FROM PERPLEXITY TO AMAZEMENT
Carlos E. Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
March 31, 2013; Easter, Year C
Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 24:1-12
“But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths
by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”
Well, here we are — another Easter. It’s the fifty-sixth one of my life. Not that I understood much of what Easter was all about, my first several years. My earliest recollection probably had more to do with smearing my face with chocolate — and trying to keep said chocolate off my Sunday clothes — than with anything else.
Eventually, I grew a little older and got with the program. Surely it had something to do with all those years of sitting around a Sunday-School table in the church basement, studying those poster-sized Bible-story pictures the teachers always seemed to be able to pull out of nowhere. The Easter pictures either had Mary Magdalene falling to her knees before Jesus, moments after figuring out he wasn’t the gardener after all; or, they showed that circular hole in the cliff-face, with a giant-disk-of-a-rock leaning off to one side, a couple of passed-out Roman soldiers sprawled on the ground, and a pair of handsome strangers in white robes making a solemn announcement.
Each year, when Easter came around, it was the same. The colorful wicker baskets filled with candy, the trip to church in our best clothes, the drive to Interlaken for dinner at our grandparents’ house with as many of the cousins as could be brought together, then a sleepy drive back home as we kids finally crashed from our sugar high.
At the heart of it all, of course, was the Easter story — the great witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I grew up believing it was my people’s story: and, eventually, as I came into my own, I claimed it as my story as well.
Going to church on Easter Sunday, year after year, was utterly predictable: the same hymns we sang every year, a reading from one of the several gospel accounts of the resurrection, an impassioned sermon, the choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus, and flowers everywhere. It was the same every year.
Which is rather astonishing — because the very nature of the resurrection is that it is anything but routine. The resurrection, as the Gospels portray it, is an anomaly, a singularity, an outlier — an event so utterly unique and unexpected that it threw even those best-positioned to benefit from it into utter turmoil and confusion.
Never do the Gospel-writers suggest that there ever was another event remotely like the resurrection of Jesus. Yes, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and yes, there are a few accounts in the Book of Acts of the apostles bringing someone back to life who had just died — but, in every one of those cases, the recipient of such a miracle goes back to normal human life, eventually dying again (and this time, it sticks). In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, there’s a sense that he’s already crossed over from death to life eternal. The body in which he presents himself — nail-scarred though his hands and feet may be — is, nevertheless, a resurrection-body. It’s not just that Jesus has died, briefly, then been revived. Rather, he has made the journey from earth to heaven, and come back fundamentally changed.
You see it in the words they use to capture the reactions of those who first encountered the risen Jesus. In Luke’s version, the one we read from today, there are three adjectives that describe the reactions of those first witnesses: they are perplexed, afraid, and — finally — amazed.
I did a little research this week into our English word, “perplexed,” and I learned it comes from the Latin verb plectare, which means “to interweave.” To be perplexed is to be baffled by intricacy, tied up in complexity. All tangled up, in other words.
So world-shaking is this encounter with a man who has gone to heaven and come back again, that — for a time — those friends of his who meet him barely know which end is up.
If there’s one thing you can say about those women who went down to the tomb, early in the morning, with their jars of burial spices, it’s that the last thing they expected to see was Jesus alive. They didn’t say to one another, “You know, I think Jesus just may have beaten this death thing, but let’s bring those jugs of myrrh and aloe along, just in case we’re wrong.” No, those women might have had a lot of other questions about people they might encounter along the road, but they didn’t expect to find Jesus’ body anywhere other than stretched out on a stone slab — cold and gray and stiff with rigor mortis.
The only situation I can think of that’s remotely similar is that of going to a funeral home for a viewing. You know how that goes: the family arrives first, the casket is opened, then they stand there and shake hands with a long stream of friends and neighbors, saying they’re so very sorry and doesn’t the deceased look so peaceful and natural?
Now, imagine the family goes down to the funeral home, the funeral director says, wait a minute, and goes into the room to open the casket. He comes charging back a few moments later, all in a tizzy, and says: “I just can’t understand it, the body was in there last night when I closed the casket, but now I open it up this morning, and it’s gone — disappeared!”
How do you suppose that news would make the family feel? Upset… angry… confused… disoriented (maybe a lawsuit in the making?) — very likely, all of the above. Of all the things they imagined they might experience that day, this one never even made the list! Not only that, whatever sadness they’re feeling at their loved one’s death is multiplied many times over.
