Text: John 20:1-18
Several years ago, Hollywood discovered that Americans are wild about forensic science. Apparently there is no detail about blood, hair, and other human remains that we don’t find fascinating. Therefore, in the great entertainment tradition, television executives decided if one show about crime scene investigation is good, six would be even better.
What is it about these programs that makes them popular? Perhaps it is the mystery that must be solved using only the clues from the crime scene. Or, it could be the challenge of figuring out which theories of the crime one should pursue and which ones to leave alone. It’s all a bit of an intellectual game, kind of like a crossword puzzle. Only, instead of word clues, you get dead bodies with curious features present or missing. And the stars of the shows are the brilliant forensic scientists who analyze the gruesome details without getting too emotionally involved in their work. After all, a certain level of detachment is necessary if one is to solve the crime.
If you take the resurrection accounts in the four Gospels at face value, you quickly realize you are dealing with a crime scene. The body of Jesus is missing and lots of people are trying to figure out what happened to it. But as you may know from watching CSI and other shows like it, one must be very careful with eyewitness accounts. Though one would think that an eyewitness would be the most valuable asset in solving a mystery, this is often not the case. Eyewitnesses tend to remember things differently, and the four Gospels are a perfect illustration of this truth.
We have read the Gospel of John’s account of the resurrection this morning. In it, Mary Magdalene discovers the body of Jesus is missing, goes to tell Peter and John who race to see for themselves, and then Mary is confronted by two angels who explain that Jesus is risen. The scene concludes with Mary mistaking Jesus for a gardener and only after he speaks to her does she recognize him.
If we had read this same account in Mark’s Gospel, we would have found three women going to the tomb and one young man dressed in white as the messenger, but no gardener. In Matthew, two women go to the tomb and one Angel of the Lord descends to roll back the stone and knock out the guards who were watching over the tomb. In Luke a whole group of women go to the tomb and see two men dressed in dazzling clothes who announce the resurrection. The details change with each telling, and some of the basic facts do as well. In some of the Gospels (Mark) the witnesses are too scared to speak of what they have seen, while in other Gospels they can’t wait to tell the disciples (Luke). And one Gospel splits the difference and says they were filled with fear and great joy (Matthew).
If the missing body of Jesus were part of a television drama, we would just now be getting to the interesting part. Four different stories with lots of differing, even contradictory details present themselves. We are drawn in by these curious variations, trying to make sense of it all. We begin to form theories and accept some evidence as more credible than other evidence. It’s kind of fun, certainly stimulating, and ultimately absurd.
By turning the Easter story into a CSI episode we not only miss the point; we miss the whole genre. Applying crime scene tools to the resurrection accounts is the equivalent of bringing out a kicking tee in a basketball game. You can try to get everyone to stop and put the ball on the tee, but chances are they are going to blow by you on a fast break to the other end of the court.
Yes, those who would dwell on the contradictions and variations of the Bible’s resurrection accounts are the ones who read C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and try to figure out the defect in the back of the wardrobe closet that allows one to enter into a fantasy world. Or those who read Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and try to figure out why Doc doesn’t prescribe an antihistamine for Sneezy. Do you see what I am getting at? To fixate on the details of these stories will cause you to miss the bigger message, and the bigger message is the whole point to these stories.
So, what is the bigger message of Easter beyond the obvious that Jesus’ body is missing? To get the full picture we must start much earlier in the story. From the beginning of Jesus’ life many of the crucial events took place in darkness. He is born in a dark stable because there is no room in the inn. His parents escape with him to Egypt in the middle of the night to avoid the murderous rage of King Herod. Once his ministry begins, there is still much darkness surrounding Jesus. He calms the storm at night when the disciples are certain they will die. He is betrayed and arrested in a garden at night. He is given a sham trial and beaten before the sun is up. And when he is crucified, we are told the world turns dark for three hours. Yes, Jesus is no stranger to the danger of the darkness.
One of the things that I respect about the Christian tradition is that it doesn’t hide the tragedies of life. The Gospel story is not a story about how everything works out just fine in the end. No, actually, some terribly unjust things happen along the way and we can’t deny it. Any religion whose central figure is an innocent victim of capital punishment is not a religion afraid to name the tragic dimensions of life. There is much darkness in this world, and in that darkness is the absence of God. To “get” Easter one must first accept this reality.
