Easter Facts and Easter Faith

Text: Luke 24:1-12
Date: Resurrection / Easter Day + 4/4/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

There was a time when people actually believed that the world was flat and that the sun and the stars all revolved around the earth. It only made sense according to our perception, our limited perspective. Of course, science has proven beyond a doubt that the world is an orb and that the changing alignment of sun and stars in the sky is a much more complicated issue as the earth revolves around the sun. On the one hand are the facts and on the other is our ability to perceive, to know and to agree with or believe the facts.

The Christian faith, and the Easter event in particular is like that. “Faith” has these two aspects. One is the facts, the objective substance or content of what it is that is believed. Theologians call this the fides quae creditur. The other aspect is what faith is in itself, or the fides qua creditur. In other words, when you talk about faith you can either be talking about what it is that is believed or just the act of believing. A lot of people seem to be satisfied to say “I believe” without being able to say what the content or substance of their belief is; “blind faith” some call it; a “shot in the dark;” “fate” or some such other idea of the substance of gelatin. It is especially on Easter Sunday that this difference between what we are called to believe (the fides quae of the resurrection) and what it means to believe it (the fides qua) becomes crucial. The fact is the tomb of the crucified Jesus is found to be empty. But the fact of the empty tomb by itself does not necessarily lead a person to Christian faith! All the Gospel accounts describe the slowness of the disciples to believe the truth of the resurrection. But it is especially in St. Luke’s account that this issue is most clearly described.

It was the women who discovered the fact of the resurrection first. Luke lists them, “Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them,” very probably a good number of women who were returning to the tomb before sunrise, taking the spices they had prepared to complete the hasty Good Friday burial. They fully expected to find Jesus’ dead body the way they had seen it wrapped in linen and laid in a new tomb. Luke quickly describes two things they found. First, they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. Who, what or how the stone had been rolled away doesn’t seem to enter their minds as they enter the tomb where they found…emptiness, vacancy, “they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.” They were perplexed, wondering how to make sense of these facts.

Making sense of the facts for faith. Recall, if your will, the story of Mary and Martha at the death of their brother Lazarus. When Jesus spoke to Martha, saying, “Your brother will rise again,” Martha responded, saying, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (Jn. 11:23-24). It’s the same with these women at the empty tomb. That is, like Martha, they had confidence…faith…in the idea of the resurrection as something reserved for “the last day.” What they were not expecting or ready for, however, was resurrection now! And so they were perplexed about the situation. The facts of the resurrection do not necessarily lead a person to the resurrection faith. After all, how many people do actually know of the claims of the Church and yet still try to explain it away or, more likely and more easily, just ignore those claims altogether?

The facts need something more, namely, to be interpreted or explained and that by the Word of God. That’s why angels appear immediately. Notice the other-worldly description Luke uses: “two men…in dazzling apparel.” The angels interpret what the women observed with their own eyes (the fact that the tomb is empty) with the meaning, “He has risen!” Then the catechism: “Remember,” they said. “Remember how He told you, while He was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” It was only then, only as the Word of God got them to remember Jesus’ words that faith began to happen. They “got it”! Only when the historical facts are interpreted by the inspired, inerrant Word of God do enlightenment and faith follow, the operation of God the Holy Spirit Himself.

Now see the same thing happen to the men. The ladies returned from the tomb. They report to the men “all these things,” that is, the facts: the empty tomb and the resurrection announcement by the angels. Yet once again, these facts didn’t seem to be enough to produce joyful faith. Luke uses an interesting word in describing the men’s reaction when he says, “but these words seemed to them to be an idle tale.” “Idle” is from the Greek word “leros” related to the English word “delirious” meaning a mental wandering or incoherent raving. They thought the women were delirious. The last words are, “and they did not believe them.” And that’s where we’re left on this Easter Sunday celebration: “And they did not believe them.”

The difference seems to be that we know the story, we’re expecting the empty tomb, angels, resurrection and faith. In that expectation it seems we are not as surprised, as challenged until we are asked to believe that the resurrection of Jesus makes a real difference for your life. As with the women and the other disciples on that first Easter Day, there is a difference also for us between the facts that are believed and the act of believing. Enlightenment and faith do not necessarily follow apart from the facts being interpreted, explained by the revelation of the sure and certain Word of God.

Why is it that people will believe all sorts of things, the product only of their own imagination, fear or delirium, but they absolutely refuse to believe something when it is substantiated by fact? The earth is round and Christ is risen! To “believe” the first you have to accept the interpretation of science. To believe in the resurrection you have to accept the interpretation of the Word of God.

Fortunately, in the great fifty days of the Sundays of Easter we find that the apostles did come to faith, even witnessing the risen Jesus with their own eyes and ears and hearts and hands and voices. The question for each generation since then, and therefore for you again today, is, do you believe it? And the reason for the question is because, as St. John said it, “that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:31).

Today we celebrate and proclaim a mystery that can be put into words, supported by the objective, historic facts. But to believe this mystery is beyond human ability. Faith is the gift of God, the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word of the Gospel. To believe you need to remain connected to the hearing of the Word of God. That’s what “Church” is all about. May the Lord grant to each and all of us the faith that clings to the truth that saves and that opens to us the eternal day of the resurrection.