They are perplexed. What they’ve just seen has no precedent in their experience. It ties them up in knots.
Human beings are perplexed at the subject of death in general. It is the greatest of all mysteries. Here we are, walking around in these bodies of ours — living, breathing, sensing, experiencing, laughing, loving — and then one of us dies. Suddenly, that friend or relative is no more. Yesterday, there was human consciousness: a personality, with whom we could interact. Today, that person who was so much a part of our world is no longer here.
We ponder who we are, ourselves — and the reality that we, too, will one day die. What will happen to us, then? What will become of us? Will we soar up and look down upon our body, lying there upon the bed? Will we journey forward through the proverbial dark tunnel, drawn onward by a kindly light? Or will it be, as some of the materialists insist, a matter of our consciousness being suddenly snuffed out forever, as a light switch is turned off?
The only word to describe us, as we ponder such imponderables, is perplexed.
The second adjective describing the reaction of those first witnesses to the resurrection is the word “afraid.”
The experience that evokes that feeling is the women’s encounter with “two men in dazzling clothes.” Luke doesn’t tell us, just then, who they are, but I think he figures it’s sufficiently obvious. A few verses later, those travelers on the Emmaus road recall how some women of their group “had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive” (24:23).
There are three times in the writings of Luke when two men in dazzling clothing show up. The first is on the Mount of Transfiguration. The two men in question, there, are identified as Moses and Elijah. The second is this passage here, Luke’s account of the resurrection. The third takes place at Jesus’ ascension in Acts 1:11 (which Luke also wrote). They deliver a message from on high: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
In the testimony of Luke, is there any particular reason why angels travel in pairs? Are they like police officers out on patrol, one of them always riding shotgun? Mormon missionaries showing up at your door? (They, too, are dressed in white, come to think of it!) But, who’s to say? — for the ways of heaven are mysterious — though to Luke it’s obviously significant that these glowing celestial beings always turn up in duplicate.
The message they deliver is one of great joy: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Then, the angels go on to remind the women of things Jesus himself had said about the Son of Man needing to suffer terrible things, after which he would rise again on the third day.
Yet, the women — when they behold the heavenly messengers and hear their words of encouragement — are not relieved, and filled with elation. Luke’s only description of their mental state is that they are afraid.
No real surprise, there. The garden-variety reaction to an angelic visit, in the Bible, is always fear. Why else would the angels so often preface their announcements with the words, “Do not be afraid”?
Angels, in the Bible, are not all sweetness and light. Well, light, maybe — they’re often described as having a dazzling glow about them — but sweetness doesn’t seem to factor in at all. On the contrary, angels are soldiers in God’s celestial army. The one in Genesis drives Adam and Eve from the garden with a flaming sword. The ones who appear to the shepherds on the hillside in Bethlehem are described as “the heavenly host” — and the word “host,” in this context, means army. They’re not heavenly choristers crooning Christmas carols, but soldiers in the heavenly army, chanting out their fearsome marching cadence. No, it matters not if the message the angels are bringing is exactly what you want to hear: the very sight of them is enough to induce fear and trembling in even the most stout-hearted of believers.
What is it about us that leads us to fear the thing that is the object of our deepest yearnings and hopes? Why does the teenage boy sit in abject terror at the phone for hours, before calling the girl of his dreams to ask her to the dance? Why is it that the bride and groom have jitters on their wedding day — or the parents of the happy couple sit there in the front row, their eyes brimming with tears at the thought of no longer having their son or daughter be theirs alone? Why is it that so many of us find it so hard to turn to that person who is dearest to us in all the world and simply say, “I love you?”
It’s not only fantasy scenarios of pain and suffering that cause us to freeze up in terror. Strange as it may be, any momentous change in life — even one bearing with it the greatest joy — can also elicit paralyzing fear. There are certain thresholds, in life, when we move from one mode of existence to another, and we know there’s no turning back. The familiar country will, henceforth, recede into memory. The land we are entering — while lovely beyond compare — is still an unexplored country, and our journey through it shot through with uncertainty.
The angels’ question to the women is: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” It’s more than just a helpful pointer on where to find the one they’re looking for. It’s an indictment and a challenge.
The angels are challenging the women to get up from the boneyard, casting off their morbid preoccupation with death. Rather, God wants them to seek out and celebrate signs of new life.
