Hard to Believe
By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
Every Saturday in my e-mail appears a fascinating column called “This is True.” This is what came last week:
“According to the officers on the scene, she told them she was attempting to reenact a scene from the movie,” said New Britain, Conn. police spokesman Sgt. Darren Pearson. The movie: “The Passion of the Christ.” The unnamed woman, married and in her 40’s, purposefully drove her Chevrolet Lumina into a pond at a city park in order to baptize herself, officers said. She was taken to a hospital for a mental evaluation. (New Britain Herald) Uh huh. Who will ever be able to forget the moving scene when Jesus drives his Chevy into the baptismal pool?
Another one. A man in Somerset County, Vt. apparently intent on suicide, built a cross in his living room and attempted to crucify himself by nailing one of his hands to one side with a 14-penny nail. The unnamed 23-year-old then had a logistical problem. “When he realized that he was unable to nail his other hand to the board, he called 9-1-1,” said Sheriff Barry DeLong, who noted it was unclear whether the man wanted help getting free, or help in nailing his free hand. (Bangor Daily News) Which, of course, gives new meaning to the police slang, “We nailed the suspect.”
Hard to believe.
Truth be told, so was the story the women came back with after their trip to the tomb. They had gone very early to finish their gruesome labor of love, the embalming of the battered body of their dear friend. What they found was a stone rolled away. What they did NOT find was a body. As they looked at one another bewildered, scripture says, “suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them…’Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ they asked. ‘He is not here; he has risen!'” Then they continued with a reminder of what they had heard from Jesus himself before – the prediction of being “delivered into the hands of sinful men, being crucified and on the third day being raised again.” They remembered. But it was still hard to believe.
What to do now? Go tell the men. And the men’s reaction? In the words of the text, “They did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”
What would you have thought? Move the scene forward 2,000 years. A dear friend has died an agonizing death. You are responsible for handling arrangements but cannot get to the funeral home immediately because of prior commitments. Two days later you arrive to finalize details, and you are told that, as of that morning, the body is no longer there. What? Where is it? Why was he moved? What do you mean no one moved him? He is just gone…poof! Perhaps like Peter you would rush to the preparation area to verify what you have just heard, and finding nothing but the shroud you too might “wonder.” But, most likely, that wondering would focus on what idiot had done something so monumentally incompetent. Be honest: after hearing about resurrection for how many Easters, would it even cross your mind that the appropriate response would be to glorify God that your once deceased friend now lives?
This past week, we heard the news from Tyler, Texas that 39-year-old Deanna Laney, on trial for killing her two sons and injuring a third by bashing their heads in with rocks last Mothers Day, was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She said she refused anti-psychotic medication after her arrest until her oldest son failed to rise from the dead on his ninth birthday as she had expected.(1) Crazy, they say. What would you say?
To be honest, these questions are not at all new. Even in the life of the first century church the questions were raised. The Apostle Paul was concerned enough about the skepticism that he addressed the issue at length in a letter to the church at Corinth. He starts off by reminding them of the preaching that they have heard from day one: “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day…”(2) Then he continues with a list of those who saw the risen Christ, witnesses – Peter, then to the disciples gathered in the locked Upper Room; there was one appearance about which we know no details which was witnessed by more than five hundred at the same time, most of whom are still alive (and presumably willing to verify), says Paul; he appeared to James, then to all the apostles again, and last of all, Paul writes “he appeared to me also” on the Damascus Road. Witness after witness after witness. Which leads him to ask then, “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”
Well, Paul, it is just hard to believe, that’s all. But I do have to add, I DO believe, and I’ll tell you why – all those witnesses.
Now, you Bible scholars know that there are fairly significant differences in the resurrection accounts in the four gospels. How many women went to the tomb? One? Two? Three? More? Was the stone already rolled away or did they see it happen? Was it men or angels who announced that Christ was risen? Who of the disciples responded to the women’s report? Just Peter or Peter and John? It all depends upon which account you read. Indeed, some skeptics want to use those differences to convince folks that it never happened at all. Are they right?
I would respectfully say no. To me, those differences are precisely what validate the story. Listen to eyewitness testimony at a trial – if each one gives exactly the same account of events, without any deviation whatsoever, that makes a jury suspicious that they have colluded together to concoct something; but if there are differences in detail while the major points remain the same, the testimony sounds more legitimate. Yes, from gospel to gospel, the resurrection accounts are different, but on the main point, they all agree: the tomb was empty and the risen Christ soon appeared. Hard to believe, yes, but frankly easier to believe than the opposite, that it was all an elaborately contrived hoax.
