Scripture: Luke 24:1-12
Ignaz Semmelweis was a doctor who represented the best impulse of physicians: He wanted to save lives. His first posting was as an assistant physician in the Vienna Obsterical clinic in 1846 where he helped with the delivery of babies. Semmelweis though was mortified by the high rate of mortality among mothers, especially from illness after birth. This unfortunately common illness for the time was called childbed fever. Semmelweis experimented with ways to decrease this and found that if the physician washed their hand with a chlorine based solution before delivering the baby it greatly reduced the odds of the mother coming down with childbed fever. Semmelweis knew this worked, but his problem is he could not adequately explain why it worked.
He published his results with some theories as to why this method was effective. Part of his theory is that the doctors were unwittingly transferring contaminants to the delivering mothers. Semmelweis was absolutely ridiculed and dismissed by the European medical community. They saw his hypothesis as absurd, because they could clearly not see contaminants on their hands. Semmelweis though would not let it go, he wanted to save lives and he was insistent that even if he could not fully explain it he knew he was right. His colleagues though that he was insane. I mean that literally, not figuratively. Fellow physicians in Austria actually conspired to have him committed to an insane asylum where he quite tragically died after being treated terribly.
History would vindicate Semmelweis though. Twenty years later, germ theory was proven. Microscopes could now see the contaminants that Semmelweis could not adequately explain at the time. Today Semmelweis is honored in Austria as the “savior of mothers” and is regarded as a pioneering scientist. Psychologist today also use the term the Semmelweis reflex to describe the tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs, or paradigms. This phenomenon was named after Semmelweis to honor him after he was treated so terribly by his scientific colleagues, but perhaps it would be fairer to name this unfortunate human tendency after Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and the other women with them. They were the first witnesses to the resurrection, and they faced as reaction similar to Ignaz Semmelweis. The disciples’ reaction was to reject the testimony of the women because it contradicted established norms, beliefs, and paradigms. In his gospel Luke really drives the point home in verse 11 of this morning’s scripture, “But they did not believe the women because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”
The women who went to the tomb on the first Easter morning were the first witnesses to the resurrection, they were the first ones to proclaim the good news that he lives, and their good news was rejected as nonsense. Unfortunately, to this day that still happens. There are still plenty of people who regard the good news we celebrate today, the good news of the empty tomb as nonsense. As we consider this morning’s scripture, perhaps we should also consider how we can help others make sense of nonsense.
On the one hand the disciples response is kind of face palm inducing. They should have just believed the women. Their witness should not have been dismissed as nonsense, because they were only confirming that what happened is what Jesus said would happen. Jesus predicted his death multiple times and he was fairly direct about it. For instance, Luke 9:22 records Jesus saying, “The son of man must suffer many thing and be rejected by the elders the chief priests and the teachers of the law and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” After three years of traveling with Jesus, of seeing miracle upon miracle, and Jesus proving himself time and time again the disciples should have recognized the truth of what the woman told them and not dismissed it.
Of course on the other hand, it is easy to sympathize with the disciples and understand their point of view. Yes, they traveled with Jesus, they saw the seas calmed, the crowds fed, and the sick healed. They heard Jesus talk about being raised to life, and they might have even have believed in theory. However, for disciples the theory was shattered by the reality of a broken body hanging from a Roman cross. The disciples believed they had found the messiah, but those dreams were crushed by the weight of imperial injustice. The reality for the disciples is that, despite what Jesus might have said, death was final. They had experienced the harrowing escape from the garden, they had heard the eye witness reports, and at least John saw Jesus on the cross with his own eyes. Given the weight of all they had experienced, it is no wonder they dismissed the account of the women. It probably was reflexive as their testimony contradicted the established norms, beliefs, and paradigms.
In the 19th century it was not until scientists had the ability to see germs that they believed Semmelweis, and in the gospel of Luke the disciples do not believe the women until they see Jesus for themselves. We only read the beginning of Luke 24 this morning, but if we go on Jesus appears a couple of more times. First, Jesus appears to a couple of followers on the road to Emmaus. The disciples do not fully believe until that night when Jesus appears to them and proves he is not a ghost. While, perhaps the disciples should have believed the women at the beginning, we cannot fault them too much for taking an “I will believe it when I see it” approach. If we had gone through all that the disciples had experienced our reaction might not have been terribly different.
