In 1944, Lt. Hiroo Onoda was sent by the Japanese army to the remote Philippine island of Lubang. His mission was to conduct guerrilla warfare during World War II. Unfortunately, Onoda was never officially told the war had ended; so Onoda continued to live in the jungle, always preparing for that moment when his country would again need his services. Eating coconuts and bananas and deftly evading search parties that he believed were enemy scouts, Onoda kept himself well hidden. For almost 30 years, people dropped leaflets telling him the war was over, but no one could convince him that he was no longer in a world in which killing on a national scale was still the order of the day. When Onoda emerged from the dark recesses of the island, finally convinced the war was over, he said:
“Suddenly everything went black. A storm raged inside me. I felt like a fool for having been so tense and cautious. Worse than that, what had I been doing for all these years? Gradually the storm subsided, and for the first time I really understood: This was the end. I pulled back the bolt on my rifle and unloaded the bullets. . . .”
I do not think it is an overstatement to say that for the past 2000 years, human beings have lived with the same kind of dark illusion that kept Onoda hidden in the jungle. For whatever reason, we still move through our days as if we live in a Good Friday world – the world in which fear, hate and violence hold sway.
The illusion that we live in a Good Friday world isn’t really so far-fetched. In fact, it’s entirely understandable. Like Pilate, most political bureaucrats still seek to pass the buck. Most of Christ’s disciples still act an awful lot like Peter, hardly daring to confess that they know a Savior of peace before a hostile world. Like the temple leadership — the Sadducees and Pharisees — many leaders in the modern church still deify their own personal prejudices, morality and creeds instead of a God who loves the whole world without exception.
And the majority of ordinary people do not gather together in a mob to cheer gross miscarriages of justice. But we are not often moved to protest injustice either. After all, it is what it is. And what can we possibly do about it?
Yes, it is easy to believe that we live in a Good Friday world. It is easy to believe that nothing much has changed.
Yet, we come together on Easter morning to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. We affirm that belief quite visibly today. In our greetings to one another. In our music, our flowers, our very presence in the building. Believing in resurrection is one thing we organized Christians do really, really well. We practically fist bump as we proclaim to one another that He is Risen! But behind every fist bump, I still sense the force that was at work on Good Friday. Fear. Raw, barely hidden, and powerful.
None of us deny that we know Jesus as blatantly as Peter did on Good Friday, or treat the story of Christ’s resurrection as dismissively as the disciples treat the women. But do we actually believe that love has won won? Do we dare trust that all that goodness we saw utterly destroyed on the cross is not only alive again but also as alive as any of us sitting here today? We anxiously and even belligerently affirm the truth of bodily resurrection, as if that solves everything, when in fact we’re hard pressed to describe how resurrection actually changes anything in how we live our lives.
Easter demands something more of us. Easter demands that we must live as if the wondrous love of Jesus is not only alive, not only true, but the only truth that matters in a world of illusions.
2,000 years later, we still – still – are at war with our fears. We still do not believe that death has been defeated. We have not pulled back the bolt on the rifle and emptied the bullets. We still huddle in the dark shadows of Good Friday, as if death were the order of the day.
So we should take delight in the fact that the first witnesses in our story today in Luke found the empty tomb to be a complete surprise. Even though Jesus talked about it, predicted it, spoke openly of his death and resurrection throughout his ministry, no one in this story — or any of the gospel stories — greets the news of the resurrection by saying, “Praise God!” No one shouts “Hallelujah!” when they hear the news. And absolutely no one says, “I knew it. It all happened just like Jesus said!”
No one expects resurrection – certainly not the women who come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body. They expect to find death. In fact, it is only when they are reminded by the two men in dazzling clothes that they recall Jesus’ promise.
Then they run back to tell the rest of the disciples, only to be greeted by utter skepticism. In fact, Luke tells us that the disciples regarded the women’s testimony to be “leros,” which the NRSV politely translates as an “idle tale.” But if we look at the original Greek, the more accurate way to describe the disciples’ response is – “Sorry, ladies. That’s crap.”
