Monday, April 5, 2010

Idle Tale - Easter 2010

Luke 24:1-12 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again." 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Idle Tale \Lk 24 11
Luke 24:1-12 (message)
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 (call to worship)
Isaiah 65:17-25
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
 
The Resurrection Bunny . . . a joke.
 
Today, I want to focus on one line in Luke’s gospel account: "But these words seemed to them an idle tale". The women come back from the tomb having seen two men in gleaming clothes and they report, "He has risen!" "But these words seemed to them an idle tale." This phrase, our focus, is a negative statement. We’ll follow the negative path and see what it reveals to us, positively, about resurrection, specifically about Jesus’ resurrection.

First of all, negatively, we discover something about how women were viewed in the first century. Women were considered unreliable witnesses, not trustworthy. Did the male disciples respond out of the gender roles of their culture? Quite possibly. Most women today have had the experience of being ignored by a man, only to have that man listen to another man who said the exact same thing the woman said. So maybe we aren’t that enlightened after all, though I would maintain that the first century cultural context predisposed people to distrust women’s witness way more than we do today.

Interestingly, by the time the church began to standardize its story telling of resurrection, the women began to disappear from the retelling. Though from a cynical standpoint, we might wonder about the dominant role and voice of men in the early church, from a practical standpoint, mentioning the women’s witness would be even less valuable than having Dale Earnhardt Junior endorse soccer apparel. But in every one of the four gospel accounts, women are the first witnesses, the first apostles.

This dynamic – the historical development of the story and the way the story is told – tells us something remarkable about the gospel account of Jesus’ resurrection. It tells us, positively, that this story and those of the other three gospel accounts, had to be of very early origin, not made up years later. They show no signs of editing to fit the culture. In addition, they show no signs of commentary either theological or Scriptural. The stories are presented raw – because they capture the unexpected and powerful nature of what happened: Christ is Risen!

So, first of all, negatively, women’s witness was not trusted. And, positively, we have one more piece of historical evidence that the gospel accounts are of very early origin and that they exist as they do because they describe something truly extraordinary.

Second, negatively, we realize that none of the disciples expected that Jesus would rise from the dead. Back to the historical objections that are raised, some folks say that the disciples wanted Jesus to live so much that they saw visions, saw ghosts, whatever . . . and concluded that Jesus was risen. But that makes no sense in the story: They did not expect Jesus to rise and, they considered the very idea to be nonsense.

In the ancient world, there was no Ghost Hunter TV show, but there was familiarity with a variety of spiritual connections beyond death, particularly for those who are recently bereaved. But there was no expectation of resurrection. Once you were dead, you were dead. The body didn’t come back. The Jews were the only people who believed in resurrection, and not even all Jews did. And, for those who looked forward to resurrection, it was something that would happen in the last days, at the climax and destiny of history, to God’s righteous ones, all at once. No one, in their wildest imagination, thought that resurrection would happen to one person before it happened to everyone else. It just doesn’t happen. No wonder "these words seemed to them an idle tale."

But Christ is risen! Positively speaking, if it is not an idle tale, if the disciples are so resistant to believing this, if it falls so far outside their craziest dreams, then it must be a game changer. It is that last minute steal and three point play to turn a one-point lead into an insurmountable four-point lead with 5 seconds to play. It’s game over, for death. It’s game over, for a world dominated by decay. It’s game over, for injustice. It’s game over, for futility.

From time to time, someone will ask for my considered opinion as a pastor: "Are these the end times?" My answer is, "Christ is Risen!" We’ve been living in the end times for 2000 years! On the cross, Jesus cries out, "It is finished". The Greek root, "telos", in the gospel account is a root for "end", "fulfill", "last". Jesus, at his death, has finished his portion of the work not just of our salvation but of the redemption of this entire world. We may be familiar with some of the implications for "kingdom come", but Jesus taught us to pray "your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Christ is Risen! And, his kingdom has broken decisively into the kingdoms of this world, like the Normandy beachhead, and victory is now assured. So, what are some of the implications for here and now? For life on earth?

Let’s take two other Scriptures that we have before us this Easter. One is the prophet Isaiah declaring the word of the LORD, "I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth" (Isaiah 65:17-25). It sounds remarkably like a quote from the Revelation, which will be the focus for our message series through Eastertide. But it is also what Jesus decisively accomplished in his death and resurrection – the inbreaking, the creation of a new world in the middle of the old one. And, we have the words of the apostle Paul, "As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:19-26).

So, one implication is for the creation: In a world in which we worry over species extinction, argue about global warming, and watch movies with asteroids and aliens destroying the planet . . . In such a world, God is already at work making a new earth and a new heavens. In that world, death has been destroyed, peace is in control, and our labor is not in vain. And, while the last enemy to be destroyed is death, we can live in this new world even now, in certain hope of Jesus’ victory. Christ is Risen! Therefore, Jesus – not death, not injustice – is Lord of this world.
Another implication is for the human future. Philosophers and science fiction writers alike imagine the post-human, the impact of cybernetics, of machines that are smarter, stronger, and better than their creators. But no one can hold a torch to the biblical idea of the resurrection body, a body that theologian N. T. Wright refers to as "trans-physical" (Surprised by Hope, pp 43-44).

And, another implication, referred to by both Isaiah and Paul, is for our life at work. We all know what it is like to spend a day making three steps forward and two steps back, or two forward and three back. We know what futility feels like. But Isaiah declares, "They shall not labor in vain". And Paul writes, at the end of his extended reflection on resurrection, "Your labor in the Lord is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:57). Imagine that in your work as tax accountant, salesman, nurse, mechanic, manager, executive, clerk. No matter how frustrating, no matter how futile . . . your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

Secondly, on the negative side, no one among the disciples expected Jesus to be resurrected. Why? It just didn’t happen, unless it happened at the end of history. So, the fact that Christ is Risen is a game-changer, for history itself, for the creation, for the human race, even for our work day.

In the coming weeks, we’ll continue to explore these themes through the book of the Revelation, a book that focuses on the revealing of Christ the Resurrected One.

[Source: Particularly on the historical development of the gospel accounts of resurrection, on the ancient world’s view of death/spirits/resurrection, see N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope.]

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