April Fools

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Prayer – Lord of life – we so want to believe in the resurrection, what it means, how it defines our faith. We come this day with the hope that is found in the tomb being empty.  At the end of the day, does it really matter if the tomb was empty or not. Help us O Lord, to find truth for ourselves as we wrestle with the ‘is it so’s’ of life – amen.

It was my first day of seminary.  Dr Carol Bechtel-Reynolds stood before the class and introduced herself.  Before she ever began to review the syllabus, talk about anything, she posed a question that carried me throughout that class and still holds me in its power even today.  She said, “Would it make a difference to your faith if Abraham was NOT a real person?” Well sitting about halfway back of the classroom, I could visibly see some folks kind of straighten their necks, shoulders and I imagine there was hair standing up for those.  I thought it was a great question so I asked Dr Reynolds what she thought. She said, “I will tell you the last day of class.”

So this Easter morning, I have a question for us to wrestle with – “Would it make a difference to your faith if the boulder in front of the tomb had never been moved and we would never know if there was a resurrection?  Would it make a difference to your faith?” Now before anyone goes and calls the Presbytery office to report me for heresy, I would really like for us to ponder this idea. Is the resurrection a pre-requisite for your faith?  And if not, what does that mean for the cross, the life and ministry of Jesus, the miracles, the stories, the very gospel we believe?

In the season leading up to Easter, we intentionally talk about various aspects of our faith as a way of re-examining our own journeys.  There is much about a faith journey that is beautiful and comforting and reassuring. To trust and believe that there is a Being, a Holy Mystery, Divine Love, whatever name you want to put on it, that surrounds our lives with mercy and compassion and grace is something that gives me, and hopefully you, great joy.  To hold onto the hope that God is working to transform and redeem all people is encouraging in the midst of the struggle that life can be.

But when it comes to Easter, I think I, and maybe you, run into a wall.  Most folks accept that Jesus was a real person and that from stories told and recorded in scripture that he was crucified on a Roman cross.  But when it comes to this Easter morning, it’s a different matter altogether. Many who have identified themselves as Christians all their lives have a hard time really embracing faith in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Trying to wrap your head around the notion that someone was raised up from the dead is pretty hard for a lot of us. The fact that this reportedly happened in the dark, no one witnessed the actual raising up, and only few reportedly saw him afterwards, well, that is a little bit challenging to some of us.  There doesn’t seem to be difficulty in accepting his death on the cross, but when it comes to the empty tomb, well for many that is a head scratcher. AND, it doesn’t seem to impact their faith. I have pondered and wondered, why is that so?

Is it because they reject some aspect of the Easter story that we have been fed for 2000 years?  Is it because they are human and need real life experience to relate to the resurrection? You and I both know people who are not going to accept something if they can’t see it with their own eyes or touched it with their own hands.  For folks like that faith is based solely on the experiential, which may mean there is not much room for mystery.

Most ancient cultures believed divine favor could be purchased only in blood.  Judaism rejected human sacrifice, but adopted this view of the cosmos and salvation.  In that ancient view, as typified in the Abraham/Isaac story, only blood could atone and deliver people from a wrathful God.  Early Christianity grounded in its Jewish roots, interpreted Jesus’ death through the same lens. Rather than emphasizing the love and grace of God, early Christians portrayed God as doing exactly what God forbade Abraham to do. God sacrificed Jesus.  So, only in the death of Jesus could God’s need for a blood sacrifice be satisfied.

When salvation requires a sacrifice, forgiveness and grace become commodities to be bought rather than gifts from God.  More troublesome, Jesus saves us, shields us from a wrathful, blood-thirsty God. Atonement theology, with its insistence on balancing the scales, refuses to allow God to simply cancel the debt out of love.  It ultimately contends that unless blood is shed, God is powerless to forgive.

Forgiveness doesn’t rely on sacrifice, blood, or the payment of a debt. Forgiveness is about a choice, and God chose to forgive before the cross just as God has chosen forgiveness after the cross.  The death of Jesus on the cross didn’t enable God to forgive, nor did it change God’s mind about loving us. God has never sought our destruction, but our wholeness. Jesus wasn’t born to die, to be Plan B when Plan A didn’t work out so great.  Jesus was Plan A from the beginning, to show us how to live wholly in God’s grace and love. Jesus didn’t die to appease an angry God. Jesus came to proclaim God’s kingdom based on grace.

Then why did Jesus have to die?  He didn’t. Jesus’ death was not part of God’s plan for redemption or restoration.  God didn’t send Jesus into the world to atone for sin. Jesus, just like you and me, all of us, was born to live and grow and learn and know God.  Jesus experienced and embodied what it is like to live in profound intimacy with God. Jesus came not to change God’s mind about us, but to change our minds about God.  Unfortunately, across time and history we have chosen a different way, a way that demanded a cross.

Calvary was not the fulfillment of the divine plan.  It was not the final installment on a cosmic debt. It was not necessary to satisfy a bloodthirsty deity.  The cross was the cost for proclaiming grace. The more insistent Jesus was on proclaiming a God of grace, the more certain his death became.  Jesus’ death was a human act, not a divine sign. The church and the empire couldn’t control grace, so Jesus had to die.

So if Jesus didn’t have to die, then does that change the significance of the cross and thus the resurrection?  This doesn’t make the cross meaningless, but I do believe it changes its significance. For me, the cross has come to symbolize our resistance to grace.  But more than that, it reminds the world of the cost of being gracious in an ungracious world. When folks want to scream heresy when we proclaim grace wins over sacrifice, the cross reminds us we are in good company.  

So what does all of this mean for the resurrection?  If Jesus was indeed Plan A, then God’s plan for Jesus was to show humankind what it is like to live intimately with God; what it is like to live and learn and grow and know and be in unity with God.  If Jesus was indeed Plan A, then the whole idea of Jesus being Plan B and being sent to pay the price for our sinfulness just doesn’t fit anymore. And if Jesus didn’t have to die in order to redeem the world, then maybe, just maybe, the tomb didn’t have to be empty.  And if the tomb didn’t have to be empty, then what does that mean for your faith? Does it mean that everything else connected to his life doesn’t matter anymore? That is the question of faith that I have been wrestling with, wondering about, pondering. Now it is your turn – would it, does it, make a difference to your faith, if there had been no resurrection.  Let me know what you think especially today, April Fools – thanks be to God either way – amen.