Many thanks to Fr. Randall and the people of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, who invited me to preach tonight at their Easter Vigil.
My seven-year-old had her first crisis of faith at an early age. It happened a couple of years ago, just after our family moved to Michigan, when she found out that the little girl next door didn’t believe in God. This possibility had never occurred to her before. She asked my wife and me, “Is God real or just pretend?” After some deliberation, she decided that things she could see are real, while things she could not see are pretend, so God must be pretend.
At first, I thought, “Hey, I’ve got this! I used to teach philosophy, my daughter is very bright, and kids are rational creatures, after all (I know: Rookie Mistake). So, I set to work with my finest reasonable arguments for the existence of God, but none of them worked on this precocious five-year-old.
My wife and I were not particularly worried about our kindergartner’s burgeoning atheism. As clergy, we understand that faith is a journey that looks different for each person that undertakes it. As believers in the ancient Christian doctrine of apokatastasis (Gk. ‘Universal Reconciliation’), we believe that God finds a way to reach every heart, each in its own way, in God’s own time.
But we had also made a promise, at her baptism, to raise her in the Christian faith, in hopes that she, at her confirmation, would one day make those promises her own. So, we continued to take her to church each Sunday and practice our daily devotions at home.
One night, as we finished reciting the Apostles’ Creed, my daughter asked about that one line: “I believe… in the resurrection of the body”. And I told her that the Christian Church has always taught that, one day, Jesus will return to earth and each and every person who has ever lived will rise from the dead, just like Jesus did on Easter.
She replied, “What?!!! You mean, some day I’M GOING TO RISE FROM THE DEAD TOO?!!!”
I said, “Yes, that’s what Christians believe.”
She said, “Oh my goodness! That’s AMAZING!!! I had no idea! EVERYBODY should know about this!”
Where my finely-tuned, well-reasoned arguments had failed, the gospel story itself had succeeded. And that’s the most amazing thing about this conversation.
Faith, in today’s world, has come to mean “belief in a series of propositions that cannot be proved by rational means.” Faith, so we’re told, is by its very nature opposed to reason and doubt. Faith, so we’re told, is about accepting that certain implausible events happened two thousand years ago. That’s what faith is, according to radical skeptics on the one hand and radical fundamentalists on the other. But that is not how most Christians have understood or practiced their faith over the last two thousand years.
For us, faith is a story. It is a story that has been unfolding since the beginning of time and is still unfolding today. It is the story which we find in ourselves and it is the story in which we find ourselves. Faith is a story of new life and transformation. It changes everything. That’s the vision of Christian faith that has brought us together to celebrate tonight.
We heard the major points of this story tonight as they were laid down in the Torah and the prophets of ancient Judaism. We listened to the witness and the commentary of Christ’s apostles as they struggled to make sense of the life-changing transformation they had just undergone. We listened to the words of Luke’s gospel, where the evangelist tries to explain that which defies all explanation.
When I listen to the words of tonight’s gospel reading, I cannot help but relate to St. Mary Magdalene and St. Peter. For them, the first experience of the resurrected Christ was not one of certainty or elation at the fulfillment of prophecy. The text of Luke’s gospel tells us they were perplexed, terrified, and amazed. Even the angel’s announcement begins with a question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
For Peter, faith began with what seemed to him “an idle tale,” told by Mary Magdalene and her companions. He rejected the absurdity of it outright, as well he should, but something kept gnawing at him inside. I think it must have, because he “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.”
This is what Christian faith is. It is not knowledge, in the factual sense. It is not certainty about doctrinal propositions handed down infallibly from ancient times. Faith, in the Christian sense, is perplexing; it is terrifying; it is amazing, as we heard tonight from the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. Faith is a question. Faith is a hunch, and that hunch changes everything.
We desperately need that kind of faith in this day and age. We need a faith that believes enough to doubt and doubts enough to “doubt even its doubts,” in the words of the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick.
You and I live in a society where we are inundated with a relentless onslaught of guarantees and certainties from advertising slogans, political campaigns, and religious ideologies. And each time one promise collapses under its own weight and proves itself to be a lie, another one is waiting to jump up and take its place. Each ideological idol promises to give us the world, if only we will bow down and worship its golden image. Faith, in this context, is the ability to question these promises, doubt these certainties, and refuse to bend the knee to anything less than the mystery of God’s own self.
This faith, the faith of the Church, is freedom from tyranny and idolatry. This faith is not preserved in unchangeable dogmas, but is passed down as a story told in poetry and prophecy, in water and oil and light, in bread and wine. This story is ongoing: unfolding and expanding over the ages, surprising us as it grows in us and we grow in it.
This is the story that brings us tonight to the empty tomb where, with Mary and Peter, we begin our encounter with the living Christ, not with a shout of certainty, but with the angel’s question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
You and I are invited tonight, to take our place next to our brother Peter as we stoop down and squint into the mysterious darkness of the empty tomb, uncertain of what we will find there, but curious enough to come and see for ourselves.
Friends, welcome to the empty tomb. Welcome to the faith of the Church. Welcome to the unfolding story and the ongoing journey. I dare you tonight to walk with us on this journey, to believe enough to doubt, and to doubt enough to question your doubts. I dare you to be perplexed, terrified, and amazed. I dare you to allow yourself to be embraced by the mystery that causes this world’s exclamation points to bow down into question marks before its grandeur.
Friends, this is the faith of the Church. Welcome to the story that is more inspiring and more informative than any dogmatic or rational argument. Welcome to the journey that never ends. Welcome to the empty tomb.