ON THE ROAD WITH JESUS
Stephen Hamilton Wright
First Presbyterian Church, Wausau, Wisconsin Easter March 23, 2008
Amazing things happen around us. Amazing things happen in the world right around us. We see them, we experience them, and even if we can't understand or explain completely, we know they are real. When we encounter such events, we are wise to be modest in our testimony about them. For example, when doctors can find neither cause nor cure for a dreadful disease that suddenly disappears on its own, we call that a miracle, and so it is. It may be the case, though, that this is a natural resolution of the condition, through a progression that medical experts do not yet understand. There are also phenomena so amazing and so wonderful that normal human ways of interpreting and explaining the data are inadequate. Medicine and math and history are not always able to convey the sheer wonder even of some things they can explain fairly well, such as the number pi or the birth of a child. Other experiences we can hardly explain at all, such as falling in love. So, in all these cases, we use plain old words to try to express our wonder. We tell stories; we write poems and songs; and we try to point to reality that we will never fully understand, and often call it God. We have no other way to talk about much of what we know. The world is filled with wonders.
Easter makes us wonder. Easter fills us with wonder. Think of the root meaning of the word "wonderful"-it means full of wonder, and to wonder is to contemplate possibilities we do not fully comprehend. Back in the time of Jesus, something happened that is just too much for normal words to explain. The Jewish and Roman leaders were actually the first to take the imponderables about Easter seriously. On Saturday, the Pharisees and chief priests of the Jews went to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to remind him that Jesus had made some pretty outlandish predictions, and to suggest that preventive measures be taken, just in case. They weren't sure what might happen, but whatever it might be, they wanted to stop it. Pilate agreed. Their problem was that they didn't know exactly what they were trying to prevent. Pilate's instruction is provocative: "Make it as secure as you can." Why not just say, "Make it secure."? There seems to be an implication that even the Roman military might not have the right stuff for this mission. They all hoped to stop anything from happening; in fact, they hoped that nothing would start; but they wondered about what they had heard. Weigh this up: while the disciples hide in fear, Rome and the chief priests move against their own worries. They want to squash any resurrection rumor before it gets started. They want to prevent the Messiah movement it would start. We have to ask this, too: did some of them wonder whether it might be true? Were they actually worried about that possibility? One thing is sure: they weren't taking any chances. That's how it works. Easter makes people wonder.
We have lots to ponder. We have a lot of elements to consider. When it comes to the Easter story, there is much to cause wonder. Sometimes we puzzle over the fact that the four Gospels report different facts about Easter: different people, different timelines, different words spoken. Even within individual Gospels, there are questions. Before we get too confident about our answers, let's remember that the people who knew Jesus best were the most startled and confused of all; some doubted openly. Who can blame them? Matthew reports that early in the morning, two women named Mary went to see the tomb of Jesus, apparently just to visit the place. Suddenly there is a big earthquake, because an angel as bright as lightning zips down from heaven, pushes the boulder sealing the tomb away from the door, and hops up to sit on it. If I'm in that scene, I'm confused-at least I'm standing there speechless for once, not at all sure what to say. The Roman soldiers guarding the place faint dead away. Probably not a bad response for them, all in all-what would they rather say to their commanding officer: "Sir, we were knocked out by that earthquake," or "Sir, we think we missed something in basic training; can you tell us what angels look like?" Then the angel tells the women, "Don't be afraid." Angels in the Bible always say that, because Bible angels are not guardian angels. There are no guardian angels in the Bible; that idea is imported from the ancient religions of Persia and Mesopotamia. Real Biblical angels are about cosmic stuff-they announce news that will change the entire world. So, he says, "Don't be afraid," and as if his very presence isn't confusing enough, the angel says, "I know you're looking for Jesus. He isn't here, He's been raised, just as He said. Come have a look, then go spread the news. He'll meet you in Galilee." Alright-sure. Who wants to go in that tomb? Who's going to watch the angel or whatever he is to make sure he doesn't put the stone back while we're inside? And just because the body is gone doesn't prove anything except that the body is gone. Sounds a bit like a script for CSI Palestine. There are a whole lot of question marks here. The scene gives us plenty to ponder.