Think about that. If the resurrection of Christ did not happen, the accounts we have are all fabrications. Those witnesses cited by Paul all lied, everyone. The Apostles who had been living in utter terror during and after the crucifixion but who suddenly became quite public in their proclamation and finally each one gave their lives for it had made this incredible shift for no reason at all. Now, which is harder to believe? All that? Or that the God of all the universe was not about to let evil and death have the last word on anything, much less the life and ministry of Jesus Christ? I suspect you know the one I choose.
And if you want to know what difference it makes, Paul answers that in that wonderful resurrection chapter in I Corinthians; he says, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” The firstfruits. That means his resurrection is just the beginning. The promise of new life is for you and me as well. God is not done with us yet, and will not even be done when we come to the end of this earthly life. The older I get, the more important that becomes.
Tom Long writes, “It has been my observation that somewhere deep in the forest of life many Christians come to a fork in the path. Some head in one direction, traveling their last few days in bitterness, shouting at the world for its iniquity, wagging their heads over the sad plight of our time, cursing ‘what this world has come to nowadays.’ Others, however, are given the gift of traveling the other way, the path of a cheerful confidence in providence…This is the path that knows that a banquet table awaits at the end and that a house of music and dancing can already be heard in the distance. This is the path that sees a world full of miracles. This is the way of blessing, the path of gratitude.(3)
I am convinced that it is the risen Christ who stands at this parting of the ways. If the good news of Easter is true, then we have hope, and it is hope that sustains us when we face our darkest hours.
Several years ago a school teacher accepted the volunteer position of visiting and teaching children who were patients in a large city hospital. One day the phone rang and she received her first assignment as a new volunteer. She took his name and room number and was told by the his teacher that this boy was studying nouns and adverbs in his class before he was hospitalized.
It was not until the visiting teacher got outside the boys hospital room that she realized that he was a patient in the hospital’s burn unit. She was prepared to teach English grammar, but she was not prepared to witness the horrible look and smell of badly burned human flesh. She was not prepared to see a young boy in great pain either. She wanted to hold her nose…to turn…and leave faster than she came. But she could not just walk away. So she clumsily stammered over to his bedside, and she simply said, “I am the hospital teacher and your teacher sent me to help you with your nouns and adverbs.”
The next morning a nurse from the burn unit asked her, “What did you do to that boy?”
The teacher began to apologize profusely, but before she could finish, the nurse interrupted her: “You don’t understand. We have been really worried about him…his condition has been deteriorating over the past few days, because he had completely given up hope. But ever since you were here with him yesterday, his whole attitude has changed and he is fighting back, and responding to treatment. It’s as though he decided to live!”
When the nurse later questioned him about it, the boy said, “I figured I was doomed…that I was gonna die…until I saw that teacher.” And as a tear began to run down his face, he finished: “But when I saw her, I realized that they wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dead boy…would they?”(4) Hope.
You historians may remember the name Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin. Bukharin was a Russian Communist leader. He took part in the Bolshevik Revolution 1917, was editor of the Soviet newspaper Pravda (which, by the way, means truth), and was a full member of the Politburo. His works on economics and political science are still read today.
There is a story told about a journey Bukharin took from Moscow to Kiev in 1930 to address a huge assembly on the subject of atheism. Addressing the crowd he aimed his heavy artillery at Christianity hurling insult, argument, and proof against it. An hour later he was finished. He looked out at what seemed to be the smoldering ashes of people’s faith. “Are there any questions?” Bukharin demanded.
Deafening silence filled the auditorium but then one man approached the platform and mounted the lectern and stood near the communist leader. He surveyed the crowd first to the left then to the right. Finally he shouted the ancient greeting known well in the Russian Orthodox Church: “CHRIST IS RISEN!” En masse the crowd arose as one man and the response came crashing like the sound of thunder: “HE IS RISEN INDEED!”(5)
Hard to believe. But I do. And you? Happy Easter.
1. Associated Press, 4/9/04
2. I Corinthians 15:3-4
3. Thomas G. Long, “Growing Old and Wise on Easter,” Journal for Preachers, Easter 2001, pp. 33-40
4. Bill Adams, Trinity Episcopal Church, Sutter Creek, CA, via Ecunet, 12/ 29/96
5. James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited, (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988) p. 167
Copyright 2004 David E. Leininger. Used by permission.