Sometimes in our conversations there is a moment when someone says: “Now, let’s be honest . . . .” Have you had this happen to you? It makes you wonder about the other stuff the person has said. Is it reliable? Is it not honest? Jesus cautions us about this way of speaking in Matthew chapter five. He says, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’” Jesus’ teaching here is one of the reasons Anabaptists have been against taking oaths. If we have to “swear on a stack of Bibles” it undermines the rest of what we say.
If I didn’t think Jesus was on to something important in Matthew five and if I didn’t think truth telling in general was important, I would begin this essay by saying “Now, let’s be honest . . . let’s be honest that sometimes The Way of Jesus seems like make believe.” It seems like pretense, like fantasy, like wishful thinking—like “an idle tale” to use the phrase from Luke chapter 24.
It isn’t always easy to figure out why things ‘seem’ a certain way, but I think there are several reasons why The Way sometimes seems like make believe. One reason is that the biblical world is no longer part of the architecture of our culture. We can’t take it for granted. Maybe a better way to put it is to recognize that when we have neighbors who believe something totally different than we do, we can’t help but see our views in a new way. Whether we admit it or not, we wonder how it is that we are right and they are wrong, or why they are right and we are wrong. We can’t avoid these sorts of questions. Even the most seemingly inclusive, pluralist position is exclusive in its own way.
I remember meeting with an accounts manager at a bank when I was doing my doctoral work. He asked what I was studying. I said, “theology.” He paused . . . I wasn’t sure if he was going to tell me I was wasting my time (from a financial perspective), deny me an account or go into a technical rant about Abraham being an ass nomad instead of a camel nomad. After that pause, he slowly and hesitantly said, “Theology . . . that’s in the medical field isn’t it?” If I was quicker I would have come up with some witty way to say “yes.” But alas, “no” doctors of theology are not the useful kind of doctors.
The comparison is a useful one though. As Stanley Hauerwas has suggested, the feeling that most of us get when we enter a hospital: that sense that we don’t know what’s going on, that we’re at the mercy of people who know the technical terms, who can manipulate the mysterious world of viruses and endocrine systems and radiation and chemo and who see into our inner being with those hideous, panoptic machines—that feeling of intimidation and awe, that’s the same feeling average people in earlier generations would have had when they walked into a church. They would have been at the mercy of an expert whose knowledge few would have had the courage to second-guessed. But we don’t feel that way in church anymore and we don’t approach faith that way anymore. And we’re haunted by the sense that it feels like make believe.
There are other reasons, more local reasons, why The Way sometimes seems like make believe. It seems like make believe when we encounter groups in a church more interested in getting their way than in worshiping God or loving their neighbors. It seems like make believe when life bowls us over, when we’re diagnosed with a disease that sucks the life out of us or out of those we love. It seems like make believe when can can’t do the things we think we should be able to do. It seems like make believe when our deepest prayers go unanswered. It seems like make believe when even our sisters and brothers in the faith don’t see the pain we’re experiencing. It seems like make believe when our lives or the lives of people we want to respect seem to hardly be affected at all by the faith they claim. It seems like make believe when church appears like only so much prancing and politics.
And there are even other, more mundane, reasons for this seeming like make believe: With its deep mysteries, The Way feels like make believe when we spend our days dealing with verifiable data, with financial records or with tangible things like plants or dimensional lumber. It’s hard sometimes not to feel like we’re dealing with fantasy when we go from that world to the biblical world of corpses being brought back to life and the son of a carpenter being hailed as a heavenly king. The two worlds seem hardly to touch.
And that’s one of the reasons that I love the scene from the beginning of the 24th chapter of Luke’s gospel so much. The first twelve verses of that chapter are the first of the three final scenes before the author shifts to the companion volume of Acts: scene 1 is the empty tomb, scene 2 is the road to Emmaus and scene 3 is the appearance of Jesus in Jerusalem. It’s a part of the narrative hinge where the action shifts from moving toward Jerusalem in Luke to moving toward the rest of the world in Acts. In this, the final chapter of Luke and the first chapter of Acts, Jesus is present but not. His presence is peculiar and strange. The post-resurrection Jesus isn’t like the old Jesus. Something has changed.
The scene opens with the women who had come from Galilee with Jesus returning to his tomb. They had been there before. They had prepared spices and had rested on the Sabbath. Now they came back to treat the body of the teacher with appropriate respect and honor. The suspense begins to build when they find that the stone sealing the tomb had been rolled back: the body they had planned on treating was gone.
Two men in strange clothes show up. The women were perplexed and terrified. The two strangers remind them of what Jesus had said about being killed and raised again on the third day. We find what they were referring to earlier in Luke, in chapter 9 verse 22. That hadn’t made sense to them before but now their memories are primed. They return to tell Jesus’ eleven closest apprentices and those from the wider circle as well. But no one believes them: their “words seemed to them an idle tale . . . .” One of the eleven needed to see for himself—Peter. And he finds things just as they said. “[H]e went home,” the text tells us, “amazed at what had happened.”
The scene in the first twelve verses of Luke 24 ends a bit like the oldest versions of Mark may have. Here’s how some scholars think that gospel originally ended: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s Mark 16 verse 8. Read it again, it’s quite a way to end a biography of Jesus isn’t it?
And so, we are in good company, if sometimes it seems like make believe. We’re right there with Jesus’ disciples, with the women returning from the tomb.
The challenge, of course, is that the empty tomb is so central to the Christian story. If Christ hasn’t been raised, Paul points out, our “faith is futile” and “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17). This is right at the center of the story. I suppose we might put the problem this way: as another preacher has noted, if we can’t count on dead bodies remaining dead, what can we count on. What does this mean for the rest of our lives? Is everything up in the air, suspended in space, without gravity, like the moment in an action movie slowed down until it almost stops?
