by the Rev. Sarah Buteux
Easter 3, Year B
What would you do if the authorities were out to get to you?
What would you do if the very people whose job it was to protect and serve you, treated you like you had target on your back?
Would you fight or take flight?
I’ll give you a moment to think about it….
I don’t know about you because we are still apart, but my first instinct would be flight. I’m terrified of pain and I’m too young to die, so I’d run if I could and I’d hide.
Had I lived back in Jesus’ day, I doubt I would have had the courage to accompany the other women to the tomb. I probably would have hung back and hid out with the disciples. I certainly wouldn’t have judged them for going to ground because we all know what happened to Jesus, and I wouldn’t have wanted the same thing to happen to them.
Those poor guys. You know, they saw with their own eyes how the authorities hauled Jesus in for no good reason. They saw what they did to him in spite of the fact that he remained calm, saw how they abused him in spite of the fact that he didn’t resist arrest.
They saw how quickly even a non-violent “offender” could be wrongfully accused, unfairly judged, and summarily executed – not for anything he’d actually done, mind you – but because his body, his presence, his very existence was perceived as a threat by those in power.
The disciples saw what the authorities did to Jesus and you know what? They had every reason to fear the same thing would happen to them.
After all, Jesus’ followers looked like him. They sounded like him. The disciples had all been seen walking and talking and partying with him.
Remember how people called out Peter in the courtyard outside Jesus’ trial:
“This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth,” they said.
“You’re a Galilean,” they said.
“[Y]our accent gives you away,” they said.
The disciples knew that guilt by association can be as damning as racial profiling, so rather than risk meeting the same fate as Jesus, they ran back to the upper room and hid themselves away.
I get it. I think it was a perfectly logical response and as I said, I probably would have done the exact same thing. What seems to surprise everyone, though, is that they remained hidden 3 days later, even after all Jesus had told them the plan that the messiah would suffer and die but rise again on the third day.
They remained hidden even after Mary and the other women told them the tomb was empty. They remained hidden even after Peter and the beloved disciple ran back with news that confirmed what the women had said. They remained hidden even as Cleopas and the other disciple told them of their encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus.
Most people assume that they remained hidden because news of the resurrection was either too good to be true or simply impossible for them to believe. (And I’m sure there’s a sermon in there somewhere).
But in her re-reading of this passage, the Rev. Ayanna Johnson Watkins raises a very interesting question that I want to pursue. Rather than see the disciples as “sexist little jerks” who refuse to believe the word of a woman, or faithless cowards who are painfully slow on the uptake, she wonders if maybe they believe in the resurrection as much as you or I or anyone can.
They believe that Jesus is alive. They’re just not sure, given their present circumstances – whether it makes any difference. “What if the other disciples do believe Mary, yet still choose … lock down?” she asks.
What if they believe Jesus is alive (just) not powerful enough to protect them…What if they think even a risen savior can’t save them?
While the (idea of doubting Mary) stokes my righteous indignation,” she says, “the second (type of doubt) gives me a haunted pause. Because I recognize this version of unbelief: belief that God exists but not that God can or will help me (https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/sundays-coming/limited-faith-risen-savior-john-2019-31?utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=0c714fa25f-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_09_11_08_32_COPY_11&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b00cd618da-0c714fa25f-82656707).
I want to pursue that question with you today because that is where my doubt lies too. It’s one thing to believe in the resurrection. It’s a whole other thing to believe the resurrection actually makes a difference in the world. That’s where the rubber meets the road for me.
Not the question of whether or how a man can rise from the dead, both walk through walls and eat fish – I mean sure, maybe?!? I guess? I don’t know!?! – but whether that man’s resurrection can make a difference in the lives of women like Rev. Watkins or you or me. Because I have my doubts and I can see why she would too.
I think I can understand how, as a black woman in America, Rev. Watkins might doubt the power of God to save her, just as I can understand why the disciples might doubt the power of Jesus to save them. After all, as I said last week, the world Jesus came back to was as broken and violent on Sunday as it was on Friday.
The powers and principalities that put Jesus to death are all firmly in place. Resurrection might promise new life, but it doesn’t guarantee reform. The threat and sting of death were as palpable for the disciples back then as they are for black people in America right now.
You would think we’d at least be making some serious progress around the health and wellbeing of Black lives after the past year. You’d think that the police officers in, I don’t know, maybe Minneapolis might at least be making an effort to be extra careful in their work with the black community while one of their own is on trial for the murder of an unarmed black man. You would think…
But you know as well as I do what happened this past week. You know as well as I do that we live in a country where black people are targeted everyday. Where black people can be hauled in by the authorities for no good reason at all.
Where they are more likely than white people to be abused even if they remain calm, or come to harm whether or not they resist arrest. Where an officer’s oversight can lead to a non-violent “offender” being wrongfully accused, unfairly judged, and summarily executed – not for anything they’ve done- but because – like Jesus – their very body is perceived as a threat.
