You can't trust too much of what you hear and read this Sunday. April 1st, April Fools' Day, is a notorious day for practical jokes and spreadings hoaxes. One of my personal favorite hoaxes happened in 1992, when National Public Radio told it's listeners that once again Richard Nixon was running for president. His campaign slogan: "I didn't do anything wrong, and I won't do it again."
I'm not sure whether Easter happening to fall on April Fools' Day this year is hilarious or poignant. On the one hand...come on! Low hanging comedy fruit if ever I've seen it. Mary Magdalene is weeping by the tomb, and Jesus pops up behind her and says, "April fools! Not really dead!"
On the other hand, Easter, the celebration of Jesus being raised from the dead, has always seemed to some like an elaborate (and fairly obvious) hoax. Sometimes, we 21st century people look at the resurrection as something that ancient people were unscientific enough to swallow, but we could never be fooled into believing. The truth is, ancient people were no fools. They knew people didn't just jump out of the grave.
In Acts 17, Paul is telling the Athenian people about Jesus of Nazareth. It's not until he gets to the Easter part that we read, "When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, 'We want to hear you again on this subject.'" In other words, some called it a hoax. And even the ones inclined to believe needed to hear more.
The resurrection has always been a shock, a surprise, something difficult to believe and contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the day. As NT Wright has pointed out, the dominant Jewish world views of the time were held by the Pharisees, who only believed in a resurrection of all people at the end of history, and the Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection at all. The prevailing Greek worldview not only did not conceive of a resurrection, but would not even have thought it desirable because for them the body was a prison of the soul. Who would want to be re-imprisoned? In other words, people were not philosophically and religiously prepared to believe in the resurrection of one man in the middle of history. In fact, the early Christians would be considered fools for believing it.
The writer of the Gospel of Matthew saw this coming. That's why in, Matthew 27, he describes the pains the religious and political establishment of the time went through to prevent any kind of hoax.
The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”
“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard."
It was important to Matthew and to Christians following him that the resurrection of Jesus was not an Onion News Network story but a real event that happened in history, because the message of the resurrection is not just a nice story with an optimistic principle: "Don't worry, things will work themselves out." The resurrection is Example #1 that God has the power to actually radically undo the effects of death and death's colleagues: injustice, oppression, and despair.
And if that's true, if God has the power to enter into the fray of history and undo injustice, oppression, despair and death, imagine what hope, energy, and empowerment that would give to people under the thumb of oppression. No wonder the religious and political establishment would want to prevent people believing that! No wonder they would want to prevent a hoax that would trick people into believing it. And they would have..if it was a hoax.
So this Sunday, don't be so easy to believe the stuff you hear...unless you hear the very bizarre and unlikely story that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Then maybe, like a few Athenians back in the day, you might risk being foolish enough to find yourself saying, "We want to hear you again on this subject."