Dragnet, CSI, and Easter

Remember that guy named Joe Friday from team Dragnet? He became famous for the question “Just the facts ma’am.” How about that television show CSI? Anyone a fan? If so, then you know everything is dependent on the evidence. Here’s the facts. We live in a dragnet, CSI kind of world. We comfort ourselves with facts and evidence.

Here’s the facts based on Luke’s account of Easter. It was Sunday. It was early in the morning. It was the women finding the empty tomb. It was two men wearing clothes like lightning who spoke “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here – he has risen!” These men went on to tell the women “remember he said he would be crucified and rise again on the third day?” It’s not in the text but we know what they said next – “Guess what day it is?”

The text seems to go out of its way to make sure we know it was the women who found the empty tomb. We even get names; Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, mother of James, and others. This is who tells the Easter news to the other disciples. The text tells us the other disciples thought this sounded like nonsense. We know what they must’ve been thinking “Where is the evidence?”

Things were more primitive then. We know what they needed was a good CSI team. Some good detective work may have taken care of this situation. If it were us, we would have dusted for fingerprints, photographed footprints, taken a linen sample from the graveclothes, interviewed the angels, estimated the weight of the stone and how many people it would take to move it. If the women would have brought back this type of evidence no one would have accused them of nonsense.

We are fascinated by evidence. If we can figure Easter out, then we can fit it in with the rest of our story. Easter could have a place next to other notable occasions. But as it is, Easter is a little dangerous. A resurrection from the dead that cannot be explained makes us a little nervous. But Easter doesn’t fit in the world’s evidence-based way of thinking. Easter introduces a new worldview. Easter invites us to start thinking differently.

Here’s a fact, more facts won’t make salvation more accessible. If that book in the religious section convinces us resurrection is possible, if some new discovery is dug out of the sands of the Holy Land, if some lawyer type makes an undisputable claim, if some preacher gives three good reasons to believe in the resurrection, if the shroud of Turin is authentic, if those really are the crown of thorns rescued from burning Notre Dame – does the gospel suddenly become more real?

The gospel is not trying to sway us with physical evidence. The gospel isn’t even interested in giving a doctrine of resurrection. We might be fascinated by new finds but this stuff does not impress the gospel. The gospel does not allow us to stay in that place for long. Instead, it wants to move on to the real news. God is alive and on the loose.

We haven’t got this Jesus figured out. We can’t put Jesus on the shelf, can’t lock him up in a safe box, can’t claim to know his next move, as it turns out – can’t even seal him in a tomb. That is part of what is so great about those women who went to the tomb. Luke seems to be saying “will someone just listen to these women?”

The gospel wants us to understand that we cannot simply put God in some place. We can form our best definition of God. We can give our best description of God. We can make our best guess about how God creates, loves, saves – but God will still be more. God will simply not stay where we try to fit him.

One would think if we killed him, wrapped him in graveclothes, and sealed him up in a tomb – he would still be there when we went to find him. Easter reminds us, that’s not the way it works with God. As it turns out, God is a hard one to figure out. We can put God in a tomb, but that doesn’t mean we will find him there in the morning.

It is not easy to admit we haven’t got something figured out. It is much easier to disregard what we do not understand. But if we take this old text seriously, we will believe in a God who behaves unpredictably. We will believe in a God who is impossible to hold down, impossible to seal inside of a tomb. We will believe that God is on the loose.

And this God might just invade our lives in ways we are not ready for. As two men dressed like lightning reminded us, Jesus said it would happen like this. He said he would be crucified and rise again on the third day. It might not say it in the text but we know what they were thinking – “Guess what day it is!”

An Extravagant Hope

Early in the Gospel there is a familiar scene with two characters, a virgin and an angel. We often think of it as a seasonal scene. But there is nothing seasonal about its message. They have a conversation about something impossible. But the angel makes it clear that nothing is impossible with God.

