Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Resurrection: Idle Tales? -- Lectionary Reflection for Easter C


Luke 24:1-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
24 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words,and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
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                The lectionary offers the preacher two options when it comes to the Gospel readings for Easter Sunday. You can choose from John 20 or Luke 24. John offers us an actual conversation with Jesus (Mary Magdalene). Luke on the other hand offers a heavenly message (an angelic messenger) and an empty tomb. The actual appearances in Luke begin on the road to Emmaus (in the passage following). For this Easter lectionary reflection, I’ve chosen to engage the more ambiguous Lukan account rather than John’s message.


                The central words here in Luke, I think, concern the report of the women’s encounter with the heavenly messenger at the tomb, which is received by the apostles as an “idle tale.” We could chalk up this response to a rejection of a woman’s voice, but I don’t think that’s it. My recent reading of Amy Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew has caused me to rethink the usual charge that a woman’s voice wasn’t valued in the Jewish community. The more likely cause is that the disciples simply couldn’t handle the message of resurrection that Jesus, according to Luke, had been sharing with them. In other words, the disciples were rather modern!   

                It is common today to turn the resurrection into simply a metaphor. Resurrection language doesn’t seem to fit well with our modern sensibilities. Indeed, even among Christians today there is a greater embrace of the idea of the immortality of the soul than there is of resurrection. Not only does resurrection pose scientific problems, apparently it poses theological ones as well.  Better to see the resurrection of Jesus as a dream sequence than as an actual encounter. But Paul, whose letters predate the Gospels, is pretty clear about the centrality of the Resurrection. He informs the Corinthian church, who struggled themselves with resurrection language (so it’s not just a modern thing), that “if there is no resurrection of the dead then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Cor. 15:13-14). Whatever is meant by resurrection, it stands at the center of the Christian faith. It can’t simply be pushed off to the side, as if it’s too “heavenly minded” to be of “earthly good.”

                Before I go back to Luke and his account of the resurrection, I must confess my own embrace of resurrection language. It doesn’t have to be literalistic, but it must be more than mere metaphor. In other words, if there is no survival of something—soul or otherwise—after death then where do find our good news? Ultimately, as Dale Allison so helpfully reminds us, resurrection isn’t about individual immortality. It’s about being part of the divine collective.
Resurrection isn’t about you or about me but about us, and about a kingdom. When, in the Revelation of John, the saints rise from the dead, they enter the New Jerusalem, with its twelve open gates. That means they enter a city, which by definition shelters a large collection of people. [Allison, Night Comes, p. 41].
                If we can let go of an old literalism that seems out of step with reality, we can embrace resurrection as the antithesis of Sheol—the place of the wraith-like dead. There is something here that is palpable and joyous, that is very different from Sheol. In Resurrection death meets its’s match in Jesus. So, according to Luke, on the first day of the week—the day after the Sabbath ended— “they” went to the tomb. We’re not told exactly who “they” are, except that Luke notes that it was the women—Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, along with the other women—who reported to the disciples that when they arrived at the tomb, intending to take better care of the body of Jesus that had been hastily attended to as Sabbath neared on the day of his demise, they found the stone rolled away, the tomb empty, except for these heavenly messengers. The two men dressed in dazzling clothing told them that Jesus wasn’t there, which was obvious to them, but had been resurrected, which wasn’t quite as obvious. The two men reminded the women of Jesus’ own statements about rising on the third day. The women reported this message to the apostles, but they heard it as an idle tale. They were not impressed. Indeed, they weren’t ready to believe. Now it’s not that they hadn’t ever heard about resurrection. It was a common belief among first century Jews, though not everyone was on board. The Sadducees, for one, rejected the idea of resurrection. But others, including the Pharisees and the Essenes did believe in resurrection. Jesus was clearly in the latter camp, as was Paul. Still, the disciples were puzzled. There weren’t ready to bet the farm on this report.

                It does appear that Peter was intrigued enough by the report to run to the tomb and check things out for himself. He ran to the tomb and discovered that it was in fact empty. This amazed him. It seems that he didn’t know what to make of what he found there (or didn’t find). I’m wondering what Peter saw that amazed him. There’s no account of an appearance here, though in verse 34 of Luke 24, the community responds to the report from the two disciples who had encountered Jesus on the way to Emmaus, by suggesting that Simon (Peter) had encountered the risen Christ. So maybe what amazed Peter was that encounter.

                David Hume’s rejection of resurrection is based on personal experience. He had never encountered a person who had been dead and now was alive, so he was skeptical about the biblical reports. Why should he trust them? Why should we? Well, Peter seems to have a bit of Hume within him, at least until he ran to the Tomb. Something changed after that visit to the tomb. 

                Resurrection is a mystery, and yet it is the central mystery of the faith. Thus, we must attend to its voice, and embrace its call to life. In the words of John of Damascus (8th Century CE)
                Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth its song begin!
                                the world resound in triumph, and all that is therein;
                let all things seen and unseen their notes of gladness blend;
                                for Christ the Lord has risen, our joy that has no end. 
                                       ["The Day of Resurrection," Chalice Hymnal, 228, v. 3] 

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