EASTER SERMON: Easter — Not Magic But Mystery, by J. R. Burkholder

Easter — Not Magic But Mystery J. R. Burkholder

We are standing in the darkness before the dawn – facing the tomb.  It is empty.  Where is the light of Christ?

From the very first, men and women have been baffled by the claim that Jesus was risen from the dead.  He is not here, for he is risen.

Thus the Gospels tell of mixed and contradictory emotions – fear and great joy, – and diverse responses: when the eleven came to Galilee, we are told that some worshiped and some doubted.

Luke’s account puts it even more bluntly; the words of the women witnesses “seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

In John’s Gospel we walk through the struggle of doubting Thomas  – and who doesn’t at some point identify with Thomas?  Why should anyone dare to believe that the tortured victim of imperial execution was brought back to life?

Yes, from the beginning, Christians have struggled to make sense of this resurrection claim that stands at the very center of the faith proclaimed.  Thus it is not surprising that in our quest to understand and explain, we look for analogies in the natural world.  Our folk wisdom likes to link Easter with spring festivals: the gray Earth’s rebirth from dark winter toward sunshine and verdant green, the pictures of baby bunnies bringing eggs, and seeds sprouting, and all that – even though the analogies fall short and may even mislead.

At another level, we look for literary and artistic ways to capture and restate the awesome claim.  Last year our Easter service drew extensively on C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, with its death and rebirth of Aslan.  Through those events the dark forces of evil were overcome by light, love, and truth.  I thought it was a marvelous attempt to get our attention and challenge our thinking in new ways, by an imaginative retelling using materials from another medium.

But my euphoria about that whole event was shaken when a week or so later I learned that some newcomers to Assembly, some specially invited guests on that occasion, were confused and troubled.  What in the world is going on?  Evil witches and strange lions were not at all what they expected from a Christian service on Easter Sunday!

On telling stories

Many folks are bothered when similarities are observed between biblical stories and myths or fairy tales from other sources.  Must not the gospel truth be kept on a high and holy and unique level?

But Frederick Buechner, who is both storyteller and Christian minister, suggests that the two realms are not really that far apart.  The world of fairy tales, he says,

is a world of magic and mystery, of deep darkness and flickering starlight.  It is a world where terrible things happen and wonderful things, too.  It is a world where goodness is pitted against evil, love against hate, order against chaos, in a great struggle where often it is hard to be sure who belongs to which side because appearances are endlessly deceptive.  Yet for all its confusion and wildness, it is a world where the battle goes ultimately to the good, who live happily ever after, and where in the long run everybody, good and evil alike, becomes known by his [or her] true name.

Buechner continues: “That is the gospel, this meeting of darkness and light in the final victory of light.  That is the fairy tale of the Gospel with, of course, the one crucial difference from all other fairy tales, which is the claim made for it that it is true, that it not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still.”  Frederick Buechner as Christian witness insists that the truth claim is unique, even though the form and style of Biblical narrative may share the characteristics of the realm of imagination.

Paul the apostle insisted on that truth claim also: If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

We tremble and stutter before that truth, because we don’t know how to handle it.  Yes, even Paul struggled to tell it. Just read 1 Corinthians 15, a marvelous glimpse into the workings of an inspired mind trying to make sense of something too big to handle.  Clearly he was utterly convinced of the truth but frustrated in his effort to express it helpfully.  He tries analogies – seed dying and sprouting from the ground, celestial and terrestrial and spiritual bodies – but they break down.  In the end, no categories are adequate to this ultimate expression of God’s power.  In the end, Paul simply but eloquently calls it a mystery.

And ever since, we believing souls who have experienced that victorious mystery keep grasping for ways to communicate it.  The wisest among us have from the beginning acknowledged that they cannot really comprehend it; they can only point with awe and wonder.

Just a few days ago, at the slide presentation of the passion of Christ in art forms, I learned that it wasn’t until more than ten centuries after the fact that Christian artists dared to try to present in graphic form the moment of Christ’s resurrection.  And even though the viewer is overwhelmed by the blaze of glory in such a masterpiece as Matthias Grünewald’s triptych at Isenheim, one wonders if perhaps that sacred moment is best left without eyewitnesses.  “He burst from the fetters of darkness that bound him, resplendent in glory, to live and to save.”

By whatever means, we who have been claimed by that truth are challenged, obligated in fact, to keep trying to tell it like it is.

The continuing resurrection

We quoted Frederick Buechner as saying the gospel is different from fairy tales because of its truth claim: it happened and it keeps happening!  But there is another difference from the realm of fantasy and magic.  Not only does the gospel of the resurrection keep happening – but it is also out of control.  That is, it is out of our control.  Try as we might, we cannot manipulate the resurrection.

This contrasts sharply with the idea of magic, familiar to us from the land of fairy tales.  Magic at its heart means power and control.  The magic wand, the magic token, is a tool to be grasped and used.  Many classic tales of fantasy revolve around the struggle to claim and possess that coveted magic symbol – the ring, the amulet, the magic charm.

But resurrection in Christian experience is not a magic power; it is a gift, a surprise.  It is not something that can be grasped; rather, it grasps us.

