Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James were among the women who were the first witnesses of the empty tomb, and the first recipients of the angels’ message that Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead. When they hurried back to tell Jesus’ disciples this astonishing news, the men did not believe the women; as the text this morning says, “their words seemed to them an idle tale.”
And so began humanity’s deep suspicion of Jesus’ resurrection: it sounds like a tale that seems too good to be true. This suspicion began with his disciples, the very ones who had been told repeatedly by Jesus that He must first die and then be raised.
Hard to blame them though – who would ever expect something so bizarre and unnatural as a man returning from the dead? Their hopes had been shattered on Friday. The man they had put their trust in had been judged a fraud, a criminal, a menace to society; he was disgraced, derided, discarded and put to death. All the talk, all the miracles, all the hope, all the promise – it was all just too good to be true. After his crucifixion, they must have felt like fools. So when the women came with their wild report, they said – like The Who in the classic Live at Leeds version of the song – “We won’t get fooled again! No, no, no, no, no!” Away with your idle tale.
The disciples begin a well-worn suspicion of Jesus’ resurrection that is nursed across the centuries. Not only is there no real resurrection, the certainty and finality of death renders life meaningless. As Macbeth says, life itself is a an idle tale, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Or as Macbeth’s philosophical heir Jason Compson, the patriarch of Faulkner’s crumbling family in Yoknapatawpha County, says the “reducto absurdum of all human experience…reveals to a man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.” In the case of our scripture this morning, victory is an illusion of a few foolish women, wanting to believe something that could not possibly be true. We won’t get fooled again.
They are like the Dwarves in the post resurrection scene of the Chronicles of Narnia. Aslan, the Great Lion has been raised from the dead and all is joy, and freedom and sunlight. But the Dwarves think it’s an idle tale; they think they are still locked up in a foul-smelling black hole. Even when presented with evidence to the contrary, they refuse to believe. And they are quite proud of themselves: “Well, at any rate,” they say, “there is no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in.” Aslan says they have opted for cunning rather than belief.
This kind of thinking has made itself at home in many mainline churches, even on Easter morning. It sounds something like this: of course the idle tale of the women isn’t to be taken literally. Yes, the disciples had an “experience of Jesus” after his death. They felt something “spiritual.” The resurrection story is only a symbol of a greater meaning, a meaning accessed now in the return of flowers in Spring, the new of little chicks hatching, the universal Life Force present in all creation. You will hear about renewal, or rebirth, or revival, but rarely resurrection.
Look, little chicks grow up to be chickens. We’ve got chickens and they are routinely slaughtered by foxes, hawks, and raccoons. I can assure you that a disemboweled chicken does not make me think of renewal.
I’m more sympathetic to Macbeth’s and Compson’s nihilism than I am to the purely spiritualized interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection. That is because life is difficult and sometimes meaning eludes us. Much of our experience is the aftermath of Good Friday. To live is to suffer. I think this is what Flannery O’Connor meant when she quipped, “Anyone who as survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
New York Times writer Frank Bruni addressed this in an insightful Op Ed called “The Best Restaurant if You’re Over 50.” (This is an apt illustration because you will be thinking about food at some point on Easter Day: Lamb? Ham? Hot Cross Buns?). “What you want from restaurants, it turns out, is a proxy for what you want from love and from life…. When I was 34, I wanted bling, because it persuaded me that I was special. When I was 44, I wanted blinis, because they made me feel sophisticated. At 54, I just want martinis….” (The preacher this morning is exactly 54, by the way, and very much relates to this illustration.)
Bruni says that when you are young, you want to go to the hot restaurant, jockey for a table and be dazzled by the chef. When you get older you want a place where you can hear your friends talk at the table and count on good, predictable food. He closes with a friend’s quote, “I used to care about being entertained, and now being soothed feels more important. Life, it turns out, is hard.”
Life, it turns out, is hard, which is the very reason that we need more than just a symbol of hope or a vague, spiritualized presence. We need more than what nature, even in spring, can give us. We definitely need more than just an idle tale. And that brings us back to Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James.
Why include the names in such detail in this resurrection account? Because they were eyewitnesses! If someone reading or hearing this account wanted to verify the facts, they could track down Joanna and ask her. Or Mary Magdalene. Or James’ mother. They were there. (FYI: someone making up a story about the empty tomb would never have included women as the first eyewitnesses in that patriarchal society: that would have totally undermined the credibility!)
And we have more than just the empty tomb to go on. Later in the chapter Jesus himself appears to his disciples. And as if to dispel later theories about his resurrection being just a symbol, He says, “Why do doubts arise in your mind? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I, myself! Touch me and see. A ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
Turns out that Jesus was thinking about food on Easter Day too. He asks for a bite to eat and is given some broiled fish, which apparently is the best food for those who have been recently resurrected? These pedestrian details are there for a reason – they tell us that this is no idle tale. Jesus has not only survived childhood; He has survived death itself! Now, we’re onto the real meaning of Easter.
Life, it turns out, is hard, which is why St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Is an idle tale or spiritual symbolism enough to combat the twin powers of Sin and Death? Of meaninglessness, nihilism and despair? No, No, No, No, No!
You did not get out of bed this morning to hear that the azaleas are in bloom. You came to hear that Jesus Christ has trampled down death by his own death, and has been raised to life – real life with a real body. You came to hear that you too shall be raised, and death shall have no dominion over you. In the words of St. Paul, “In Christ all shall be made alive!” Jesus’ resurrection imports meaning back into to your life right now. Jesus’ resurrection means that your future will be more glorious, more real than you can even imagine.
I’ll close with a short vignette. Right before I hired Marilu, I got a little nervous. I had interviewed her and read her references and it all seemed to good to be true. She was just who we needed at Christ Church. But I had one more question for her. “I’ve just got to ask this, Marilu. We really believe it all here – the Virgin Birth, all the miracles, and especially His actual resurrection from dead. If it’s not true, then why bother? So… um.. do you…” Marilu looked at me and laughed. “I was wondering the same thing about you! Of course I believe! I’ll take the job!”
Of course belief in the resurrection does not belong to us. It belongs to the church universal. That means it belongs to you on this Easter Day.
Jesus Christ is risen today! Alleluia. Our triumphant holy day!