Scripture passage: Luke 24:1-12
I received an email this week from someone who is struggling with the suspicion that the good news of the gospel is nothing more than an idle tale. “Believers proclaim the grace of God,” he says, “yet our soldiers are dying in Iraq. Students get shot in schools. Hatred seems to exist the world over. Adults in positions of trust abuse and take advantage of children.” “Worst of all,” he adds, “are the many instances of people claiming Biblical or religious authority to declare themselves righteous and others rejected.”
His observations are legitimate. Nor can we criticize the male disciples, who heard the women’s story of an empty tomb and angelic messengers and thought, “Body missing? Risen from the dead? That doesn’t make sense. It’s an incoherent story stemming from their grief.” The proclamation that God is at work does not always line up with our past experience of the realities of this world. Easter affirms, however, that those who seek WILL be met by the grace of God, and that God stands ready to give us the gift of faith.
Just in case the women were accurately describing what they saw and understood, Peter ran to the tomb. He ran because of his great love for Jesus. He ran because of all that Jesus had shared with him and the other disciples, and all that they had witnessed during the course of their months and years together. He ran because the women’s news, if true, could change everything. Maybe all hope was not lost. Maybe he did not have to give up on having joy and purpose and meaning in his life.
Rachel Levy’s experience offers a contemporary parallel of what happened to the disciples, as well as a mirror for our own doubts and longings. Rachel has written a book subtitled, “The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith in Difficult Times.” In this book she describes how her father was brutally murdered in a random mugging, when she herself was just 15 years old.
Before this horrible event, religious ritual was something Rachel shared with her father and found to be affirming, beautiful, and filled with love. When she lost her father, her faith was shattered. “I resented my religion for tempting me with lies,” writes Rachel. “I hated God for abandoning me. The all-powerful God I had always believed in no longer seemed compatible with the tragic reality I now faced.”
For several years, Rachel lived with this anger and hurt. Then, when she got to college, a strange thing happened. She took a poetry class, and she became enthralled with the poems of a man who wrote openly about traditional religious symbols, about doubt, about the cruelties of the world, and about the questions he would like to ask God. For the first time, she realized that there might be room for dialogue, discussion, paradox, and even protest within faith.
“I started to study the Bible in a new way,” remembers Rachel, “reading it not as divine dictation, but as metaphor. It became a way for me to understand the most basic human instincts, a path toward deepening my connection to God, and toward uniting me with other people and with history. I now saw God not as a force who could control my fate or shield me from all harm, but as a presence who has the power to point me toward the holy which resides in the world and, potentially, in our actions.”
Other realizations about God included that God is compassionate, not distant and unfeeling, and that God suffers when we suffer. Rachel began to look to God not to prevent ugliness, but to give her strength to carry on in the face of ugliness. She was looking to God to teach her how to prevent any cruelty that she had the power to prevent, looking to God to show her the way to behave with compassion and honesty. “My dreams for the future, were resurrected,” she says. “My faith, redefined, was also resurrected!”
Perhaps the disciples, too, had to redefine their faith. Jesus was not going to keep doing God’s work for them; Jesus was going to give them the power (and the Spirit) to do God’s work themselves. Jesus was not going to wave a magic wand and make all sorrow and suffering disappear; he was commissioning them to keep seeking and keep living God’s kingdom. Jesus, in his death, was not leaving them alone in a harsh and empty world; he was coming to life for them, and for the world, in a new and more powerful way.
Peter ran to the tomb, and was amazed. Jesus, yet again, as he had been when he taught the eager crowds, when he healed all those who reached out to him, when he fed the multitudes, when he forgave sinners… Jesus, yet again, was the catalyst for a whole new understanding of God, and how God works in our lives and in the world. Peter was amazed, and it took him a while to find his new footing. He went back home. He let some more time pass. But eventually, Peter himself began to speak and heal and proclaim God’s word in powerful ways, demonstrating that what Jesus did for us, we can do for others. We can not only believe, but LIVE as if God is real and present, thus inviting others into their own life-giving relationship with God.