From the beginning it was a surprise.  We know that the basic idea of bodily resurrection at the last day was a common belief in first-century Judaism, although it was not shared by all.  So when Jesus talked of rising from the dead, it was most likely understood as that event at the end of history, the last day, the end of time.

The surprise was that on Easter Sunday, Jesus had been raised, but the world had not come to an end!  The disciples had to come to terms with something utterly unexpected, out of their control.

As missiologist Lesslie Newbigin puts it: “The final victory is God’s and not ours.  In what seems like defeat, the victory of God is actually won.  There is a new life, one that does not end in death but begins from death.  It is therefore a life that death cannot touch.”

Let’s think further about that statement: the victory, the power, the glory is God’s, not ours.

It is not ours to hang on to.  We cannot grasp it; we cannot manipulate it; we cannot use it.  But the constant human temptation is to try to do so.  That’s the way of magic.  Early in Luke’s account of Christian mission, (Acts 8), there is a brief, strange story about Simon, a man who amazed the crowds with his magic.  He heard Philip preach, he believed and was baptized.  But like a lot of believers since, he got it wrong.  He thought the power of the gospel, the power of the Spirit, the power of the resurrection, was something you could use for your own gain.  Peter had to straighten him out: “May your silver perish with you!”

Too much of church history has been tarnished with that same greediness.  Misguided believers, even well-known leaders, have grasped for power and control in Earthly terms.  They have wanted to manipulate the Spirit for their own gain.  Or sometimes the intent was to do good things such as healing, but their mistake was to think they could control the power of God.

So often we want to force God to play our game.  But the real power of the resurrection comes when least expected, and not in ways controlled by human wills.  We can’t force God’s hand.  God takes time to do God’s work, in God’s own time, in a way that only God understands.

In other words, God does not play by our rules.  God is much more subtle than that.  Glenn Tinder observes that the problem with most unbelievers and even many Christians is their assumption that God is simple-minded and one-dimensional.  “We readily grant that a great writer such as Joyce or Proust is infinitely subtle and resourceful in fashioning a novel,” he writes, “but we assume that in fashioning human history God will be heavy-handed and obvious.” (The Subtleties of God/Gospel Herald, March 27, 1990, 232)

We want God to play by our rules, to lay out the plot in simple terms and then follow it.  The disciples knew, or thought they knew, how the story would have to unfold.  The messiah would indeed become king.  Hear the plaintive words of the witness on the road to Emmaus: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” (Luke 24:21) – and of course that he would do it in the way any normal king would.

But God is much more subtle, and for those whose eyes are opened by resurrection vision, there can only be awe and exclamation: Oh, the power, the richness, the glory, the mystery!

Moral purpose

We have claimed that the resurrection mystery can’t be captured, that it can’t be held, just as Jesus couldn’t be held by the grave but burst forth into life – and into our lives.  The risen Christ offers vision and moral purpose – a new capacity to live the life of faith.

Colossians 3:1 speaks of this resurrection power in the life of the believer: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on Earth.”

Set your minds: imagine!  Yes, imagination is a powerful tool for moral awareness.  Paul in Colossians goes on to characterize the shape of the Spirit-filled life, the resurrection life: Put to death the old.  Put on the new nature.

One important aspect of that new nature is moral vision, the capacity for awareness.  From a writer in a symposium on morality: “I keep finding that I have been immoral when I have been incapable of awareness. When have I been more aware, and when have I been less aware of the human soul, mine or other people’s?  In my youth I was so unaware not only of other human souls, but also sublimely unaware of the heart of darkness in my own soul.” (Philip P. Hallie, “Comments in a Symposium on Morality,” The American Scholar 34 (1965), 365)

Stanley Hauerwas, noted theologian and ethicist, makes his own confession of limited moral vision.  Coming from a working-class, hard-knocks Texas frontier family, he was enabled to go to college and then on to Yale Divinity School – a whole other moral and intellectual world.  During the second year at Yale came the family news that his father was working all winter in his spare time, making a gun.  Stanley writes:

I thought that was fine, since it certainly had nothing to do with me.  However, that summer my wife and I made our usual trip home and we had hardly entered the door when my father thrust the now-completed gun into my hands.  It was indeed a beautiful piece of craftsmanship.  And I immediately allowed as such, but I was not content to stop there.  Flushed with theories about the importance of truthfulness and the irrationality of our society’s gun policy I said, “Of course you realize that it will not be long before we as a society are going to have to take all these things away from you people.”

Morally what I said still seems to me to be exactly right as a social policy.  But that I made such a statement in that context surely is one of the lowest points of my “moral development.”  For I was simply not morally mature enough or skillful enough to know how to respond properly when a precious gift was being made. (A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic)

To put on the new nature is to enable a change of vision, of awareness.  To see in the light of resurrection is to be able to both give and receive love.  Thus it is that the awesome mystery of power and glory can be focused in simple, basic human relationships.

Remember that the first resurrection was revealed only to those who had followed: “not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses,” (Acts 10:41).  They were not expecting it.  In Paul’s list of witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15, the language is significant: “He appeared.”  He was seen.  The chosen witnesses were passive; the risen Christ appeared, not as a result of their quest or their claim, for they had given up and gone home.  And then: he burst from the fetters – a mystery, a gift of grace!

“If, then, you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.”


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