1 Corinthians 15:17-26
‘These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.’ Why not? Why were the eleven disciples and the others so incredulous? Perhaps because those who brought the news were all women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others. Resurrection, if it happens, deserves a more trustworthy, masculine herald. That’s certainly what those hearing the gospel in its newly written day would have thought, however odd it sounds to us today. If the gospel writers had invented the resurrection, we can be sure they wouldn’t have entrusted the news to women. So we listen carefully: it’s so unlikely a tale that it has the ring of truth about it.
But Luke’s point is not that somehow faith comes more easily or more quickly to women than to men. What strikes me in the story is how both the women and the men journey towards Easter faith. It isn’t born instantly, as if it were somehow obvious to believe in the resurrection. When the women go to the tomb and find the stone rolled away, their first reaction is bafflement. When the two men in dazzling clothes appear, they’re terrified, like Moses at the burning bush, knowing that this is holy ground, but unable to comprehend what it could mean. Luke does not say how the women respond to the news that ‘he is not here but has risen’, but when prompted by the messengers, they remember how Jesus had foretold his death and resurrection, and had carefully prepared his disciples for what must happen when he ‘set his face’ to go up to Jerusalem. This is what they hurry back to tell the others: not simply what they had witnessed at the tomb but how the words of Jesus made sense of it. I think that this is obviously the birth of their faith in the resurrection. They’ve travelled the infinite distance from death to life in the space of an early morning.
But the eleven not only found the tale implausible; they had forgotten how Jesus had predicted this all along; or if they recalled it, it was as if it belonged to a lost era the far side of Good Friday, before wicked men had taken their Master, put him to death and shattered their hopes. Yet in one of them, something is stirring. It’s not yet recognition, still less faith: more a puzzled question, maybe the first glimmer of the possibility Thomas Hardy described as ‘hoping it might be so’. It drives him to the place where the women have been, and because of the urgency with which they have spoken, he doesn’t walk, but runs. When he gets there he stoops and looks in. And here a threshold is crossed, not only of the burial cave, but of his whole life; beyond this point there’s no turning back from what he will see and its lifelong consequences. He takes in the evidence for himself.
Still Luke will not say that Peter believes. He will only say that ‘he was amazed at what had happened’, poised between unbelief and faith, at that half-way house between knowing that something extraordinary has happened, but not being able to give it a name or a meaning. He’s caught between knowing that the tomb is empty, but not yet meeting the risen Christ. For him, Easter has become a truth before it has become an experience. The full flowering of faith comes later.
This last chapter of Luke’s Gospel goes on to tell three more resurrection stories. The next relates how two travellers meet the risen Jesus incognito on the road to Emmaus, and invite him into their home. As their guest breaks the bread they recognise him. That is Luke’s way of telling us how faith dawns in the risen Jesus who, unknown to us, is alive and present. This inward event Luke describes as hearts ‘burning within us’; belief in Jesus as the risen Lord as well as belief that he rose again. The next story tells how Jesus finally appears to the eleven with the greeting ‘peace be with you’. We expect this meeting to be one of unclouded exhilaration; for they’ve all now heard the Easter message: ‘the Lord is risen indeed!’ But his arrival is met with a more complex response. Luke says that once more, the disciples are ‘startled and terrified’. In a marvellous phrase he captures their heady confusion, ‘in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering’. It’s as if the morning still has not finally broken. Birthing faith is a long, and not always, easy journey. It’s only with the final story of Jesus’ ascension that the clouds finally seem to part (literally!) and we’re told that the disciples are at last filled with joy.
We all find ourselves somewhere on this journey of Luke chapter 24, with its stages of faith and its patient dawning of hope. It’s as if Luke is being careful to reassure us that Easter faith is born in us in different ways. He says without compromise: there is the truth of Easter. The tomb is empty. Christ is risen. It had to be; it is so. But then there is the experience of Easter, and this comes in different ways: sometimes clear and confident, sometimes more tentatively, sometimes only after much struggle that is hard-won. It will always be particular and personal, unique to each of us. It can take time, because we need time: time to absorb the extraordinary truth that overturns all our expectations; time to learn to live with its consequences, for how can life ever be the same if Easter is true?
And with time may come the setbacks of faith, the undercurrents of doubt or fear, as well as its joyful progress in hope and love. For some it’s still bafflement before the empty tomb where the light is barely strong enough to see by. For some it’s a growing awareness of the risen Christ in the company of the church, the word of God, and the breaking of the bread. For some it’s a strange mixture of wonder, disbelief, and joy, as Jesus comes to us and surprises us by his greeting of peace. For some it’s the full light of luminous faith as we acknowledge his rule over the world and over us, and bless God for it. Perhaps it’s all these things at different times. Some days our hearts burn within us; others we are anxious or doubting or puzzled: at Emmaus one day and back at the tomb the next. ‘I greet him the days I see him and bless when I understand’, said Gerard Manley Hopkins.
But we can be sure of one thing. The goal Luke wants us to reach is that we come in time to believe in the risen Jesus the hope and salvation of the world, God’s overturning of all that is destructive and wrong, his new beginning that creation has longed for. More than that, he wants us to come to worship and adore this Lord of life, submit to his rule, bear witness to his resurrection in the world, and find in him a treasure and a joy that will last for ever. The church, following Luke, gives us 50 great days in which to assimilate the truth of Easter. Yes, it takes time for us to grasp the wonder and the immensity of it, to imbue our alleluias with an unshakeable belief that the world is a different place now, that life has begun again for us and for the whole creation, and that we do not need to be afraid. The journey of the resurrection story is the journey of a lifetime. No, more than that. If we are to embrace it, understand it, live it, tell of it, even eternity’s too short.