The next feature of the Gospel’s message is that when God does appear it is usually in the form of something or someone absurd. If you think seven dysfunctional dwarfs saving a princess is unlikely, or a group of children going through a wardrobe closet to save the world is odd, then the Bible’s heroes will really stretch you. From the beginning of Genesis those who are entrusted with God’s message are not only surprising choices; they are usually perfectly unsuitable choices. Abraham, a man all too willing to sacrifice his own two sons, is the father of the Israelite nation. His grandson, Jacob, a man whose primary character trait is an ability to deceive his closest loved ones, is the father of the twelve tribes. Moses, a man guilty of murder who has a terror of speaking in public, is called by God to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Later King David, another murderer and a man prone to extreme violence, becomes the most beloved leader in Israel’s history. The one thread connecting all of these characters is the simple fact that they are horribly flawed. And we haven’t even gotten to the New Testament yet.
In the Gospels we find that the supporting cast surrounding Jesus includes his unmarried, pregnant mother; twelve followers who are so consistently clueless about his teaching and mission that they are better suited to be characters in a Dukes of Hazzard episode; and an endless stream of tax cheats, prostitutes, and little children all of whom are extolled by Jesus as the ones who truly understand him and his mission.
So before we even try to grasp the bigger message of Easter, we must first embrace these two truths. First, the tragic dimensions of life are real and persistent, and in that darkness we consistently experience what Luther called the Deus Absconditus, the hidden God. Second, God stealthily enters into the world in the form of absurd, almost ludicrous characters who seem uniquely unsuited for the task. There is a comic dimension to this part of the story. After all, who sends a peasant carpenter to be the savior of the world? The humor of Jesus as the king of the Jews is so thorough that this title is nailed to his cross in three different languages just so everyone gets the joke.
And only if we first understand the Gospel as tragedy and comedy, as Frederick Buechner would say, can we be ready to “get” Easter. The mystery and the power of Easter are not found by acting like curious crime scene investigators who analyze how many women or angels or gardeners were present at the empty tomb. No, before you can embrace Easter you must be willing to surrender your detachment, let go of your skepticism, and jump. How do we do that? In the same way we walk through the back of that wardrobe with Lucy and feel the snow under our feet; in the same way we go through the looking glass with Alice. To get the Gospel message we must first understand what kind of story this is. It isn’t a detective mystery waiting to be solved; it is a fairy tale waiting to be entered. And only by suspending our disbelief and stepping into that empty tomb do we start to feel the power and magic and truth of the resurrection. For the point of a fairy tale is not to prove something to us using talking animals or animated characters. Of course not. The point of a fairy tale is to draw us in unsuspecting and suddenly hit us with truths that are so overwhelming and undeniable that we feel tears running down our cheeks before we even know what happened.
So what is this larger message of Easter that comes only when we acknowledge the tragic and comic dimensions of the story first, and only after setting aside our forensic science tools for a moment? Simply this: death loses; the darkness is overcome by the light; justice will ultimately conquer injustice.
The power of this truth is such that we can casually dismiss it as childish fantasy until we sing full-throated “he shall reign forever and ever” and be filled with faith. We can be convinced that inequality is a mammoth mountain that will never be scaled and wake up one morning to discover same-sex marriage is now legal in Iowa. (Which was about as likely as dead men showing up to play baseball in a cornfield in Iowa.) We can be comfortable doubters all of our lives and then a black man from Hawaii becomes president and chills go down our spine. To appreciate what Barack Obama’s election means one must go back to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and see Dr. King lying in a pool of his own blood. To go from that scene, to this year’s inauguration in a single generation, is so powerful and mysterious it will make you pleasantly dizzy to ponder it.
Yes, the power of resurrection is not that it denies the darkness, but that it stands in the darkness and is not overcome by it. Our losses are real; our heartache and loneliness are real; our despair is real; and even so they are not the final word. Because God continues to send terribly flawed, almost comically inept, characters into the world, and into our lives, who bring the seeds of resurrection with them. And if we will step through the back of the wardrobe or into the looking glass or into the chambers of the Iowa Supreme Court we just may sense those seeds taking root and beginning to blossom.
This is the message of Easter; this is the power of resurrection; so pick up your bells and get ready to ring. For Christ the Lord is risen today! Alleluia!
I am indebted to Frederick Buechners’s book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale for the inspiration and insights contained in this sermon.