Sunday, April 05, 2015

Easter Sunday

1 Corinthians 15
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

I missed the Beatles.

I’ve never seen the Stones in concert. I can’t remember the moon landing, since I was still in nappies at the time. Okay, I was four, so maybe I was out of nappies. For me there was no Woodstock, no Summer of Love, and no Trudeaumania (although it could happen again).

For all of these things I was either too young or wasn’t paying attention. And no one said “enjoy the victory parade now little toddler, because when you’re 50, there’s still no Stanley Cup for the Leafs.” (sorry Dave) That seems like something worth noting.

Still, for all that I have missed, and all that I didn’t see, I’m in a better position than St. Paul—he missed everything.

St. Paul missed the angels and wise men, shepherds in their fields abiding, and he missed everything swaddling.
St. Paul missed John’s Baptism, the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
St. Paul missed the Wedding at Cana—didn’t even get an invite—and the very first sign of the new age.
St. Paul missed the halt, the lame, lepers and paralytics, the demon-possessed and everyone Jesus healed.
St. Paul missed the storm at sea, the miraculous catch of 153 fish, and the day those loaves and fishes multiplied.
St. Paul missed tax collectors, sinners, scribes, people of small stature and everyone else Jesus ate with.
St. Paul missed the sermon on the mount, the sermon on the plain—and my favourite—the sermon from the boat.
St. Paul missed the day Jesus wept for his friend and cried “Lazarus, come out.”
St. Paul missed every parable that pointed directly to the Kingdom of God and the people we are meant to be.
St. Paul missed the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the trial and the most famous hand-washing of all.
St. Paul missed the day the sky turned black, and the curtain was torn in two, and Jesus forgave us all.
And St. Paul missed Mary in the garden alone, the empty tomb, and the first day she said “he is risen indeed.”

But you’d never know. Somehow—and this is the other Easter miracle—the Holy Spirit transmitted to Paul everything he would ever need to know about the life and times of Jesus the Christ. And how do I know? It’s written in 1 Corinthians 15:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve, [then many more] and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one untimely born.

Untimely born. Poor Paul, only hearing about the party after the fact, and what a great time it was, and how everyone was pleased to be invited. Except this party was three years long, and Paul missed the whole thing. So how the guy who missed the ‘best party ever’ goes on to invent the Christian religion must be a heck of a story—and so it is.

St. Paul has the real ‘Road to Damascus” experience. A flash of light, thrown from his horse, confronted by the Risen Christ, and everything changes. Paul (called Saul) goes from the persecutor-in-chief to future architect of the faith in a single moment. And later, when he recounts the story, he makes it clear that more was happening in this moment than meets the eye:

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (Gal 1)

You get the sense through all of this that Paul is more surprized than anyone: more surprized than his companions on the road, more surprized than the people he persecuted, more surprized than the people in various churches who met the man then heard his story.

You might say the whole thing is absurd, and another of the ‘great reversals’ that God is famous for: persecutor joins the persecuted, cop becomes criminal, the least of all becomes the greatest of all, if we’re talking early theologians.

And it will take another early theologian, this time the great Tertullian, to summarize Paul and the event we mark today: credo quia absurdum. (“I believe it because it is absurd”) Like receiving the entire story in a single download on the Road to Damascus, finding the tomb empty is so absurd, it becomes believable.

And this, of course, leads to the embarrassment theory: If there is an element to the story that would embarrass the subject of the story, or embarrass the audience, then it’s much more likely to be true. We might call this ‘partly absurd,’ meaning a sensible author might omit embarrassing details rather than give them pride of place.

Paul could have simply pretended that he was lurking in the background, present throughout the ministry of Jesus, just taking it all in. The apostles could have disseminated the story that the body was stolen from the tomb—the final indignity Jesus’ enemies could perpetrate. Instead, they share Mary’s story, and the story of the appearances to follow, even though it drifts squarely into the absurd.

But it’s been a week of absurdities, hasn’t it?

Shouting ‘God save us’ and waving palms at a man on a donkey.
Confronting the powerful one last time (Bankers! And in the Temple!).
Organizing that a member of his inner circle do the right thing and betray him.
Dining a final time, and giving up the greatest secret of the Kingdom: (‘This is my body, this is my blood.’)
Seeing God on the cross.
Hearing God lose faith in God, for just a moment, saying ‘why have you forsaken me?‘*
The so-called ‘Harrowing of Hell,’ spending Saturday freeing the faithful from Sheol.**
And finally ascending to the Father, but not without first drying Mary’s tears.

It’s all rather absurd, but following Tertullian, ‘we believe it because it is absurd.’ And, of course, the absurdities will continue: We will will form a community not based on loyalty or fidelity but on forgiveness. We will honour God not with sacrifices but with our love. And we will focus not on the needs of kin and clan, but on our neighbour, widely defined. In every case we ignore what the world might do and do the unexpected, the unrewarded, the plainly absurd.

And it all begins with an empty tomb, Mary’s first confession of faith (“I have seen the Lord”), and the transmission of imperfect vessels beginning with St. Paul and continuing down to you and me. May God strengthen us to believe the unbelievable, and share it boldly. Amen.

*G.K. Chesterton


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