Monday, May 02, 2011

A Dubious Rising

Matthew 28:1-17
by Daniel Harrell

How many of you were up early for the Royal Wedding on Friday. Tea and scones? We had it on DVR. And yet it was somewhat troubling to enjoy since at the same time I had in my hand a newspaper with all of those horrible pictures of tornado devastation from Alabama. Hundreds dead and thousands homeless. On the one hand the morning media obsession with the royal wedding almost to the exclusion of the tornadoes’ destruction seemed so inappropriate. And yet on the other hand, as I listened to the gathered congregation sing hymns in the majestically soaring Westminster Abbey, built to anticipate heaven, and heard the Archbishop of Canterbury intone those ancient words of Scripture and prayer, all designed to remind us of how marriage is founded on faith and modeled after our relationship with Jesus—for better or worse—and how this event carried for so many the symbol of so much hope for new life and the future, just as our own faith in the resurrection carries our hope for new life and the future—and knowing Southerners as I do, that even in tornado-torn Tuscaloosa, those that could have would have found a way to catch a glimpse of the dress to lighten their sadness just a bit—maybe the troubling tension we felt is similar to the tension we’re supposed to feel between this fallen world and the real world to come.
I told a story not too long ago of a university chaplain whose daughter Amy, a freshman at the university, was tragically killed. As parents, the chaplain and his wife were tortured with grief. Amy had sung in the University Chapel Choir. The choir members, distraught themselves, nevertheless insisted they sing at Amy’s funeral. In order to assist them with their grief, and to prepare them for their funereal performance, the University Health Services sent over a grief specialist who assured them of the necessity of their sorrow and encouraged them that their grief-work was progressing right on schedule and that really, it was good to grieve and accept death. At the funeral, however, the students in the University Chapel Choir (never ones to respect authority) stood and sang defiantly, raucously from the Easter portion of Handel’s Messiah: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive!” According to the inconsolable chaplain, Jesus showed up that day and death slinked off campus, his great victory party ruined by a choir, that while it could not refuse death, could refuse to fear it or revere it.

It was a compelling testimony to the power of resurrection hope. Many in my congregation were moved when I first shared the story. However, someone also walked up and asked whether it really happened. What kind of question was that? OK, so preachers are known to embellish at times, but c’mon, “did it really happen…” I don’t know… It should have!
Afterwards I wondered, do things actually have to happen to be true? We read the parable of the Prodigal Son and take for granted it was just a story. But the grace about which it teaches is true. Can the same be said about the resurrection? A few years ago the Discovery Channel reported the finding of Jesus’ bones. It made a big splash. Yet they forgot to mention that these bones had in fact been discovered back in 1980. Why did it take more than 25 years to make the news?  Because it wasn’t news. The burial cave wasn’t extraordinary and the names on the bone boxes were very common for that period. That they echoed the names of the Holy Family was purely coincidence.

But what if they had found Jesus’ bones? There are plenty who wouldn’t have been surprised. People don’t rise from the dead. Some say what really happened was what Matthew himself reports: Jesus’ enemies had the disciples swiping Jesus’ body and orchestrating what would’ve turned out to be the biggest hoax in world history—a remarkable feat given how dim-witted the Gospels persistently portray this bunch. Others insist that Jesus never really died on the cross, but only passed out. Buried in an unconscious state, he came to three days later and pushed aside a 2000-pound rock. There’s the Mirage Theory (everybody was hallucinating together at the same time), the Mislocation Theory (they had the wrong tomb), and even one that has Jesus being eaten by dogs, sort of a “Lost Homework” theory.

Postmodernists assert that such explanations are only necessary for people stuck in limited Enlightenment mindsets bound by their need for empirical verification. Things don’t actually have to happen in order to be true. There’s plenty of significance that eludes scientific scrutiny. That’s fine, but I’m still not sure why anybody would want to be a Christian if Jesus is still lying out in some Jerusalem graveyard. I tend to side with the apostle Paul on this one. If Christ was not actually raised from the dead, then Christians are basically just a bunch of idiots.

Not that some of us aren’t idiots already. I got an email from that university chaplain’s office after posting the story about the death of his daughter. Someone had read my sermon online and called to offer their condolences. The email read, “Our university chaplain does not have a daughter who was killed. In fact, he does not have a daughter named Amy. Was wondering where you did your research for this?”

Uh, research?

OK, some things actually do have to happen to be true. Still, many Christians in church on Easter doubt the resurrection ever happened. Most Christians as it turns out. According to one recent poll, 54% of professing Christians do not believe the thing that makes Christianity, Christianity. Is this surprising? Not necessarily—not when you read this passage from Matthew’s gospel.

Most of it you’re familiar with. Women go to the graveyard early in the morning to pay their respects. Earthquake. Angels. The massive stone covering the tomb removed. Nobody’s home. The macho guards? They’ve fainted. The ladies? They’re cool. A little freaked out, but holding it together. The angels ask the ladies what they’re doing in the graveyard: “Jesus isn’t here. He has been raised, just like he told you.” The angels send the bewildered women off to preach the first Easter sermon—no small thing in a culture where women were decidedly second-class. No self-respecting ancient author looking to invent a best-selling gospel would have included women so prominently. On their way they bump into Jesus. They grab his feet. I guess they didn’t want him getting away again.

