Today is a day for fools. And each year the newspapers play tricks on their readers with spoof stories, though some are harder spot than others and some real stories can make us check the calendar. Last year that major publication ‘The Beano’ revealed that it was going to produce an emoji only comic. Meanwhile Virgin Trains announced a new contactless ticket system called ‘Tick Ink’, where season tickets could be tattooed on the body of the traveller. And the Cornish Bakery released an egg shaped pasty – which was just a normal pasty photographed standing on one end. The prize though to my mind went to Amazon who produced a video showcasing what it called ‘PetLexa’, the voice activated personal assistant Alexa for pets. The best bit of the video showed a dog barking with the response “launching automatic ball throwing”, followed by a smash and then the voice announcing “ordering new picture frame”. As ever there were some bizarre sounding real stories to catch you out. Vodka was used to treat a cat that had drunk brake fluid because it turns out it counteracts the effect of the poison.
The jokes work because they take what we consider to be normal on a day trip into the realm of the absurd. And it’s absurd because it doesn’t fit what we are expecting. It’s a fun world of childish playfulness where normal is turned upside down: dogs quack, ducks moo and cows bark. Easter Day fits well with this world of nonsense and April Fools. It fits well because no one expected it and even after 2,000 years of faith we would be more than surprised if a body disappeared and an angel appeared with a mind-bending message that the deceased has been raised. The three women were surprised too. Mark talks about terror and amazement seizing them (Mark 16:1-18).
It is not surprising that St Paul at the beginning of his first letter to the Corinthians, earlier on from where our first reading came, talked of the resurrection as being a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:22-25). It was a stumbling block to Jews because it is far from obvious and not expected. It was a stumbling block to those whom he described as wanting a sign because it did not fit the checklist of what they thought should happen and that didn’t include dying on a cross, let alone rising afterwards. So it just didn’t conform to the expectations of their faith set on clear boundaries. It breaks boundaries, quite literally, the greatest boundary that there is. It was foolishness for the Gentiles because for those who honoured wisdom it sounded like wishful thinking, where heart overruled the rational head. When the truth is unbearable, people will convince themselves of all sorts of things, believe more or less anything that avoids facing the hollow and raw reality of death and loss. So to those who see it as foolishness Jesus is proclaimed to have risen because his friends couldn’t bear the reality of him being gone.
This is a serious challenge, especially to our psychologically savvy times, and because we know some of the details in the gospels are picture language to tell the story in a way we can imagine. The challenge of wishful thinking and delusion needs to be taken seriously, especially when the Epistle reading talked of the risen Jesus appearing to 500. Crowds can be deluded. It is possible for false memory syndrome to play tricks and we’ve seen recent examples, not least the baby dropped four floors from the burning Grenfell Tower only to be caught below. What sounded unbelievable probably was. No one can find anyone who actually saw it, or find the child or the catcher. But people were adamant it happened. So for 500 to see the same thing, from this distance, mention of it in a first century letter, is not knock down proof.
The argument of psychological wishful thinking falls down at the first assumption that the disciples expected Jesus to have risen, that they had a ready made conceptual box to put this in, through which to interpret whatever the actual events were. But that is not how the Gospels talk of the disciples. The women have gone to the tomb because they knew what to expect: a dead body that needed embalming and anointing with fragrant spices to counter the odour of decay which follows death. They were realists and so what followed sounded like an idle tale to the other disciples who were not there, a twisted April Fools joke. And belief, rationalizing what happened, what they found, took time. Everyone scratches their heads on Easter Day. Easter turns our expectations upside down. It makes fools of what we think is sensible and normal. Life pops up where it shouldn’t, new hopes spring in places of despair. What can’t be comes to be.
Something profound happened to change broken, despondent people lost in grief and mourning into men and women who would proclaim the most bizarre nonsense from the rooftops. What is more these men and women were prepared to die for this belief. And even more bizarrely, men and women are prepared to die for it today and are doing so. There was a report on Good Friday of the world’s worst places for the persecution of Christians. Top of the list was North Korea, with Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Pakistan following close behind. For these people the risen Jesus is both hope and purpose, a reason to not conform where self-preservation would counsel wisdom. It is indeed foolishness to the worldly wise and a stumbling block that requires something earth shaking to overcome.
It is only when the life and love of the risen Jesus Christ fills our hearts that we know truly within us the joy and peace it brings. It is a conviction that goes deeper than mere assessment of facts or probabilities – what is likely to have happened and what we see flowing from it. It is to be filled with a deep hope that no matter what, our lives and the whole of creation, are held in God’s care, as if something precious in the palm of the hand. It is to affirm that life and love always triumph over death and hatred. That this is hardwired into creation and so the resurrection of Jesus is actually a breaking out of what is there because God has put it there. When we affirm that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead we affirm that the purposes of God cannot be overcome, however desperate and dark times may be or look. Not even persecution by some of the most cruel regimes on the planet can destroy this. The resurrection of Jesus Christ has the final victory.
So enjoy being a fool, on this day of fools. Proclaim this madness from the rooftops and live in love and joy and peace as you proclaim what to many is foolishness and a stumbling block but for us is the most profound hope that there is. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Alleluia!
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Easter Sunday 1st April 2018