In truth, we choose whether the love of God is going to be an idle tale, or a transforming, sustaining reality in our lives. We choose whether to focus on the goodness and beauty in the world, and try to expand on it, OR to fixate on all that is bad and wrong in the world and become paralyzed and embittered by it. No question, there are plenty of grounds for despair, but HOPE is an equally valid choice (Christ is risen!) and leads to a more fruitful and enjoyable life. I am indebted to the mother of a little girl named Lucy for this insight.
Lucy was born in China. Not long after her birth, Lucy’s original mother wrapped her in a quilted purple jacket and left her on the side of a road. The road was well-traveled and led to an orphanage. The baby was found, taken to the orphanage, and within a few weeks was adopted by Virginia, who came from the United States to get Lucy.
Virginia brought Lucy home and made a decision. Purple was not going to be the color of rejection and abandonment. It was going to be the color of love, planning, prayer, and hope. The story Virginia tells as often as necessary is that the purple jacket meant Lucy’s birth mother cared deeply for her and wanted her to be warm and protected. The purple jacket was carefully placed to be noticeable, so that it would carry Lucy to her new life. Purple conveyed trust that Lucy’s new mother would also love her and do everything in her power to care for her.
Virginia reinforces the purple-colored continuity of devotion Lucy in simple, every-day actions. “May Lucy have a purple balloon?” she asks, when a celebratory procession passes through her neighborhood. The resulting gift is tied to the stroller, so that Lucy can see before her the buoyant symbol of courage and be glad that love has held her all her life.
Walter Olson also made the choice to claim to promises of faith. When Walter was in his early eighties, he went to a nursery and bought a seedling walnut tree. Some young men in their twenties observed the transaction and snickered to one another, “Look at that foolish old man. He’ll never sit under his walnut tree.” Walter overheard their comment and thought it was very funny. He recounted the incident often to his friends, with no embarrassment whatsoever, because he was fully confident that the future would not come to an end when he died. Someone else would one day sit under the walnut tree and that would be Walter’s gift to them. The young men could believe the truly idle tale that our lives are “only about us” if they wanted to, but Walter knew better. Wisdom gained from experience (of God and of the world) had taught Walter that what we do for others is what really matters. Peter ran to the tomb and was amazed. The body was gone! Only some linen wrapping remained! Maybe the women’s report was NOT such a silly story! The possibilities were electrifying If Christ was risen, then God was still with them and doing a new thing, as God’s prophets and messengers had so often promised..
God’s power for life is greater than death! Grief and suffering and loss are NOT the last word. Joy returns, along with strength and purpose and hope. Peter and the disciples cannot give up on the world after all, because God is still in it. God is still for the world, loving it and moving it toward wholeness and health, justice and peace.
We can choose to focus only on our doubts and skepticism, our hurts and resentments, and thus prevent ourselves from making discoveries. Or, like Peter, we can run to the tomb on the outside chance that our gracious God really is full of surprises. We may not find Jesus where we expected to find him, but that would be all to the good. Christ is not bound by our old conceptions, or limited by our restricted views. Christ is now everywhere in the world, continuing to suffer when any one of us suffers, and continuing to lead the way to new life.
Christ’s resurrection is no idle tale. It is an event which has been and continues to be experienced in the lives of all kinds of people, giving them new and deepened faith, granting them literal new beginnings and second chances in life, and sustaining them with joy at every point along their life journey. The empty tomb (where Jesus was buried but no longer remains) is directly related to the fullness of our lives. For this, we can give heartfelt thanks to God.
Not long ago, I attended an assembly at my daughter’s school, and one of the teachers suggested to the children that, since spring has arrived, now is the time to ask the flowers, “Where does your color come from?”
“Where does your color come from?” I would like to suggest that, not only for the flowers, but for all of us, our color, our zest for life, our hope, our zeal to bring about justice and act with kindness, our ability to survive and bloom and do what rightly needs to be done, comes from the love of God, continually being poured out in our lives.
I invite us now to pray and sing together.
“Oh, How He Loves You and Me”