NOW YOU SEE HIM…
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
April 5, 2015; Easter Day, Year B
“You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.
He has been raised; he is not here.”
If you were to create a new religion, that had at its center a testimony of how God has visited the earth — and you wanted to make it as convincing as possible — how would you craft your story?
You’d want to start with absolute certainty: God turning up in some unmistakably public place — let’s say, giving a speech at the United Nations. The 24-hour news networks would pick it up right away. God’s speech would be bounced off dozens of satellites, so people the world over could view it, in real time.
You’d want to roll out some miracles, too — big ones. God showed Moses how to part the Red Sea. You’d at least want a dry footpath between New York and London this time around. Water from a rock? How about a river bursting out of the Grand Canyon, to solve that drought in the Southwest? The U.S. Navy has its Blue Angels precision flying team. You’d want some real angels to show up, trailing stardust in their wake, as they fly circles around the fighter jets.
As for special effects, you would spare no expense. (After all, if God’s behind it, money is no object, right?) The general public is pretty jaded about movie special effects by now, having seen everything the CGI artists can offer. They’ve watched Harry Potter zooming around on his broomstick playing Quidditch, and giant alien spaceships blowing up the White House with some kind of death ray. You’d need something really splashy, to bend back the limits of natural law as far as it can go — and, of course, unmistakably real. God’s visit to earth would demand nothing less.
If that’s so, isn’t it a wonder how poorly put-together are the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection! First of all, we’ve got four of them — five, if you count the places in Paul’s letters when he talks about the resurrection. Those stories don’t agree on every detail. In some places, they even contradict each other.
Surely, there are some special effects in the Bible, leading up to the big event— the earthquake, the sky turning black, the curtain in the Temple torn in two, from top to bottom. Matthew’s even got dead people rising up from their graves and stumbling around for a few days — a sort of benevolent zombie apocalypse — but none of the other Gospel writers so much as hint at that grisly detail, and even in Matthew it plays no further role in his story. Truly, the Easter story could use a better scriptwriter!
Then there are the stuttering ways the Gospel-writers introduce the wonder of the resurrection. It’s distinctly underwhelming. In the most famous account, from John, chapter 20, Mary Magdalene doesn’t even recognize Jesus at first. And when she finally does, and moves forward to give him a big Hollywood hug, he puts her off, saying, “Don’t touch me, I’ve not yet ascended.” How un-dramatic is that?
The most unsatisfying resurrection account of all is the passage from the Gospel of Mark we read today. The women bring their burial-spices to the tomb, wondering who they’ll find to roll the stone away, but they discover that’s already been taken care of. (What is this? It makes no sense!) Leaning down and peering into the tomb, they see some young guy all dressed in white. He looks up and calmly says, “Sorry. He’s been raised from the dead, but he’s not here. I don’t know where he is, exactly, but I’m pretty sure if you go to Galilee, you’ll find him walking around someplace.”
Then Mark ends it by saying, “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Nothing to anyone — really? The stone’s mysteriously rolled away, the body’s nowhere to be found, a decidedly angelic-looking character tells you in a general way where Jesus might be — and there Mark’s story ends. There are a few more incidents tacked on to the end — vague allusions to post-resurrection appearances — but the language doesn’t sound at all like the rest of Mark’s Gospel, some early manuscripts don’t contain it, and the Bible scholars are nearly 100% certain they were tacked on by some scribe, who just couldn’t stand the idea that the story ends so abruptly and so unsatisfyingly.
If you were going to create your own story of God coming to earth in human form, then dying and rising again, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that’s not how you’d write it. Really, the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ resurrection — by the standards of journalism, or even literature — are what my kids would call “a hot mess.” (And I say that with the greatest love and respect for our foundational documents.)
But yet, in a strange way, that makes the underlying truth to which they bear witness all the more credible. The stories are not carefully crafted. They’re filled with inconsistencies, even contradictions. They don’t portray the first tellers of the tale — the ones who first told it to the Gospel-writers — in a good light at all. In short, they don’t sound like they were fabricated.
