Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
We live in a time when it does not seem easy to proclaim the Christian faith, though I doubt that it ever was. It may have been that Christianity was the only game in town (though that certainly was not the situation of the early church), or that because of life circumstances people were very open for the Christian faith, but in general, it probably never was easy.
There are a few strategies I can think of to make the Christian faith attractive to non Christians. The first one is the one that preaches hellfire and brimstone. It says that if you don’t believe in Jesus you will go to hell. It preaches fear. I admit that I was baptized as an infant and was raised in the church (so I have rarely been the target audience for such preaching), but I cannot imagine the approach of instilling fear to be a very attractive way to share the good news of Jesus (makes it sound like bad news, I think). Of course, this is not to say we aren’t accountable for the way we live, but note that in our reading the women are told not to be afraid. Over and over, God’s messengers tell us not to be afraid. The purveyors of fear tell us they preach that way because they want us to trust God but it does not make our God sound very trustworthy.
The other approach is the promise of eternal life. It holds before us the inevitable fact of our future death and in the face of this reality it promises eternal life. This approach is more hopeful and positive, but eternal life here seems to be largely an extension of today and so it is no wonder that the secular version of this belief in eternal life sees us fishing and golfing in the afterlife and whatever else it was that we enjoyed doing.
What’s pretty clear with these two approaches is that they are sales pitches. And the fact that they are sales pitches makes them less effective. I mean, I would rather buy a car because it genuinely is good, not only because the commercial is really slick. Of course, the church has rarely had slick commercials.
What we see in the resurrection stories of the gospels is different.
The two Maries are afraid not because some preacher scared them into believing that Jesus rose to punish them (certainly not them, because they had not abandoned Jesus), they are afraid because they stand before a great mystery they cannot explain. It is easier to accept the inevitable – as difficult as that may be – than to try to understand what the resurrection of Jesus means. Imagine the roller coaster ride: First they think Jesus will restore Israel’s might, then he dies, and just as they are getting used to the tragedy he is back. Yet it also means something else: The resurrection means Jesus’ complete vindication. Jesus was not voted into office; he was handed over to the authorities who put him to death. Jesus did not win a war; he refused to fight one. It means that the one who appeared to be a loser is now victorious, and he has become victorious precisely by losing.
But there is more going on here. The resurrection of Jesus does not simply mean that we can all sit on a cloud and play our harp, or that we can continue to play golf into all eternity (or ski as that would be in my case), but it is actually disruptive to our lives.
The guards can’t handle it and let themselves be bought. Instead of living truthful lives that face difficulty, they tells lies that helps them avoid the truth. The women are afraid, because they are shocked, and in awe, but they are also afraid because they know that life will never be the same.
And that is, of course, the problem with the eternal life sales pitch, it requires very little, just a few words, and then all is good. Yet the truth is that in our baptism we have died and risen with Christ and this is every bit as disruptive to our lives as it was to the two Maries and the rest of the disciples.
There was a piece in the Globe and Mail entitled, “Death might seem frightening, but so does an empty eternal life.” The author relates how her four year old asked about death. Not knowing what to say, especially at bed time, she replied that he should not worry about it because scientists were working on it.
She then learned about scientific approaches to eternal life. One group are those who believe we can all be rejigged by replacing failing parts as we ‘rattle on forever like an old car.’ The other group are those who believe the path to eternal life will be a biological merger with machines, either through robot physiques or a digital collective consciousness.
In layman’s terms: “Either an eternal future of Frankenstein-style transplants from a vast bank of genetically engineered organs or we all turn into RoboCop.”
She closes her piece by saying that death might seem frightening to a small child on the brink of sleep, but what’s far more terrifying is the painful and expensive tedium of an empty eternal life.1
And this is where the resurrection of Jesus promises not only continuity but discontinuity, which is likely why the New Testament reminds us that we died with Christ and rose with Christ. Death and resurrection are not only a future reality but a present reality. Eternal life is not only in the future but is now. And heaven is not some other place where nothing happens but golfing, fishing, and playing the harp for all eternity, but is God’s Kingdom which has dawned in Jesus.
There are two important things that happen in Matthew’s telling of the resurrection: The angel tells the women to go to Galilee where Jesus will meet them. That points us back to the beginning of the story where it all began. The way of Jesus has been vindicated. Going to Galilee means to welcome he outcast, to love ones enemies, to heal the sick, set free the oppressed. This is in discontinuity to the ways of the world. The this the order of the Kingdom of God. It is not an eternal game of golf (my apology to all golfers).
The other thing that happens is that Jesus does in fact appear to the women while they are on the way to tell the others as the angel had commanded. That means that Jesus comes to them as they live as disciples. Matthew 25 comes to mind where at the last judgment the righteous ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
And so the resurrection of Jesus is not a sales pitch. Rather, it is challenge and promise, continuity and discontinuity, and the invitation to be made new in God’s image and to bear that newness to the world. All it requires us is to want such newness. Amen.
1 “You might assume that immortality would be a good thing, a chance for ordinary people to live extraordinary lives, but I rather doubt it. Instead, I foresee a new kind of class system in which the privileged few live on, endlessly enriching themselves and their families, while the masses continue to succumb to dust. The interesting thing is, it’s impossible to envy them – the billionaires and dictators and movie stars who would choose to live in that expensive and tedious netherworld of immortality. Like all narcissists, they will find themselves endlessly yearning for something – the promise of love – just out of reach. Because what’s the point of existence if it simply goes on forever? If the clock isn’t actually ticking, it’s hard to see the point of doing anything. Why seize the moment when the chances for redress are endless?” Leah McLaren: Death might seem frightening, but so does an empty eternal life, Published Wednesday, Apr. 12, 2017, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/leah-mclaren-death-might-seem-frightening-but-so-does-an-empty-eternal-life/article34689567/