An Idle Tale

Luke 24:1-12 | 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

Jeremy Richards

Easter is arguably the most important holiday in the Christian calendar, second only, maybe, to Christmas. It’s a day of victory; the tomb is empty! Death has been defeated! We sing “Crown him the Lord of life, who triumphed or the grave, and rose victorious in the strife for those he came to save.”

But, to be honest, I always have a bit of a hard time jumping from the tragedy of Good Friday and the silence of Holy Saturday to the loud shouts and bright colors of Easter morning. I feel a bit more like the women from our story: groggy, still waking up in the dark, throwing a cloak around their shoulders to stave off the chill. These women, when they make their way to the tomb early in the morning, are still bombarded by visions of their Lord and friend, Jesus, being beaten and crucified. How many times must the images of Christ’s passion replayed in their minds between Good Friday and Easter morning?

Last Sunday, as a church, we reflected on those images by meditating on the stations of the cross that you see surrounding us. We did our best to enter into the suffering of Jesus, to see what those women saw.

On Wednesday, I went to the Grotto to pray and I noticed that they have their own stations of the cross displayed. Before going to the chapel, I thought I’d walk through their stations of the cross.

As I walked from station to station I focused on Jesus’ humanity. I remembered that he was a real, historical person. I thought about him as someone who woke up with bad breath, someone who stubbed his toes, someone you could startle if you jumped out from behind the door. I thought of him as someone who loved his family and his friends. I thought of him as someone who was hated and felt the sting of rejection. I thought of him as someone who was deserted by his friends in his moment of need. I thought of him as an innocent man being beaten, mocked, and finally crucified.

I also thought of the women from our story, who were displayed in a number of the stations comforting Jesus, as real people, like you and me. I thought of Mary – as Michelle shared last week – as a real mother, as my mother or your mother, watching her son be brutally murdered.

When you think of Jesus and his friends as real humans, like you and like me, the suffering, death, and humiliation of Christ seem almost unbearable. I can’t imagine being treated like that. I can’t imagine seeing someone I love treated like that.

It’s easy to hear the Easter story over and over, year after year and think of it as just that: a nice story. Jesus is alive! But if we stop long enough to remember that Jesus was a person like you and me, the two Marys and Joanna and the other women were people like you and me, it becomes so real…and so much harder to believe.

Imagine being the women. Imagine seeing the stations of the cross in real life. Imagine, if you can, Jesus’ broken, bleeding, lifeless body. I’ve never seen anything like that in person, thank God. But I would imagine, that if you saw that you would think, “There’s no coming back from that.” Jesus didn’t make a pretty corpse with closed eyes and a gentle smile lying in a lined coffin. He was taken down from the cross, wrapped in linen, and placed directly in the tomb. Then his friends had to wait for the sabbath to be over to come back and finish the burial process. That’s what the women are doing when our story picks up, they’re coming with spices to finish Jesus’ burial.

No wonder they’re stunned and afraid when they get to the tomb and find it empty. They saw everything I’ve just described in horrific detail. They saw Jesus’ body. Luke tells us that these very women “saw the tomb and how his body was laid” (Luke 23:55).

No wonder that even when the two angels appear to them and tell them Jesus has risen, they don’t jump up and down and start singing hallelujah. No wonder, as much as we might be inclined to judge them, the men don’t believe the women’s story. I wonder if we do? No wonder Peter, when he goes and visits the tomb, is amazed, but the text doesn’t say he believed. In fact, there is no confession of faith in our Gospel reading this morning. There isn’t even any Jesus. There’s just the empty tomb, bewilderment, the testimony of the angels, and the smallest, slightest hint of hope.

In our world today, it’s much easier to identify with Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It’s easy, I think, to believe that Jesus was beaten, suffered, and died. But to believe in resurrection now seems much harder. It may seem to us, like it did to those early disciples, to be an “idle tale,” only wishful thinking.

This past week, as many of you know, Notre Dame caught on fire, and this may seem pessimistic, but to me it felt almost emblematic of the world today.

Environmentally, multiple reports have been released claiming we have done irreparable damage to the earth. In fact, an environmentalist posted shortly after the Notre Dame fire, “To see something so beautiful and so carefully constructed damaged by forces out of your control is very painful. As a scientist who studies species that are going extinct right now, this is the feeling I grapple with more often than I’d like…we’re surrounded by burning cathedrals built across millennia and no one seems to care.”

Socially and politically, around the world there’s a rise in outright racism, xenophobia, and nationalism.

Financially, there isn’t much hope either. In an article titled “FML: Why millennials are facing the scariest financial future of any generation since the Great Depression,” writer Michael Hobbes explains that millennials have taken on 300% more student debt than their parents, they’re 1/2 as likely to own a home as young adults in 1975, 1 in 5 live in poverty, and most of them won’t be able to retire until they’re 75. He goes on to say that in the midst of all that, “the cost of every prerequisite of a secure existence – education, housing and health care – has inflated into the stratosphere. From job security to the social safety net, all the structures that insulate us from ruin are eroding.”[i]

And we can’t forget the rise in random acts of violence like school shootings and hate crimes.

Many of us – probably all of us – feel the weight of these realities in one way or another. The future doesn’t look as bright as it used to. My generation isn’t sure we’ll live to see 75, but apparently, if we do, we’ll still be working. And what will the world look like? What will creation look like?

