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1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.
2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."
3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.
4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.
5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.
6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there,
7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.
8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;
9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
My father-in-law, Claude Martin, told me this story from when he was a teenager. This would have been about 1939. Claude had an uncle, Ed Lusk, who bought and sold produce. When apples were in season, Claude and Ed would drive a truck up into the mountains, buy a load of apples, and bring them down to Columbia to sell. Uncle Ed let the teen-aged Claude drive the truck, but Ed was, to be polite, a very thrifty person. To be impolite, he was one of the stingiest people in the history of the human species. For lunch, he would give Claude something from the produce that he could not sell—a rotten canelope or apple. And on the way down the mountain, with a truckload of apples, he would have Claude turn off the engine and coast—to save gas. Now realize that this was 1939. All the mountains roads were narrow, full of “S” curves, and two-laned, but Uncle Ed was trying to save every penny so he told Claude to cut off the engine, put the gearshift in neutral, and use the brakes to get them down the mountain. Truckers call that “angel gear,” because if you do that often enough you are probably going to wind up singing with the angels.
But on Easter Morning, we put ourselves in a kind of spiritual “angel gear.” We turn off all our mechanistic doubts. We refuse to put the brakes on the faith. We cling to the steering wheel of Easter.
Most non-Christians have no problem agreeing that Jesus of Nazareth was a gifted leader and teacher, but on this morning, Christians part company with this worldly opinion of Jesus. This morning we celebrate a mystery and a miracle - the greatest miracle and mystery ever known: Christ is Risen!
But we hesitate to launch out fully in faith. Indeed, our society seems to doubt the usefulness of faith. Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard psychologist John E. Mack protests the exclusion of spiritual elements from our approach to the world. "By and large, we in the West have rejected the language and experience of the sacred, the divine and the animation of nature. Our psychology is predominantly a psychology of mechanisms, parts, and linear relationships. We have grown suspicious of experiences, no matter how powerful, that cannot be quantified, and we distrust the language of reverence, spirit, and mystical connection, recalling perhaps with fear the superstitiousness and holy wars of earlier periods.” [ReVision 14 (Fall 1991), 104.] In other words, the language of faith is suspect in our society.
What is faith anyway? I can tell you what faith is not. Faith is not anti-reason. There is no division between faith and reason. That is obviously true. I am using reason right now to talk about faith. I am reasoning with you about faith. Faith is not anti-reason, not anti-science, and not anti-technology.
Some years ago, my family and I visited Lancaster Pennsylvania, and we met the Amish. The Amish people are a Christian sect that rejects almost all technology. They do not drive cars or tractors. They do not use telephones or own TVs. They do not go to school much. And I thought, if this is Christianity, I do not want any. But that was not Christianity. That was just their little narrow culture.
For years, I have heard Fundamentalist preachers railing against science. You get the idea that these folks are more anti-science than pro-Jesus. They are preach not faith in Jesus but their own anti-intellectual bias.
What then is faith? Teilhard de Chardin says that an “act of faith is to perceive as possible, and accept as more probable, a conclusion which …cannot be contained in any analytical premises.” [How I Believe, Perennial Library, Harper and Row, New York, p14]. Faith is the way we make sense of the universe. Faith is not opposed to reason, but faith goes beyond reason. It “cannot be contained in any analytical premises.” Reason by itself can never make sense of the universe. We need to put faith and reason together, and sometimes faith outruns reason. When it comes to Easter, faith launches into angel gear and goes where reason and science cannot go.
But let us not fool ourselves - the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was just as hard to believe in the first century as it is for us. First-century folks probably knew death better than we do. They saw it up close in all its ugliness more than we do. We deny death. We closet the sick in hospitals. When they die, we have quick funerals and shovel them quickly under the dirt—out of sight out of mind.
We envy those who actually saw the resurrected Jesus. We imagine it was easier for them to believe. But while it is true that none of us has actually seen Jesus in the flesh; it is also true that none of us helped pull his lifeless body off the cross on Friday evening. None of us carried his limp, blood-stained form into a barren tomb and wrapped it in a shroud. For those who had known the living Jesus, there was no doubt that he was dead. Believing that he could be truly alive again was an astonishing act of faith for the first disciples.
It is still an astonishing act of faith. For many people it is too astonishing. For lots of people, even in church, an actual resurrection is just too outlandish to take literally. We expect life and death to follow a certain set of rules and to meet certain rational criteria; therefore, we scramble around trying to find alternative explanations for the empty tomb. Maybe the guards did fall asleep and the disciples did steal the body. Maybe Jesus was not really dead - only drugged, or in a coma, or hypnotized - and he came out of it and escaped the tomb.
Nonsense. Let all that go. Shift into angel gear and let your faith soar. The resurrection was a miracle. When we come to Easter, we must experience it as a miracle without trying to make it fit our expectations and our limitations. When we refuse to let the miracle be miraculous, when we try to crimp it and cramp it to fit our style, we find ourselves distorting everything that made up Jesus' life and ministry on earth. It is time to let the mystery shine.
Without Easter, we live in a bleak universe, which does not hold much love or hope for us. Easter helps us to make sense of the universe. Christ on the cross revealed God’s love for us. The resurrected Lord Jesus reveals that God loves us so much that even death cannot separate us from God. Thus, the only way the universe makes sense is through the Risen Lord.
Shift into angel gear. Reach out in faith. Alleluia, Christ is Risen! Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 5/17/05