So the women came running in with a story that Jesus was risen.
Admittedly, the story must have been a bit garbled. It’s not that they’ve seen him, they’ve seen, more to the point, where he isn’t. The stone rolled away – more, I imagine, to allow the women to see the evidence of where Jesus wasn’t, than as a means of exit for the Risen One himself who, as the following days will reveal, has become remarkably good at sudden entrances and exits. They’ve seen where Jesus isn’t – the empty tomb which all four gospels emphasise as the ground zero of resurrection faith. Something has happened here.
They’ve seen where Jesus isn’t, and they’ve heard some startling news. Two messengers in white, Luke wants us to notice, probably because in the law of the land at the time, two witnesses make a case.
But the apostles, the ones on whom it all depends now, the founding fathers of our faith, wouldn’t have a bar of it. Hysterical nonsense, wishful thinking.
There’s a tension, isn’t there, between hope and realism. No doubt, here, the disciples are being realistic. They’ve seen the evidence, Jesus is as dead as a door-nail. No point holding onto a dream once it’s been punctured. It was good while it lasted, the heady days of walking and dreaming in Galilee, the mind-twisting tales of widows and shepherds and landowners, the idealistic stories about God’s kingdom in which beggars are lifted up and rich folk turned away, the meals with simple folk, the arguments with cunning priests and lawyers, the luminous moments of healing and forgiveness. But when a dream’s gone, you still need to get up the next day and earn a living. Realists take the world as it is and try to work out how to manage it.
Hope begs to differ. Hope puts the dream first, and wonders how reality can be changed to make it happen. Hope leaps at possibilities and puts two and two together to make five. What if it just could be true?
Realism interrupts again to suggest it might just be a metaphor, a holy paradigm for imagining the possibility of success after failure, for imagining restoration after disgrace – and it’s true. The resurrection of Jesus is a mighty metaphor – but it needs to be a whole lot more than that if it’s to have any traction.
Why Jesus, in the first place? Why this human figure, in this time and place, this particular young man who loved to eat and drink, who loved telling stories, who was moved by human suffering and tenderness? Why didn’t God just inspire a few more prophets write a few more books of the Old Testament to tell what God was like, to tell about God’s outrageously indiscriminate forgiveness and love? It’s because we are human, because the only real way we have of learning about the really important stuff like compassion and tenderness is by experiencing it in our bodies, in the physicality of the lives we share with one another. The Hebrew Bible knows this very well, in Hebrew there’s no way of separating emotion or spirituality from embodied experience. We can only really learn what God is like by encountering the one who shows us God’s nature in human flesh and blood.
And that’s why, if you want to grasp the wild straw of hope that the empty tomb and two scary men dressed in dazzling white send rushing through you – hope isn’t hope if it’s just a metaphor. Too much of who we are is experienced at the level of our bodies, too much of what is really important in our relationships with one another is earthy and physical. Hope this visceral and this wild needs to be grounded in the physical, in the realm of lived experience.
What’s really happening, here? For a start, this is utterly consistent with the extravagant and slightly ridiculous God of the parables and deeds of Jesus. Again and again we are confronted with a generous, ‘over-the-top’ God. A God who doesn’t know when to stop, when enough is enough, when things are beyond hope.
If the Gospel story has been telling us anything, it’s this: Get ready for a God who does the unexpected and the ultra-extravagant thing. Don’t try to confine God to our little human notions of what seems like common sense; break out from what seems reasonable. God is unreasonably extravagant, gloriously unpredictable. The holy, saving nonsense of God is mightily at work at Easter!
This is the heart of the Easter message. Unpredictable and prodigious. Now is Christ raised from death, the first fruits of the harvest of the dead.
It’s OK not to be to sure about how all this works. It’s OK to notice, as St Paul does, that the resurrection body must be wildly different from the sort of bodies we have here and now, that resurrection isn’t just the resuscitation of Jesus’ wounded and broken body but transformation into an entirely new kind of life – in fact the evidence for resurrection is not really the empty tomb or even the shadowy and not-very realistic gospel accounts of the post-Easter appearances – the real evidence is the transfiguration of Jesus’ stunned and traumatised followers, the visceral experience of transformation by those who even today dare to report that they have encountered the risen Christ.
So, what does it mean? It’s the triumph of hope over realism. The announcement that here and now, God’s logic and God’s way of doing things has broken into human history. The logic of hope that says God intends God’s creation not for death, but for life. The already but still-waiting-for-it triumph of self-giving love over despair, the issuing of a blank cheque that just needs us to countersign it, to cash it in and bring it into the here and now.
But what does it really mean? You hardly need me to tell you, you can look around and see for yourself the bad news of realism in the world we live in. Does it actually look as though death and despair are on the way out? The dreary bad news we’ve got so used to living with that we almost accept it – global conflict spurred by religious fundamentalism and competition for resources – the AIDS pandemic that threatens the future of an entire continent – global warming, loss of arable lands and shrinking water resources that threaten the poorest of the world’s poor – loss of biodiversity and mass extinctions – where’s the good news?
The good news is that we’re resurrection people. The good news is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ teaches us to face the future with hope, that God can and does reach into the deepest well of despair to draw out of it new life, new directions, new and transformed ways of living. That doesn’t absolve us from responsibility or from the practice of peace in our own lives. It does mean that we can place the future in God’s hands, that we can live in the expectation of being surprised, it means that we can and we must take our part in healing our environment – as God’s people we need to take seriously our responsibility for caring for God’s creation. Go green – dare to imagine a future in which the
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is stunning. It changes everything. I don’t know why we don’t talk about it all the time – in fact, let’s! Because it’s a down payment – God is saying to each one of us – this is how much I love you – this is what I intend for you. God doesn’t do resurrection as a party trick – it’s not rabbit-out-of-the-hat stuff just to impress us or just to prove that Jesus really was who he said he was – it’s a down payment – it’s the first instalment of what God intends for every one of us.
Let’s live as though we believe it.