The fact is, God seems to spend a lot of time in the place we call impossible. The entire bible is full of scenarios that can be described as impossible. We know that people cannot survive fiery furnaces. We know that axe heads do not float. We know that virgins do not have children. And we know that dead people do not come back to life. We know that some things are simply impossible.

The final chapter of Matthew’s Gospel brings us to another familiar scene. It was a Sunday. Guards were attempting to follow orders at the cemetery. Women arrive to find that the stone in front of the tomb had been moved. An angel was sitting on top of the stone. (For some reason I love that detail).

The angel speaks. He says something like “Sorry if I frightened you. Don’t be afraid. But if you came looking for Jesus, he is not here. Take a look. Then go tell his disciples.” This might have been the same angel that visited the virgin early in the gospel. This might be the same angel who earlier wanted us to know that nothing is impossible with God. Perhaps he is present here to remind us of that very thing.

God enters places we call impossible and Matthew wants us to know that even there we can expect God’s possibility. God is always surprising us with more and better. God is always making a way out of no way. But the scene we find in Matthew brings us to a question. “What happens next?”

Matthew gives us an answer. After witnessing life after death, now that we live in a world where nothing is impossible with God, it is time for the people of God to begin living in ways to show how the world has changed. It may still seem impossible that a group of people can start living in such a way that the world changes.

It may seem impossible that the group who gathers at your church on Sunday mornings can be part of such a significant plan to change the world. Yet, here we are in the gospel and realizing that is exactly what God has planned for us. The fact is, if Jesus can be raised from the dead, surely he has the authority to change the world. Even through unlikely people like us. Because nothing is impossible with God.

The First Day

Along the west shore of the Susquehanna River, tucked between the Juniata and Sherman’s Creek, almost hidden in the shadow of Cove Mountain, lays the borough of Duncannon. This is where you will find me on the first day of the week. There I gather with others of a similar mind about what has taken place on this day.

Genesis starts off from the beginning telling us how eventful the first day was. We go from “darkness was over the surface of the waters” to “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Needless to say, this move from darkness to light is a significant one.

Perhaps no day has ever been more eventful than one described by the Gospel. John takes us from “they saw that He was already dead” to “the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” to “on that day, the first day of the week… Jesus came and stood in their midst.” At the risk of understatement, it is quite a move from death to life.

We are reminded again of the unpredictability of the first day when Acts reports that people “from every nation” began to “hear in our own language.” Again, just to highlight the obvious. It is quite a move from isolation and division to community.

So we gather on this day and in this place with expectation. We realize that surprise is always a possibility. We believe the miraculous can occur on any day, we are simply acknowledging a serious precedent for unpredictability on this day, the first day of the week. A day the Trinity has already been extremely active. When I think of what has already taken place on this day all I can say is “wow.”

Easter and a New World

Each of the Gospels takes us to the cemetery on Sunday morning. A scene of some confusion and surprise. The Gospels bring us to this place so we know how much things have changed. In case there were doubts before, what happened in the Jerusalem cemetery suggests the world is different now.

In Mark’s Gospel we arrive at the scene alongside women who intend to perform a ritual for dead bodies. Perhaps it is noteworthy Mark has told us all along how difficult it is to be a disciple. Though readers are told from the start Jesus is the son of God, disciples still ask “Who is this?” One of them even offers Jesus advice on how kings should rule kingdoms. Of course, Jesus replies “Get behind me.” On this Sunday at the cemetery it seems they finally know what to expect from Jesus. After all, he is sealed in a tomb behind an extremely large stone.

Instead, Mark’s Gospel tells us that things have changed. Instead of dead Jesus we find a young man in a white robe and the women run away trembling, astonished, and afraid. Just the day before they thought they understood how things work. But on this Sunday morning we wake to discover the world is different now. And can never be the same again.

