[I wrote this for my preaching class, with the intended audience being Vandy divschool. Of course, if you aren’t a seminarian, then you’re still welcome to overhear.]
There’s a local church pastor who works just south of here, and I bet some of our Methodist students have heard of him. Rev. Thielen serves a small church—only about 6 or 7 thousand members—and he writes books. Most recently he released, “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” which seems like at least something of a salient question for all of us here at Vanderbilt. Someone told me, I forget who, but someone told me that an acquaintance of theirs, upon hearing that they’d be attending Vanderbilt Divinity School, said, “Cling tight to your faith!” Well, fair enough; probably good advice. But still there may be that voice in the back of your head. “What’s the least I can believe?” It’s not really all that bizarre of a question is it?
Well, we have this story, this account, this testimony of the Resurrection. I’ll spare you the textual details, but remember that it’s important, very important, to our gospel writers and also to Paul. In fact, if we can trust Paul, then the Church probably wouldn’t have gained much steam if it weren’t for the Resurrection. “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain…If Christ has not been raised then your faith is futile.” The Resurrection was crucial to Paul and it is all over the Gospel accounts.
But the resurrection gives us trouble. It seems to me there are two ways to deal with the Doctrine if and when you’re called on to preach the Easter texts. First is that you can go the straightforward, traditional route. You can say, “It’s true, literally true. I believe it and you must, too, if you wish to be a Christian.” It isn’t likely to win over many of the empirically-minded in our midst but at least it’s straightforward. More often I tend to come across treatments of the Resurrection that are a bit more philosophically convoluted, or maybe even a bit sneaky. The idea is that you want to affirm the truth of the Resurrection without giving the impression that you’re an irrational supernaturalist. So it’s true but not, you know, objective or historical or material. But it’s true. “Not literally true, but eternally true,” (Coffin) or some other such formulation. And there are countless ways to do that and I’ve read preachers tie themselves in knots doing it. Whoever we are and however we tend to believe, we all run into problems preaching the Resurrection.
It’s strange, though, it’s strange the way we treat our stories and doctrines. It’s strange because I’ve noticed that there’s a certain way in which we tend to treat things that matter—things that really matter to us. And, to be honest, I don’t think we always speak of the Resurrection as if it’s something that matters. Because usually when we talk about things that matter we don’t both making a split between the literal and symbolic. Here’s what I mean. Can you imagine someone saying something like, “You know, for a minute there I was tempted to believe that the love I have for my spouse and family was something fixed and real, but then I remembered the truth. Really it just so happens that some of our interactions make my brain light up in certain ways that I find enjoyable.” No, no, no. Maybe the thought is tucked away in the back of your mind, but only emotional cripples really live as if that’s true. Or, here’s another one, “I agree, John, that the orchestra played well tonight. I was almost even deeply moved but then I remembered that I was about to cry over a few soundwaves bouncing around in my eardrums, and then I decided to give this detached analysis instead.” I’m all for empiricism, really I am, but let’s not pretend that what’s objective can ever be a source of human value or meaning.
Do you see what I mean? When it comes to the things that really matter, there is no distinction between literal or symbolic. No, when it comes to the love we know through others or the art that brings us meaning, it’s all just true. Not literally true, not eternally true, not symbolically true. Just true.
* * *
It didn’t catch on right away, you know. Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary mother of James find that empty tomb and they shield their eyes from the men in dazzling clothes and they get the announcement. Jesus is gone. He’s risen just like he predicted. Three days in the ground and then risen. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” They rush back to the Apostles, those pillars of the church, and the Apostles say, “We don’t believe you. Sounds like an old wives’ tale.” And they sit around thinking about how their movement is dead just like Jesus is dead. Buried in his tomb, still buried and still dead.
But Peter believes the story, and Peter starts running for the tomb. You might’ve guessed it would be Peter. Remember that Peter is the rock on which the church will be built. Somehow wavering, erratic Peter would be come the churches point of stability. Remember that Jesus told Peter, “You’re going to betray me, but after you betray me you’ll turn back, and then you’ll be the one to strengthen your brothers.” It had to be Peter but Peter always made us worry.
Of course that’s not to say that Peter is always messing up. He does get a lot of things right. Jesus calls Peter and without too much hesitation Peter quits the fishing trade and gives his boat to the ministry. Well one day they’re in the boat in the middle of a big storm, and the waters are raging and everyone’s scared. But there’s Jesus calm as ever walking on the water, and Peter gets out and walks a few steps. One day Jesus asks Peter, “What are people saying about me?” Peter says, “Oh, all sorts of things. Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, others say you’re one of the prophets of old.” And Jesus says, “Well, they’ll say what they say. And who do you say that I am?” Peter says you’re the Messiah and Peter is right. And Peter’s with Jesus the whole way, lagging behind at times, trying to stay hidden, but still he’s following Jesus when times get tough. Peter could’ve done worse.
Still, still, he made us worry. Walks a few steps on water, yes, but then he sinks. Jesus gets transfigured and Peter’s the one saying “Let’s stay here on the mountaintop,” because he knew Jesus was the Messiah but he didn’t know what that meant. Peter’s asleep in the garden and cutting ears off of slaves and trying to hide in a courtyard, sitting around a fire as Jesus is facing his accusers.
A servant-girl asks “You were with Jesus, weren’t you?”
“No, no. I don’t know him. You must be thinking of someone else.”
Someone else says, “You’re one of those Jesus-followers too.”
Peter insists, “I am not!”
They give it a break and then an hour later someone’s pestering him. “You must’ve been following Jesus. You’re a Galilean. You must’ve been.”
“I wasn’t! I don’t know what you’re talking abou—“
And while he’s still speaking the rooster crows and Peter weeps bitterly, remembering Jesus’ prediction of his betrayal.
Three days pass and the disciples are laying low. Probably feeling defeated and aimless. I imagine that Peter, most of all Peter, would’ve wanted a do over. He’s mulling over his failings, trying to figure out how things went so wrong, and he’s thinking, “I could be faithful if given the chance. I’m done wavering but now I won’t get a chance.”
So it’s Peter who greets the announcement of Resurrection with belief. It had to be Peter because it’s Peter who needs most badly a second chance. “But these words seemed to the disciples 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.”
* * *
It really is amazing, isn’t it? Resurrection’s an amazing sort of truth. It’s amazing the ways that stories and images of new life can move us. For all the ways that we’re fatalists, and for all of the sickness and brokenness and suffering we see, still sometimes we see new things. And when you see a new creation, when you see life bursting forth out of a place of death, hang onto that. It’s not an anomaly; it is truth.
Can I leave you with some words from another preacher? I heard this from Fred Craddock earlier in the week. He says, “Just imagine a garbage can in your backyard one winter night, ugly, it’s full, stuff has poured out over the top and you can’t get the lid on. There are one or two sacks of junk sitting around the garbage can. ‘When are they going to pick this up?’ But during the night it snows and you look out the kitchen window the next morning and where that garbage can sits, is now just a mound of pure white. ‘It shall become as white as snow,” says the Scripture. Really? Is that really true?…It is true. Countless millions of people will tell you it is true.” There are plenty of ways to express the truth of new life in the Resurrection. It’s white-as-snow trash heaps and recovering addicts and Jesus walking out of his tomb.
What is, then, what is the least that I can believe?
Very simply that God is making all things new.
Amen and Happy Easter.