But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
Or as Pontius Pilate said to Jesus in his trial, ‘What is truth?’
A few days after the release of the Mueller report, these words take on another meaning. What is truth, anyway? When lies are just ‘slips of the tongue’ and we’re all hurried past with a ‘nothing to see here, move along!’ Maybe we’ll just shrug and go back to our phones. News good and bad all seems unbelievable these days.
And it seemed an idle tale, this news from the tomb on Easter morning. After all, they were just women talking.
Of course, it wasn’t just any women. It was Mary Magdalene, intimate of Jesus. It was Mary, the mother of one of Jesus’ best friends James. It was Joanna, high-ranking member of Herod’s palace household. Not the kind of women to make stuff up.
And of course, they were only saying what Jesus had said over and over himself, telling them what would happen, that he would suffer and die and after three days rise again. Jesus wasn’t the type to tell idle tales, exactly.
But an empty tomb, men in dazzling robes, saying Jesus is risen from the dead? A strange enough report for Peter to get up and go see what they might be talking about – but he saw only linen wrappings, no angels with a message. Fake news. It would take a few more encounters with Jesus before the men started to believe it. (Perhaps it is ever thus.)
But truth be told, sometimes we have a hard time believing in this resurrection stuff too.
I’ve always been struck by the vividness of the Easter morning stories in the gospels – each gospel tells it just a little differently, with different people first on the scene (though it’s always women there first), different messengers there to tell them the good news – a young man, or an angel, or two angels, or Jesus himself. But every one of the stories has a lot of running back and forth. Going to the tomb, running back from it, running to it again to see. You can feel the excitement in the stories, the thrill rippling through like an electric shock. You can sense the consternation, the upheaval, the being blown entirely out of the water, the What??? what???
Lots of scripture passages are hard to understand. But the Easter morning stories – they are easy to imagine and experience. We can feel the emotion, we can picture the scene, we can imagine ourselves into it. Everyone is so human in their reactions and behavior that it all seems pretty plausible, Jesus’ friends and followers absorbing this impossible news.
It’s just the central event – Jesus the Son of God, rising from the dead – that’s hard for us to take in sometimes. Resurrection. Is that something we can believe? Or is it just an idle tale?
Of course, you could say that resurrection is all around us all the time. It’s in the cycle of the world itself that death leads to life. We celebrate Easter in springtime and that’s exactly when it makes the most sense: when bare branches that looked so lifeless a month ago are bursting into flower and leaf, when soggy piles of dead leaves on the ground are erupting with new shoots of green. All the brown and gray has become a riot of pinks and yellows and greens. Life springs forth all around us. Of course we believe that – we see it every day. Easy to call that God, if we’re inclined to say so.
But resurrection, if it’s true, it’s also true at other times of the year. It’s true even in January, when life is still sleeping underground and the cold darkness makes it seem like spring will never happen. It’s true in the Januaries of our lives, when as the hymn says, ‘our hearts are grieving, wintry, or in pain.’ It’s true when everything is dark and every door seems shut forever. Resurrection – the life-giving God at work – is a lot harder to believe in those times.
So yes, ok, we’ve come to church on Easter morning, we hear the trumpets and see the flowers and we’re looking forward to brunch afterwards, all good. It’s all vivid and full of emotion and wonderful to take part in. But the central event, resurrection – well, we have good reasons not to believe in it, not really.
Death is a good reason not to believe, for one thing. It’s fine to talk about dead-looking branches that actually are alive, breaking out in bud in springtime. But when a person dies, someone we love, they are truly gone. If you’ve ever sat at the bedside of someone as they died, you know for certain when it’s over. They aren’t there anymore. There’s no reversing it. You can imagine how upsetting it was for Martha and Mary to see their brother Lazarus walk out of the tomb four days later. Countless zombie movies reveal our horror at the idea of a resuscitated body, the undead. The idea of a risen Jesus doesn’t make sense, let alone the resurrection of all the dead that our church creeds talk about.