This may all seem a bit depressing for an Easter sermon, but that’s kind of the point. There’s no Easter without Good Friday, no resurrection without crucifixion. If Easter is easy breezy, happy go lucky, then we either aren’t taking crucifixion seriously or we aren’t taking resurrection seriously. And if we aren’t taking crucifixion and resurrection seriously, then Easter becomes a cotton-candy holiday, all sugar and sweetness and no substance. No real hope. But Easter doesn’t side step the darkest of realities – death – it goes right through it.

Jesus’ resurrection is hardly mentioned in the New Testament without also mentioning his death. As much as Jesus’ victory is front and center, it’s always against the backdrop of his death. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died,” Paul says in our reading from 1 Corinthians. He mentions death twice in that one, short verse. Because the scandal of Easter, the Good News (yes, I’m getting to some good news) of Easter is that it happens out of death. The shock of station #15, Jesus’ resurrection, is precisely that it’s preceded by 14 stations that seem to make #15 impossible.

If you’re here this morning and resurrection seems too good to be true, seems to be an idle tale, then you get it. You get what Easter is about. You get that it’s about the impossible. That’s what the disciples who hear the women’s story think.

Pastor and professor Anna Carter Florence says that our Bible’s shield us from the full impact of their response. Our Bibles say that the women’s story “seemed to them an idle tale.” The word translated “idle tale” is lēros, and it’s better translated something like garbage, or drivel, or crap. It’s BS. These women return with a story of resurrection, and the disciples who spent 3 years with Jesus, who knew him best, who saw him perform all kinds of miracles, say “BS.”

That’s probably the response most people in the world today have to Easter, though they might not be rude enough to say it to us. The good news of resurrection seems laughably, almost dangerously naïve to anyone who’s paying attention to the world today.

That’s why so many people sleep in on Easter and every other Sunday. That’s why all the disciples except Peter ignore the women, roll over in their beds, and go back to sleep. That’s why Paul, writing only a decade or two after this took place, had to argue in his first letter to the Corinthians that the resurrection was real. Because every generation will find Easter unbelievable, the resurrection too good to be true.

But what if it isn’t? Can we just get there today? Maybe you aren’t ready to believe outright in Christ’s resurrection. Some days I don’t. But maybe this morning you can meet the women in the empty tomb. Maybe you can risk amazement along with Peter. Maybe you can say “maybe.” Maybe you can hope…a little bit.

Because even if we have our doubts, we can’t deny that something happened that morning. Something profound enough for most of the disciples to eventually die for, something that ignited a movement that’s now 2,000 years old. Earlier in chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians, Paul tells the Christians he’s writing to, the ones who (maybe like you and me) have a hard time really believing in the resurrection, that they can go and ask the disciples, who are still alive, who saw Jesus after the resurrection, or they could go and ask one of the “more than 500 brothers and sisters” who the risen Christ appeared to, most of whom were still alive.

Let’s just entertain the thought that maybe it is true, and if it is true, what would that mean? Anna Carter Florence, in the same interview where she talks about the translation of lēros says, “If the dead won’t even stay dead, what is there to count on? You know, if the world is so upside down that dead stuff doesn’t even stay dead, how’m I gonna live?”

If Jesus really rose from the dead, if even the broken, bloody, lifeless body of Jesus can be resurrected, filled with new life, then nothing, nothing is beyond hope. Then the earth can be renewed, creation can flourish, peace can actually be stronger than violence, love can overcome hate. If the dead won’t even stay dead, then nothing is impossible. And that might just be the scariest thing I’ve ever heard. Because, like Anna Carter Florence asks, how am I gonna live?

If the resurrection is real, then we can’t rely on the way things always have been done. We can’t write off the young and the hopeful as naïve. In fact, we have to leave behind the old ways of doing things, in order to embrace the new. Paul says in another part of 1 Corinthians, “the present form of this world is passing away,” and the risen Jesus says something similar in Revelation, “the first things have passed away…See, I am making all things new.”

Jesus, when he does appear to his followers, is often unrecognizable at first. Resurrection means change. It means a break with the old patterns. It means everything that is anti-Christ, everything that is contrary to the will of Jesus, everything that upholds the crucifiers and doesn’t liberate the crucified, everything that relies on death and violence and doesn’t drip with faith, hope, and love, is passing away. If resurrection is true, then all those old ways are already in the process of dying. That’s what Paul says in our reading from 1 Corinthians 15: “Then comes the end, when [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

If Easter is real, then we have no choice but to be audaciously hopeful, boldly optimistic. If the resurrection is real, as Paul says it is, then it means we must stop looking for the living among the dead. We must not settle for the old ways of the world characterized by division and domination, but we must believe in the new world envisioned by Isaiah, where there is a home for everyone and a place at the table for everyone, where there is no more hurt and no more destruction.

To follow Jesus, to be Easter-people, then, is to wage peace against violence, to wage love against hate, to wage hope against despair. And to do all this without fear, because through the resurrection of Jesus all things have become possible. We can follow him all the way, even if it leads us through our own stations of the cross, even if it ends in crucifixion, because the end isn’t the end.

The end is resurrection, which isn’t an end but a new beginning. There is no end. There is only life.