Once upon a time, a shy young man was absolutely love struck by a beautiful young lady. Every day, he tried to get up the courage to speak to her. Every day he failed, until one day he had an idea. He’d write a love letter.
So that’s what he did. He wrote a beautiful, romantic letter, and with shaking hands he dropped it in the mailbox. It felt so good to finally give voice to these secret feelings that he wrote another next day, and the next, and the next. For two years, he wrote a letter every day. And then it happened.
She married the mailman.
It’s an old joke, and it’s made its rounds in various holy humor preacher manuals, because it’s got an obvious moral, ready to preach. The Bible is a series of love letters from God, but as individuals and as a nation, we’ve run off with the mailman instead. Greed and godlessness destroy our homes and our country. We need to get back to our first love.
Not a bad moral. Not a bad sermon. It is Easter after all, and some people just don’t feel like they’ve been to church unless they’ve been yelled at. If you don’t feel guilty at the end, how do you know it was a sermon? If that’s you, and that’s what you need to hear today, there you go. “Dear Lord, please forgive me for ignoring your love letters.” Not a bad prayer. If that’s as much church as you can handle today, and you just tune out the rest, I won’t hold it against you. But you’d be missing the best part.
Because in this particular story, I’m a big fan of the mailman.
I say, if the letter writer liked this girl so much, he should have gone over and said so to her face like a man! Ladies, correct me if I’m wrong, but if a complete stranger sends you one love letter a day for two years, is that or is it not creepy stalk-land material?
Exactly. I bet that’s how the whole thing with the mailman go started! She asked him if he knew this guy and how to put a stop to it. And every day, when a new letter came, he was there. He made her feel safe. The words on the paper were heartfelt and inspiring, but they were nothing next to the warm smile of a flesh and blood human being.
The letters showed remarkable consistency and dedication, but so did the mailman, and you know what else he had? A job! Something more to do with his life than write love letters to strangers. The letter guy never had a chance, and rightly so.
From a certain point of view I made a big mistake allowing you to hear both those readings right next to each other. Because even a child can spot the inconsistencies.
Was it Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome who first went to the tomb, or was it just Mary Magdalene? Did they see an angel and then report, or report and then see an angel? Did they go and tell the disciples, or keep silent because they were afraid? Did they see a resurrected Jesus, or just an angel in an empty tomb?
Why can’t the Bible writers get their story straight? Scientific studies tell us that Mark’s gospel was probably the earliest, and John’s the latest, and Mark’s doesn’t even have a resurrection account. So John obviously added that part himself to explain how his hero, the messiah, could possibly die.
See all the troubles it brings up, reading them right next to each other? The easy way would be to only read one version a year, so you have time to forget the inconsistencies. But if we liked things the easy way, we wouldn’t be Congregationalists, now would we?
Years ago, it was common to assume that all the gospels were written hundreds of years after the events took place, but most modern scholars disagree. The earliest gospel fragment that we have is called the Rylands Library Papyrus because it’s stored in the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, Great Britain.
Most scholars date it to around 125AD in Egypt. If we add in a few decades for the document to get copied and passed around from its point of origin all the way to Egypt, then the most common guess at John’s original writing is around 90-100AD. Obviously, we’re guestimating based on two thousand year old evidence here. There’s room for disagreement. But it’s an educated, scientific guess, and this is the general consensus.
And in this case, science and church tradition line up. Church tradition says John was the only disciple to die of old age, so it’s possible his gospel was written by one of the last of the eye witnesses to the next generation of believers. He hints at this when he says, “I write this so you might believe.”
If we accept that Mark is the earliest and John the latest, that means Mark had to write his gospel even earlier, in the living memory of eye witnesses. His purpose wasn’t to get them to believe, it was to get them to act.
Suppose you’re a first century believer. You go to church one Sunday, and the preacher begins reading this new gospel from Mark, the first of its kind. And the gospel confirms all those stories you’ve heard, and fills in gaps you never knew. The narrative gives the story flow and makes it easier to remember.
Then you get toward the end, and you walk with Jesus through his last days. And your excitement starts to build because you know what’s coming, and you get to Easter morning, and the angel tells the women, “He is risen!” And then the preacher reads, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” And he closes the book and sits down. How would you feel?
Yes! “That’s the end? That can’t be the end! How can that be the end?!” Which is the whole point. The book is not meant to be consistent. It’s meant to get you to move, out into the streets where the people are.
The inconsistencies don’t bother me. They show flesh and blood people recalling flesh and blood memories for a flesh and blood audience. Perfect consistency? Now that would bother me, because it would mean they weren’t experiencing it. They were copying it.
God didn’t just send letter after letter. He hand-delivered the message. God put on flesh and lived among us and experienced every part of what it is to be human: the helplessness of birth, the dependent frustration of childhood, the sting of cruelty and betrayal, even death. And if we take his words on the cross at face value, he even knows what it’s like to feel forsaken by God.
That’s the promise of Good Friday, and on Easter Sunday, we see the promise hand delivered. Death is not the end. Good can conquer evil. Suffering for the sake of another is not a fool’s game; it is our only hope. Such a thing can only be accepted by faith.
Faith is wondering and hoping and believing and trusting someone. Not some thing. Some one. Even though you’re not certain, even though the cost is high, faith chooses to believe his story is true, not because the scientific probability of its truth outweighs the scientific probability of its falsity, but because of who he is out there (world), in here (Bible), in here (heart), and in here (mind).
And faith is not content to believe it here (mind), here (heart), or here (Bible). Real faith follows his example, and makes it real out there, where the people are. Because letter after letter, sermon after sermon, guilt trip after guilt trip is not enough. