Witnesses of These Things

A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont

April 15, 2018 (Third Sunday of Easter)
Text: Luke 24: 36-49

I was having breakfast with a friend of mine this week, a colleague at the college, and the subject of church came up. My friend grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, but he doesn’t associate with his religion anymore. “Someday you and I need to have a conversation about this church thing,” he said to me. “I have to admit that I’ve distanced myself from that stuff in my middle age. I guess I’m too much of a scientist; I need things to be empirically validated to believe them. I’d love to talk to you about how you keep religion and the life of the mind together.”

Many of us have had similar conversations; some of us have had them with ourselves. We’re not always sure we buy all of the things read and mentioned and claimed here at church. What do we do with the disconnect between the assertions of the faith and the requirements of the critical mind?

As is my practice, I had looked at the text early in the week as I prepared to preach today, so both my friend’s words and its words were swirling together for many of the past several days. Frankly, this is the Christian season that brings this question of the reasonableness of faith most acutely to mind. After all, this is the season of resurrection, one of the most fantastic claims of Christian faith. God raised Jesus from the dead. Historically the entire Christian confession rests on that claim—God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection is the vindication of Jesus’s life. It is the symbol of God’s victory over sin and death. The resurrection is the foundation on which Christian hope is built. Without the resurrection, Jesus is Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, but probably nothing more.

So historically Christians have testified to the resurrection as the indicator that Jesus was the Son of God, and that God’s promise of triumph over sin and death is trustworthy. But the idea of resurrection—literally coming back from the dead—taxes the modern mind. It seems fantastical. It seems to violate pretty obviously some things we now take for granted about being alive and being dead. How do we navigate that seeming disconnect between faith and reason?

Perhaps we could start by affirming just how righteous the experience of doubt, confusion, and uncertainty is, particularly around this notion of resurrection. Doubt and confusion appear to be pretty biblical responses to the proclamation that God raised Jesus from the dead. In our Gospel reading this morning, the confrontation with a risen Jesus arouses in his disciples disbelief and wonder. Luke puts it this way: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering….” That is one of my favorite phrases in all of Scripture! Luke does not describe their response to the encounter with Jesus as a simple epiphany—“Oh, we thought you were dead, but now we see you’re clearly alive, and now we get it. Yay!” No, Luke describes those disciples, who have bumbled their way through the journey with Jesus to the cross, still fumbling with this experience. And the tenses of the verbs Luke uses are telling. The disciples “were disbelieving” and “still wondering,” experiencing doubt and confusion that was continuing into the future, that they were not getting over quickly. And yet their doubt and confusion were not distressing them. They were experiencing it within the joy of this encounter with Christ.

Doubt and uncertainty are not portrayed here as impediments to intimacy with Christ but as part of the experience. And the story does not necessarily imply that the uncertainty goes away. It certainly continues into the writing of the Gospels themselves, each of which has a different take on the ending of Jesus’s story. Together they are confused or uncertain about what to make of the experience of the risen Jesus; the church was uncertain how to talk about the resurrection years after the experience of the first disciples.

The author of the Gospel of Mark evidently was so uncertain that he originally said nothing at all about Jesus’s appearance, ending his Gospel with a secondhand account of the empty grave. An angel pronounces Jesus risen, and the women who visited the grave “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” THE END. The Gospel ends with a claim of resurrection and a fearful and bewildered response. That’s it. Only generations later did somebody find that ending unsatisfying and add something else, and then some other editor tried another attempt to fill the gap, so that now the Gospel of Mark appears in our Bible with what scholars recognize as three separate endings, the original plus two subsequent interpretations and embellishments.

The other Gospels reflect confusion about the resurrection in their own ways. Matthew portrays Jesus physically present enough that some of the disciples could grab his ankles, and yet he flits in and out of situations like a ghost. And Matthew tells us that when encountered with the risen Jesus, the disciples “worshiped him, but some doubted.”

The Gospel of John depicts Jesus as appearing in the presence of the disciples with the physical scars of crucifixion—but also walking through locked doors. And our friend Luke this morning describes Jesus as suddenly appearing in the disciples’ midst, as if out of thin air, and then asking for lunch. The Gospels themselves are unsure how to account for the confession that Jesus has been raised from the dead. They’re not nearly as certain about what actually happened as later Christian interpreters felt compelled to claim.

