Sermon 4/21/19, Easter Sunday
If you had to place yourself on the spectrum from someone who believes things too easily, who is maybe a bit gullible, taken in by a story that isn’t true, to someone who is hard to convince, never believing without cold, hard, facts, where would you fall? Are you quick to believe? Or quick to be suspicious? I’ll admit that I fall pretty solidly into the latter category, or at least pretty far to that end of the spectrum. I like to fact-check. If I see something on facebook that doesn’t sound quite right to me, I’m your friend who looks it up on snopes, or googles for other sources to verify what you’ve posted. That’s my immediate reaction. I want to know your source of information, and whether I think your source is credible. What did we do before the internet? I guess we had to wait until we could take a trip to the library, or just decide whether or not we trusted whoever was telling us something to be giving us good information. I remember when the internet was first becoming something people would turn to for information, teachers were having to help their students become more discerning in figuring out how reliable websites are for information. Sure, wikipedia is handy - but it’s an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. It isn’t always right! Even when I’m doing research for my family tree online, I have to be careful to figure out the source of any information that I find. Sometimes, it seems like information related to genealogy is circular. When you trace back to find where someone got a piece of information, the trail disappears, or you end up back where you started. I’m generally skeptical when I hear something that is too good, or too amazing, or too unusual to be true. I figure: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There’s some people whose word I would trust, but other people? Well, I find myself wanting to check what they’ve said for myself. What about you? Do you believe the things you hear that feel too good to be true? Who in your life is so believable that you’d know you didn’t need to check their sources? What news would you find unbelievable?
This year, we’re looking at the Resurrection Story from the Gospel of Luke. The chapter before our Easter gospel today, Luke 23, ends with a group of women, ones who had followed Jesus to Jerusalem from Galilee, seeing the tomb where the body of a crucified Jesus is laid. Luke says, “They saw the tomb and they saw how his body was laid.” Then they returned from the grave site, and prepared spices and ointments, ready to tend to Jesus’s body. On their sabbath, they rested, according to the laws of their faith. And that leads us right into our text for today, with this same group of women.
Luke begins, “but on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.” The women, a group that includes Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and unnamed and uncounted other women, find the stone rolled away from the tomb. When they go inside, there is no body there, and they are perplexed. And then suddenly, there are two men in dazzling clothes standing in the tomb with them. The women are terrified, and seeming to recognize these men as messengers from God, they bow their faces to the ground. But the messengers say to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” They continue, prompting the women to remember. Don’t you remember? He told you way back when you were still in Galilee that this would happen - he would be handed over to sinners, crucified, but then rise on the third day. And Luke says, “Then they remembered [Jesus’] words.” And once they remember, they quickly leave the tomb and tell the eleven disciples and the other followers of Jesus what they just experienced. But, we read, the testimony of the women “seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Still, though, Peter decides to check it out himself. He, too, goes to the tomb and looks in, and sees an empty grave and empty grave clothes. And he goes home - amazed at what had happened. Not overjoyed, maybe not exactly disbelieving. Just - amazed.
We have to wait for another day for the rest of the story, but this is all Luke gives us at the empty tomb. There’s no appearance of Jesus here at the grave site, like in Matthew or John. And the whole status of this Easter story is left a little in limbo, at least until later in Luke’s telling. When the resurrected Jesus finally does appear, it is not to these women or to any of the eleven disciples at first, but to followers we’ve never heard of before.
I keep coming back to how the disciples and followers react when the women tell them what they’ve experienced at the tomb of Jesus. “These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” I wonder how the women felt when this incredible thing they’d experienced was doubted, rejected, dismissed. These women were the ones who stayed through the whole crucifixion, and who stayed to see where Jesus’ body was laid, and so it is in some ways unsurprising that they were also the first ones to hear and to share the good news of the resurrection. They’ve been with Jesus all along. But they are not believed. The news seems too good to be true. And maybe the disciples are skeptical of the sources of information.
