The words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
What makes something unbelievable? What makes a story nonsense to our ears, an idle tale in our estimation?
Someone I loved had cancer, but didn’t get diagnosed for a long time because she wouldn’t see a doctor, even though she had a lot of symptoms. Her cancer got really bad, and the treatment was much worse than it would have been if she’d been diagnosed sooner. She just didn’t want to believe she might have the problem she most feared.
For years of the global pandemic, we’ve heard people call Covid 19 an idle tale, and they wouldn’t believe that it was real, or that it was dangerous. Our nation, our communities, our families, have lost a lot of people because of that disbelief.
Up until the day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in the news coverage, there were Ukrainian people saying, it’s a big bluff. Putin is not actually going to do anything, he just wants us to think he will. They couldn’t believe things were going to go the way they went.
What makes something unbelievable? What makes something seem like an idle tale?
It’s not just scary stuff that makes us scoff defensively. Cancer, Covid, War. No, we distrust the good stuff, too.
When I was a classroom teacher, I used to call my students’ parents to tell them their kids were doing well at school – they couldn’t believe it. Why are you really calling me? There must be some bad behavior or missing homework. Hard to believe you’d get a call for a good reason.
Your crush likes you back? Get out of here. What about more than a crush? Somebody wonderful really, truly loves you. Many people have a hard time believing it’s true when it happens.
There’s a man named Derek Amato, who plays the most extraordinary music on piano. He was never taught, he never trained, he says he doesn’t have any actual musical knowledge. One day, as an adult, never having played the piano before, he sat in front of a keyboard and made exquisite music. He could just do it. Well, it didn’t happen from nothing. Derek had a traumatic brain injury, the kind of trauma that kills people. He was in a coma, it was bad, and unfortunately, to this day he has periodic debilitating migraines. But also, after recovering from his injury, he discovered that he could play music that he had never learned how to play. Something happened and his mind and hands knew what to do. When you see him play, and you are told that he was never trained, he never practiced, it just seems crazy. It’s unbelievable.
What makes something unbelievable? What makes it seem an idle tale?
With bad stuff, we’re capable of believing – catastrophe always seems plausible, but we don’t want it to be true. So we deny it. We refuse to believe.
When it’s good stuff, we want to believe, but we don’t think we can.
On Easter, the day the women found the empty tomb, the challenge to belief was double. Because Jesus himself was the one who had convinced people to believe. He got them to believe a new way of life was possible, and that a new world was coming to be. They were skeptical, and they had good reasons. But he changed their hearts, he changed their minds.
Some thought they could never be forgiven. Some presumed they’d never be loved. Some thought they could never heal. Some were sure they’d never find their way home. Most were convinced that peace was a fantasy and justice a myth. But Jesus helped them believe. Jesus got them to trust that goodness is real, grace is true and compassion is worth the risk.
People are not inclined to believe these things, but Jesus had a great effect on the people who heard him. After listening long enough, they believed him.
But then, he died.
He died, and then everything that had been built up, everything he had helped people to start believing in, was thrown into question. Does the new way you’ve started thinking about your own life hold up, when the person who enabled you to start thinking that way is killed? It’s a good question.
After Jesus was crucified his followers were asking, what do we do now? They were also probably asking, who are we, now? What does life even mean, now? And if they were guarded and cynical before they met Jesus, how high are the fortress walls going up now, after everyone who let their guard down has had their hearts shattered?
The women discovered that the tomb was empty. Strangers appeared and told them Jesus was risen – could they believe it? They saw the burial shroud lying in a heap on the floor. They believed. Could they convince anybody else that it was true?
Not right away. Their words seemed to the other disciples like an idle tale, and they did not believe them. Because they’d taken the risk of believing in Jesus once, and look what happened.
You know what this is like. You’ve believed in someone or something, and gotten hurt. It feels terrible, and maybe you regret ever having opened up in the first place. I don’t know. You get to a certain point in your life and don’t want to be naïve. Every lesson you’ve learned has been hard and painful, and you’ve been let down enough times already, thank you very much. Trust is a luxury you can’t afford. I just can’t let myself believe, again.
This is a reasonable counterpoint to hope.
The only clarification the two people in the dazzling clothes might make, is to say that this new moment, this dawn at the empty tomb, which asks us to have faith, is not a second try. It’s not a do-over. Just give God one more chance. We’re not being asked to believe one more time. Resurrection is not a second turn up at bat. What’s happening at the empty tomb on Easter is the continued unfolding of a story that began long ago. Everything that happened, the beautiful things, the tragic things, the uplifting moments, the horrifying things, it has all led to resurrection.
The people in the dazzling clothes say to the women, Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’
Then they remembered his words.
This is the next page of the book. Resurrection is not a new story, not a different story. It’s the next part of the same story. The story in which the road through death, the road through betrayal, the road through suffering leads to new life.
Resurrection is not the second attempt by love to triumph. It is the fulfillment of love’s long perseverance.
So the friends of Jesus were not being asked to believe in him again. They were being asked to believe in him, still. We are being asked to believe in him, still.
This is the heart of faith, this belief that all roads lead to the empty tomb.
Jesus showed us a way of compassion, generosity, peacemaking, forgiveness and mercy. When we follow that way, there are many days, when the road is falling out from under us, or the house is collapsing around us. The world is a mess, and there are things so daunting that we doubt whether we’d ever be able to face them and prevail. But faith says that when we stay on the path where Jesus leads, Resurrection, redemption, new life, is on the other side of whatever we’re moving through.
The kingdom of God was never going to come without fear or hardship or grief or pain on the way. In fact, the kingdom is found by the very grace and courage that passage through pain requires and summons. That means the life of faith is not easy, but it also means that no hardship, no trauma, no struggle, no pain, can banish the promise of the kingdom.
There are things we should believe but don’t want to. There are things we want to believe, but don’t know if we can.
Easter says that on the other side of death is new life. And every kind of loss we contend with, terrifying though they may be - the death of a relationship or a dream, the loss of a job or a home, this loss is not the whole story and it is not the end of the story. It is part of the story, on the way to the empty tomb.
Because Christ is risen, and he announces redemption and resurrection, to and for the whole world. Even you, even me. Amen.