Likewise, many of us still don’t know exactly what to make of these claims of resurrection. Was Jesus physically, bodily present with the disciples in a life after death, in a way that defies what we know to be scientifically possible? Was Jesus spiritually present with those early followers, in a way that made a lasting impression on the Christian community, and which they described as “bodily resurrection” in order to capture the powerful impact of the spiritual encounter? Which of these explanations is more faithful? Which should we believe to be true? Or is there another compelling explanation altogether?

Asking these kinds of questions about something as important as the resurrection may feel like a crisis of faith. But I don’t think it needs to be. I think what we’ve seen from the Gospel narratives is that it’s a natural component of faith, not an injury to it. Part of our problem is that in the modern era we’ve changed what “faith” means. These days many traditionalists and many skeptics think that having faith means accepting something as literally or factually true. So some traditionalists insist that to question the bodily resurrection of Jesus is to lack faith, because you’re saying it isn’t true. And modern rationalists tend to agree, arguing that to be counted as a rational and modern person you must reject the idea of bodily resurrection as untrue. For both, the question seems to be: do I believe such and such really happened this way?

That’s what we’ve done to faith in the modern era, but over the long trajectory of Christian believing, that’s not what faith meant at all. Faith wasn’t assent to propositional factual truths. Faith was trust in the promises of God. Regarding the resurrection, “traditional” faith meant not subscribing to this or that explanation of exactly what happened—which Gospel account would you pick? They’re all different! No, traditional faith in the resurrection meant trusting in the promises of God packed in the proclamation that God raised Jesus from the dead.

What are those promises? Well, here are a few. That God is persistent love. That God’s love will pursue us to and beyond the grave. That God’s love is more powerful than human destructiveness. That God’s love is more powerful than death. That through the spirit of Christ, God’s loves endures with us, through time and space. That the way of Jesus is a faithful testament to what God’s love looks like in the project of human living. That the way of Jesus is the path to experiencing new life and true life—authentic life in loving community, as we are meant to live. That this kind of love and grace is the moral axis on which the cosmos revolves, no matter what the forces around us suggest to the contrary.

That’s at least what faith in the risen Jesus means. Faith in the resurrection of Christ, to my mind at least, does not require us to subscribe to overly certain descriptions of what exactly happened on that first Easter morning. And in fact, humility reminds us that to claim rock-solid confidence in a particular account of the resurrection is to claim more than the Gospels themselves are willing to do. Not for nothing, but I think humility cautions us against too strident a confidence that we know what didn’t happen, too.

But if faith in the resurrection isn’t a subscription to a concrete account of historical events, what does it mean to gather as the Easter people? What does it mean to be the Body of the risen Christ? What does it mean to gather and proclaim with Christians of every time and place that God raised Jesus from the dead?

To me, it means to gather together in the promises of God, in hope and faith that (as the Apostle Paul puts it) “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). To me it means to gather with confidence in God’s love, enough that we might call ourselves “children of God” (as the First Letter of John commends), a community dedicated to living the Way of Jesus, proclaiming the love of Jesus, and inviting others to experience new life and true life on this pilgrimage with us.

To gather as Easter people means to commit to studying our heritage as Jesus did with those first disciples, mining old words for fresh truths, wisdom from the past to inspire wisdom for today. It means to consider and reconsider what we believe to be good and true—to walk together in a process of discovery and doubting, of asking questions and sitting with answers—and to do so in the dual promise that God will not abandon us for our questioning, and neither will our community of faith.

Easter people can expect in their joy together to have moments of disbelieving and wondering, and they can expect in their disbelieving and wondering to find joy together! To be Easter people means to live together in the loving grace of God embodied in the continuing presence of Jesus with us, to practice Christ-like grace with one another through our moments of confidence and our moments of uncertainty, and to invite others to do the same.

Seems to me that that’s what it means to be the Body of the Risen Christ in this modern, scientific, rational, skeptical, self-interested, impatient, divisive, demythologized world we live in. It means to gather in this resurrection theology: God is good, grace is enduring, and mystery and uncertainty are part of the journey. But through all the confusion, doubt, and wondering, we remain steadfast on one truth, that nothing will separate us from the love of God, or from each other, in Christ Jesus our risen Lord. We are witnesses to these things. Amen.