Jesus tells them not to be scared. He reiterates the angels’ instructions: “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee.” In Galilee, they all meet Jesus on a mountain, since in Matthew’s gospel all the really important stuff happens on mountains. “The disciples worshipped him,” Matthew writes, but then somewhat surprisingly adds, “some doubted.” That’s a line you may not have remembered.

Now, to be fair, each of the gospels has its doubters; the most famous being Doubting Thomas. In John’s gospel, Jesus popped in on the hiding disciples to gave them the good news of his resurrection in person. But Thomas was out getting groceries or something. He refuses to believe what the others report unless he sees for himself. So the risen Jesus pops in again and tells Thomas to check it out: “See my hands. Poke your finger in my side. Stop doubting and believe.” There’s no record that Thomas ever sticks his finger in Jesus’ side but he does believe. Jesus responds, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” A clear message for the rest of us.

In Matthew’s gospel, however, we get a different kind of doubter. The disciples who doubt aren’t the ones out getting groceries, but the ones looking at the risen Jesus standing right in front of them. Perhaps not wanting to embarrass anybody, Matthew doesn’t name names. And I should add that Matthew’s word for doubt is different from the one used for Doubting Thomas. Thomas’ doubt was outright disbelief whereas what we have here is more akin to hesitation. But still, why the hesitation? It is a little embarrassing. Since the next verse says that Jesus “came to them,” maybe they hesitated because Jesus was still far away—though not so far away that they failed to recognize him enough to worship him. Maybe “the some” who hesitated were not some of the disciples, but some hangers-on who had yet to get with the program--except that Matthew specifically says “the eleven.” Maybe Matthew’s pen slipped? He meant to write “believed” and mistakenly wrote “doubted”? Heck of a slip. Basic Bible translation guidelines insist that the harder the passage, the more likely it is to be original since some later copyist would have already tried to fix it.

But why fix it? I say leave it like it is. If the disciples can have post-resurrection doubts with Jesus standing right in front of them, then why any reservations of our own are nothing? If the disciples hesitate to believe when they see Jesus, then the rest of us who struggle to believe sight unseen are home free. How do I know? Because in the ensuing verses Jesus sends out his doubting disciples to make more disciples. “Go and baptize people in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit and teach them to obey everything I taught.” How about that? Jesus doesn’t say, “OK guys, let’s deal with this doubt thing first. I can’t send you out to start a major world religion if you’re not sure of it yourself!” No, the disciples doubt and Jesus says “go spread the good news!”

Doubt has never been a problem for Jesus. The only problem is when doubt becomes an excuse. Every now and then I’ll get into a conversation with someone considering Christianity that goes something like this. I’ll ask, “Why don’t you just believe in Jesus?” The person I’m ask will start listing hesitations: “I’m not a good enough person yet,” or “I want to get my life in order before I start getting serious about God,” or “I don’t want to be a hypocrite,” or “I haven’t read the Bible cover to cover yet, you know, done the research,” or “I need more proof,” or “I’m waiting until I get married and have kids,” or “what if the story’s not true? The last thing I want to do is believe something that could be wrong. I’ve got to figure these things out.”

But Jesus never showed up to anybody who had everything figured out. He never showed up to anybody who had their life in order. If you’ve already got it all together, Jesus is probably not for you. And he’s probably not for you if you’re a good enough person either, whatever that means. Jesus is for people who’ve got nothing together, whose lives are a mess and who have every doubt in their ability to be good on their own.

Doubt has never been a problem for Jesus. To him, it’s not the amount of faith that matters as much as the direction in which it’s pointed. If a mustard seed’s worth of faith will move a mountain, then obviously it takes a whole lot less to save your soul, as long as you’re aiming at Christ. The only other time this word for doubt gets used in the Bible is earlier in Matthew. It’s where Peter tries to walk on water after seeing Jesus do it. After a couple of steps toward Jesus, Peter freaks and starts to sink. He screams out, “Lord save me!” and Jesus stretches out his hand and saves him. “Why’d you doubt?” Jesus asked. Peter’s like, “Why do you think?” And then they get back in the boat. Later, Peter really makes a mess of things but still gets named chief of the church. That says something too.

Jesus is probably not for anybody who can walk on water by themselves. Jesus is for doubters and fearers and strugglers and sinkers and losers and grievers like you and me. People like those who attended that university woman’s heartbreaking funeral. That’s right, it happened. I did my research this time. A young woman named Amy was tragically crushed and killed by a bus. And yes, her parents and classmates were devastated. And yes, the University Health Services sent over a goofy grief specialist whom the choir ignored as, yes, they defiantly sang “Hallelujah!” in the face of death.

Only the young woman who died was not the chaplain’s daughter. I got that part wrong. Unlike Matthew, my pen did slip. Nevertheless, the university chaplain was present. He was there, he saw what happened. Just like the women in the graveyard that first Easter morning saw what happened. Just the like the disciples who encountered Jesus atop that mountain but couldn’t believe their eyes. And just like the billions of believers ever since who’ve been pulled out of the water by encounters with a risen Christ they’ve never seen with their eyes—including the survivors of horrible tornadoes who I guarantee you are in churches this morning, along all those who help them in Christ’s name. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe,” Jesus said. And blessed are those who doubt too.

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