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March 31, 2013
The Gospel: Luke 24:1-12
Sermon: "Fact or Fantasy?"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
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On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again." Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
Fact or Fantasy?
Over a thousand years ago, a Spanish kingdom was under attack by foreign invaders. For many years, one small fort withstood all assaults, thanks to a remarkable leader called El Cid. When El Cid died, his followers had an idea. They dressed his body in his armor, tied a sword in his hand, and placed his corpse on his horse. With El Cid’s body in the lead, the Spanish forces charged. But they were quickly defeated, for this act fooled no one. Their desperate trick collapsed. El Cid’s followers surrendered to despair when their plan failed.
There will always be those who insist that this was the strategy of the early church: a dead leader, dressed in armor, propped up on a horse with sword in hand. “Tell people,” the chief priests said to the soldiers following Christ’s resurrection, “that his disciples came while you were asleep and stole his body. That way if the story of his disappearance reaches the governor’s ears, you won’t get into trouble.” (Mat. 28:14) Thus from the very beginning, the explanation was advanced that the disciples had stolen Christ’s body in order to invent the story of his resurrection. A dead body dressed in armor, sword in hand, mounted on a horse.
Just such an explanation was put forth by a writer in the Journal of the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism a while back. After a very thoughtful, if rather freewheeling, reconstruction of the Gospel, he arrived at a similar conclusion: Someone must have taken the dead body, and covered up the truth. After two thousand years, the detractors of Christ have still not been able to come up with a better explanation than that. “I don’t wish to believe it. I won’t believe it. It must be a lie!”
Never has a less satisfactory solution been proposed to a difficult problem. The reason this explanation was not persuasive then is the same reason it is not persuasive now. It simply does not fit the facts. If it were a fantasy, the story would simply have never been told in the same way. Let’s consider some of the facts concerning Christ’s resurrection for a few moments.
First, let’s consider the genuineness of his friend’s grief. Never has there been a more demoralized group of believers than that tiny band of followers after Jesus’ crucifixion. Only the women were brave enough to mourn him in public. The men were all in hiding; fearful that the soldiers would come for them next. They were obviously stunned by the sudden turn of events. In one week’s time they had seen their leader go from being cheered on his entrance into Jerusalem to being crucified between two thieves. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel…” they said. (Luke 24:21) But now he was dead and so were their dreams.
We can understand their reaction. We too have difficulty accepting our own mortality or the death of a loved one. We can appreciate the feelings of that little girl who wrote a letter to God. It went like this:
“Dear God, Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why don’t you just keep the ones you’ve got now?”
Sometimes we might think that a good solution too, but we know that this world in which God has placed us doesn’t function that way. Yet we don’t deal with that fact very well. As Woody Allen once said, “It is impossible to experience your own death objectively, and still carry a tune.”
We don’t deal well with the fact of death, and neither did those early disciples. They were a disappointed, discouraged, defeated lot on that first Easter morning. It would be difficult to imagine them mounting any kind of crusade at this point in their lives; much less, turning the world upside down. Their grief was genuine, almost debilitating.
Second, let’s consider the genuineness of their surprise at the strange tale told by the women.
You know the story. Some of the women had gone to the tomb to prepare the body with spices and ointments. Reaching the tomb, however, they found the stone rolled away. While they were trying to sift this through their minds, two men dressed in dazzling apparel appeared to them. They recalled to the women Jesus’ own words regarding his rising on the third day. The women remembered that Christ had spoken those exact words and they rushed to where the men were in hiding and broke to them the most wonderful headline of all time: He is risen!
How did the disciples react? Luke tells us, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe them.” How’s that for a conspiracy? If this story were a fantasy and a lie, it would have been written altogether differently. The disciples would have taken time to make themselves look a whole lot better for the record. When Jesus was on trial, Peter, instead of denying his Lord, would have had himself recorded as having stalwartly declared his allegiance. During the crucifixion, the disciples, instead of cowering in fear, would have had themselves recorded as expressing their confidence in Jesus’ ultimate victory. Each would have been testing the other to see which had the greatest faith. And when the women reported the things they had heard and seen? Would these first century male egoists have been willing that the record show that women believed while they despaired? Not a chance! The men would have had it recorded the other way around; that the poor weak women had to be convinced to believe by those giants of the faith, the men. That’s how it would have read if it were a fantasy trying to cope with the awfulness of the fact of the crucifixion. But, we are confronted with the genuineness of the disciples’ grief and the genuineness of their surprise at what seemed to them to be the idle tale of the women.
