This Ridiculous Story
Easter is a ridiculous thing. Come to think of it, there is a ridiculous quality to so much of what we as Christians claim.
Christmas—God-in-flesh, born in a feed trough to a teenaged peasant girl. Ridiculous.
The Sermon on the Mount—an idealistic approach to life if ever there was one, a recipe for little more than getting taken advantage of and abused. Naively ridiculous.
Palm Sunday—the “triumphal entry” of a king… on a pitiful little donkey… talking about peace. Laughably ridiculous.
Maundy Thursday—a master who washes feet. Weirdly ridiculous.
Good Friday—a self-proclaimed Messiah, executed like a common criminal, going out with hardly a whimper. Pitifully ridiculous
And now, Easter— the defeat of death, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:19-26? Well, “ridiculous” barely seems to cover it.
Death doesn’t look very defeated. It actually looks like it’s doing most of the defeating, no matter what flowery words we employ to talk about the empty tomb on that first Easter. Death is all around us. It fills the pages of our newspapers each day. We read of wars and bombings and terror attacks and famines and diseases and tragedies. Death, death, death.
On a more mundane, level, death is a fact of life. Maybe the fact of life. 100% of the people reading these words will die. And it’s not just us. Everything dies. Plants die. Pets die. Stars die. Marriages die. Jobs die. Dreams die. Friendships die. We are a people who are well acquainted with death.
And yet, each year at Easter, Christians around the world make the ridiculous claim that death has been defeated because a stone was rolled away and a tomb was found empty. How can we say this? Is not this whole rising from the dead thing too much to ask of twenty-first century educated believers?
It’s perhaps worth reminding ourselves that it was an awful lot to ask of first-century believers, as well. As it happens they, too, were aware that dead people were not in the habit of coming alive again. It’s not as though this was a common occurrence back then, and that first century people were uniquely stupid or credulous, expecting people to be popping out of their graves on a regular basis.
Each of the gospel accounts of the resurrection makes this plain. Nobody was expecting anything as ridiculous as resurrection. A quick glance at the familiar gospel narratives makes this plain.
In Mark, the women’s reaction to the news that Jesus is risen is to flee, “trembling and bewildered… because they were afraid.”
Luke reports that the disciples refused to believe the women at first—“their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11)—and that two of them didn’t even recognize Jesus as he walked with them on the road to Emmaus.
Matthew’s account is probably the most triumphant of the bunch, but even here it says that some among the eleven disciples doubted, even after seeing Jesus in the flesh.
And in the gospel of John, confusion and chaos reigns.
Mary Magdalene sees the stone rolled away and rushes off to tell the disciples. Peter and “the other disciple” come rushing back and peer into the tomb, needing to see for themselves that the tomb is empty, not relying on the testimony of Mary.
They see the strips of linen lying neatly in the tomb. And, it says that the other disciple “saw and believed.”
But at this point, it seems that all he believed was that Mary wasn’t lying, that the tomb really was empty. Even when they see the strips of linen lying there, they still don’t have any clue that Jesus might have risen from the dead, as John 20:9 makes plain:
They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.
Even while staring at an empty tomb.
And Mary? Well, she had returned with the disciples to the tomb. But rather than joy or even perplexed wonder, she just stands there and weeps.
Hardly the joyous response you might imagine if discovering an empty tomb were the eagerly anticipated good news of the defeat of death!
After reading the four gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, we could be forgiven for thinking that the first witnesses are rather confused, sluggish, even reluctant participants in God’s great moment of triumph over evil, sin, and death.
The church of Jesus Christ was quite literally shocked into existence by the resurrection, by the stunned testimony of those first witnesses who arrived at an empty tomb to honour a dead friend and departed with the surprise of their lives.
I wonder, all these Easters later, if our hope is still big enough for this ridiculous surprise?
It is easy to make the resurrection small and manageable. Rather than the jaw-dropping God-sized shock of a lifetime, it becomes a pleasant springtime metaphor about the possibility of newness, reduced to greeting-card sized sentiments about “hope.”
But the resurrection isn’t just the cherry on top of the Christian cake or the happy ending tacked on at the end of a long and meandering story or an inspiring symbol of God’s promise of new possibilities for our lives.
If the resurrection is only a nice metaphor for hope in this life, Paul says, we are objects of pity.
Not “a little misguided.” Not “basically right, except for the ending part.” Not “on the right track.” Not “beneficiaries of a psychologically useful technique for coping with the difficulties of life.”
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
I don’t particularly like being pitied.
Why would Paul say this? Surely, Paul ought to concede that even without the resurrection, Jesus is still a pretty inspiring guy who said some pretty cool things about love and peace and forgiveness and compassion. Right?
Paul knows that without the resurrection, Jesus is nothing more than another failed Messiah, his teaching, while perhaps inspiring, ultimately as useless and futile as a way of life as it proved to be for him, ending in disappointment, betrayal, and execution.
It’s worth pausing on this. For those who imagine that we can (and should!) leave behind all this superstitious nonsense about a dead guy coming to life and just focus on Jesus’ inspiring teachings, we should probably ask, Without the resurrection, what exactly did those inspiring teachings, that way of living and loving accomplish for Jesus? We might expect the same.
And without the resurrection, is it possible to imagine the church bursting forth into the world and turning it upside down with their commitment to follow this Jesus in word and deed? Not likely. It’s far easier to imagine the first disciples quivering and quaking by the tomb for a few days, and then going back to business as usual.
Without this ridiculous thing called “resurrection,” nothing gets off the ground.
The resurrection is not an optional extra. It is not a nice symbol of springtime newness and possibility. It is not a pleasant fiction to console ourselves with while we grimly march toward our inevitable demise. The resurrection is nothing less than the interruption of life into all of our dying, the decisive pronouncement upon what has been and what will yet be.
It is God’s validation of all that Jesus was and did and said and modelled. The giving of bread, the healing of disease, the challenging of injustice, the washing of feet, the listening, the rebuking, the inspiring, the raising, the confusing, the illuminating, the loving, the suffering… Everything about who Jesus was and what he did is given God’s stamp of approval in an empty tomb. The resurrection says that this pattern of living and loving was not, ultimately, wasted on a Roman cross and sealed in a futile tomb. It was (and is!), rather, the way, the truth, and the life.
And the resurrection says that this is God’s promised future for all who give themselves to this Jesus, this way, truth, and life. The resurrection says that this is how the world is made new—that living and dying look and sound and feel different this side of Easter. New possibilities are opened up for fearlessly living and loving and dying like Jesus because we know that our efforts will be neither wasted nor futile, and because we are convinced that our end will be as ridiculously joyous as his.
The above is an edited and abbreviated version of a sermon preached Easter Sunday, 2016 at Lethbridge Mennonite Church. The featured image is taken from the 2015-16 Christian Seasons Calendar. It is called “Celebration of Life,” by William Butler.