Sermon: A Mismanaged Message

4.20.2014     Preaching Text: “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.” (Matthew 28:1)

Over the last 20 years or so, there’s been a sort of breathless resurgence of Albert Schweitzer’s famous thesis, outlined in his 1906 book, The Quest for the Historical  Jesus.

Perhaps best known for his missionary work in Africa, in this book Schweitzer summarized much of the “advanced” thinking within German philosophical and theological circles in arguing that the Jesus of history, the actual living, breathing Jesus, was in truth quite different from the Jesus we find in the New Testament.

That Jesus, the one of the Bible, is instead a creation of the early church’s imagination. This “Christ of faith,” in other words, was a fanciful myth loosely based on the real life of the man Jesus.

Today’s “2.0” historical Jesus theorists, however, have added their own twist to Schweitzer’s original thesis.

For these contemporaries, the “Christ of faith” in the Bible is merely the early church’s bald attempt to justify its power, in close political alliance, I might add, with Rome and its emperor. Worse still, this myth was strictly enforced with all other viewpoints squashed brutally in an effort to protect the regnant power group.

This fits conveniently into much of today’s cutting-edge thinking, which argues that reality is malleable, with no set of underlying truths, other than those we subjectively (and arbitrarily) ascribe to it. This leaves those in power free to define reality according to their own self-interest, life’s winners asserting their authority, all the while suppressing and eliminating any alternate viewpoints, any pretenders to the throne, if you will.

According to this way of thinking, the story of Jesus and, indeed, the resurrection, are fanciful stories designed to shore up the power of the elites. Meanwhile, the real Jesus, who actually walked the earth two thousand years ago, has been lost to the mists of time.

Until, that is, today’s cavalry of brave intellectuals rode in on their white horses to liberate Jesus from this cruel fate! Back in the 90’s we even had a highly publicized group calling themselves the “Jesus Seminar,” a collection of scholars who actually voted with colored beads as to whether the real Jesus said or did what the Bible says he said or did! Why we should accept their assessment over and against any other is not readily obvious.

Of course, the truth of who Jesus was, as well as the reality of the resurrection, can never be rationally explained or proved. Neither is demonstrable. Both remain, stubbornly, matters of faith.

We are all familiar with public relations experts and crisis managers. They are hired, by a company or public official, to spin a bad situation so that any public criticism, legal or otherwise, is eliminated or at least muted. They seek to provide a plausible and positive explanation for public relations nightmares, seeking to put a happy face on an otherwise untenable situation.

Tragically, it appears, the early church enlisted the absolute worst such “spin doctors” – the gospel writers and other New Testament writers. The public relations crisis they faced, of course, was the ignominious death of their putative leader, otherwise fashioned as the long-awaited Messiah, his ministry now having failed horribly, weakly, miserably. How then to sell this damaged, disgraced product with at least as much credibility as a “SHAM-WOW!” commercial on late night TV?

For starters, as in today’s reading, these feeble Christian apologists report to the public that the empty tomb was first discovered by two women! This, clearly, was a very inept PR move. After all, in those days, everyone knew women could not to be trusted. Not only did they have absolutely no status in society but their word meant less than nothing in terms of credible testimony or witness. Nonetheless, the gospel writers use it. Message Fail, as they say.

Then, these same advertisers commit the foolhardy mistake of specifically naming in their accounts the very people involved (and often included the names of their family members as well). And because they put quill to papyrus while these same participants and eyewitnesses were still living, they committed what would prove to be a quite serious mistake. After all, anyone skeptical of their story could easily look up those named and get the real facts.

Beyond this, we generally assume the ancients were hopelessly gullible. Yet the resurrection has always been problematic, a scandal. No human being, whether today or in antiquity, has found life emerging out of the cold, hard fact of death easy to fathom. It simply defies natural law and common sense. Chalk up another “Message Fail” to the biblical writers.

Added to this, a less-known fact is that no other religious belief system in Jesus’ day accepted the idea of resurrection. While, it must be said, some within the Hebrew faith did hope for a general resurrection (though not all), they envisioned a day when Jahweh would raise everyone up, not just one lone individual. So again, the biblical writers have presented a flawed and easily discounted account.

When you add all this together with the fact that all of the disciples, except one, died as martyrs for the faith, more questions arise. These were, after all, the same disciples who had cowered and fled during Jesus’ arrest and execution. Something must have changed their perspective. In addition, thousands of Jews and others became followers of Jesus shortly after the resurrection, this non-event.

I could go on, but won’t. The point, as I said earlier, is that though there is no way to prove definitively the reality of the biblical Jesus, or the resurrection, there’s no definitive way to disprove it either. Faith is, in other words (to state the obvious), a matter of faith!

As much as contemporary culture would like to discount faith, it remains a stubborn reality. As most of you who regularly attend this church can attest, I often quote the early Christian theologian, Augustine, who once wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.”

There is, I believe, a God-shaped hole in each of our hearts, one we’re simply born with, which only our Creator can properly fill. When we attempt to fill that God-shaped hole with substitutes for God, we remain restless, regardless of reject God or not. It’s like feeding our hunger with junk food. It does not wholly satisfy.

In short, we are created for eternity; we are made for the transcendent God. A friend of our son, not too long ago, suggested that pop culture’s interest in zombies reflects the long-repressed human search for the things of the spiritual world. We can discount them if we choose, but they don’t go away.

Can I prove this? No, I don’t think so. Does that then make it untrue? No, I don’t think that either.

Years ago, I attended a monthly men’s breakfast at an Episcopal church in Connecticut. The cook was someone who rejected Christianity but liked to attend the meetings to argue the point. I think he thought his cooking gave him license to raise his objections.

One particular morning, as per usual, he challenged what someone said. “How do you know that?” he asked, dismissively and with obvious annoyance.

“Because Jesus saved my life, my marriage, and my family,” the man calmly responded. It was the first time our skeptical interlocutor was rendered utterly speechless.

As I say, there’s no definitive argument for the resurrection, or for Christian faith. And yet after close to 25 years in the ministry, seeing people come to faith and, in the same vein, watching them die, no one will ever convince me that the resurrection and the new life it bequeaths is untrue. Amen.