“Looking for the living among the dead” is such a powerful way of describing the human condition, without Christ. It’s a search in vain for truth and goodness, a matter of looking for love in all the wrong places. It’s what those people are doing, down in the Atlantic City casinos, as they pull the slot machine handle, time and time again — each time hoping that the next time, and the next and the next, will finally be different.
Looking for the living among the dead is what those people are doing as they ask the barkeep to pour them another, when they know full well that every glass they’ve drained up ‘til now has failed to deliver on its promise of conviviality — or courage.
Looking for the living among the dead is what some others do, night after night, numbing their spirits in front of the television screen. That two-dimensional world is filled with beautiful people and thrilling events — and while they offer the illusion of reality, they are in fact but pale and insubstantial shadows.
Looking for the living among the dead describes any one of a number of futile, time-devouring activities, whose principal function is to distract us from the harsh reality that we all have a terminal disease whose name is “life.”
What’s there to hope for, really, without Christ in our lives? A death free of pain? To silently slip off in the middle of the night? If that’s all you’ve got, you need to find yourself a better story!
If we don’t proactively choose our story, my friends, life chooses another for us. And the story this human life of ours chooses inevitably leads to death — and long before we physically die, at that.
Standing there in the pre-dawn darkness, the dazzling brightness of the angels on the one hand, and the yawning darkness of the empty tomb on the other, those women disciples know that, when this day of all days is ended, their lives — and even the world — will never be the same again. There will be no going back — only forward in faith, into a future only God knows.
The third adjective in Luke’s resurrection account is “amazed.” This word applies not to the women, but to Simon Peter: who, having heard the women’s testimony, rushes down to the burial-place to see for himself: “Stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”
The meaning of the Greek word for “amazed” is very different from the words for “perplexed” or “afraid.” It’s got a far more positive connotation. The word is sometimes translated “amazed,” but the verb on which it’s based can also be rendered “to be astounded, to marvel, to wonder.”
Peter still doesn’t know what, exactly, he’s looking for, as he bends down and peers into the empty tomb. It isn’t completely empty, for lying there as well are the linen burial-cloths, the winding-sheet they used to wrap Jesus’ body for burial. Jesus no longer needs them, where he has gone.
Peter hasn’t completely put two and two together. Despite the powerful signs he’s seen, and — presumably — the testimony the women have shared about the two men in dazzling white, he hardly dares hope that what he is dreaming could be real.
The evidence he has seen so far is all circumstantial: hearsay. Even as the different bits and pieces of the story are forming themselves into an amazing picture, he’s still not sure it’s real.
Peter, of course, will know soon enough — as they’ll all know soon enough. It won’t be long at all before they will see him, talk with him, embrace him. Fully accepting the truth of the resurrection will not be a matter of assembling bits and pieces of evidence, but rather of entering into personal relationship with a living Lord. It’s a form of truth that is not so much factual, as relational.
Asking a Christian believer to “Prove the resurrection” is akin to asking a family member to “Prove that you love me.” It’s not so much a factual, forensic sort of truth as it is an emotional and spiritual one.
Down in Maryland, along the shores of the Chesapeake, there is an army base known as Aberdeen Proving Ground. That’s a name known to folks in this area as the place where a lot of the functions of Fort Monmouth went, after that base was closed. The Proving Ground is where the U.S. Army has, since the First World War, tested a great deal of its “ordnance” — its artillery shells and other weapons that explode.
A proving ground is where you try something out, to see if it works. Yes, there is a great deal of rational, scientific study and research that go into developing weapons like these. Yet, no one is completely sure they will perform as promised until they are “proven” — until they’re actually tried out, in real-world conditions.
I think the proof of Jesus’ resurrection is discovered not by weighing the evidence in ancient manuscripts, nor in discoveries culled from the latest archaeological dig. Rather, it is in taking that remarkable testimony we have received and trying it out, to see if it bears fruit in our lives. You and I prove the resurrection not by standing back and running rational, scientific tests upon it, which — we may imagine — will determine whether or not it can bear the weight of our daily living. Rather, we prove the resurrection by resolving to live as though it is true — and learning, from experience, that indeed it is.
If we succeed in doing that, we too will make the same journey those disciples made, of old: the journey from perplexity, through fear, to amazement!
Copyright © 2013, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.