Risen: a Response to the Movie

I like the movie. I like the way it begins with the question “Have you traveled far Tribune?” I like the way the rest of the movie answers that question. The Tribune, Clavius, is a fictional character inserted into the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection. Clavius is given the assignment of finishing the job at Golgotha and finding the missing body of the crucified Jesus. As seen through the eyes of this character, Risen allows us to view the resurrection from a different perspective.

For myself, I would have found Risen even more entertaining if the search for the missing Jesus would have lasted even longer. What would it have been like for Clavius to find himself just one step behind the disciples for a few more scenes?

The movie did leave me with some questions. For one, I am wondering why Tiberius is visiting Jerusalem. Perhaps the movie makers felt this helps make sense of Pilate’s desire to keep peace in the city. I am also wondering why the grave clothes were not folded. Perhaps this occurs so the shroud of Turin could make an appearance. And I wonder if sixth century preacher Pope Gregory the Great knew he would be so influential when he decided to turn Mary Magdalene into a prostitute.

I like the early statement by Clavius when summoned by Pilate “I am sticky with filth.” At the time he says this it is literally the case as he has just led his soldiers in battle against insurrectionists. But as the movie moves along I wonder if it is intended in theological fashion as well.

I really liked the way the sky darkens and the earth quakes as Clavius is on his way to Golgotha. I like the way he stops soldiers from breaking the bones of dead Jesus when he arrives at the scene of the crucifixion. I like the way the centurion declares him innocent. Those familiar with the text will understand why I like these things.

Although I wish the chase for the disappearing body of Jesus would have lasted a little longer, I do like the words of Clavius at the turning point of the movie. “I have seen two things which cannot reconcile: A man dead without question, and that same man alive again. I pursue Him, the Nazarene, to ferret the truth.”

The portrayal of Pontius Pilate is convincing. So are the portrayal of Caiaphas and the portrayal of Joseph. I also like the portrayal of Peter. My favorite scene involving Peter is during conversation with Clavius when he says “I haven’t every answer. We’re astonished too.” He then adds “We are followers. We follow to find out.”

I am not sure why Bartholomew is presented as such a giddy disciple. When the others climbed onto a fishing boat at the Sea of Galilee, I expected him to pull out a surf board. This prompted one writer to title his review “Dude, Where’s My Christ?” I also have a favorite scene involving Bartholomew. While in Galilee, Clavius asks Bartholomew if he expected resurrection. Bartholomew tells him he had doubts. Clavius then asks why he decided to follow. This conversation is interrupted as a leper enters the scene. Of course, Jesus heals the leper. At this point, Bartholomew turns to Clavius and says “That’s why.”

Perhaps my favorite line is the movie is the final line spoken by Pontius Pilate. Upon discovering that the whereabouts of the disciples are unknown he replies “I doubt we’ll ever hear from them again.” The movie then returns back to the place where Tribune Clavius was asked if he had traveled far. When we met Clavius he was praying to a pagan god Mars and he is now following a crucified Nazarene. Clavius answers “I can never be the same again.” Clavius has indeed traveled far.

Easter: Part of an Emotional Story

Another lap through Holy Week and we are here at Easter.  We cover the spectrum of emotions during this week.  Walking through the Gospel we may experience confusion, misunderstanding, fear, despair, heartbreak.  The Gospels do not edit out emotions of sadness.  Those who felt them, those who said the words, and those who committed the deeds all remain part of the story.  Enemies, betrayers, deniers, and executioners are not glossed over.  The Gospel hands us a palm branch, bread and cup, and a view of the cross.  Holy week is meant to evoke emotion.  The Gospel desires that we experience them all.

We also experience joy and hope.  At Easter we experience the empty tomb.  We experience His return to life.  We experience His victory over death.  We experience His presence with us.  Sometimes when we think of following Jesus we try to pick and choose the emotions that are part of the story.  The Gospels already give us a full gamut of emotions involved.  We may be tempted to think that we should feel only the ecstasy of Sunday morning, but the Gospels want us to experience a week’s worth of emotion.  To do anything else is to fail to take the story seriously.