When it comes to Jesus, there is still a lot of skepticism today. To be very clear in the United Methodist church we officially believe “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body again.” We believe that the tomb was truly empty, Jesus defeated sin and death, that the grave has lost its sting, and that those who believe in him also shall not perish but have eternal life. Yet to millions of people, that belief that we hold so dear, is nonsense. A 2020 Lifeway research study on the state of theology in America found that while 66% of Americans lean towards believing the physical resurrection of Jesus, 20%, 1 out of every five people, see it as complete nonsense. When these findings are broken down by age it is even worse with almost 60% of Americans ages 18-34 denying that Jesus was resurrected. The mission of the United Methodist Church, our mission the reason why we are here, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. How do we make disciples though when so many people will not believe us when we say He is risen, because our words seem to them like nonsense?
Perhaps the way we do that is the same way that Jesus final got his disciples to see sense, and that is he showed them. Obviously we cannot show them the physical Jesus, he is ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. Yet, we can show them the body of Christ in action. Our actions as his followers can be proof that He lives, that Christ Jesus lives today. Our world is driven by fear and outrage, but as a redeemed people we can rise above that. Instead of mimicking the talking points of the culture, we can instead focus our words on actions on hope and acceptance. Instead of joining the nihilistic chorus that proclaims “everything is getting worse” it can be our declaration “because he lives, I can face tomorrow. Because he lives, all fear is gone.”
Perhaps one of the reasons why so many people, especially younger people, are quick to deny the resurrection is because they have not seen the proof in our actions. Unfortunately there are too many people who think of Christians as judgmental people not forgiven people. Unfortunately there are too many people that think we have more in common with the good Friday crowds that shouted crucify him than we have in common with the women who first testified to the empty tomb. Unfortunately, we tend to be quicker to talk about God’s unconditional love than we are to actually show others what that love looks like. The empty tomb signifies that love’s redeeming work is done, death could not hold our savior, and Christ has opened the way to paradise. This is good news that is not just for a select few who fit a certain mold, it is supposed to be good news for the whole wide world. We had the privilege of confirming new members today, and one of the membership vows that they took and everyone else reaffirmed is the belief that Christ has opened the church to people of all ages, nations, and races. This is meant to be an all-inclusive statement and all means all. This means when anyone comes into a faith community they should experience acceptance, grace, and love. The way we show others the love of God that we celebrate today is through how we love them. We cannot show people the empty tomb or the resurrected Christ but we can show them the love of Jesus through how we love them as body of Christ here on earth.
While we certainly can and should ensure people feel God’s love when they interact with us as a community of faith, we can also show people Jesus on days other than Sunday. We can also show people Jesus the other days of the week in our everyday lives. The word Christian derives from Greek and it literally means “little Christs”, which has his disciples is what we are supposed to be. The only way the original disciples were able to make sense of nonsense on that first Easter day is when they saw evidence of the resurrection with their own eyes. In the same way, we can be the evidence to others through how we treat them and how we live our lives. Our goal in faith should be to follow after Jesus so closely that we are his representative in the world, which we function as a little Christ, which light the way and points to the savior of the world. This my friends, is how we help make sense out of all the nonsense around us.
It is true that we can serve others, love others, and embody grace to someone else and they still do not believe the good news. After all, in this morning’s scripture Peter himself went to the empty tomb and still did not get it. Sadly, there will probably always be some people who view the resurrection as nonsense, but that does not mean we do not stop trying to proclaim the good news. If we want other to know Jesus, then we need to show them Jesus. May we do that through how we serve others, how we forgive others, how we radically accept others, and how we love others. May we live as Christians, as little Christs. May the way we live testify to our faith. May it proclaim that we believe it was up from the grave he arose! With a mighty triumph, he arose a victor from the dark domain and he lives forever with his saints to reign. He arose! He arose! Hallelujah Christ arose!