A Red Dress In a Gray World: Easter Full Service

March 30, 1997


A Red Dress in a Gray World

I cautioned people who were here last Sunday that today’s sermon would be unlike anything they had ever heard on Easter, but there was no way of preparing those of you who are visiting so here is a word of explanation. I became fascinated many years ago with how differently the gospel writers tell their story of Christian beginnings. I had grown up believing scripture is monolithic, a large block of perfectly uniform material, and that only heretics said that the gospels were written from separate memories and that they contradicted one another in all sorts of minor and major ways. I came to realize that this was not heresy, but fact, and that there is no better example of how much the gospel writers may differ than in their stories of the empty tomb, so I have wanted for years to do something unconventional and illustrate those differences on a morning like this. I realize, of course, that there are those who do not wish to see the touch of human hands on the pages of the Bible, but I also know how many others are pleased to hear a sermon in which that touch is freely admitted by someone who is not about to lose faith in Christianity as a result.
Although they finally agree on one thing, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are surprisingly confused and contradictory about everything else as each one writes what he believes happened on that famous first day of the week. It may not prove to have been worth the trouble, but I have provided their four stories side by side for easy comparison, with Mark first as the one whose account is the earliest. The print had to be small to fit into our program, and it may be too much trouble to glance at it as I speak, but at the very least you can take it home and check later to be sure I have represented fairly the problems of the text . This is an audience that listens better than any I have ever known, but even you will need to concentrate more than usual for the next few minutes while we do analyze the gospel texts.
In the matter of who came to visit the tomb that morning, Mark lists three women whose underlined names on my worksheet are Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Matthew has only two, leaving out Salome, while — if you look down near the end of the Luke column — you see that he expands the list by adding Joanna and other women whom he does not name,so for him at least five and perhaps more. These three writers obviously do not always agree with each other, but they are much more alike than John is like any of them, so it helps to know as we do this comparison that the gospel of John, over-all, is about 90% different from the other three. In this matter of who came to the tomb, John names only Mary Magdalene and then tells us things about her visit which cannot be harmonized with the other three accounts. His whole story, in fact, is so much his own that we can only find about three similarities between him and the other gospels.
The reasons given for the women’s coming to the tomb is written in capital letters as you cross the page from left to right. Mark and Luke both say they came to anoint the body with spices. Matthew says only that they came to “see” the tomb — and therefore never says they went into it — while John cannot very well speak of Mary Magdalene coming to anoint because in his version of events Joseph and Nicodemus had already anointed the body a couple of days before. If one thing quickly becomes clear about these stories it’s that the authors wrote as they remembered, or had heard from someone, and not as robots whose words were dictated by God.
We come now to another discrepancy. In the words I have italicized, Mark says Mary Magdalen and the other women came “when the sun had risen,” while John says flatly that Mary Magdalene came “while it was still dark.” They have obviously heard the story differently, but churches which believe in the absolute infallibility of the Bible find that disturbing. After all, if God dictated the words then they cannot be in conflict with one another. So, some have looked for an explanation, and come up with this: that Mary Magdalene actually made two trips — one while it was still dark, and another when the sun had risen, and that therefore both writers are correct. For those whose faith depends on an infallible text, that solution is welcomed and they no longer haveto deal with a discrepancy.
Unfortunately, the solution won’t work. It is simply impossible to think that Mary Magdalene visited the tomb first, then came back to make the trip again with other women a half hour or so later and said not a word to them about what she had already seen. They are, after all, on their way to anoint the body in both Mark and Luke; if we try to clear up a contradiction by saying Mary Magdalene had already been at the tomb, we have the curious situation of a woman going with other women to anoint a body she has already discovered is not there! We have to remember that Mark, for example has no idea how John is going to write this story many years later, and John when he gets around to it is not interested at all in making his sequence fit Mark’s.
It’s obvious by now that there is no way to reconcile these contradictory stories, but the discrepancies are about to get much more complicated. Let’s talk for a moment about the stone used to seal the tomb. Mark’s version has the women worry as they approach the tomb about who will roll away the stone so they can anoint the body, only to find on arrival that it has already been removed. Matthew has a sensational story different from anyone else. (Matthew, by the way, has already told one of the most sensational stories in the New Testament, about the many dead bodies which arose from graves at the death of Christ, and walked into Jerusalem — an event one would think would have stamped itself indelibly on the memory of hundreds of people — yet we never hear of it in any writings left from the time, including any of the other authors of the New Testament). So, perhaps not surprisingly, this same Matthew tells of a great earthquake as an angel comes down from heaven to roll back the stone and sit on it. The guards, who do not appear at all in the other gospels, are understandably scared half to death. This story is so dramatic it’s hard to imagine the other three writers leaving it out, unless they had never heard of it.
