by David Baer, April 16, 2017
Text: Luke 24:1-12
It was a simple picture that came across my screen last week. In our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter-connected world so many images flicker in front of our eyes and fade away. But this one caught my attention. It was a photo of a typewritten page that said, “Dear Religion, Pics or it didn’t happen. Sincerely, Science.” It’s a bit silly really… There are a lot of scientific realities that you can’t see directly with pictures. You’re not going to pin down a subatomic particle for a quick snapshot. Sometimes you can only “see” something, like gravity, for example, by the effects that it causes. But the words stuck with me as I thought about resurrection…
“Pics or it didn’t happen…” In the online world this is the reality check that’s meant to drag down boasters from the heights. “I just ran a marathon in an hour!” “I bested chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov at a pickup chess match in the park!” “My eight-month-old memorized the Gettysburg Address!” “Oh really! Is that so? Pics, or it didn’t happen.” It’s a demand for evidence, firm and certain knowledge that can be shared and relied upon by those who weren’t there. The more improbable the claim, the more certain the proof needs to be. But more often this is a not-so-polite way of saying, “I don’t believe you. You’re off base. You’re boasting about something that couldn’t possibly be true. If you want to try to convince me, be my guest. But it’s a high bar, and right now you’re nowhere near clearing it.”
This seems to have been the attitude with which the eleven disciples of Jesus received the news about his resurrection from the women who had gone to the tomb: “These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” An idle tale, λῆρος in Greek. If you look up the word, you’ll see all kinds of polite translations: silliness, nonsense, humbug. (Does anyone use the word “humbug”?) Maybe a 2017 translation would use the phrase “fake news.” In any case, on the first Easter morning, the disciples called λῆρος on the good news. “Pics, or it didn’t happen.”
But what was there to see that prove what they knew in their hearts to be true? An empty tomb? Peter ran and saw the tomb for himself, and he looked in and amazed, his mind whirling with possibilities, but not yet joyfully accepting that Jesus was alive. There was a far more likely explanation for what could be seen and touched at the empty tomb: somebody must have taken Jesus’ body away. That would be a crime, a sacrilege, a cruel injury heaped on his already grieving friends. No, a picture of the empty tomb couldn’t have made the case.
What about the two men in dazzling clothes that appeared and told the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”? There’s no way you could know who exactly they were, or whether they were telling the truth.
No, what made the women believe in their heart of hearts that Jesus must be alive wasn’t anything that happened outside of them. It was nothing you could capture in a photograph or share in a YouTube video. “Remember how he told you,” the men said, “while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Again, it wasn’t these words themselves, but the way the women’s hearts leapt for joy at the sound of them: “Then they remembered [Jesus’] words.” Their encounter with angels at the tomb completed a spiritual circuit inside them that Jesus himself had prepared. It wasn’t anything they could prove or demonstrate. It was a joyful awareness, more certain than anything they could see or touch, that Jesus was alive.
And this was good news indeed! Jesus, their friend and teacher, had carried all their hopes for God’s transformation of their lives. He had talked about God’s kingdom, about the way the world is ordered when God is really, truly in charge, when every molecule of creation, every swirling galaxy, and every human heart leaps in joyful response to the Creator’s love. But Jesus did more than just talk. Wherever he went, he made God’s kingdom real. He touched sick people, and they got better. He took and blessed a few loaves and fish, and they fed thousands. He visited sinners—people whose lives had taken a wrong turn and got stuck in a dead end. He visited them without preconditions or questions, and those sinners responded to the love and forgiveness he brought by leaping into a fresh start, righting wrongs, and going in a new direction. Everywhere Jesus went, he made everything fresh and new. But when he came to Jerusalem and bumped up against the religious and secular powers that claimed control over this world, when they seized him and beat him and put him on a cross, it looked like the good news was fake news. When the stone rolled across the entrance of Jesus’ tomb, it was as though his friends’ hopes in him were buried too. To see that massive stone rolled away, to see the tomb empty, to remember his promises, and then to have God switch their hope and their joy back on again—that was amazing news they had to share!
But to the disciples it was all so much λῆρος. Because God is the one who completes the spiritual circuit, who opens your eyes to see the joy and hope and new possibility right in front of your face. Later on in the day Jesus will sidle right up beside two of his friends who will talk with him for hours, and sit down to eat with him, without knowing it’s Jesus! It’s only when he blesses and breaks the bread that the sparks leap across the gap in their hearts, and they light up with joy.
Resurrection is a reality that leaves physical evidence. Jesus was really with those two disciples on the road. His hands broke their bread before he vanished. He went out from the tomb and left his burial wrappings behind. But the witness of scripture is that none of it makes sense, none of it adds up to joy and faith, apart from God reaching inside us to complete the circuit, to open our spiritual eyes. You can take all the pics in the world, and it will still be λῆρος to those whose eyes God has yet to open.
I wonder what it felt like for those women to return from the tomb, so full of joy, only to have their news thrown aside. The resurrection divided the disciples before it brought them together, as those who had not been touched with the gift of faith struggled to understand the change in those who had been. These struggles had the potential to descend into ugliness—would the women’s testimony be discounted simply because they were women? Would certain disciples try to pull rank over others, as they had already done on occasion when Jesus was still with them? But whatever divisions were present at the start don’t seem to have lasted. I like to imagine the women who were at the tomb possessed by an unquenchable joy, and that they kept insisting that Jesus was alive, kept testifying to what they had seen and felt, until at last the male disciples’ spiritual eyes were switched on as well, and they joined the women in belief and hope.
Maybe you have a story you can tell, where something switched on for you. I knew an older woman who was raised in a church where the message she got about faith was that it was about obeying the rules or being punished if you stepped out of line. She found the worship services dour and cheerless. But then, as a young woman, one Easter Sunday her friend brought her to a different kind of church, where bright Easter lilies swayed with joyful music, as the pastor said, “Jesus Christ is risen!” And in that moment, surrounded by others experiencing such joy in the good news, something switched on and she knew it must be true.
“Pics, or it didn’t happen.” That may be a blunt, skeptical demand, but it’s also a call to patient witness. Because even though it’s God who completes the circuit, who opens our eyes to see the resurrected Christ who’s right in front of us, it doesn’t seem to happen apart from contact with Jesus and his message. For the women, it was the memory of Jesus’ words. For the other disciples, it was the witness of the women and others, and then their own personal encounter with Jesus. “Pics, or it didn’t happen.” What if God is speaking through these words to people like you and me? What if we’re being asked to shape our lives into an image of resurrection, to be a visual aid for God to switch on hope and joyful belief in one of our neighbors? What kind of life do you need to live? What does it look like for your life to be evidence of the resurrection?
A skeptical world says, “Fake news.” Doubtful disciples say, λῆρος. A million transient images flicker across our screens every day, some of them false, some of them silly, some of them meaningless. “Pics or it didn’t happen,” we mutter, doubting the good news that is right in front of our eyes. But Christ is risen for us, even before we can see it. The tomb is empty, however much we might still dread it. Death has lost its power, and the sun is rising over a new creation. Where is the evidence? It lies in the forgiveness offered after hurt, the inexplicable generosity of gifts given without expectation of return. The evidence is the image of Christ alive in people like you and me whose lives are shaped by resurrection. And so, as a joyful, hopeful people, let us say, “Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” Amen.