Finally, and even more impressively, let’s consider the genuineness of the change that Christ’s resurrection made in their lives. As one person has put it, “They went from defeated to dynamic; from heartsick to heroic; from doubting to death-defying.” The radical change that took place in the lives of those who followed Jesus is not the kind of change one will find among persons who are knowingly perpetuating a fraud. The disciples were witnesses to an event that divides all of human history into before and after. Even their own lives became a story of before and after because of this: Jesus Christ had risen from the dead! The reason that this story is just as convincing now as it was then is this: Jesus is changing lives just as powerfully today!
Here is just one example of someone whose life is changing. Today, he is a professor at Beeson Divinity School, and a former professor of history at the University of Denver, and USC. But Dr. Lyle D. Dorsett wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for a big fact he experienced on an Easter dawn several years ago. He tells about it in these words:
“I opened my eyes to see the Sun shining on the gravestones. It was about 6:00 a.m. The birds were singing in celebration of a new day. For a moment I wasn’t certain where I was or how I got there. But then it came back to my foggy mind. The night before, I had been drinking in a bar. When it closed I took a six-pack of beer to go. Looking down on the front floor of my car I saw two beers left in the carton. Apparently I had pulled onto this unpaved road along the edge of the cemetery to finish my beer and sleep.
Without pondering anything more than my powerful thirst and the cotton in my mouth, I reached down and pulled up a beer, popped it open, and drank deeply. Before finishing the can I started crying uncontrollably. ‘Here I go again,’ was the depressing realization that smacked my rather hardened conscience. Thoughts flashed back to the night before. I could hear my wife begging me not to drink any more. ‘Mary,’ I said, ‘why can’t I even have a couple of beers in my own home?’ Indignantly I stomped out of the house and headed for an out-of-the-way bar to drink in peace.
It was twelve hours later and I was not home yet. A couple of beers had grown to too many to remember. This was not the first time I had stayed out all night drinking, but something was different this time. I felt I was at a fork in the road. One pathway pointed downward to a broken marriage, loss of my university professorship, and onto skid row or death. The other way offered peace, fulfillment, and stability. Of course I wanted the latter road; who doesn’t? But for years I had been trying to stop drinking. I knew I was an alcoholic. Nevertheless, the longest I could abstain was four or five weeks at a time. Once I made it five months, yet each dry period was followed by a binge that left me physically ill, emotionally distraught, and spiritually devastated.
My wife had suggested that Jesus Christ could help me. But I was an arrogant, agnostic university professor. Trained to use only reason to find truth, I viewed people who took the spiritual world seriously as slave-minded buffoons. To be sure, I was a church-goer. Every week, unless I was out of town on a trip (translate binge), I was in church with my family. To add to my trappings of respectability, I frequently taught an adult church school class. Despite these things, I had no personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I had an intellectual knowledge of Christian doctrine but nothing else. Most certainly what I had was ineffective for dealing with real problems in the real world. That is why I assumed Christianity was nothing more than a vague package of ethics and values that helped make people better citizens, neighbors, and family members.
One thing had puzzled me over the years. I knew that my wife had something I didn’t have. Even in the face of major personal or financial problems, Mary had the ability to cope that my reason, self-reliance, and rugged individualism never provided.
These thoughts raced through my head that morning as I sat beside the graveyard. I knew that I wanted to stop drinking. I knew I had tried will power, analysis, health clubs, theosophy, Edgar Cayce books, astrology, you name it. I had tried it; even going to church and tithing. The only possibility I hadn’t tried was Jesus Christ.
Right there in the car I yelled out: ‘If you exist, if you are there, come and help me!’ That was all I needed to do. It was the first time I had become humble enough to invite him to help me. I guess before that time I had believed that if he existed he would force himself on me.
This cry for help was truly my Damascus Road experience. I saw no bright lights and no voices spoke to me. But I did experience a great calm. I knew that Jesus was God. I knew that he cared for me. I knew that he had always loved me, and that he had always been seeking me. From that moment the compulsion to drink left. Gradually, over the months, the desire to drink was lifted from me as well. I have been sober since that morning.
That’s just one example. As I look out upon this congregation this morning, I see other before and after stories. Yours might not be as dramatic, although some of yours certainly are. But there’s not a one of you who would say that your life is still the same as before you realized Jesus’ presence in it.
That is the most convincing evidence of the fact of Christ’s resurrection. Was it all a fantasy; a lie? Not a chance! Our lives proclaim the truth: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!