What would you say to someone who does not believe? What would you say to someone who does not believe the most amazing thing that has ever happened?
This is the situation in which the women of our Gospel tonight find themselves. They go to the tomb of Jesus, intending this last act of devotion: anointing his body with herbs. And to their amazement, they see instead two men in dazzling bright clothes, who tell them the impossible: Jesus has risen from the dead.
These women disciples—Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, and the other women—run to tell the eleven male disciples. And what happens? The men don’t believe them. They call the women’s witness an idle tale.
What would you say to someone who does not believe?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Our practice of celebrating the Easter Vigil comes from the early history of the church. In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great advocated beginning the Easter celebration in the dark. The practice acknowledges when Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead: in the dark, quiet, lonely hours when no one else was awake.
Constantine ordered that torches and candles be lit in basilicas, churches, and private homes on this night. I mention him because this Easter Vigil practice comes from a man who was initially an unbeliever. Constantine the Great was the pagan emperor of Rome. He converted to Christianity after a vision indicating that Jesus Christ would guide him to victory in a decisive battle.
Recent converts like Constantine have a sense of amazement and fervor about the risen Christ that some seasoned believers may not have. I was sitting next to a priest at lunch recently who told me rather tiredly that she was going to preach the exact same Easter sermon she had preached for the last ten years. I bet Constantine would not have trouble finding something to say. After his conversion experience, he rapidly instituted reforms throughout the Roman Empire to end the persecution of Christians. He also called the council of Nicaea, which gave us the Nicene Creed. That creed is our condensed story of salvation history.
Constantine knew this story well. After his conversion experience, he hired Christian tutors to teach him and his household the Christian faith.
Notice the fervor of the convert. The convert knows what it feels like to move from darkness into light. He remembers it so much that he wants the Paschal flame burning all over Rome.
But what happens when conversion goes awry? When conversion is not a source of light, but rather… a source of darkness? I had a glimpse of this a few years ago.
At that time, I was leaving my position as an English professor to begin seminary. A student journalist for the college newspaper wanted to write a story about it. At first, he would only interview me through email. So I sent him written responses to his questions. Two weeks later, he emailed me again to say he needed more material, and he asked me to write some more.
At that point, I suggested we chat in person. When he showed up, I could see why he wanted to do an email interview. He was a very shy young man, about 19 years old, in Goth clothing: skinny black jeans, a black t-shirt with a skull on it, a pierced nose, and hair dyed black. He was so nervous that he could not look me in the eye. And… he didn’t have any new questions for me. So I asked him why he decided to write this story.
He said, “Because I’m interested in religion.”
I asked him if he had a religious background, and he said that his parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Every weekend, they took their very shy son with them on their door-to-door visits, preaching the Good News as they understood it and seeking to convert others. This young man hated doing this. So when he was seventeen, he told his parents he refused to do it anymore.
Then suddenly, this fidgety young man did have a question for me. He looked me right in the eye as he asked it: “What would you say if someone told you they didn’t believe in God?”
What would you say if someone told you they didn’t believe in God? I found the tentativeness of that conditional sentence very interesting. I hesitated because I suspected that he was the one who was trying to decide whether God existed. I told him it was very natural to wonder about God and a good thing to explore one’s beliefs and disbeliefs. I also told him that sometimes, people who care about us could expose us to religious experiences that they do not intend to be negative.
Then he asked, “So you’re not going to try to convert me?”
I said no. But then I asked him, “Do you want me to try to convert you? Because that’s an answer for you right there.”
The light of Christ was not only in those torches and fires that Constantine lit on the Easter Vigil. It was also in the Christian education he provided for his family and employees. And the light of Christ burned in the Council of Nicaea where Christian beliefs were hammered out.
The light of Christ burns in smaller encounters, too. It burns in the hurried discussion between the women disciples and the men who are hiding. The men say “Naaaah!” to the women’s witness at first, but when they explore for themselves, they, like Constantine, are amazed.
For some people, the journey of faith is shrouded in darkness and doubt, and then they have some brilliant, wrenching moment of conversion like Constantine had. Or like Peter had when he peeked in the empty tomb.
For others, it is a tentative, flickering flame, one that feels always in danger of being extinguished. And yet it goes on–somewhat improbably.
For some of us, our Christian faith has been an enduring, strong flame that delights and compels us in ways we do not always understand. But we trust its light and warmth–and we stay close to the fire.
And then there are those who hang on the periphery, aware that they have no faith but wishing sometimes that they did.
The poet Thomas Hardy wrote a moving poem about this inability to experience the faith that others experience. It’s called “The Impercipient” –that is, the one who cannot perceive. It begins:
That from this bright believing band
An outcast I should be,
That faiths by which my comrades stand
Seem fantasies to me,
And mirage-mists their Shining Land,
Is a drear destiny.
Why thus my soul should be consigned
Why always I must feel as blind
To sights my brethren see,
Why joys they’ve found I cannot find,
Abides a mystery.
Since heart of mine knows not that ease
Which they know; since it be
That He who breathes All’s Well to these
Breathes no All’s Well to me,
My lack might move their sympathies
And Christian charity!
The speaker is in pain about his inability to perceive, and in fact he addresses God in the third person as He who does not breathe “All’s Well” to the nonbeliever.
The truth is, it is a great mystery why tonight is such a brilliant, amazing night, even for those of us who have celebrated Easter all our lives. Some of us here are getting high just on our ability to shout “Alleluia!” again. We can hear this story of salvation through Jesus Christ over and over and never tire of it. Our salvation is a gift, and so also is our faith in that salvation.
And yet, this night remains shrouded in darkness for others. I’m not referring to those who believe confidently in something other than the Christian faith. God has a plan for everyone.
I’m referring to those whose first reaction is to consider it an idle tale. But then–they run to the grave and wonder.
I’m referring to those like the impercipient in Thomas Hardy’s poem who wonder, “Why them and not me?”
I’m referring to that student journalist, who seemed frightened when he asked me, “What would you say if someone told you they didn’t believe in God?”
These questions cry out for an answer. And the answer arises out of the empty tomb. This tomb is a place of darkness and death and desolation out of which arises the blazing light of the Risen Christ. To me, he IS God, fully revealed to us in the resurrection. Attested to by angels in dazzling robes. Witnessed to by the faithful women and men who followed him. Recognized by the pagan emperor Constantine.
Like all of these people, we too are the light of Christ. No matter how strong or weak you think the flame of your faith is, it serves as a light to others. There are people who can’t see Christ, but who perceive that you can see.
To whom will you run to tell the story that still captivates us 2,000 years later? How will you bear witness to this excitement that the Risen Christ still evokes in you? What will you say to someone who does not believe?
Because the creed that you keep inside you wants to burst out of the cave and be known by others.
Thanks be to God for our faith.
Thanks be to Jesus Christ, the author of our salvation.
Thanks be to the Holy Spirit for inspiring all the disciples and teachers and parents who have spread the light of Christ to us. May we continue—with sympathy—with charity–to spread the light of Christ to those who long for it. Alleluia! Christ Is Risen! The Lord Is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Now let’s go tell the others.