In the world of art, you know one of the surest ways to tell a forged painting from the genuine article is that the original work has mistakes in it. Here and there is a place where the paint has smeared a little, where the perspective is a little off, or where the white pigment has yellowed with age. Most modern forgers, determined to create a replica that looks absolutely real, will neglect to reproduce such tiny imperfections. Their forgery comes out, in the end, looking just a little too perfect.
Well, I’m pleased to tell you the Gospels of the New Testament have no such problem. As Frederick Buechner puts it, they tell of the resurrection…
“…not in a blaze of glory, but more like a candle flame in the dark, flickering first in this place, then in that place, then in no place at all. If they had been making the whole thing up for the purpose of converting the world, presumably they would have described it more the way the book of Revelation describes how he will come back again at the end of time with ‘the armies of heaven arrayed in fine linen, white and pure’ and his eyes ‘like a flame of fire, and on his head many diadems’ (19:14, 12). But that is not the way the Gospels tell it. They are not trying to describe it as convincingly as they can. They are trying to describe it as truthfully as they can.” [Secrets in the Dark (Zondervan, 2007).]
It is, honestly, not so much a matter of “Here he is, the risen Lord!” but, rather, “Now you see him, now you don’t.”
Yet, isn’t that more true-to-life, as it mirrors how we experience the presence of Christ in our lives, day-to-day? None of us who’ve sensed his presence would describe it as a blaze of celestial glory. The risen Lord doesn’t self-reveal right before our eyes. He’s more like something we glimpse in our peripheral vision. You and I are left, after such an experience, with more questions than answers. Yet, all the same, we feel we’ve been changed. We feel we’ve been changed.
The last word of the angel to the women disciples, in Mark’s Gospel, is “go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” It’s appropriate that this Gospel ends with a command to get up and start moving. Notice that the angel is telling the disciples to get up and live as a resurrection people before any of them have seen the risen Jesus.
How very much like our own situation this is! We’ve all heard the testimony about resurrection: as mysterious and baffling and confusing as it is. It defies rational explanation, or proof. It’s more about the truth we perceive in our hearts than the conclusion we deduce from cold, calculating reason. The angel’s invitation to you and to me is to cease our passively sitting around and waiting for faith to come to us, but instead to get up and start walking. We need to take to the road of discipleship because that’s the place where good things, beautiful things, happen.
It’s like that marvelous story Luke tells about the journey to Emmaus. The two disciples in that account are doing exactly what the angel has told Mary Magdalene to do. They’re walking. And, as they walk, a fellow-traveler overtakes them on the road. “But their eyes were kept from recognizing them,” Luke says. Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
It is only when they arrive at their destination, sit down at table with their mysterious traveling companion, and see him break bread that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” A blink of an eye later, he “vanishes out of their sight.” Now you see him, now you don’t.
My friends, here at the Lord’s table is one place where — more than most places — you and I are likely to glimpse the risen Lord. Maybe we’ll sense his presence in the ancient words of the liturgy, that recall that very story of the Emmaus road. Maybe that will happen with the scent of the yeasty bread, or the sweet taste of the unfermented wine. Maybe in the crowd of fellow seekers sitting all around us, we’ll sense something of the communion of saints, that vast company of witnesses who have lived their lives on this earth, and have been conveyed by the power of the resurrection into life eternal.
Then again, maybe nothing will happen. Maybe the bread will be just ordinary bread, and the drink ordinary grape juice. Maybe, as a spiritual experience, this sacrament will prove to be as empty as the empty tomb.
If that should be the case for you this day, then my only suggestion is to come back and try it again. The angel’s sage advice to those bewildered disciples is to take to the road, to begin walking — and you know that, when you walk anywhere, the journey is never completed with a single step. It’s the rhythm of the journey, the cadence — the placing of one foot after the other that is regular worship — that puts us in the place where, at last, he will overtake us. Then, as it was for those disciples on the Emmaus Road, our hearts will “burn within us, ” and we will say to ourselves at last: “Now, we see him!”
Good journeying to you, as you follow after the risen Lord!
Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.