, at first. In Luke the women come to the tomb expecting to anoint Jesus’ dead body. That is, they have no expectation that he has been raised. In fact, only when they are reminded by the “two men in dazzling clothes,” do they recall Jesus’ promise.  They run back to tell the rest of the disciples…who greet their tale with utter skepticism. In fact, Luke says that those who received the testimony of the women regarded their message as an “idle tale.” That’s actually a very gentle translation of the Greek work leros. That word, you see, is the root of our word “delirious.” So in short, they thought what the women said was crazy, nuts, utter nonsense.

And, quite frankly, who could blame them? I mean, resurrection isn’t simply a claim that Jesus’ body was resuscitated; it’s the claim that God invaded human history in order to create an entirely new reality. Which, quite frankly, can be frightening.  Someone once said “if the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?” Resurrection, seen this way, breaks all the rules, and while most of us will admit that the old rules aren’t perfect – and sometimes are downright awful – at least we know them. In their predictability they are at least comforting. And resurrection upsets all of that.

It throws us off balance, upsets our apple cart, and convulses our neat and orderly lives into irrationality. Which is why I think that if you don’t find resurrection at least a little hard to believe, most likely you aren’t taking it very seriously!

I suspect that most of us have heard the Easter story so often it hardly makes us blink, let alone quake with wonder and surprise. Which is rather sad, when you think about it, because this promise, as difficult as it may be to believe is huge, and when it sinks in and lays hold of you, absolutely everything looks a little different. For those of us who simply accept the resurrection as a piece of our faith but without really thinking about it, I’d like to encourage you to allow the wonder of God’s activity in the resurrection to break in upon you in a new way. Spend some time reflecting on the incredible nature of resurrection. It could provide a powerful experience for you.

But I also want to say that when you think seriously about the resurrection, and you find it a little hard to believe, you are in really good company.  You have that in common with all of Jesus’ closest followers. Which means that maybe we should admit that we in the church have mischaracterized the nature of religious faith. While we may want to leave the impression that perfect faith conquers all doubt, biblical authors believed that faith and doubt are actually woven quite closely together. Doubt, questions, even downright skepticism – these aren’t the opposite of faith, but rather an essential ingredient. Faith, after all, isn’t knowledge and it’s not proof. Faith, as the author to the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). And perhaps Easter Sunday is as good a time as any to give God thanks for the gift of faith, the ability not to understand the mystery of the resurrection but to be inspired to hope and believe that it is true.

What makes believing in the resurrection difficult for you? We’ve never experienced anything like it in our lifetime. What about the natural order? We all say that the two givens in life are death and taxes.  What hampers belief for you and me were also the reasons why Jesus’ disciples from that first Easter sunrise have had good reason to wonder and even doubt.  But try asking yourself what would be possible if it were true, like: Death does not have the final word. Love and life are stronger than fear and death. We can expect to see again those we’ve loved and lost. God has a future in store for each and all of us. Anything is possible with God.

I saw something that was new to me in re-reading the Resurrection narratives. In each of the Gospels we learn of a very special place,  the house where Jesus commemorated the Passover with his followers and what we’ve general accepted as the large upper room where Jesus broke bread and shared the fruit of the vine with those gathered.  According to John this is where Jesus washed his disciples feet and voices what we’ve come to know as his high priestly prayer. Tradition tells us that it was to that room to which Jesus followers fled after the crucifixion ‘behind locked doors, for fear of the Jews’.  How fearful they all were.

In John’s Gospel Simon Peter and John were called from the security of that gathering of fearful followers by Mary Magdalene.  In Luke’s version it was Peter who went to the tomb after hearing the report of the women. In both instances after their experience of the empty tomb they did not return to the upper room.  The text says they went to their own homes. There is no mention in the text of Peter or John being among those who remained cloistered out of fear in the upper room.  The resurrected Jesus came and stood among them. He countered their fear by saying – twice- “Peace be with you!”  He empowered with his own Spirit and then commissioned them to go fearlessly into the world with his message of forgiveness.

Resurrection faith came slow to most of the disciples. But when it did come it changed everything.  They recognized the incredible scope and enormous implications of the biblical witness that when God raised Jesus from the dead God was creating a new reality; overthrowing death, sin, and all that would oppress us; and declaring once and for all that life is more powerful than death and love more enduring that tragedy. The Christian faith isn’t an evidence based practice. It can’t be proven. It can’t be documented or tabulated.

After four unsuccessful years of seeking spiritual guidance George Fox received the opening from the Lord that ‘to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge’ was not sufficient to fit a man to be a minister of Christ…,” and he heard a voice which said “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” And when he heard it he wrote that his ‘heart did leap for joy’.

Nothing can free us from that awful fear that drains the joy out of our lives except our own experience of meeting the living Christ.  As much as we may love and proclaim our belief in this old story it stays that, a much loved story that fails to address our timidity and fear.  It is only the experience of Mary and the women, and the men on the road to Emmaus and that of Peter and John and those emancipated from the fear filled upper room who dared to trust what they had experienced of Jesus that allows us to break out of our fearfulness and carry Jesus’ message of forgiveness into the world.

 

 

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