A Doubter’s Sermon for Easter Sunday

This Facebook post from Paul Raushenbush is the one Easter message I’ve seen this year that’s really resonated with me. I’ve been going to church for seven years, but in the last couple I’ve felt more as if I was going through the motions, as if the mystery and wonder of the Christian message was being drowned out by the evil in the world, and as if the gulf between me and my friends and co-congregants who are actually Christian and actually believe was wider than ever. This morning in church, while the preacher—an academic theologian—was selling real hard a message of joy and celebration, I was thinking about Mary Magdalene, about the anguish in “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” If you had lost a close friend, perhaps the only one you had, to a painful and humiliating public execution, I don’t know how comforted you would be by the idea that he was “ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Surely you would still feel a great chasm in your life, and surely you would still feel doubt as to whether that great cause for which your friend made a big song and dance about sacrificing himself to was really so worth him abandoning his friends who loved him.

I watched Casablanca for the umpteenth time the other week, and I still think it’s one of the great artistic products of the twentieth century.But thinking about it as a version, in a way, of what’s going on between Jesus and the disciples helps to illuminate the doubting side both of the film’s message of moral clarity and of that in John’s Gospel. We are told in the film—which was created to encourage Americans to support the Allied war effort—that American self-interest and isolationism (personified by Rick) must be sacrificed to the higher end of helping Viktor Lazlo to carry on his great work in the Resistance. In Casablanca, as in the Bible, women are represented as pawns, and it takes some work to recuperate them as fully-realized, strong figures with agency. So Rick, having said that he will make the decisions for everyone, tells Ilse that it is her duty as a woman and a wife to go with Viktor and support his noble struggle for justice and righteousness, instead of giving in (perhaps?) to her baser desires to rekindle a sexual and romantic affair with someone who isn’t constantly spouting vague messages about what a hero he is in the great struggle. Of course, the film makes us want to believe that Viktor will win against the forces of darkness, it makes us want to continue that work, it makes us want to leap to our feet with tears in our eyes when they sing the Marseillaise in the café. But we also—at least, those of us who are modern European historians by trade—are aware of how much rhetorical and political work went into making World War II into a moral war of good against evil, and how much has been done since in the name of that narrative to paper over the sins of racism and imperialism and fascism deep within American and French and British politics and culture before, during, and long after the war. It is the work that story of the war has done that makes it hard today, in our communities, perhaps among those with whom we have celebrated the resurrection of our Lord, or the freedom of our people from bondage, these last days, even to see the evil and sin that is still co-constitutive with all that stuff about holy miracles and triumphing over death.

If any of the stuff in those stories that we rehearse year in, year out—those stories I have memorized word-for-word after seven years of churchgoing—ever really happened, I wonder too if Mary Magdalene, when she arrived at the tomb early that morning to take care of her dead friend’s body, was irritable and frustrated, empty and bereft, and if the disappearance of Jesus’s body felt like just another thing that she and the other Mary and any of the men who could be bothered to stick around and help had been left behind to deal with; while their great friend, who was as difficult and self-absorbed as he was charismatic and kind, had preferred heroics to the down-in-the-dirt daily work of sticking around to care for the sick and the poor. For, these days, when I kneel and someone recites a familiar list of prayers for church leaders, political leaders, zones of conflict, the homeless, those in the community who are sick and dying, I think it feels a bit like what Mary Magdalene might have felt when she saw the empty tomb—the divine presence has left us here, rather haplessly, to carry on its work, with little guidance and without even a body to mourn. It’s hard to imagine that a ghostly, glowing presence popping up from time to time to offer elliptical neo-Platonic remarks about ascending to the Father could have substituted in the minds of the disciples for the kinds of practical, down-and-dirty work for which Jesus became famous during his lifetime. What I still find compelling about the Jesus story is how practically-minded his miracles are. They’re about making sure people have enough to eat, a lot of the time; about easing their physical pain; about being kind to people—I think especially women—who were used to fading into the background; and along the way about giving life to a new kind of radical political message. I think, if I were Mary Magdalene, and it was that practical message—making a real difference in ordinary people’s lives, not least my own—that had drawn me to follow Jesus, I might be thinking, “Why did you have to go and make everything so much more difficult? Now how am I going to feed every beggar who calls at the door? What am I going to tell everyone? Yeah, yeah, I know, you have to ascend to the Father, you said, but does that mean you’re too good to do the washing up? We had to feed a lot of beggars this week, and there’s a lot of it.”

Whether Jesus lived or died, whether he was or wasn’t co-equal with the Father, whether we celebrate his resurrection or not, makes awfully little difference to whether all the beggars on this planet stuffed full to bursting have enough to eat, or whether we are capable of passing on to our children an earth worth inheriting. I am still inspired by what Jesus called on his followers to do, who he called on them to be. But even on the first Easter Sunday (inasmuch as there was one, etc.) Mary Magdalene still had to go home and get dinner on the table, perform emotional labor for all the male disciples as well as process her own grief, and get on with doing the work of living here on earth. She didn’t get to—we don’t get to—ascend to the Father. We have so much work to do, and somehow we have to find the strength to carry on.

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