Sunday, April 4, 2021

Words Can Never Capture It

April 4, 2021 – Easter Sunday
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8[1]

If there is one event that is crucial to the Christian faith, it is the Resurrection of Jesus. Yet the four texts which tell the story do not agree on the details. Fear not, however, for the truth is much greater than the words that tell the tale.

The four Gospels were each composed at a different time and place. Mark was written first, probably in the late 60s, the zero-sixties, that is. Luke and Matthew were written within a year or two of each other near the end of the first century. Each of them contains material from Mark’s Gospel and a second common source called the Q-source, yet each has original material not found elsewhere. John was written last, and in a very different style.

If we were to read these stories, one after the other, we would easily notice the differences. Who went to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week? Mark says it was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Luke tells us it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who had come with Jesus from Galilee. He also tells us that Peter took a look in the empty tomb as well. Matthew mentions Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. And John simply says that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb while it was still dark. Her report sent Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, racing for the tomb to look inside.

Whom did the women meet at the tomb? Mark says the herald of the resurrection was a young man, dressed in a white robe. Luke says it was two men in dazzling clothes. Matthew tells of a great earthquake and an angel of the Lord whose appearance was like lightning and whose clothing was white as snow. And, on the way to tell the disciples, the women were greeted by Jesus himself! And John has no one waiting at the tomb at first. Only after Simon Peter and the other disciple have come and gone does Mary Magdalene see two angels in white sitting in the tomb, and Jesus, whom she mistook for a gardener.

Where did the risen Christ appear to the disciples? Mark does not record an appearance, but says only that he has gone ahead to Galilee. In Luke, Jesus first appears on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, though Cleopas and Simon don’t recognize him until he breaks the bread and gives it to them. Then, back in Jerusalem, he appears to all the disciples. He leads them to Bethany, where he ascends into heaven. Matthew has Jesus appear to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary as they run to tell the disciples. Then the eleven gather to worship Jesus on a mountain in Galilee. In John, Mary Magdalene finds him standing near the tomb. That evening he appears to the disciples in a house, presumably in Jerusalem, and again a week later when the doubting Thomas sees him and believes. Finally, Jesus shows himself again by the Sea of Tiberias in Galilee.

Now, I haven’t told you all of these things in order to shake your faith or to make you doubt the resurrection. Indeed, there is no question that something happened that morning which had incredible power. As Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong writes, “Its power was sufficient to reconstitute a scattered and demoralized band of disciples. Its reality was profound enough to turn a denying Peter into a witnessing and martyred Peter, and to turn disciples who fled for their lives into heroes willing to die for their Lord.”[2] I want you to consider that the words we read can only point to the experience, but can never capture it.

The words came later. A life-altering experience takes time to process. Mark tells us that the women said nothing to anyone, at least at first. How can you put such an epiphany into human speech? Maybe that’s why the first writings about Jesus came many years later. Imagine trying to put into words the most amazing experience of your life, all that led up to it, and all that it means and might mean.

Bishop Spong writes that the words used to describe the resurrection are inadequate. “The power of Easter is both real and eternal, but the words used by human beings to narrate truth can themselves only point to that truth. They can never capture it.”[3] Words, however imperfect, are our best means of sharing the truth of the resurrection, “a truth that is never captured in mere words but a truth that is real, a truth that when experienced erupts within us in expanding ways, calling us simultaneously, deeper and deeper into life and, not coincidentally, deeper and deeper into God.”[4]

And so, we read and hear the scriptures, however limited and imperfect, however distant from us in time and culture, because they point to Easter. The words written in the Gospels are the gateway though which we enter the experience of Mary and Peter and all the others, the experience of knowing God in the life of a human being, the experience of burying Jesus and seeing him alive again, the experience that lies at the heart of Christian faith and life.

What do the words tell us? Early in the morning, the women went to the tomb. The stone had been rolled back. Mary stood weeping. Someone spoke. Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, has been raised. The words of the women seemed an idle tale, yet Mary was firm, “I have seen the Lord.”[5] Thomas doubted, but saw, and believed, “My Lord and my God!”[6]

As the words were found and spoken, as the story began to be told, the power of that moment was revealed in the transformation of those who had witnessed the resurrected Christ. A small group of disciples, whose leader was brutally executed as a rebel bandit, who betrayed, denied, and fled, were convinced that they had seen Jesus, not as a ghost, but alive, became courageous, proclaimed Jesus as Lord in the face of imprisonment and death, and spread the good news of Jesus Christ to all nations. Saul, the zealot famous for persecuting the followers, received the grace of God, and became Paul the greatest evangelist. What happened on Easter is more than any words could hope to express. “Peace be with you.”[7] “Receive the Holy Spirit.”[8] “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[9]  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 223.

[3] Ibid, p. 225.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John 20:18.

[6] John 20:28.

[7] John 20:19.

[8] John 20:22.

[9] Matthew 28:20.

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