Sunday, April 04, 2021

The lengths that God will go to restore community

Easter Sunday, 2021

I don't know if you noticed but once again, the Triduum landed on another holy feast: Maundy Thursday was also April Fool's Day. So during this octave of All Fooles Day, I am reminded of these sage words which come as both a proclamation and a warning: “Seeing is not believing. Our senses can deceive us.”

What? We are talking about Easter here, aren't we? Certainly!

“Seeing is not believing. Our senses can deceive us.” This is not advice that Yoda might give Luke Skywalker, but are words spoken by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in the TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. “Seeing is not believing.”

He goes on: “The cosmos … is stranger than we ever could have imagined. Light, time, space, gravity conspire to create realities which lie beyond human experience.”

He proceeds to reflect on the incredible discoveries of what the night sky has been telling us that until very recently we could not hear, let alone comprehend.

MIT physics professor Max Tegmark wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times a few years back in which he reported on what he calls “the bombshell announcement of the discovery of cosmology’s holy grail: telltale signature of ripples in the very fabric of space [from] our cosmic origins.

“If this discovery holds up,” he goes on to say, “it will go down as one of the greatest in the history of science.

“It teaches us humans that we need to think big,” he says, “because we are the masters of underestimation.”

We need to think big, because we are masters of underestimation.

I like that.

Our gathering on this Easter Day in and of itself is evidence of a ripple in the very fabric of reality. And this ripple invites us to more than think big, but to imagine and trust in the impossible. To put aside underestimation.

It all began early on the first day of the week. The women were confronted with the news, “He is not here, but has risen.” And that's where Mark's Gospel ends.

But they must have told somebody, because for one thing, we here we are today! Singing , hearing and proclaiming, and standing in awe of the power of God in the Risen Jesus.

Madeline L’Engle, who wrote A Wrinkle in Time, reflected on how God works through the impossible:

“The first of the gloriously impossible things that Jesus did was to be born — the power that created the universe come to live with us as one of us.  And now his time on earth was over, and in the eyes of the religious establishment of his day, he had failed and they had triumphed.  True, he had healed a few cripples and lepers, given sight to a few blind people, driven out a few demons; but he threatened the religious establishment and they killed him.  Or thought they did.”

This was hard new to digest. Even Jesus’ closest followers at first resisted the reports that “he is risen.” Because for all kinds of good reasons, such news was beyond their comprehension. They were still reeling from the horror and the terror of crucifixion. They were rattled, afraid, grief-stricken, demoralized, devastated -- undone.

In the months leading up to that first Easter, whenever Jesus brought up the question and manner of his death, his followers refused to accept it. The idea of death, let along crucifixion, was too much. They didn’t want to hear it. And if they could not imagine or contemplate his dying, then they would surely have tuned out any talk of resurrection.

Jesus told them -- but they could not hear it. They could not comprehend it. It was too big. It was too good to be true.

And all of the Gospels all agree on this point. Luke tells us that when they first heard the news from the women, it “seemed to them an idle tale.” You know what that means: empty talk, a silly story, a foolish yarn, utter nonsense, sheer humbug. We just heard in Mark how the women who came to the tomb could not process the news, even when delivered by angels.

Many of you here know what it’s like to live in the wake of death. You know it firsthand. It’s engulfing. We feel it in our bones. Death ripples through time and rips through our lives -- it tears us apart. We know it well, all too well.

All of Gospel accounts in the New Testament, the one from Mark this morning and all the other Gospels, were written at least 30 to 40 years after the events took place but by then the memory was well seated into the community's memory. And common to all these accounts is that no one saw it coming. They were completely blindsided by the resurrection. 

Then, as now, talk of resurrection sounds too good to be true. Too big. And even after they touched his wounds, ate with him, heard him teach the Scriptures, and watched him ascend to heaven, that memory of that initial surprise stuck with them.

Notice that public relations and spin control was not at the forefront of the minds of Jesus’ followers. You would have thought that 40 years after the events, when the Gospels were finally written down, the leadership of the early church would have ever so slightly shaped the stories to boost their own authority and legitimacy -- especially if one assumes that the original accounts were essentially fabricated in the first place. I mean, if you're going make something up as audacious as the Gospel, wouldn't you want to make yourself look good in the process? 

In today's world, it is easy to imagine Peter, James and John, for instance, going over the final edits of the accounts and proposing a rewrite something like this: “Yes, we were there on the morning of the third day, waiting for the stone to be rolled away, because he had told us it would be so! Sure enough, when the glorious news came: ‘He is risen!’ we, his closest trusted and most loyal companions, met up with him in Galilee as planned. And well, the rest is history!”

No, that’s not what happened! Not by a long shot! For whatever reason, they did not re-edit the story. Jesus’ first followers all admit that they were overwhelmed by his death -- confused, perplexed and deathly afraid.

These accounts ring true, precisely because they line up with what we know to be true about death.

It makes perfect sense that resurrection would be, on the face of it, nonsense – that the reality of it would take a while to sink in. It makes sense that it would be remembered as utterly inconceivable, unbelievable. As too big. As too good to be true. But at the same time, so undeniably true that the experience pierced through all their wonder, disbelief, and skepticism.

The apostle Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians twenty or so years after the time of Jesus, and it is the earliest written record of the resurrection we have in the New Testament. By that time, we read, it was regarded as “of first importance” in relation to the message about Jesus: that he died, was buried and was raised on the third day, and that he appeared to Peter, the 12 and then to 500 others at one time. And, Paul says, most of them are still alive, though some have died.

By that time, resurrection had become the explanation for their whole existence. Jesus’ resurrection had become the reason for hope for all who had died and will die. It had become a matter of first importance not just about Jesus but also about us -- all of us -- subject as we are to this human condition.

By then, it had become the cornerstone of the Christian message. They called it Gospel, or “good news.” The good news about Jesus, about God, about humanity, about life. The fabric of death that enshrouds all of humanity has been ripped open, and there is light. Undying light.

They understood that Christ did indeed harrow hell, because their own thinking and way of seeing and being was utterly transformed by encountering the Risen Jesus!

Before long, those early Christians had learned to think big. In Jesus, God had conspired to create a reality that until then had been beyond human experience and comprehension. There was something deeper than death. There was a love stronger than death.

I don't know if you noticed, but The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was martyred on this day 53 years ago in 1968. He once wrote about the lengths that God has gone to restore us to proper relationship with God. He says that the Christ’s incarnation is a real, practical confrontation with evil but one that does not resort to evil to overcome it. He says that the cross, in particular, is:

"...the eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to restore broken community. The resurrection is the symbol of God's triumph over all the forces that seek to block community. The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality that moves through history. He who works against community is working against the whole of creation."

What drives God’s resistance to sin and evil? Love. God’s divine (agape) love for us and for all creation. This is why King advocated non-violent resistance as the means to end injustice. Nonviolent resistance brings an end to hate by being the very embodiment of agape—God’s divine live.

The evidence of this ripple in the fabric of time -- the evidence of resurrection -- lies not in just these accounts, whether from the Gospel writers or from Paul. The evidence of the ripple of resurrection lies here with us, some 2,000 years beyond its origin.

So go ahead. Be astounded once again! And don't be afraid to "think big" – because we are now, as the disciples were then, “masters of underestimation!” In this time of strife, epidemic, and re-appraisal, allow yourself to be startled by the good news of Easter. And as you encounter the Risen Jesus, share that startling hope with everyone you meet!

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