March 31, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“And they remembered His words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
St. Luke does the Eleven no favors in his description of Jesus’ disciples that Sunday morning. He does not hide their doubt and unbelief. He doesn’t conceal their dismissal of the women’s “idle tale.” No spin is found in his gospel. There is the exhibition of the unadulterated truth of the matter—good and ill—so that his audience can hear an accurate portrayal of the events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth.
The Evangelist’s depiction of the Eleven places them in the category of people that St. Paul described in today’s Epistle reading: “people most to be pitied.” It makes us pitiful people, if the resurrection of Jesus never took place, or if we fail to believe it. What would that leave us with? Certainly there would be ritual and a moral philosophy. There would be a group devoted to Jesus’ social teachings. Perhaps there would still be a Christian Democratic Union or Christian Coalition with representatives in parliaments across Europe. But to what end? Without life everlasting, there is no real hope in anything more than this world. In light of what Jesus had said, with no resurrection there is no redemption.
That realization is what plagues the Eleven. They consider three years’ time with Nazareth’s so-called prophet to be wasted. They contemplate their lost hopes and dreams. They could recall the grand entry into Jerusalem and the awe-inspiring Passover they had spent with Jesus. But their minds are also haunted by His betrayal, arrest, beating, and condemnation. They themselves had abandoned Jesus. They wonder what had gone so horribly wrong. And when the women come back with reports of Jesus’ return to life and sights of angels, they dismiss it out-of-hand, an “idle tale” with no basis in cold, hard fact.
But are the Eleven alone in acting that way? Or do we act in the same way? Faced with the failures of our life, with the broken dreams and lost hopes, we doubt. We doubt that there is anything good in life, that there could be something greater than our lives’ troubles. We may even act like the women first did that Sunday morning: “seeking the living among the dead,” looking for solutions among our wisdom, inventiveness, or genius. Turned into ourselves, we see there is no hope, nothing to cling to. And with that mindset, we can even miss the eternal good that is to be found outside of ourselves.
That is what the resurrection account is meant to overcome in our lives. It directs us away from ourselves, away from our own created realities, which will lead us to nothing but death and despair. Into that environment, the resurrection of Christ enters, shining brightly through our gloom. It is unbelievable and unfathomable. It may even seem like an idle tale to us because we know that human beings are powerless over death. We know our weaknesses, and like the disciples, we infer that weakness about Jesus as well.
But exactly there, Jesus’ message—the one repeated by the graveside angel and reported by the faithful women—comes into play. The powerful message of the resurrection hinges on just who has risen from the dead: “Remember how He told you, while He was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”
So much significance and importance is found in that term: “Son of Man.” It tells us that not just any person was laid in the garden tomb near Calvary. The title informs us that He is divine. “Son of Man” is a title of God, the promised Messiah. It is a name with a message like “Son of David” or “Immanuel.” With that, we are forced to put aside our assumptions about human weakness and broken promises and lost hope. If it is God Himself, the Author of Life, the Eternal Word-made-flesh, that hanged dead on the cross and lay still in the tomb, then we can believe that He has power over death itself—just as He says.
That is what the angel’s message reminded the women, the Eleven, and all of us. Those words take the Eleven’s minds back to where there was no doubt, no thoughts that Jesus’ words were idle tales. It takes us back to Galilee earlier in Christ’s ministry, to the place where even Peter himself confessed that Jesus was that Son of Man, the promised Christ. Peter is confronted with his own previous testimony about Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” as well as the prophecy of all the events in Jerusalem that unfolded just as Jesus said.
Confronted with that, Peter’s doubt is eroded away. No longer does he dismiss the women’s report, but sprints to the tomb to see for himself: “But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.” But this is a reaction not of unbelief or doubt, but disbelief: amazement and wonder. Peter also remembers Jesus’ words and sees that they have come true. The events have happened as Jesus had foretold, down to the very last detail—betrayal, death, and resurrection. Promises are kept. Weakness is overcome. Hope is restored.
That is what the news of the resurrection does for each of us. It turns us back to the One more powerful than death, who backs up His promises with actions. The Word that Jesus speaks with His own mouth and through His messengers comes to us, carrying the good news of forgiveness, life, and salvation. It removes trust in ourselves or in our experiences. That misplaced trust is replaced with faith in what Jesus has accomplished on our behalf, relying on Him and His actions, despite what our reason or senses might say.
That message of Jesus carries us back to the events of Gethsemane, the Judgment Hall, and Calvary. It shows that it has all been done with a purpose—that these weren’t just bad happenstance, the result of unfortunate circumstance. Not only a purpose, but that we are the ones meant to benefit. Jesus’ words confront us with the fact that He deliberately endured all this for our sake. Jesus suffers and dies, knowing that this brings us salvation, fulfills the will of the Father, and meets all He has guaranteed. That is what the women experience at the tomb and the Eleven come to realize that first Easter Day. It is also what occurs in each of us, as the message of the Risen Lord enters our hearts and minds.
So we do not consider the women’s report “an idle tale.” Nor do we consider what the apostles handed down to us to be mere legend. Instead, we find in it our hopes restored, our lives reborn, our destinies transformed. We marvel at what has happened, not in unbelief, but in awe, reverence, and wonder. For what has happened to Jesus is what He promises us as our own future.
Thus the apostle, a proclaimer and witness of the Risen Jesus, wrote: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ.” Such news overwhelms doubt, tramples unbelief, removes weakness. This is what this day and every Sunday achieves and reminds us: a time will come when our tombs will be opened and none shall find us remaining in them. So it shall be, since our Lord Jesus Christ “has been raised from the dead,” and our enemy death is destined to be destroyed forever.
Let that cause your reaction of joy on this day, no longer considering Jesus’ words and works and the Church’s confession of them to be idle or worthless, but an eternal treasure which is stored up for you with the Risen Lord in heaven: the promise of your own everlasting life.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.