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Tuesday, 10 April 2012

TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE--Alan Reynolds

We buried our God in darkness,

In secret, and all affright;

We crept on a path of silence,

Fearful of things in the night.

We buried our God in terror,

After the fashion of men;

As we said, each one, “The deed is done,

And the grave is closed again.”

But now I give you certain news

To spread by land and sea:

You may scourge Truth naked,

You may nail Him to the tree,

You may roll the stone about Him,

And seal it priestly-wise,

But against the morn, unmaimed, new-born,

The living Truth shall rise!

(Resurgam, Theodosia Garrison)

Do you remember the story of Cinderella, the girl in the chimney corner who came to marry the prince? It was one of those many stories that enthralled us in our childhood. But now that we are "grown-up," we tend to look back to our childhood and say, "Ah, those were just fairytales. You weren't supposed to believe them. Things like that don't really happen. They're just too good to be true.

The "good news" that we call the Christian Gospel sounds to many people like a fairytale. Easter sounds too much like the happy-forever-after kind of ending to the story! Jesus is dead. The dream is over. Then, like in the comic strip, ZAP! God brings Jesus back to life and we all live happily forever-after.

On the surface of it, there seems to be much more reality to the perspective of those who are more inclined to say, "This is a hard world. You have to be realistic. It's a nice story that Jesus died on the cross and rose again from the dead. But life's not like that. You die and you stay dead, and that's the end of it. These stories of Jesus' resurrection are just the wishful thinking of his disciples."

Oh our sad, realistic day! We think sordidness is truth, that clay and dirt are the same thing, and that pessimism is realism. Our contemporary hymnist is Omar Khayyam,

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,

Before we too into the dust descend.

Dust unto dust and under dust to lie,

Sans wine, sans song, sans singer, and sans end.

Read the plays of our generation -- Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night." (What a title!) Remember Tennessee Williams. There's a scene in one of his plays in which one character tells about seeing, on a South Sea Island, baby turtles hatching from their eggs and making a headlong dash to the sea -- to escape the birds waiting for them, descending on them, killing them and eating them. The character who tells of this scene says, "Then I knew that I had seen God."

Here, we say, is realism. Here is something we can believe. This makes sense! Or does it?

Can we take all hope and beauty, all order and goodness, from the universe, wipe it away, and say that what is left makes sense? Isn't it rather non-sense? Can we say that the only statement of truth we can make about life is that there is no truth? The only statement that makes sense is that life doesn't make sense? Does that seem to you a real, a sensible creed? That's as self-contradictory as the man who said, "I never tell the truth."

In the latter part of the 19th century, archaeologists excavating an old Roman cemetery near the town of Volterra in Italy, came across some ancient gravestones with these letters inscribed on them: NF F NS NC. They were puzzled as to the meaning until on some stones they found the inscription written in full. The letters stood for an ancient Roman proverb, so familiar that the people hadn't bothered to write it out in full (as our grandparents would put R.I.P. meaning "rest in peace").

This is how the Latin inscription read: non fui, fui, non sum, non curo. "I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care."

Think of one generation after another burying their dead -- husbands, wives, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and little children -- in this mood: "I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care." This is a "creed," a statement of belief about life. Does it seem to you an easy creed to believe? Does it really seem a sensible statement?

We live in a day of so-called realistic materialism. The tenets of that philosophy seem so obvious, so realistic, so easy to believe. Alright, then. Face them. Look at them. Sit back and look them fair in the face! Can you tell me that that kind of philosophy of life really makes sense? That it hangs together? That you can believe that kind of thing, say it is credible and logical, live by it and carry it through to its ultimate conclusion?

And now what are we? Unbelievers both,

Calm and complete, determinately fixed

Today, tomorrow, and forever, pray?

You'll grant me that? Not so, I think!