Watch the emotions flow. Watch what people do with amazing news. See how the women in the story react. Matthew tells that "they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell His disciples." They left quickly-I bet that part is right-with fear and great joy. Fear and joy together: you know that mix. Think of putting a child on the school bus for the first time, or walking into a new classroom at a new school. Remember sending your teenager off on that first solo driving expedition, or the first drop-off at college. Call up the feelings of weddings and career changes. Imagine the emotions of riding a rocket into space, or inching along a narrow ridge toward the top of the tallest mountain in the world. Fear and great joy can go together, and when they do, they pump out a big adrenaline dose. So, the women run. They run to tell the disciples. Along the way, they probably try to think exactly what they are going to tell-angels and empty tombs were no more common in those days than they are now, so the story would have to be convincing! But before they get very far, Jesus Himself meets them, as if to reinforce the message they are supposed to deliver. In this version, the two Marys recognize their friend immediately, and they fall at His feet to worship. Now it's Jesus' turn to say it: "Don't be afraid. Put away that fear, and get on with the message. Don't be afraid." Watch it flow. Feel the emotion make them go.
So, it comes around to us. The story comes to us. Otherwise, it doesn't make a lot of difference. In order for Easter to matter, we have to decide how this ancient story connects with our stories. First, there is the factual pondering. We have four versions of a story that differ in significant details, beyond the differences caused by fading memories and second-hand accounts. They all report an empty tomb, but with different visitors to the tomb. Only three report messengers there, and only two have visits with Jesus. We also know of about half a dozen other resurrection stories in the Bible, and at least two where people ascend to heaven without dieing first. We do not have an account of the Resurrection itself. We should be instructed by the knowledge that ancient theologians chose not to include in the Bible a document called the Gospel of Peter, which offers a George Lucas-style vision of Jesus emerging from the tomb. Let's be as clear as we can about this: generations of Christians have insisted on a physical, fleshly, bodily resurrection of Jesus, in which an actual body that was actually dead became actually alive again. The Biblical accounts do not require that, though; there are clear hints that the after-Easter Jesus did not have a normal body. He popped in and out of rooms like a Harry Potter character, and in the Gospel According to John, Jesus warned Mary not to hold onto Him. Based on the Biblical record, then, which is the only record we really have, all we can say for sure is that something really amazing happened on the Sunday after Passover, and to early Christians it meant that Jesus was alive again, in a very real way. Think about it; think: part of the symbolism of both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection is that we should be careful how much we stock we put in normal ways of understanding the world. Jesus offers a new way to understand being in God's world. So, now, it's our turn. What do we do with all those questions, and all those possibilities? The story comes around to us.
Easter means that there is another way. Easter means there is a way that is different from the plans of politicians and market managers. Whether or not the physical body of a man from Nazareth was medically revived, His Resurrection is real, and His story shows us another path. When we walk behind Jesus, we practice helping neighbors, and forgiving enemies. We feed the hungry, and visit prisoners and sick people. Following Jesus means that politicians and religious big shots do not intimidate us; we practice telling the truth even when people do not want to hear it. Easter, and the whole experience of life that it highlights, is about helping other people share that same life. We waste a lot of thought on what comes after death, because that is not the main subject of Easter. The point of this day is that by the example of Jesus, human expectations are transformed. Because of Jesus, caring for others is our first standard. Religious rules are demoted, and compassion rises in their place. If we understand Jesus, even Jesus on the cross, we see that the world is not divisible into "us" and "them;" the world according to Jesus is everybody together, wrapped in the same story. Listen: if somebody dragged you here because it's one of the days you have to go to church; I'm glad you're here, and I hope you are, too. This is the day we celebrate freedom from legalists and doctrine pushers and Bible pounders. Easter is the day when Jesus puts our feet back on the ground to connect us with neighbors. It is the day when we remember that life is about life, instead of death. Easter is when we move beyond divisions of class and race, and start to live right here, with the people whom the way of God has put around us. It is the time when we learn to make peace with the earth, as it wakes up. This is the time to look at Jesus, and see God. It is time to look at the small band of disciples, and see the first Christian church school class; and to see followers sharing meals as a sign of the great feast in the realm of God. It is time. Easter shows that there is another way.
Miracles happen. Jesus happens. Easter happened, and still happens. Today Jesus offers the whole world a new road. He offers it every day. It isn't always easy, or obvious. We have to read the signs along the way; there are times to hang on, and times to let go, times to act and times to keep still. Embrace it all. Believe that there may be a miracle in every moment. Believe that every day is precious. Discover that the whole creation is a gift, not to use up, but to celebrate, as we prepare to leave it for next generation. God has plans for us. Let's learn to live in that new way.
Let us pray.
Life of our lives, Spirit of our actions and thoughts: renew our lives, and bring heaven among us now, so that we may see our purpose here, and according to that purpose learn to work according to Your will, through Jesus, our Leader and Friend. Amen.