“But these words seemed to the apostles an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (Luke 24.11)
I am very tempted when I hear these words from the Gospel to roll my eyes, give a heavy sigh and say “it was ever thus…” The women who proclaimed the news that Jesus had risen weren’t the first in human history to find their words dismissed as mere chatter by the men in their lives, and they wouldn’t be the last either. And that is an important part of the point Luke is making here. All the Gospels give unusual prominence for their time and culture to the women in the story of Jesus, but Luke in particular underlines it again and again. In his Gospel Jesus is often seen honouring women, healing women, affirming women as they follow him. In the culture of the time that would have been seen as revolutionary, and it is one of the things that shaped the early church. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. All are one in Christ Jesus.” said St Paul (Galatians 3.28). Creating a new community where the old dividing lines of ethnic identity, social status and gender no longer defined people was a struggle, but it was central to the message of the Gospel, so it’s not surprising to find the role of women emphasized in the Gospels, or that some of the characters in them find this hard to take.
But let’s cut these apostles a little slack today. It surely is expecting a bit much to think that anyone would have instantly believed this story, whoever it came from. After all, would we believe it if someone –male or female – came rushing into church today saying that a dead person had returned to life? I doubt it.
The people of the first century wouldn’t have thought it was impossible for the dead to live again – they didn’t have our scientific understanding of the boundaries between life and death; as far as they were concerned, life and death were in God’s hands, and if he chose to raise someone from the dead it was perfectly within his powers to do so. But that didn’t mean they expected it to happen.
The possibility of resurrection was the last thing in anyone’s minds on this first Easter Day. That goes for the women as much as the men. They’d gone to the tomb with the spices and ointments that would have normally been used for burial. There hadn’t been time on Good Friday to anoint Jesus and prepare his body properly, so they were going back to do it now. They were expecting death, not life, as any of us would have done. But when they got there they found that nothing was as they’d thought it would be. The stone was rolled away and “two men in dazzling clothes” were standing there. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” they ask. “He is not here, but has risen”. Jesus had said this would happen, they say, but clearly the women hadn’t taken it in at the time, or hadn’t thought for a moment that he actually meant it. It is only because they are here at the tomb, having the experience, that it becomes real to them. They would have been no more likely to believe this tale than their male counterparts if they hadn’t been.
But if we can understand, and forgive, the apostles’ disbelief of the women, the way they deliver their verdict is still a bit painful. They dismiss it as an “idle tale”. Ouch. Most of them don’t even think it is worth checking out. It’s only Peter who makes the short trip to the burial ground to look for himself.
That sets a pattern for the accounts of all the other resurrection appearances in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus has to make all the running himself. Later that day he appears to two of his disciples as they trudge back to Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem. They’ve heard rumours of his resurrection, but somehow they can’t face the possibility that it might be true, and they don’t recognise this stranger on the road with them. It is as if they are fed up with the whole business, as if they have decided to have nothing more to do with it. It is only after he has walked seven miles in the wrong direction with them, away from Jerusalem where they really need to be, that the penny drops. As they share supper with him they realise who he is. They rush back with their news, to find the disciples still in hiding. At that point Jesus again takes the initiative, appearing in the room, sitting down to eat with them too. It’s not just that they can’t believe Jesus might have risen; it is as if they think that even if he has, it is nothing to do with them.
When the apostles describe the women’s announcement as “an idle tale” that says it all. Something that is idle isn’t going anywhere, isn’t getting anything done, doesn’t really make any difference. The Greek word which that phrase translates can also mean a “trinket” or a “bauble”, something decorative, glittery, appealing in a superficial way, but not really worth anything much. As far as they are concerned the resurrection might have happened, or it might not have happened, but either way it’s someone else’s story, not theirs. It is only as each of them meets the risen Christ for themselves that things change. At that point, the idle tale, the trinket, becomes a life-changing event that goes to the deepest part of them and transforms them utterly.
The early Christians who told these stories of resurrection, and in many cases died because of their commitment to following the way of Christ, only had the courage and strength to do so because they had found in Christ something so precious that nothing, even the threat of death, would induce them to give it up. We don’t know exactly what they saw on that first Easter Day – the Gospel accounts all differ and they are full of things unsaid and unexplained, loose ends and mysteries. But whatever happened it changed those who were there completely. It convinced them, to use the words of Desmond Tutu, that “Goodness is stronger than evil; Love is stronger than hate; Light is stronger than darkness; Life is stronger than death.” Time and again they found they were encountering the risen Christ in one another in those new communities where there was no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. Light dawned in their lives, and they found acceptance, forgiveness, reconciliation, a whole new purpose and meaning to life.
So what about us? My experience is that establishing the facts of the resurrection story – what we think we'd have seen if we'd been there - is often the least important factor in Christian faith. In fact when we get obsessed with trying to pin down what “really” happened, we can end up robbing the story of its power, because there is no way we can ever answer those questions. It becomes an absorbing academic puzzle, or a bone of contention to argue over, but it makes no difference to us. It is something long ago and far away. In a sense, we turn it into an “idle tale” ourselves when we treat it like this. What really matters is not that we understand the resurrection, but that we experience it. And that can only happen as we dare to live Christ’s message of love, when we seek reconciliation instead of revenge, when we carry on working for justice and doing what is right, despite the knockbacks and the disappointments. When we do that, we start to find life in unexpected places where all we thought we’d find was death.
I’ve known this in my own life, and in the lives of many others I have met. I think of a friend of mine – some of you will have heard me talk about him before. He’s a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, who used to beg for money on the streets to fund his addictions, but has now been clean and sober for well over a decade. The drugs and alcohol have done their damage though, leaving him with all sorts of physical and mental problems which he will never be free of, and life is a huge struggle for him. But he keeps on, day by day. Sometimes he phones me up and says, “Anne – I’ve just got a mustard seed of faith today, but it’s enough. God is with me, and I still haven’t had a drink…” He is giving help to others now too, giving back something in gratitude for the help he’s received. That’s resurrection. That’s what it looks like and feels like – not an idle tale, a trinket, an extraordinary story from long ago, but the essential food and drink for someone on a very hard journey. My friend has never, to my knowledge, worried about how exactly a dead man could come to life again, how he could appear in a locked room, or suddenly be walking along the road to Emmaus. All he knows is that somehow, from somewhere the strength he needs seems to appear when he needs it, and that is the miracle that matters to him.
I see the reality of resurrection often in the course of my work in people like him, people who have gone through horrific experiences, who have every reason to let hatred and suspicion swallow them up, yet somehow find the power to love instead, people who face what seem like insuperable odds in life, yet still have hope for the future, and a concern for others too. I see it in people like those women at the tomb, people whom the world might have written off, but who discover that they are precious in God’s eyes, with gifts to give and a message to share, despite what others might think. That’s resurrection – not an idle tale, but the knowledge of God’s presence and God’s love, light in the darkness, strength in the suffering, comfort in the loss, hope in the hard slog, where we are, here and now. The most important question for us this Easter day is not whether we believe that God raised Christ from death 2000 years ago, or, if we do, how he did it, but whether we are prepared to let God raise us from death to new life now.