Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Sunday

John 20
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

Christ is Risen!

I know I was in the door, but may not have had my coat off when the questions came. I say ‘came’ rather than ‘began,’ because they came in a cookie tin, on little post-it notes, ready for me to face.

I was forewarned—Taye told me—that the confirmation class would have a few questions. They retreated to beautiful Fergus, Ontario, where they were fed and watered, given a variety of tasks, and primed to try and ‘stump the chump.’ I’m the chump.

Now, it was pitched to me as ‘filling in the details,’ answering those last minute questions that remained unresolved, maybe giving a thumb-nail sketch or two of some esoteric aspect of church life. Taye worked with them for weeks, I thought, what else could they need to know, I thought, then I opened the tin.

Question: Why do chocolate eggs and bunnies represent Easter?

How on earth should I know? “Okay kids, time to go swimming again!” They actually did swim, on April 10th, courage enough to guarantee anyone’s confirmation. But they were not to be distracted, not even by lunch, so I soldiered on. “They are both images of new life,” I said, without getting into the details that in “one season a single female rabbit can produce as many as 800 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren” (Wikipedia). That, my friends, is new life.

The truth is, when confronted by large and mysterious things, we tend to retreat to the symbolic. The tomb was empty. His body was gone, he appeared to Mary with tender words. Most of all, the tomb was empty. And so, confronted with an empty tomb, a symbol that is hard to fathom and equally hard to represent in chocolate, we tend to eggs and bunnies.

But before I go any further, I want to talk about Donald Trump. At the very least, I want to you say over lunch, ‘boy, I didn’t see that coming.’ So here goes. Donald Trump is running, but not running, for President of the United States. How can we know? Because he is telling everyone who will listen that he is running, but not running, for POTUS.

And it seems lots of people are willing to listen, at least at this early stage in the election cycle. And he has an unorthodox strategy, a strategy that no other candidate will touch, and that strategy is helping the birthers. Birthers, you see, are people who refuse to believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States. If you are not a native born American, you cannot hold the highest office in the land. For some reason (one that I’m unwilling to investigate), the President has a Certificate of Live Birth, but no Birth Certificate. Everything spirals from there.

The reason I share all this is an interview I heard with Mr. Trump where he lays out the situation with the various certificates. The interview listened patiently, then said, “Yes, Mr. Trump, but we did a full investigation, including statements from people who were there and remember his birth.” Then Trump’s response: “And you believe that?”

Now, I’m no linguist, but I am stumped and amazed by the power of those four little words: “And you believe that?” It has become the doubter’s creed, the manifesto of a cynical age, when any evidence and any description of reality can be quickly refuted by simply saying “And you believe that?”

How does it work? How does this little phrase manage to punch so far above its weight, to be so disarming, that just saying the words can cast doubt on the most certain truth? Fans of Election 2011 already know the secret: don’t attack your opponent’s argument, attack your opponent. Both the words and the tone say “don’t be naïve, don’t be so foolish, and don’t be taken in by the word of other people.

For the hearer, the audience, we immediately feel self-conscious. We’re thrown off by these four little words, not because we lack confidence, but because we know that people can make false testimony, that sometimes people make mistakes, and that time tends to reconstruct memory. We know all these things, so when someone says “And you believe that,” we’re suddenly thrown off.

Back to eggs and bunnies. When a doctrine becomes hard to believe, when the bodily resurrection of Jesus becomes a point of debate and the first thing non-believers point to when they want to highlight what’s unbelievable about the Christian faith, the resurrection is quickly thrown under the bus. How did bodily resurrection become the single-most discardable tenet of our faith? Why no cave made of chocolate?

The first answer to the question, ‘how did bodily resurrection become the single-most discardable belief’ is Jesus. Jesus is such a compelling figure, such a great teacher and healer, that most Christians are content to stop there. They don’t need trinity and resurrection to get excited about Jesus.

The second answer is historical. The early creeds of the church, the ones we seldom recite, put an emphasis on the very things we tend to ignore: virgin birth, decent into hell, resurrection of the body. Somewhere along the line we stepped away from the faith of Constantine and began to long for the days before creeds and Christendom.

The third answer is scientific. Since Newton and Darwin we have allowed science to define the extent of human experience, drawing a line between fact and superstition. Now, I’m not opposed to science, and I’m happy to be a monkey’s uncle (nephew?), but I know for certain that there is a range of human experience that is undefined, mysterious, and fully the realm of the Spirit.

Christ is Risen!

To recap then, eggs and bunnies are a symbolic substitute for something that is hard to represent (an empty tomb) and even harder to believe. And we stand in good company. If we look over at Luke’s version of the same events, the women’s testimony and the other’s response, this is what we hear:

When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.

From the very first day, and among the company most likely to respond to the message of resurrection, we get the same four-word reply: ‘And you believe that?’ Even those closest to Jesus, those that received the promise that after death he would return, were lost in doubt. What hope is there for us?

One of the most remarkable things about our tradition, and the Jewish tradition that gave birth to our tradition, is the willingness to portray weakness, failure and doubt. If I’m going to create a portrait of the ideal king, I’m unlikely to include every embarrassing detail we learn about King David. If I’m going to compose a collection of 150 sacred poems, I’m unlikely to include angry lament toward the object of my worship. And if I’m recounting a story about the very first Christian testimony, and I put the works “I have seen the Lord!” on the lips the very first witness, I’m unlikely to follow this with the words “I cannot believe” from Thomas. But John did.

John did because John’s gospel is personal: it is a recounting of a time and place and a series of events that reflect John’s experience of Jesus. And that experience included triumph and longing and even doubt. It is permission giving, carefully crafted to allow us to suspend our disbelief and imagine ourselves among the disciples. We are permitted to weep in Gethsemane, peer into the empty tomb, and even express some uncertainty and still remain faithful.

I want to conclude with John’s last word, when he steps out of the role of narrator and adds a little commentary. It is the last verse of his gospel:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

In other words, he says ‘if you found that amazing, and even a little hard to believe, you should hear my other stories.’ This is the world I want to inhabit, where the best stories of Jesus go unwritten, where the empty tomb is only the beginning, and where the open-ended invitation is walk with the Risen Christ each day. Thanks be to God, amen.


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