I want to believe in a world where that can change, but my doubt and despair are very real right now. To borrow a phrase from Sarah Bessey, “I’m only on the shore of (Black America’s) sea of sorrow…” and yet as the news of another murder and another and another hits my ears, the waves threaten to pull me under.
The wounds of our black brothers and sisters run deep. The wounds of our black brothers and sisters are there for all to see, re-opened and held out to the rest of us every time another innocent person is shot or harmed by police for being black in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And when the list of wrong places at the wrong time includes driving home in your new car, going for a run in your own neighborhood, playing as a kid on your local playground, and being asleep in your very own bed at one o’clock in the morning, you realize there is no safe place for black people to run or hide.
That reality is itself a wound. An open wound. A wound Jesus understands, because he bore wounds like that himself. As a poor Jewish man from Nazareth he lived everyday at the mercy of authorities who didn’t care if he lived or died; agents of an empire that considered a crucifixion like his a small price to pay for the sake of law and order.
So let me just say that if it were anyone other then Jesus calling us to a deeper faith in the resurrection, I don’t think I would bother to listen.
But he does. So here is why, even in the midst of all my doubt, I think Jesus’ resurrection matters…matters as much for us now as it did for the disciples back then. Here is why I believe that Jesus not only lives, but that he still has the power to save us.
I believe the resurrection of Jesus matters because I believe the resurrection was more than an end in and of itself. I believe that the resurrection, like all of the other impossible possibilities in scripture, all the wonders and the miracles from the virgin birth to Jesus changing water into wine, are meant as signs…signs that point us to the possibility of a better world.
For example: I believe that Jesus fed the five thousand not just because they were hungry, but to inspire them to imagine a world where there is always enough to go around if we’re willing to share. I believe he healed a man born blind not just so that the man could see but to expand the vision of those around him.
I believe he healed lepers and ate with outcasts not just to soothe their broken hearts and restore their bodies to full health but to open closed hearts so marginalized people could be restored into full community.
All of these miracles are more than ends in and of themselves. Jesus did not preform them just to help the hurting or make us believe that he is the messiah. He preformed them so we would see the needs of the hurting all around us and address those needs because thanks to Jesus, we believe a better world is possible for for all of us right here, right now.
And if you’re still skeptical, thinking – Sarah, that’s a nice way to spin the purpose of miracles as a literary device, but you can’t honestly expect me to believe that they actually happened – please know that I both do and don’t expect you to believe they actually happened. I’m actually hoping that, like the disciples, you’ll find yourself joyfully disbelieving, intrigued yet still wondering if any of it could possibly be true at all.
Because, you see, I believe Jesus’ miracles were meant to confound and astonish. If you don’t understand how a man could be incorporeal enough to teleport around town but corporeal enough to eat a fish, that’s exactly as it should be. Luke tells us “that even in their joy (the disciples) were disbelieving and wondering.”
They don’t fully understand what’s going on any more than we do because the resurrection isn’t something we can fully understand any more than we can fully understand any of Jesus’ other miracles. They were all meant to delight and confuse you even if you had the privilege of looking right at them, because it was never just about them. I think the signs and miracles are there to open us up to possibility. To help us see beyond what is, to what could be.
Remember last week when Jesus blessed Thomas for believing because he had seen, but then said, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe?” Jesus pushes his disciples to have faith not just in what they see but in what they don’t.
He wants them to behold the wonders and miracles of his ministry – even his resurrection – not as ends in and of themselves, but as signs that point to something more. Because it’s the something more that matters most, and the signs and miracles won’t always be there to show us the way.
The good people at SALT project put it this way: “Signs and wonders have their place, but Jesus wants to lead his followers into a faith that can flourish even when what can be “seen” is dispiriting. Faith discerns beyond the visible, beyond the surface of things — and so lights a candle in the darkness, sings a song of hope in the valley of the shadow of death, even and especially when “signs and wonders” seem nowhere to be found” (https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2021/4/5/three-kinds-of-doubt-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-easter-2).
In the end, I don’t think Jesus cares whether or not you believe in the resurrection as a stone cold fact. In the end it’s not so much about believing that his body can still hold a fish as it is about believing that Jesus’ vision for a new world can still hold water. It’s about believing that the compassion of a wounded God can still save a wounded world if only we would learn to love all others as God loves us.
Friends, it is hard to envision a better America, an America where we live as if black lives matter when the empire we have built and the order we uphold and the authorities we have empowered are bent on proving time and again that they don’t.
But I want to believe, contrary to all the evidence, that such a world is possible. Believing in the resurrection matters to me because it stretches my faith. It expands my sense of possibility. It helps me see not just what is, but what could be.
For me believing in the resurrection matters because it helps me hold out for the possibility of a world where black lives don’t just matter, but a world where black lives can thrive alongside white ones in all the safety and security they deserve. A world where all the wounds my black siblings have suffered, are seen, believed, and may one day be made whole.
I want to believe in nothing less. I hope you will believe too.