Doubting Your Doubts

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Saint_Peter_and_Saint_John_Run_to_the_Sepulchre_(Saint_Pierre_et_Saint_Jean_courent_au_sépulcre)_-_James_TissotRESURRECTION OF OUR LORD

Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Luke 24:1-12

Prayer of the Day: O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told [the message of the angels] 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.” Luke 24:10-12.

If Peter had determined, along with the rest of the apostles, that the women’s account of the empty tomb and the words of the angels was no more than an “idle tale,” why did he go running to the tomb? One possible answer is that he didn’t. The last sentence of the above passage (verse 12) is not found in some of the oldest and most reliable Greek New Testament texts we have, leading many biblical scholars to conclude that it was a later addition to the story. Some commentators suggest that this account of Peter’s going to the tomb was added on in order to absolve the “Prince of the Apostles” from unbelief. There might also be a hint of masculine embarrassment over the fact that the news of the resurrection was given first to women and all the more so in view of the men’s failure to receive it in faith. Peter’s sojourn to the tomb takes the edge off the apostles’ failure somewhat. While these explanations are credible, I think there might be another way to understand Peter’s seemingly contradictory behavior.

It is hope that gives rise to faith and faith is ever groping after hope. Hope wants desperately to believe. It is often simmering below the surface even among people who seem to have lost it. Perhaps this was Peter’s dilemma. To be sure, Peter doubted the veracity of the women’s witness and I can see his point. We know that grief can make people a little crazy. The sudden and traumatic death of a loved one often triggers irrational and hysterical denial of the horrible truth. That would be the most rational explanation for the women’s account. In all probability, the business about angels and the empty tomb was just an idle tale. Still, what if the women were right? What if they really had seen angels? What if Jesus really were alive? What if Peter’s denial of Jesus was not the final judgment on his life? What if Peter was being given another chance to follow Jesus faithfully? It was news too good to be true-but too good to dismiss. It awakened in Peter a slumbering hope that sent him racing to the tomb.

Hope is a hard thing to suppress. It persists even in the face of death. My own first experience of death was the passing of my grandmother when I was only six years old. Grandma and Grandpa lived just two blocks away from us. They were like a second set of parents to me and my siblings. So, when Grandma died, I was left trying to wrap my six year old head around what it meant for Grandma to be gone-forever. I distinctly recall wondering whether this whole experience of losing Grandma was just a bad dream from which I would soon wake up. I became so convinced I was living in a nightmare that I resolved to test this theory. On the night of Grandma’s funeral, I stuck a piece of gum on the edge of my nightstand before going to bed. I figured that if I woke up the next morning and the gum was gone, it would confirm that everything I had experienced was all just a dream. Grandma would be alive and everything would be back to normal. Of course, I more than half expected to wake up and find the gum stuck to my night stand where I left it. But what if my improbable theory proved true? What if there really were a way out of this nightmare?

I have to confess that I am, in part, relieved that I will not be preaching this Sunday. I have always found preaching on Easter Sunday difficult. It is difficult because the news of Jesus’ resurrection is as incredible today as it was two millennia ago.  It is difficult because church attendance is always swelled by people who have all but left the church’s orbit and are more than half convinced it has nothing to offer beyond a little holiday nostalgia. It is difficult because all of us have had the bitter experience of waking up to find the gum we placed on the nightstand there to remind us that death is not just a bad dream. It’s real, painful and permanent. Proclaiming God in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self is a hard sell to people who see more evidence each day convincing them of the dissolution of civility, decency and respect. It is hard to believe Jesus’ Easter benediction of peace when it seems as though the institutional agents of peace like the United Nations and the international treaties that have managed to keep the world from sliding into total carnage are disintegrating and losing their potency. In a world where the authority of government, commerce, the press and religion are all suspect and the very existence of “truth” is in doubt, why would anyone believe testimony given by a couple of nearly anonymous women to a remarkable and unprecedented occurrence recorded in a two thousand year old book?

If the immediacy of the women’s witness could not convince Jesus’ own disciples that he had been raised from death, I doubt that any sermon preached anywhere this Sunday is likely to convince this cynical and jaded age. But maybe Easter sermons don’t need to convince. Perhaps they only need to plant a seed of holy doubt. Maybe it is enough for the preacher to inflict a tiny crack in our unbelieving hearts, thereby causing us to doubt whether our hardened realism is so realistic after all. Sometimes it takes only a clever phrase, a creative metaphor or a story that rings true to open our minds to a more expansive view of the way things are. A word or two might suffice to sow just enough uncertainty about the impotence of good, the primacy of evil and the certainty of death to drive us to the empty tomb and the message of the angels. There we discover that the testimony of those mad women is in fact the one voice of sanity we all need to hear and believe. There we discover that the phenomenon of hope is not a cruel hoax hardwired into our collective psyche, but a seed planted in our hearts by a loving Creator who watches over it, doing everything possible to assure its maturation into abundant and eternal life. This Sunday’s sermon does not have to flood the sanctuary with light. It  has only to pry the door open a crack to let it in.

Here is a poem by James Church Alword about hope desperately seeking faith.

Easter Evening

Walking through the woodlands and oncoming night
I saw His hair stream in the sky-line’s red,
I heard His footsteps on the path which led
Out from the naked trees; while golden light
Shook from His seamless robe, that, rippling, slight
As woof of dream-stuff, flamed across the bed
Of some low-gurgling brook. He was not dead-
His risen presence was a world’s delight.

It was the magic of a night too fleet
That filled the valley with a foam of mist;
The scorch of cloud-banks that the sun still kissed,
And crunch of crinkled leaves beneath my feet.
I’d offer every breath I’ve yet to breathe,
Just to believe, O Master-to believe!

Source: Poetry, April 1917. James Church Alvord was an American poet active in the early years of the 20th century. Little is known about Alvord. His background and history are shrouded in mystery. His poems appeared in Poetry, The Nation and Century Magazine. In addition to poetry, Alvord also wrote at least one short story and reviews for the New York Times. In the 1920s, a professor of modern languages at Censenary Collage in Louisiana composed the lyrics of the school’s Alma Mater. It is doubtful, however, that he was the same person.

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