Saturday 30 March 2013

Meeting mystery: an Easter sermon

by Kim Fabricius

A few years ago, just before Easter, I went along to a meeting at the university where a leader from a local church spoke on “The Resurrection of Jesus”. His talk was a tour de force. The sceptics’ arguments against the resurrection – that Jesus hadn’t really died, that the disciples stole the body, that it was all either a hoax or a hallucination – these the speaker roundly refuted. And then, comprehensively marshalling the evidence in favour of the resurrection – the witness of the disciples, and especially the women (you wouldn’t invent the testimony of women in first-century Israel); the conversion of the persecutor Saul into the apostle Paul; the observance of Sunday as the Lord’s Day (not Saturday, the traditional Jewish day of worship); the birth and mission of the church, believers willing to die for their faith – marshalling all this evidence, the speaker claimed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that Jesus rose from the dead. Frank Morison, an advertising agent turned lawyer, who wrote a best-selling book called Who Moved the Stone?, with its own comprehensive demonstration of the facticity of the resurrection – Morison himself couldn’t have been more persuasive.

I looked around. The audience was very impressed. “Awesome!” they said, openly or tacitly. But in my heart there was no hallelujah. In fact, I felt curiously deflated. Indeed the evening left me feeling as cold as that mobile stone. But why?

Partly, I suppose – not the speaker’s fault – because I’d heard it all before.

Partly, also, because of the way the speaker narrowed the significance of the resurrection of Jesus to life after death – and then to my life after death – which I take to be a rather egotistical reduction of an event so momentous that it embraces the renewal of all creation. Why care about my butt if the rest of the world is going to hell in a handcart?

Then there was the rather unpleasant way the speaker dismissed those Christians who might disagree with him, including some very eminent theologians – he mentioned a couple – whose depths he couldn’t begin to fathom.

But the main reason why for me the talk fell flat is this. It was as if the speaker had it all sorted out; it was as if the resurrection of Jesus were easy. But it’s not! The resurrection is bloody difficult! I don’t mean (if you like) the “technology” of it, I mean the way the resurrection is existentially disturbing, threatening, explosive. Above all, I left the meeting with no sense of mystery, and therefore with no sense of God, because God is mystery, ultimate, irreducible mystery.

Of course the speaker was, in fact, quite representative, doing what we are all tempted to do – me too – when it comes to God: construct the perfect argument, arrive at a definitive answer, achieve theological clarity and closure – Bingo! To extend the legal metaphor, we push ourselves forward as judge and jury to reach a unanimous verdict on how God makes sense. Alas, in trying to make God manageable, in attempting to master the mystery, we turn God into an idol, a deity under our control; at our worst, a god we co-opt for our own religious agenda.

The resurrection of Jesus, however, puts an end to all such self-serving manipulation of God. For note well: the resurrection of Jesus is fundamentally a message about God. “Jesus is alive!” doesn’t quite capture this significance. “Christ is risen!”, because God raised him, does. The subject of the resurrection is God. Indeed Karl Barth called the resurrection “a paraphrase of the word ‘God’”. The resurrection defines who God is: God is the God who raised Jesus from the dead. And in raising Jesus God identifies himself with Jesus and vindicates the cause that got Jesus killed – championing the poor and the shafted, challenging the rich and the powerful, rejecting the way of violence of good guys and bad guys alike.

Are you following me? Not too closely, I hope! For, again, that is the point – the point missing in that talk: the first followers of Jesus couldn’t follow it either! The Easter narratives – they are not straightforward accounts, they are “the witness of the overwhelmed” (Helmut Thielicke). It is not only futile, it is misconceived to treat them as “evidence”, to deploy them to “demonstrate” that the resurrection is a “matter of fact” which any disinterested observer must concede to be the case, such that those who don’t are either pig-headed or big-headed. For Jesus did not become an object of inspection available to anyone, he revealed himself only to those for whom the question of faith had already been raised – and dashed. It’s not that we don’t have history here, but it’s history not as we know it, Spock: it’s history that upends history as we know it.

Examine the Easter narratives. Look at how disjointed, inconsistent, even contradictory they are (a rather obvious fact that the speaker failed to mention). Look at how the writers struggle, tongue-tied, wholly inadequate to the task of articulation, unable to integrate the event into the language of experience. Look, finally, at the first reactions of the witnesses themselves: neither joy, nor relief, nor comprehension, but dread, dumfoundedness, and doubt. Jesus is hardly recognisable, he appears as a stranger, and he remains a resident alien – a mystery – now here, now there – even when the penny finally drops. It’s not “O happy days! It’s just as he said!”, but “Who dat man?!” and “What the hell was that?!” As a character says in a famous story by Flannery O’Connor, “Jesus thrown everything off balance.” As the old spiritual has it, the resurrection, no less than the cross, “causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” If you could feed the data into a human seismograph, you would get an earthquake that goes off the Richter scale. And why?

For one thing, the resurrection of Jesus radically ruptures the natural order of the universe. Everyone dies and dead people stay dead – what is more certain than that? But this provocative Galilean rabbi – he dies alright, but he doesn’t stay dead. Here, in a graveyard in Jerusalem, the world breaks open – and its reordering begins.

For another thing, when, in the iconic film, the Terminator says, “I’ll be back!”, what’s he coming back for? It’s such an ominous promise because he’s returning for payback. Just so in antiquity it was thought that ghosts often appeared to exact revenge, a belief that Shakespeare exploits in Hamlet. And Jesus – of course he’d been stitched up by the Sanhedrin, executed by the Romans, and jeered by the mob, but he’d also been deserted by his disciples. “Jesus is back, no one is safe, lock your doors!” – wouldn’t that be your first reaction? And though they’ll be wrong about Jesus, they’ll be right about themselves: all their weaknesses, failures, sins exposed. The shock of the resurrection is the shock of the unmasking of their stupidity and betrayals. Revealed is a picture that is not pretty: it is humanity’s ugly heart of darkness.

But despite this sordid reality of the human condition – hear the Good News of Easter! – in the face our faithlessness, God remains faithful, his mercy measureless, his grace relentless (God is infinitely resourceful at dealing with ingratitude). And so, after all – but only after all – after being thrown off balance and knocked flat by meeting mystery, we may indeed get up, know the joy of forgiveness, take courage, and – most important of all – Go! Go witness! For that’s the upshot of all encounters with the risen Christ: “Scat! Scoot! Go! Tell! And show what you tell, with your lives, that I’m still here, that I’ll always be here, not un-crucified but risen, still me but more-than-me – me-in-my-church – and so still at it, still revealing to the world what a proper human being and a proper human community look like!”

Enough already! As the King himself said – Elvis I mean!: “A little less conversation, a little more action, please!” So let’s sing, let’s pray, let’s eat. And then: Scram!

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