"Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. An “idle tale.” When the women give the apostles the news of the resurrection of Jesus, that’s what the Bible says the apostles thought of it. Actually, “idle tale” is a fairly polite translation of the Greek word Luke uses. You might better say nonsense. What the apostles meant was that the women were out of their minds and their story was ridiculous on the face of it.
That is, probably, the most sensible response to the proclamation we make this Easter morning, and that those women made the first Easter morning. The claim that Jesus was killed by state-sponsored torture and then raised to new life in his body on the third day, to any normal person, sounds like nonsense.
It’s well, I think, to start on this Easter morning by recognizing that. We all know that dead bodies do not rise. But, say Mary and Joanna and Mary Magdalene today, Jesus has risen. He has been brought by God through death into a whole new kind of embodied life that he’s going to spread to everyone and everything. That’s the message, and fantastically improbable as it is, soon the apostles will have been convinced, the risen Christ will have shown himself to over 500 people at one time, the malicious skeptic Paul will have had his mind changed and begun spreading the very claim he once fought to destroy: that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and that after his execution and burial the life of the world to come invaded this world through the very molecules of his body, raising him from the dead and changing what is possible forever.
This news was not an idle tale, but it’s so hard to believe that generations of people have sought ways to turn it into one. To reduce what happened into something that is simpler and easier, more in line with what we’d prefer to think. You’ve all seen examples of that. I’d guess some of you here are in that camp yourselves, looking for some “out” which will let you enjoy the festivity and tradition of Easter Sunday without having to take a position on whether the resurrection of Jesus itself is an idle tale, or a revolutionary act of God.
I’m not going to go through all the ways people can try to make Easter easier for themselves, but I will namecheck a couple. Here’s the first: We could make sweeping assumptions about how gullible people used to be and how much smarter we are now. This is obviously falsified by the Biblical texts themselves which describe how flummoxed, panicked, and skeptical everybody was, but nevertheless, you will hear the idea bandied about that somehow men and women who lived in the first century were so childlike and naïve that they just hadn’t figured out, the poor dears, that dead people stay dead 100% of the time. And of course we know better. Well, that is absolutely absurd. First century people knew what death is, probably based on far more direct experience than most of us have. The Gospels make clear that just as we would, the women and men of the New Testament find the idea of resurrection intrinsically unbelievable.
Another way: we could theorize that the apostles agreed to spread the story that Jesus had been raised as a way of trying to continue his movement and retain their power. (Not that they had any power, if you actually read the texts, but we all like to blame things on power these days.) One does have to wonder, though, how long this scheme would have endured under torture and threats of capital punishment; I mean, really? Nobody says, “Please don’t kill me, we were just making it up,” ever? Not one person?
It doesn’t stand up once you think it through, but even more, anyone who has studied second temple Judaism knows that inventing a resurrection would not have fit their mentality anyway. Historians have documented several other Jewish messianic movements during the one or two centuries on either side of Jesus’s public career. Those movements routinely ended with the violent death of the proposed Messiah, and the adherents routinely did one of two things: they gave up and got on with their lives, or they chose a new leader. The concept of one person being resurrected now, rather than at the end of time, was inconceivable to Jews of that era. That’s a whole other sermon, but no 1st century messianic movement ever thought to claim that anybody rose from the dead – except one.
I’m only going to mention one more example of ways people try to make Easter easier. This may be the most popular. We could take this narrative and abstract it as much from its details as possible, pulling it further and further out of its Jewish and historical context until it becomes a generic, inspiring platitude nobody would really bother to challenge. There’s always hope. Or a little less generic, Jesus lives on in our memories, like every other dead person. Or again, Jesus did die, but then he went to heaven.
Any downgrading of what happened at the tomb like that would have made things so easy for the apostles, just like it does for people today. It’s almost surprising they refused to do it. If the facts of the matter had left them free to respond, ‘please understand, when we say “resurrection”, that’s a metaphor. What we really mean is that Jesus is still with us spiritually and his message will live on,’ nobody would have thrown them in prison or called them a menace to society.
The empire wouldn’t have been bothered a bit by that kind of abstraction, nor does it really offend our contemporary mentality either. You have a sense that some spiritual something is with you inspiring you, and that your soul will live on? No problem. If that works for you, awesome. Go ahead, call it Jesus! Call it whatever you like, as long as you keep it to yourself. As long as it’s interior and private and doesn’t require of you any action that challenges anything about the systems of the Roman empire -- or of course, of the American one, either.
A claim that in the risen flesh of Jesus Christ a whole new world has begun, though? Well, that’s going to be trouble. But in the words of the late John Lewis, it’s good trouble. In fact, it’s just the trouble we need. One million people have been taken from us by Covid. Champaign has seen 36 shootings so far this year. The world is watching war crimes, and not for the first time. We’re getting offered second boosters here, while just 15% of the African continent is fully vaccinated. Kids are still bullied. Women are still harassed. I could go on. How, in the face of that, can we settle for soothing ourselves with private spirituality and soft-focus inspiration?
On Good Friday, the African-American Biblical scholar Esau McCaulley wrote in the New York Times: “If a Black body can be hanged from a tree and burned, never to be restored again, what kind of victory is the survival of a soul? …. Either give me a bodily resurrection or God must step aside. He is of no use to us.”
See, you lose so much when you try to redefine Easter to make it easier. Because Christ is risen, mainstream Christianity is entitled to teach that one day the entire created world will be transformed to become what God always intended it to be: full of justice and love, freed from oppression and mourning. It can give a plausible account of how that transformation began in the flesh of Jesus Christ on Easter morning, saying that he is the prototype, the down payment, or in Biblical terms the “first fruits” of the risen life with which God will flood all creation.
God feeds us with that life in the sacraments. God sends us into the world to make good trouble as we share that life with others. But it has to have begun in the resurrection first. If resurrection didn’t happen in Jesus’ body, we can’t count on it to happen in mine or yours, or in the carbon-dioxide choked earth, or in the cynical halls of power, or in the redlined neighborhoods, or in all the bodies who have been bombed, machine-gunned, unjustly incarcerated, assaulted, dehumanized. If resurrection didn’t happen in Jesus’ body, we can’t count on it to happen anywhere. But.
Esau McCaulley already knows it. Mary and Joanna and Mary Madgalene knew it. Generations of Christians have known it. St. Paul knew it and wrote it in today’s epistle: in fact Christ has been raised from the dead and we can count on it. We can count on God to bring his new world to fulfillment. We can count on resurrection to take us through to the end. We can count on justice to be done and every tear to be wiped away, because Christ is risen. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, says Paul, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being…. [and finally will come] the end, when Christ hands over the universe to God the Father. That is not an idle tale. Amen. Alleluia.