4/17/17: The Scandal of Resurrection
The Scandal of Resurrection
First in the Series: Scandalous Good News
First Lesson: Colossians 3:1-4
Second Lesson: Matthew 28:1-15a
Rev. Scott Dickison
In an article published earlier this month on the website Atlas Obscrua, which chronicles oddities in place and time, Lucy Given writes about a peculiar profession that “arose,” so to speak in the late 1800s:
Keeping the dead buried was a matter of grave concern in 19th-century America. As medical schools proliferated after the Civil War, the field grew increasingly tied to the study of anatomy and practice of dissection. Professors needed bodies for young doctors to carve into and the pool of legally available corpses—executed criminals and body donors—was miniscule.
Enter freelance body snatchers (who would also come to be known as resurrectionists) dispatched to do the digging. This also happened to be the time when folks started spending more on funerals and fancy caskets and so forth, and so the threat that all of this finery might be undone was serious. Capitalizing on the public’s funereal anxiety, Given writes, inventors got to work. Their solution? Explosives.
Philip. K Clover, a Columbus, Ohio artist, patented an early coffin torpedo in 1878. Clover’s instrument functioned like a small shotgun secured inside the coffin lid in order to “prevent the unauthorized resurrection of dead bodies,” as the inventor put it. If someone tried to remove a buried body, the torpedo would fire out a lethal blast of lead balls when the lid was pried open.
Another Ohioan…Thomas N. Howell, patented a grave torpedo of his own… Unlike the Clover torpedo, Howell’s gadget was a shell buried above the coffin and wired to it… [which] worked like a landmine and would detonate when thieves ran into the wiring.
An advertisement for the Howell torpedo read: “Sleep well sweet angel, let no fears of ghouls disturb thy rest, for above thy shrouded form lies a torpedo, ready to make minced meat of anyone who attempts to convey you to the pickling vat.”
Brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, “sweet angels,” as we gather here in this morning awash with sunlight and Easter bonnets and candy eggs—all of these good, good things—let us not forget that the story we tell of the tomb found empty compels us that before it is anything else, resurrection is a scandal.
Resurrection is always “unauthorized,” to borrow from those industrious inventors. Dead bodies are supposed to stay where they are—and not just dead bodies, but live ones as well. We live in a world that demands you stay where you are, stay who you are—that people stay where they’re told, that they follow the script, that they accept the facts as told, that they check the box. This is true in life and so it can only be true in death: where there is order there is comfort.
We don’t know, as a society, what to do with people who would question this. We don’t know what to do with resurrected people: people who would question their lot or the lot of others, that would claim to be something more or something different from what they’re told they should be, that they are. We don’t know what to do with live bodies who don’t stay put, and we certainly don’t know what to do with a dead body that just won’t stay in the grave. Resurrection of any kind is always an offense: an offense to our sensibilities, to our need for order, to everything we’ve been told to expect about how the world works and why, and the authorities surrounding Jesus knew this. Matthew’s Gospel makes this clear.
In the verses just before this passage, we’re told how after Jesus was executed and his body taken by Joseph of Arimathea, who laid it in a tomb and sealed it with a stone, the chief priests and the elders came to Pilate and told him how Jesus had said that he would rise again on the third day, and asked him to make special arrangements to ensure this would not happen. Send soldiers there, they begged him, to make the tomb secure so that his disciples wouldn’t come and steal his body away and claim that Jesus had been raised. And so Pilate agree and tells them, You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it secure as you can. That should do it.
But of course it doesn’t, and so even after their plan fails, they quickly devise a plan whereby the soldiers would be paid to say the disciples tricked them and performed this “unauthorized resurrection” of their Lord—it will keep the crowds at bay, and more importantly, it should satisfy the governor who will want to know what happened and come looking for them. Isn’t it true that the opposite of resurrection is self-preservation?
The lengths they go to keep Jesus in the tomb! Such scheming. Such fear, so much anxious grasping for power—all of which is rooted in that very human assumption, that human need, but that very human lie we tell ourselves in so many ways, that we are in control. That we ourselves are in control, or in those times when we feel powerless, that someone, somewhere is—that some smart person or some room full of smart people have it all under control—that there are surely adults somewhere making sure that everything will turn out okay. Of course the present state of things should remind us this is not true. What a moment it is when you realize there is no one in control. And yet, voices persist that would have us believe otherwise, that they control life and death.
I heard just this past week how the state of Arkansas is in hot water for trying to rush through the execution of a number of men on death row because the lethal drugs they use are set to expire at the end of this month and given how the public’s feelings on the whole notion of state-sanctioned executions is shifting, not to mention how fewer and fewer drug companies see it profitable to be linked to such things, the state doesn’t know when they’ll be able to get new drugs, and so they’re trying to hurry up and get these men dead. Life and death will happen when we say it does, we insist.
