[A sermon on one of the Uniform Series texts for today, Sunday, April 16: John 20:1-10.]
The church’s Easter greeting, for centuries, has gone like this: one says “Christ is risen!” – in whatever language – and the other responds “He is risen indeed!”
We have been saying this for centuries, maybe almost since the beginning of the church, so it has become routine enough that we might not always think about how outlandish it is: Christ is risen. From the dead. New life – for real. And how we’re identifying ourselves with this crackpot conspiracy theory, this cultish lunacy when we take part in this ritual, how we’re saying that we’re one of them: He is risen, He is risen indeed!
So it might be worth considering this morning: How believable, really, is the resurrection? How believable is it, for us, personally?
Because that answer varies. A study conducted for the BBC just this year made news by finding that 9% of non-religious people believe the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, while 23% of self-described Christians don’t believe it. Of course, that means that by far most Christians do believe it, if I’ve done my arithmetic correctly. I have heard various answers to this question of believability from the pulpit over the years, too; from a pastor who worked very hard to demonstrate the complete naturalistic believability of the event, and who insisted that demonstrating that is one of the responsibilities of the modern age preacher; through plenty of sermons that treat it as a question that never even comes up, all the way to the seminary professor who told me that no thinking person today can take this story seriously as a physical event, and sermons that explained the resurrection as the resurgence of the spirit of Christ in the disciples’ fellowship, their community, or in their proclamation of the Kingdom of God. In other words, there’s a full spectrum of responses given by highly-credentialed professed Christians, as well as by Christians “on the ground” to that question – how believable is the resurrection?
But the first answer, it seems to me, is given to us in the text of the day, and that answer – given to us at the very beginning of the whole story – seems to have been that the notion of the resurrection was impossible, unthinkable even.
Mary Magdalene doesn’t immediately think “resurrection,” “He is risen,” when she sees the stone is rolled away from the tomb. Let’s set aside all text critical issues with the gospel of John for a moment. Let’s assume John is telling it to us straight. If we do that, we notice, Mary Magdalen’s first instinct is to think … “grave robbers.” And who can blame her? That explanation has precedent behind it, and maybe even means, motive and opportunity. Although upon reflection, the people with the best motive – the disciples themselves – don’t seem to know anything about it, and the people with the best means and opportunity – namely, Jesus’ enemies – probably had exactly the opposite motive, they presumably want him to stay dead. Still, the main point here is that she doesn’t think “resurrection!” right away. That’s not the first thing she believes.
Same with Simon Peter and the “other disciple.” They don’t come up with the resurrection explanation for the empty tomb right away, either. At first, it seems, they’re just baffled, just trying to take in something that shouldn’t be happening at all. And while it might not make a whole lot of sense for the average grave robber to take the time to unwrap the deceased and leave the grave clothes behind – why on earth would they do that? To make it easier? Probably not. So, then, to be nice? “Here, we took your friend, but thought you might still want these …?” Seems unlikely. But that detective-story inconsistency doesn’t register with the disciples right away, since they’re trying to register the far more basic disruption of their expectations in the first place. In fact, John’s account reports stages in these disciples’ experience, reflecting a slowly and steadily dawning awareness, maybe from the kind of hindsight that goes back over things they had heard before from Jesus, that reconnects the dots, that finally comes up with an insight “oh, that’s what he meant …” – and even then, it seems, without an immediate appreciation of the full implications of the situation.
In other words, the disciples didn’t believe Christ was risen, either, until later, until they actually experienced the reality of the risen Christ, until they had something more concrete than an absence to point to – until Mary Magdalene can say “I was in the garden and then, there he was.” Until the other disciples can say “We were hiding out together in that room and then, there he was.” Until they can say “we have seen the Lord” – “I have seen the Lord.” So Thomas, who gets labeled for all time as “doubting Thomas,” was not out of line to insist on this same kind of experiential, empirical evidence – especially since all his friends already had it.
Not out of line, and it seems to me that we cannot be considered out of line, either, if we, too, hold out for empirical evidence of this resurrection claim. Those very first witnesses were convinced by their experience, after all, not by their theology. And these days, it may seem especially imperative. Truth is being assailed all around us, vociferously and relentlessly, even officially. Our common world, our common life, depends imperatively on public standards of verifiability. I can’t remember a time in my own life when defending those standards felt more urgent and more vitally necessary than it does today. So I feel I should side with the empiricists and the logicians. It probably shouldn’t be easy to accept the Christian account of the resurrection. Doubt probably ought to be our default position.
And if I will only allow myself to believe the resurrection because someone has proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt on the grounds of publicly verifiable evidence that that I must believe it, then I am afraid that I, too, will have to join the ranks of the 23%, because with all due respect to that pastor and his proofs, I don’t believe I have yet heard that kind of case for it.
Nevertheless … I admit … I do believe Jesus rose again from the dead.
And with all due respect to that seminary professor, I think I am a thinking person – although my kind of thinking on the matter strikes even me as … well, as something that will be less than compelling for everyone. I say “Christ is risen!” right along with the 77% – because I trust the witnesses.
I trust the witnesses, the disciples – the first ones, and then, the ones who believed them, and then, the ones who believed them, all the way down the line to my grandmother and my parents and all the people I knew who passed their trust down to me. I trust that they told the truth about that unpredictable, rare event – one their past experience would have told them was impossible, but which their personal experience told them was not only possible but actual, and so which told them something about the world we live in that we would never have known before, that we would never have been able to figure out or imagine. I trust that long line of disciples who lived their lives around the premise that the resurrection and the new life it affirms, outlandish as it sounds, is real, and who in living those lives became the communion of saints, the community of the church. I trust them, I suppose for the same reason we ever trust people, in the end: because they seem to be telling the truth, they seem to mean it, because their story, all things considered and crazy as it is, hangs together, because it feels true, so that finally I have no reason to doubt it.
Really. Usually. Except that some of us have been given reasons to doubt those witnesses; some of us, like Christ himself, have been betrayed and handed over to profound suffering that has broken that chain of trust; and all of us have known and loved people whose trust has been shaken or shattered. For those of us whose trust has been traumatized in that way, belief in the resurrection takes more than a theological preference or a reliance on naïve faith. Accepting or re-accepting the reality of a world where new life is possible may have to be an instance of resurrection, an instance of rising, victorious, over a form of death; a miracle that, assuming it occurs, often only dawns upon us, little by little, rather than suddenly or all at once.
But then, I have some experience. I have some experience of trying and sometimes actually living my own life around the premise that Christ is risen. It would be too melodramatic to play Mary Magdalene and say “I have seen the Lord.” And yet … it boils down to something like that … the arrival of a sense of peace when we least expected it and had no reason for it … a sudden burst of confidence and resolve in some thoroughly uninspiring circumstance … the creation of an unforeseen solution to a conflict that we all perceived initially as impossibly irresolvable … the latest Habitat home completed and dedicated … that kind of thing, that perennial realization of impossible possibilities, that whisper of “He is risen indeed” in the lived response of the community of the followers of this Risen One to that persistent echo “Christ is risen” that calls us out into a world that needs new life, even when, maybe especially when, it is impossible for that world to believe new life is even possible.
So I do believe it, I believe the resurrection; and though my reasons may seem to some as threadbare as a pile of rags on the floor of an empty tomb, I trust that others will understand why they are still enough for me to continue to set my heart on this wild, expectation-shattering story, and to go on saying “I’m one of them”: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!