What happens next? Will plants still grow toward the sun? Do 2 and 2 still make four? Can we count on common things, like the dimensions of lumber: Is a 2X4 still 2 inches by 4 inches? (It’s not actually) But what still holds if a body doesn’t stay dead? We wonder if our formulas will still work in Excel. We wonder if more power is still better than less. Is violence still the most effective way to deal with threats? We wonder if it is still pointless to hunger now or to weep or if taking up a cross might indeed feel like something easy. When we find the tomb empty we find a new world and a new calling. We find our work, our families and our worries re-positioned.
But it’s hard to fit these worlds together isn’t it? The world of work and facts and measurements and the world of a body resurrected, “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep,” as Paul describes it.
Now, let’s remember this: nobody actually saw the resurrection itself. And there’s no point in speculating about what that was like. There is no way to speculate about it. Whenever we speak of those points where God and creation meet we leave the world of mechanics. We leave the world calculations. We leave the world of measurement. It seemed like idle speculation, like make believe to the early disciples because the idea just didn’t fit with the way they understood life to work. Jesus death had crushed their hopes. It was the end of the adventure. And we too have trouble finding room for things like the empty tomb in our scientific worldview. It doesn’t seem to fit. In fact, sometimes it seems like there’s no way to find room for God in the busy life of tangibles and measurables and quantifiables. We have a hard time finding space for God’s call.
There’s this Englishman, Clive Staples Lewis. I don’t always find myself among the legion of Clive’s boosters, but here’s something quite interesting. In his book on miracles, Lewis asks us to imagine that we have in our possession most of a novel, or maybe a symphony. We have this, and we think we understand it. And then someone comes to us and says “‘This is the missing part of the work. This is the chapter on which the whole plot of the novel really turned. This is the main theme of the symphony.’” What would we do? We would put the new part into the old and see if it worked. We would see if the two spoke to each other. If it didn’t fit we would soon know. On the other hand, Lewis writes, “if it were genuine, then at every fresh hearing of the music or every fresh reading of the book, we should find it settling down, making itself more at home, and eliciting significance from all sorts of details in the whole work which we had hitherto neglected” (Five Best, 307).
When we place the Incarnation and the resurrection at the center, or to shift metaphors, when we see the world through these acts of God we begin to recognize the pattern. We see patterns that exist in our world and in our work because they are first there in God. The details of daily life take on a new significance. We know, for instance, that something greater can stoop to engage the lesser. The expert can explain something difficult in simple language. The adult can crouch and make themselves understandable to a child. We can think of these as everyday echoes of the Incarnation.
We can go on: as we approach the fall we know that the shriveling and hardening of seeds will be followed by new life. We know that the dormancy of winter leads to a rush of energy in the spring. These are echoes of the resurrection. These sorts of things are, in Lewis’s words, “transpositions of the Divine theme into a minor key” (310). The resurrection of the Son of God only happened once, but the God who raised him from the dead has stamped the world with the pattern of his love. Our everyday lives, if we care to reflect on them, are full to the brim with significance we couldn’t imagine on our own. Maybe it’s wrong to think that there are two worlds that need joining, maybe there is no breach between the world of the empty tomb and our world of facts and necessities.
And maybe it isn’t that we need to find room for God, but that we need to be reminded that God is the room. “‘In him we live and move and have our being,’” Paul said—quoting a pagan poet (Acts 17:28). Or stated in the way only a sophisticated German can: we should “conceive of [God’s] Being as the transcendent making-possible of all possible realities” (God in Creation, 214). That’s Jürgen Moltmann.
The Way seems like make believe because our daily lives take us so far from the central chapter, so far from the main theme. But for this God gives us reminders, spiritual practices that work a bit like sticky notes on the timelines of our lives: there is the time we died and rose to new life with Christ in baptism, the times we enter the triune conversation through prayer, and the times we eat the broken bread and spilt blood of the Lord’s Supper. These spiritual practices are crucial—not because we need to brainwash ourselves into believing the absurd, the unbelievable the fantastical. And not because God won’t like us if we don’t “have devotions.” No, God is much more gracious than that. These things we do are important because we often fail to see the significance of everyday things, these “transpositions of the divine theme” as Lewis called them. Our lives are poorer for our failing to see them. And we miss opportunities to witness to the goodness and power of God.
Paired with spiritual practices, like baptism and prayer and communion, there are sticky notes on the world. These are even more mundane things that point us to the spiritual practices of The Way. One note is the life-giving power and cleansing of water, which reminds us of baptism and the cleansing welcome of God. Another is the meals we eat day after day that remind us of the Meal and the way in which God gives of himself to sustain us. A third is those relationships through which God’s grace pours and which remind us of the practice of prayer. We live in a world between the worlds, between fallen creation and creation renewed. We live in a time between the times, between the old world and the new. We live at a time when thousands of people risk their lives on rickety boats or in the hands of dubious fixers to find a better life. But this is also a time marked by God’s patience and power. It is a time in which we are called to bear witness to this divine work.
Let’s remember that The Way isn’t about trafficking in make believe, though we can’t get away from belief. How do we know our friends, family or spouses really have our best interests at heart? We don’t know even things like that for sure. It isn’t about make believe but it is about noticing the sticky notes stuck to pages that point us back to the central chapter—the one that changes how we read the rest of the story. Let’s watch for these in the coming week. It isn’t about make believe but it is about bearing witness to the goodness and power of God. Let’s watch for opportunities to do just that.
“Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.”