As Mark continues, the women enter the tomb and see a young man in a white robe sitting on the right side, who tells them: “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus….who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.” In Matthew’s account Mark’s “young man” becomes an “angel” whose face is like light-ning and whose clothes are white as snow. He delivers almost the same message as Mark’s “young man” but instead of speaking it from inside the tomb he is outside sitting on the rock he has rolled away. Luke has the women enter the tomb, except that instead of Mark’s one young man sitting inside, and Matthew’s one angel sitting outside, we now have two men standing in dazzling apparel, who deliver an entirely different message. And in John when Mary Magdalene, the only woman he mentions, looks into the tomb she sees not a single young man sitting on the right side of the tomb, nor a single angel sitting on a stone outside, but two angels sitting inside the tomb where the body had been, one at the head and one at the feet.
In Mark and Matthew the women hear almost identical messages: that they should hurry back to tell the disciples Jesus has risen, and that he will go ahead of them up to Galilee where they will see him. Luke changes this message and omits the business about how they will see Jesus up in Galilee, because as Luke plans to write the story they are actually going to see him very soon in the immediate neighborhood. As we have learned by now to expect, John departs radically from everybody else by having Mary Magdalene see Jesus just outside the tomb — a dramatic detail impossible to harmonize with what the other three writers say.
I have compressed the problems to fit into a brief pulpit demonstration, but they are so much more numerous and complex that the great Catholic scholar Raymond Brown, in his massive commentary on the Gospel of John, devotes 87 pages to pointing them out. It’s clear that in the many years after Christ died, and before these gospels were written, different stories had circulated orally within the church. The one crucial point on which all four writers agree is that the life and power of their beloved friend and Lord did not end at the tomb. They and the Apostle Paul disagree on exactly how that life continued — some describing the revival of a physical body, others describing an ongoing spiritual existence — but they are joyously certain that in some way or other their Lord lives on among them.
Christians around the world still differ on the meaning of the resurrection, some believing that a physical body was revived, others believing that the words “He is risen” mean that his spirit could not be conquered by death and is present among us. One of our problems in interpreting a book like the bible is that we forget how much of language is symbolic. We say the sun “rises” and “sets” although literally it does neither one. We say, “Our father who art in heaven,” but it would be hard to find people in this room literal-minded enough to who think God is male or that heaven, despite biblical language, is literally “up” somewhere beyond the clouds. We know the earth is a hanging globe, so that “up” and “down” depend entirely on which half one inhabits.
When it is said that Jesus “rose” from the dead, do we mean literally that a physical body walked out of the grave and some days later went up into the sky and through the clouds to a location where God dwells? If so, some very thoughtful Christians have asked, not meaning to be sacrilegious, did it travel faster than the speed of light, because even at that speed it would still be traveling if it had to pass through the galaxies to reach a “heaven” beyond them? Or were those early disciples using symbolic language to explain the wonder of their belief that somehow Christ was with God but also with them at the same time? A great modern preacher expresses their sudden conviction of his comforting presence as “light coming out of darkness like the sun rising out of the sea. It was stillness and unspeakable relief following in the wake of storm. It was hope rising up out of shuddering despair. It was life springing like a lily, like a rose, out of death.”
If you happened to notice that this sermon was called “A Red Dress in a Gray World” and have begun to wonder why, I am now pleased to explain the title as a poetic way of defining the meaning of Easter. The incomparable Frederick Buechner reminded me in one of his sermons that although the movie Schindler’s List is filmed almost entirely in black and white like a documentary, “every once in a while, usually in some crowd scene of children playing or people running or being herded into freight cars, you see, flickering like a candle flame in the seething grayness, one single touch of color in the form of a little girl dressed in red. You see her in her red dress hiding herself under a bed while the Nazis set about systematically shooting all the Jews they can lay their hands on in the Krakow ghetto, and then again here, then there, until finally for the last time you see a patch of the same red dress buried almost out of sight in a mountain of the dead left when the massacre has been completed.” Buechner believes that the Easter hope which brings us here on a morning like this is “the saving and holy word that flickers among us like a red dress in a gray world.”
I can find no better words than his to sum up my own feelings about the meaning of this day: “To believe that Christ is risen and alive in the world is to believe that there is no place or person or thing in the world through which we ourselves may not be made more alive by his life, and whenever we are made more alive, whenever we are made more brave and strong and beautiful, we may be sure that Christ is present with us….” I would add only these cautioning words of my own: There can be no Easter in any heart now listening in this room until love is resurrected in that heart from the tomb of selfishness we build around it. Or to put it more plainly yet: “He is risen” means nothing unless we ourselves rise to embrace the challenge of his sacred life. (Amen)