Sunday, 1 April 2018

An April Fool's Easter


        

This morning we gather to celebrate that Jesus Christ has pushed through death and has come out the other side into a new kind of life. After being killed on the cross, Jesus is alive. … It is also April Fool’s day. No doubt there are many around us who think celebrating a man coming back to life is the height of foolishness. What modern person can believe such a thing? It is the content of myths and legends, not modern rational thinking. … Thinking Christians are fools for believing in the death and resurrection of Jesus is nothing new. St. Paul points this out in 1 Corinthians 1:18, 23 he says, 

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”,
 and 
“we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”.

There was some ancient graffiti discovered near the Colosseum in Rome that dates from between the 1st to 3rd century. There is a drawing on a wall that has the inscription “Alexamenos worships his God” and there is a crude drawing of a man on a cross with the head of a donkey, and a man is in front this image worshiping. To many in the ancient world, Christianity was foolishness.

As Christians, we cannot escape the resurrection of Christ. Even if it means being considered a fool. We are to embrace it. As St. Paul says later in the same letter,
“We are fools for the sake of Christ” (1 Cor 4:10).

 He suggests that our faith is dependent on this reality. For Paul, the cross and resurrection are not a secondary reality that Christians can differ on. There ARE things Christians can differ on, but for Paul the cross and resurrection are foundational to what it means to be a Christian. In 1 Corinthians 15:17-19 he says, 
“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
 If the resurrection has not happened, then we should find something else to do with our Sunday mornings. If the resurrection hasn’t happened then we are wasting our time.

Believing can be hard for some of us- especially when we are talking about a miracle like the resurrection of Jesus. A miracle by definition is something that is outside the usual and is therefore not something we are usually quick to believe in. There are some people who don’t believe in the resurrection simply because they have decided that miracles just don’t happen. … We could have a long conversation about what makes something believable. What sort of evidence is acceptable? How do you weigh that evidence? What if that evidence challenges the way you see the world? Usually, we are more inclined to accept evidence that confirms what we already believe. … Generally, we want to see it in order to believe it. We want repeatable tests in controlled situations and then maybe a report from a team with lots of letters behind their names. … But when it comes to history, we can’t put it in a test tube.

With history what we have is what has been handed on to us, writings and stories, and what we can find in the ground. Then we have to try to discern the truth from that. With history we have to figure out which words from the past are believable. There are some principles historians use to figure out if something is believable or not. There are ways historians decide if they can trust something someone wrote.

Regarding the resurrection, we are being asked to believe the witness of the original disciples. … This isn’t necessarily easy for us. We live in a world where we don’t really trust other people. We make people sign a contract rather than trust their word. People hallucinate. People lie. People make mistakes. … But if we don’t have some way of trusting those from the past then we can pretty much give up doing history at all. … How can we trust what someone has said or written about past events and people? How do we know about Napoleon, or Nero, or Henry the 8th? It can be tricky to think our way through all this.

As Christians we don’t want to be naïve. God has told us to love Him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. We are not to believe everything that comes our way. However, we are not to outright reject everything either- that is just cynicism. We are to be discerning. We are to be like sharp swords carefully separating truth from falsehood. ... We are asked to trust the words of those who experienced the risen Jesus Christ. Do we trust their story?

I want to suggest that there are good reasons to believe their story. There are 4 facts that historians agree on.

First, Jesus was truly dead- he was killed by the hands of the Romans, who were very good at killing. There were also serious consequences for soldiers who didn’t follow through on a command.

Second, His tomb was found to be empty- some disagree about how it got that way, but it is a fact that the body of Jesus was gone.

Third, numerous people reported seeing the resurrected Jesus. In our Gospel reading Mary encounters Jesus. All the gospels have women as the first to encounter the resurrected Jesus. In the ancient world, where the witness of a woman was not given a lot of weight, it would be counterintuitive to use women as the first witnesses if you were trying to convince people of these cultures. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus writes (4:219), 
"from women let no evidence be accepted. because of the levity and temerity of their sex."[1]
An enemy of early Christianity, Celsus (2nd C.), says this about Mary as a witness of Jesus, 
“[A]fter death he rose again and showed the marks of his punishment and how his hands had been pierced. But who saw this? A hysterical female”.[2]
… Now that doesn’t go over very well with us who hold women as being of equal value to men. … It does say something interesting about the Bible’s claim that women were the first witnesses. Some have concluded that the reason women were written down as the first witnesses to the resurrection was that they actually were the first witnesses. … But women weren’t the only witnesses the bible speaks about. Followers and even enemies- individuals and groups, reported seeing him. About 20 years after Jesus' death, Paul writes to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15), 
"[Jesus] appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
 The early disciples believed that they had experienced the risen Jesus in a very physical way and they became willing to die for their belief that Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead. ... Many of them did die for their belief.

Fourth, the early Jesus followers were strengthened. They went from a group of scared disciples huddled behind locked doors to proclaiming Jesus in the temple and across the known world. This just didn't happen with these kinds of groups when their leader was killed, and there were other groups who had a leader who claimed to be the messiah. Usually they scattered when their leader was killed, and the movement died. ...

Now we need to come up with a theory that makes sense of all four of those facts. A very rational explanation for all these facts coexisting is the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus. … Of course, someone might just decide that miracles don’t happen, if that is the case then no amount of evidence could convince that person. They have come to their conclusion before looking at the evidence. … But, if we are open to the evidence, and the amazing conclusion it points to, then we have good reason to believe that something incredible happened that first Easter morning.

Most of you don't need these kinds of facts to believe he has been raised. You probably don’t believe because of the historical case for the resurrection. Most of you haven’t become Christians because it makes sense to your intellect. You believe the stories because you feel you have encountered Christ. You have encountered Jesus through the stories. You have felt his presence. You have felt his peace and his love. You have felt his forgiveness. You have experienced his transformation. Like Mary, you have felt him say your name in the quiet recesses of your heart.

We might be considered fools to many in our world, but we are not without good reasons for believing the things we do. We don’t always have all the proof we want, but we deal with the evidence we have. Doubt, for most of us, will just be a part of what it means to be human. ... This does not leave us hopeless. We are invited to trust the stories of those who did encounter him, and open ourselves to encountering him now. Amen.



[1] levity= a tendency to make light of serious matters; a lack of constancy or resolution.
Temerity= rashness, audacity.
[2] apud Origen, C. Cels. 2.55--  Translation from H. Chadwick, Origen: Contra Celsum (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition 1965) 109.

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