Women weren’t considered legally able to give testimony in Jesus’ day. They couldn’t be witnesses in court, only men could. They weren’t allowed to be sources to verify or disprove evidence. And it is to women that God entrusts the news of the resurrection. St. Augustine, a patriarch of the Church, writing in the 5th century, notes the interesting conundrum of believability. He writes, “The women reported this [news of the empty tomb] to men. And what’s written? What did you hear? These things seemed in their eyes like an idle tale. How very unhappy is the human condition! When Eve related what the serpent had said, she was listened to straightway. A lying woman was believed, and so we all died. But [the disciples] didn’t believe women telling the truth so that we might live. If women are not to be trusted, why did Adam trust Eve? If women are to be trusted, why did the disciples not trust the holy women?” (1)
Who is believable? When have you believed something that was too good to be true? When have you disbelieved news that turned out to be true? What makes you finally believe something that is unbelievable? New Testament professor Craig Koester says these questions, this strange unfolding of the resurrection account in Luke actually helps us get to the heart of understanding, believing, living the Easter story. “What is most striking,” he writes, “is that the women encounter the resurrection through this message. They are told that Jesus has risen, but they do not see the risen Jesus himself. What they have is a word, a message. This brings the Easter experience uncomfortably close, because this is precisely what we have - the word of resurrection. One would think God would work differently. It would seem so much easier to have the women come to the tomb and watch Jesus walk out into the light of a new day. And it would seem much easier for Jesus simply to appear in dazzling glory to us, who gather on an Easter morning generations later. And this is precisely where our situation is like that of the women on the first Easter: we are all given a message of resurrection, which flies in the face of what we know to be true.” (2)
No matter how many people eventually see the resurrected Jesus in the gospels, we don’t. Not like they did. We just can’t be there, on that first Easter morning. Our knowledge of the resurrected Jesus comes through their testimonies, recorded for us, and through the life of the church over the centuries, and through what faith we have to believe something that seems too good to be true.
If we’re being logical, of course we can’t believe this crazy story of Easter morning. It seems like everywhere we turn, we witness death winning. Everyone dies. The weak and the strong, the good and the bad, the young and the old, the poor and the rich. Even though we don’t like to dwell on our own mortality, we know it. The certainty of death. That we can google. We can cite sources for death. We can find expert accounts of death. We can prove that. These words of resurrection? Perhaps they seem to us too an idle tale.
Koester says that this is exactly where the Easter story begins to work - by “challenging our certainties.” He writes, “Experience teaches that death wins and that even the strongest succumb to it. Experience teaches that life is what you make it, so get what you can while you can because it will be over soon enough. And the Easter message says, "Really? How can you be so sure?" Death is real, but it is not final. In Jesus, life gets the last word.” (emphasis mine)
“The claim that the tomb could not hold Jesus, and the idea that the one who died by crucifixion has now risen is so outrageous that it might make you wonder whether it might - just might - be true.” Jesus resurrected? The power of death, canceled? It seems an idle tale … and yet, Peter just has to check it out for himself. He has to go straight to the source. He heads to the tomb, and finds it empty. Grave clothes - empty. And he wonders - “What if it's true?”
Friends, that’s what we’re here asking too. What if it’s true? What if this idle tale is actually true? What if death doesn’t have the last word? What if Jesus is alive? What if resurrection really happened - and happens? What if all that God promises is true? We need to find out the answer for ourselves. We should try to figure it out. But we have to make sure our sources are good. And so, if you want to find out the truth of resurrection, God’s messengers send us in the right direction. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” they ask. You can almost hear that they are confused that the women would expect Jesus to be in the tomb. If we remember what God has said, what Jesus has taught, what’s been promised, we wouldn’t be expecting Jesus in a place for the dead.
I invite you to spend some time, maybe spend your life, answering the question: “What if it’s true?” If you look in the right places - not at an empty tomb, but in places bursting with love and life - I think that you will find resurrection all around, signs that death doesn’t win after all, evidence that Jesus lives with us and that we live in him. I think if you check your sources, if you spend your heart seeking and searching for signs of new life, you’ll find that resurrection is happening in you, that your very life of discipleship will become a witness that what seemed to be an idle tale, what seemed to be too good to be true, is actually the truth. Christ is alive - and we are alive in him.
"Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen!” Thanks be to God! Amen.
(1) As quoted in Arthur A. Just, Jr., ed., Luke (InterVarsity, 2003), 376.
(2) Craig R. Koester, Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=558#post_comments.