Who can blame the disciples? Resurrection isn’t simply a claim that Jesus’ body was somehow magically and mysteriously resuscitated. It is so much bigger than that. Resurrection means that everything we see and experience as reality – violence, jealousy, anger, greed, power, prejudice, sickness, even death – is an illusion. Resurrection means that God entered into human history not to fix what is bad, but to create an entirely new reality.
Which is scary. If even the dead won’t stay dead, what can you count on? Resurrection upsets everything. It breaks every rule. Even the awful rules which, while awful, are at least rules we know. Resurrection throws us off balance. It turns neat and orderly and predictable into messy, surprising, and none-too-comfortable chaos.
But amidst the cries of “crap,” Peter hears something else. Peter, who has been utterly broken by false bravado and fear. Peter, who cut off ears and then pretends he had never heard of Jesus. Peter, who ends up sobbing bitter, shameful, regretful tears. Peter listens and hears something in the frankly unbelievable testimony of the women.
With bitter brokenness still clutching at his throat, tears of regret and loss still running down his face, Peter gets up and opens the door, stepping out into the newness of a Sunday morning. Peter hears the muffled voices of the others through the door. The sun is just beginning to warm the ground.
The winding garden path leads him to an open space where he finds the tomb. And he stops abruptly at the entrance. His mind is racing with so many thoughts.
Is it true? Is it true? Is it true?
Peter is broken and tired. Peter is tired of himself. Peter is tired of being who he’s been. Peter is ashamed of what he’s done. And most of all, Peter is afraid. Of what he might see. What he may not see. Is there really hope? Or is it…finished?
Is it true? Is it true? Is it true? A teacher once told me that “Is it true?” is really the only question we have to answer as Christians, and it is the question that never really goes away. We drag that question with us into this place every time we gather to worship. When we sit again in these well-worn pews, worn down with the week’s little disappointments and tiny tragedies. Is it true? Is it true? Is it true?
All Peter can hear is his own heart beating as he breathes in fresh, sweet morning air. Finally, he summons up the courage to look. He sees the abandoned linen. He smells the oils and spices that the women left behind.
As I imagine Peter staring into the truth of that empty tomb, I see a group of broken, battered, cynical, tired people — people like us – standing there with him. And their response to that truth is not a song of triumph, but a cold and a broken hallelujah. A whispered hallelujah. Without trumpets. Without the brass section. Without the fist bump or an arm raised in triumph.
No. This “hallelujah” moment as depicted by Luke, can best be heard as a barely audible croak of gratitude and amazement. Low in the throat, choked with tears, that unique and beautiful sound that every human being makes when we realize that are loved – we are LOVED — beyond our capacity to understand. By someone — a Savior — who knows who we are because he has suffered the very worst we can do to him, and suffered the very worse we do to one another. And he loves us anyway.
Our brokenness is not the final word. Not for Peter. Not for us. The abyss of love is deeper than the abyss of death. Peter comes to the tomb and receives the forgiveness he needs to forgive himself.
This week, I read about a kind of Japanese pottery called, “Kintsukuroi,” which means literally to repair with gold. Artists use the technique to repair broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer with the understanding that the goal is not restoration of the original piece, but the creation of something entirely new. The application of the lacquer exposes and outlines every broken place so that the obviously broken bowl becomes something much more beautiful that the original – simply for having been broken.
That’s what God sees when God looks at you and me and the whole church. The God of resurrection transforms and releases us into the world to shine like the sun, dappled with golden light, all the more beautiful thanks to our scars and bruises and even our doubts.
If we are to affirm Easter in a Good Friday world, we are going to live what is the only truth in a world of illusions. We must live every day as believers in the truth that there is no limit to what love can do.
Is it true? Is it true? Is it true? Let us, in this moment, stand together and whisper so the world can hear. Yes. Thanks be to God. Amen.