Whether you worship in the shadows with somber readings and increasing darkness on Good Friday or in the cemetery on Easter Sunday by blowing the shofar and declaring again that He is risen, may you experience the whole story.

Behind Jesus

“But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.’  They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Reading Mark’s narrative about the resurrection leaves us hanging a little.  Or at least it should.  While we may be convinced that Mark ended his Gospel in a way that later influenced Matthew and Luke, we are left with “they were afraid.”  That a well-meaning scribe imposed an ending that we find in our bible with a foot note about its authenticity reminds us that we are not the first to think that it ends abruptly.

Throughout Mark’s Gospel, there has been a breathless effort to keep up with Jesus.  Disciples have trouble following Jesus all along the way.  They awake Easter morning thinking that it will be easy to keep up with him now.  Thinking that he is sealed in a tomb at the cemetery.  Only to find out that he has gone before them into Galilee.  Where they are again to follow.

Disciples have already been asked to follow Jesus.  They are to follow him now.  It is no surprise that they are expected to follow the Risen Lord into Galilee (or anywhere for that matter).

Mark tells us that the ways of God are different from the ways of man but I still find myself thinking that it would have been a good Easter scene for Jesus to stroll into Pilate’s office on Easter and say “remember me?”  But like Peter in chapter eight, I am reminded that my plan may not be his plan.  Instead, I simply must get behind him – and follow.

Premonitions of Easter

In the Gospel of Mark we find a series of miracle stories in chapters 4-5.  The first takes place on the sea, the second on the other side from Galilee, and the third back on the Galilean side after the return trip.

The movement in these miracle stories is particularly interesting.  Robert Gundry notes that they seem to progress from the stilling of the storm at sea where there is the fear of death.  To the exorcising of unclean spirits who forced their victim to dwell in the realm of death (tombs).  And finally to the raising of a twelve-year-old girl from death.  Mark wants to be sure that we are aware that Jesus has power over death.

Other movement that strikes me in this section is that Jesus sails across the sea through the fear of death to minister to just one demoniac on the other side.  I can’t help but think that efficiency and common sense are not the tools Jesus works with to find the lost.

And then we find Jesus on his way to visit the twelve-year-old girl who is near death.  This situation seems to demand some urgency.  Yet, Jesus is interrupted along the way.  A woman touches his outer garment.  I can’t help but notice that Jesus seems to welcome the interruption.  Even in the midst of dealing with life and death, Mark shows us Jesus’ interest in an individual.

All this makes this section of Mark excellent reading during this time of year when we become more intentional about implications regarding the death of Jesus.  And his eventual victory over death.  Here are premonitions of Easter!

Never the Same

Easter morning. The sun is shining. Things are growing. Birds are singing. Restaurants open for breakfast. Wegmans and Wal-Mart and Sheetz are open for those who think they need to purchase something today. Grandmothers are getting started on an Easter ham. Children scurrying around to find colored eggs. We gather to sing. To pray. To report again that the tomb was found empty. We get together to announce that no matter how things appeared, life would never be business as usual. It is Easter and we are reminded that things would never be the same again. Easter is the reason that the church is here.

In fact, the church is the response to the risen Christ in the world. The same sun still rose in the east that Sunday. The same Caesar crawled out of bed, stretched, scratched, and called for breakfast. The same people set up their shops in the streets of Jerusalem and hung their wares for people to see. Beggars took their place at the same street corners. Yet, in spite of the way things looked – everything had changed. A small group began to gather. Breathless women were talking about an empty tomb and angels. Two men ran from Emmaus in the dark to tell how their hearts were burning. Jesus joins them.

As then, today the same sun rose. The same authorities woke up thinking they were in control. The same restaurants opened for breakfast. The same rituals and games were played in living rooms and backyards. The same families gathered around an Easter ham. And we gather together because we know what happened in the cemetery that morning. Because he rose from the dead, everything is changed. Because of what happened on Easter, we still get together. And as then, he still joins us.