Against this scared insistence, God interjects gracious invitation. Invitation to consider a different way. A way of resurrection.
If it is anything, the resurrection of Jesus is God’s eternal statement of who is finally in control. That as much as the Powers around us would claim to have control of our lives and the lives of others, as much as our thinking would convince us of our own ability to engineer our way through life and away from death—the promise of resurrection is that for all our scheming, all our grasping, all our insisting, all the violence and fear and unnecessary suffering—for all of that, the power of God is greater.
The love of God is stronger.
The grace of God is longer.
The mercy of God is wider.
The imagination of God is wilder—wild enough to meet any of the world’s “no’s” with an eternal and abiding “yes.” The resurrection of Jesus is a reminder that the only thing more inevitable than death is love. Is life.
And this is scandalous.
The more loss and grief and disappointment you’ve experienced in your life—the more you’ve experienced the inevitability and yet the shock of death, the more scandalous this claim is. And yet, the more necessary.
That the tomb was found empty has been a scandal since day one—people scrambling to find other explanations for how it could have happened. A scandal powerful enough to embarrass the powerful, and empower the embarrassed. Of course, by scandal here, we mean something that turns the world on its head. Something that offends our understanding of how the world works and shocks us into considering an alternative.
The authorities in that time were absolutely right in thinking that if the tomb was to be found empty, it would change everything. Which is why even upon finding that the empty tomb was not the result of some hijinks by the disciples but instead some heavenly hijinks of God Almighty—even then, they knew immediately what it meant, what it would cost them, maybe even better than the disciples. And so they quickly schemed a way to hide it.
They understood the consequences of this new reality: that if Jesus is raised from the dead, then everything has changed.
Violence is no longer acceptable.
War is no longer or inevitable.
Fear is no longer respectable.
Cruelty is no longer defensible.
Hope is no longer unadvisable.
Peace is no longer laughable.
Joy is no longer containable.
Love is no longer unattainable.
Life is no longer in the hands of the ones with the biggest crosses, the sharpest swords, the biggest lies, the biggest bombs.
And even more, it turns out it never was. These small, small men with have all the power in the world and yet none of the power that is the only real power in the end.
But there’s more going on here.
The only thing more scandalous than insisting that Jesus was raised from the dead is insisting that we will be too. When we’re honest with ourselves, this is the most scandalous, most unbelievable part about our faith: we claim not only that Jesus was raised from the dead, but that in fullness of time we will be too, somehow and someway. That Jesus’ resurrection was not the end of something but actually a beginning; that is signaled what was to come, what is still to come.
And this is something else that I can’t shake with that wack-a-doodle history lesson about those so-called “resurrection-proof” caskets. I know we laugh, but isn’t it remarkable the lengths we will go to stay in our own graves?
Yes, it’s true that all the Powers in the world would have death be the end, but isn’t it true that so often we would, too? Don’t we so often choose to stay in the graves we’ve made for ourselves? As it’s so often said, dying is easy; it’s living that is hard. Isn’t this true? How often is it that we choose the grave of fear over the rolled away stone of love?
That we choose the grave of competition over the rolled away stone of compassion?
The grave of doubt over the stone of hope?
Anxiety over freedom?
Scarcity over abundance?
Law over mercy?
Comfort over curiosity?
Safety over liberty?
Forced busyness over divine restfulness?
Convention over creativity?
Transaction over generosity?
Consumerism over contentment?
Power over vulnerability?
Posturing over humility?
Self-protection over risky hospitality?
Silence over justice?
Legalism over laugher?
Sex over intimacy?
Violence over imagination?
The way things are for the way they could be, the way they should be, the way—in God’s own heart, we pray— they will be.
Don’t we, in so many ways, settle for the grave of death when we’re offered the rolled away stone of resurrection?
Brothers and sisters, the real scandal of resurrection is not simply that no force in heaven or on earth was enough to keep Jesus in his tomb, but that in the end, no force in heaven or on earth, or even in the recesses of our own restless, unforgiving spirits is enough to keep us in our tombs. That God’s “yes” is stronger than not merely the “world’s” “no,” but our own. That God gets what God wants.
That in the end, brothers and sisters, God gets what God wants. And that means you.
Somehow, someway, that means you, and those you love. And even those you don’t—yet. The resurrection means that in the end, God gets what God wants. And that means you. it’s why Paul writes in Romans: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor torpedoes nor landmines nor doubt nor fear nor failure no anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Resurrection means God gets what God wants, and that means you. Praise God, that means us.
What a scandal!
What incredible Good News.