Besides, to imagine resurrection is real is to allow ourselves to hope in what seems unreal – which is just not rational. Scientists tell us that our brains really are wired for pessimism, not optimism. It’s a survival skill. If we expect the worst, then we’re ready for it when it happens. But if we expect everyone to be nice to us and everything to break our way, we’ll get hurt and lose out. Even the glass-half-full people are careful with their investments when it comes to retirement savings, right? If we were all truly optimists, we’d put all our funds into lotto tickets. Instead, we’re prudent. Cautious and careful.
Of course, another word for prudence could be fear. We see danger and risk in the world around us, so we hedge our bets. Common sense tells us we should be afraid, an idea fanned into flame in our public discourse these days. The world is unsafe. They are out to get us, all the time. They want you to believe this so they can gull you into something. They are out there, and we’d better circle the wagons and build a wall and find a scapegoat to blame – because otherwise, we’re toast. Common sense mixes our metaphors and keeps us afraid.
Dead is dead; hope is irrational; the world is a dangerous place. So what are we doing here, then? Better to spend our time making money and building assets, buying things, distracting ourselves with substances and Instagram and the latest Netflix show. Being good Americans, right?
But some part of us believes that there’s more.
Perhaps because even if we’re glass-half-empty people we don’t always live in that pessimist place. We look forward to things, a visit from a friend, a cup of tea at the end of the day, the morning light after a fitful night of sleep. We’re optimistic that good things will happen sometimes. We seem to be wired that way too.
Perhaps because we do things like fall in love and make wild impulsive decisions; and we even, for God’s sake, bring children into the world – all these risky, irrational things that make us terribly vulnerable to pain and loss. We keep opening ourselves to possibilities, never mind the torpedoes. We gamble on the good.
Perhaps because we’re drawn to be with others, drawn to come in closer to a place that feels loving and welcoming and life-affirming. We’re not satisfied with the tribal rat race and hunkering down with those just like us, actually – something in us wants to step beyond that and find others to know, to transcend the petty partisanship and find actual community with actual people.
Perhaps because when we have lost someone we love, we can see that they are gone, and yet somehow it doesn’t feel that way. Because we sense them, dream about them, sometimes even see and hear them, or talk to them. They’ve died, and yet somehow, that doesn’t seem like the end of their story.
Perhaps because we know that if we don’t have hope, we can’t make the future better than things are right now. And it’s intolerable right now. We want to find hope that human beings can do better, hope that there is good and life and love in the world. We need that hope even to just get through today.
And perhaps because we are simply tired of being afraid. If there is one message that is repeated more than anything else in the Bible, it’s that we don’t have to be afraid. Don’t be afraid; don’t worry; don’t be anxious; fear not. Prophets say it, angels say it, Jesus says it. The whole news of the resurrection is one big fat ‘Don’t be afraid.’ If death is not the final word, then what is there really to fear? Nothing.
The angels ask the women who come to the tomb, Why do you look for the living among the dead? Why indeed. We seek life. We want to live. And the fake news insanity of this money-grubbing, self-serving, all-too-‘rational’ world does not give us life.
God gives life. God is the hope that sustains us, the resurrection, the salvation from all that keeps us in the grave. God is what we long for when we reach out beyond ourselves to others. God is what speaks that deep peace in our souls, in those moments when the fear and anxiety and grief leave us, even for a minute or two, and we are at rest. Yet we keep looking for that peace and wholeness in the wrong places: why do we seek the living among the dead? When the good news is just as Jesus told us, just as your grandmother used to say and today the sweet old hymns sing and the delighted face of your child shows, just as the flowers on this cross right here tell us: he is risen. Death is conquered, we are free. The truth is: life. It is no idle tale.
So celebrate this, good friends, run back and forth breathless like the disciples in the gospel stories, spread this good God news around freely. Death and politics are not the end; fear does not speak truth. Hope, love, new life prevail, resurrection is real. You came today because you needed to hear that. Now go forth and tell it to others. Jesus is risen; we are risen. Happy Easter.