In no wise! All we've gained is, that belief,

As unbelief before, shakes us by fits,

Confounds us like its predecessor. Where's

The gain? How can we guard our unbelief,

Make it bear fruit to us? The problem here --

Just when we are safest, there's a sunset-touch,

A fancy from a flower-bell, someone's death,

A chorus-ending from Euripides, --

And that's enough for fifty hopes and fears

As old and new at once as Nature's self,

To rap and knock and enter in our soul,

Take hands and dance there, a fantastic ring

Round the ancient idol, on his base again --

The grand Perhaps.

(Robert Browning, "Bishop Blougram's Apology")

Easter, a fairytale? The resurrection, too good to be true? The disciples, indulging in wishful thinking?

The startling thing is that the disciples themselves had to be convinced. They too thought it was all too good to be true.

Remember Thomas, whom we've come to call "doubting Thomas?" "Except I shall see the print of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the holes, except I shall thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe." It was going to take a lot to convince Thomas that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.

Mary, coming to the grave that first Easter morning, seeing the stone rolled away, broke into weeping. It wasn't enough that they had crucified and killed her Lord. Now they had broken into the tomb and stolen his body away, so Mary was deprived even of the privilege of anointing it in death. "They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him." You see, she wasn't thinking of resurrection.

The other women ran back to tell the disciples. But the disciples were inclined to dismiss their words. It seemed to them, the Bible tells us, pure nonsense, "idle tales." They were just a bunch of silly, hysterical women.

But something must be amiss! They decided they'd better go and check things out. So Peter and John ran to the tomb. They found it empty, the grave-clothes lying in place. But even yet, it only left them bewildered -- evidently thinking that someone had stolen the body, or perhaps that the authorities had come and taken the body away.

Then, simultaneously, stories began to pour in -- from Mary who had thought him to be the gardener, from Peter, from the two men who walked that day to Emmaus. Unrelated, independent stories began to come in.

And finally, with a dozen or so of the disciples together, Jesus himself appeared among them. "Behold my hands and my feet." he said. "It is I, myself. Handle me and see."

Don't ask me to explain it to you, to explain what kind of body he was. Certainly it wasn't a returning to what had been before. It wasn't simply a physical resurrection, in our understanding of the word "physical." In fact, our understanding of the word "physical" has changed drastically in this century. Albert Einstein began to reveal to us a new understanding of our world, of physical substance. The seat on which you're sitting, you yourself -- it's energy, concentrations of energy. Do we any longer, then, live in a physical world, or in a world whose basic reality is spiritual? What is energy -- is it physical, or is it spiritual? The old Cartesian dualism has broken down.

What concentration of atoms formed the resurrected body of Jesus Christ? I don't know. He was able to appear in rooms where the doors and windows were locked and barred, according to the accounts of the witnesses. But on the other hand, he said to them, "Handle me and see. Does a spirit have flesh and bones as I have?" Certainly it was not just a vague spiritual presence. It was Jesus himself -- and the disciples knew it.

There was a time that I didn't believe in the resurrection, dismissed it as mass hysteria and wishful thinking on the part of the disciples. But when I studied the scriptural evidence, it just confounded me.

There was this one particular verse (Luke 24:41). After all this evidence, from Mary, Peter, here, there, everywhere, the stories circulating that Jesus was raised from the dead, finally Jesus himself stood among the disciples. Our text says they were still unconvinced, The King James Bible translated, "They believed not yet for joy!" It seemed to them too good to be true.

It wasn't wishful thinking. They had to have it practically beaten into their heads. They too thought it was more like a fairytale. The reality of it, of his risen presence, they didn't seem to be able to realize or comprehend it.

And here we are today It is good and it is true. He is risen! He is risen indeed! And because of that, nothing can ever be the same again.

1 comment:

Peter Black said...

Intensely thoughtful, rich and deep.
Alan, thank you for piquing the intellect, feeding and illuminating the mind, and inspiring the spirit towards eternal hope in the living Christ.