Is the Resurrection an Idle Tale? - Lectionary Reflection for Easter Sunday C (Luke 24)

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.

            When it comes to Easter Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary offers the preacher two different Gospel readings. There is John 20, where we find the risen Jesus having an actual conversation with Mary Magdalene. This is a powerful story because it highlights Mary's role as a witness to the resurrection, making her the first apostle. The option is Luke 24, which offers us a heavenly message delivered by an angelic messenger, along with an empty tomb. The risen Jesus doesn't make an actual appearance in the Gospel of Luke until we get to the story of Jesus' appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). In this lectionary reflection for Easter Sunday, I'm focusing on the more ambiguous account in Luke. 

              Here in Luke, early in the morning, as the sun is rising in the east, on the first day of the week (Sunday) women come to the tomb, planning on completing their work in preparing Jesus' now dead body to reside in the tomb. When they get to the tomb, they discover that the stone is rolled away and the body is missing. However, they do encounter two men whose clothing is dazzling. They are terrified by this situation. This isn't what they expected to find. For their part, the two men (heavenly messengers) ask the women: "Why do you look for the dead among the living?" Then they proceed to remind the women that Jesus had told them in Galilee, that the Son of Man would die on a cross and then rise on the third day. Don't you remember? Of course not? But then the male disciples didn't remember either because they received the word from these women as an idle tale. It's possible that we could chalk up the response of the male disciples to a rejection of a woman’s testimony, but is that really the issue here? Could it be that the disciples simply couldn't comprehend the magnitude of this event? After all, resurrections like that of Jesus weren't everyday experiences. So, could it be that the disciples were really rather modern?   

              It is commonplace today, especially in my circles, to turn the resurrection into a metaphor. Resurrection language doesn’t seem to fit well with our modern sensibilities. Indeed, many contemporary Christians are more likely to embrace the idea of an immortal soul or even reincarnation than bodily resurrection. Not only does resurrection pose scientific problems, but apparently it poses theological ones as well. It's 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). When it comes to the resurrection body, according to Paul it's a spiritual body not a body of flesh and blood. That doesn't mean the resurrection body doesn't have material substance, but it's different from what we experience now In part that is because the spiritual body, according to Paul, is imperishable (1 Cor. 15:50-53). Since, according to Paul, the resurrection is of first importance, it can't be pushed off to the side. 

                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 a mere metaphor. In other words, if something doesn't survive death—soul or otherwise—then where do we find our good news? How does death lose its sting (1 Cor. 15:55)? 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 the 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 the 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.

              Nevertheless, Peter was intrigued enough by this report to check it out for himself. So, according to Luke, Peter runs to the tomb. When he gets there he also discovers an empty tomb. He also is amazed by what he finds. He doesn't seem to know what to make of what he finds there, so after he looks, he returns home. Luke doesn't tell us exactly why Peter was amazed. Was it the emptiness of the tomb or something else that goes unreported? Luke doesn't suggest a heavenly presence, it's just amazement. When we get to the return from Emmaus of the two disciples, there is the suggestion in verse 34 that the Lord had appeared to Simon 

             One of the most famous modern responses to claims that Jesus was resurrected came from  David Hume. He rejected this idea because it wasn't part of his personal experience. Because he had never encountered a person who had been dead and now was alive, 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. However, 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

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; 

or Christ the Lord has risen, our joy that has no end. 
                   ["The Day of Resurrection," Chalice Hymnal, 228, v. 3] 

 Benozzo, di Lese, 1420-1497. Women at the Tomb, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved April 9, 2022]. Original source:


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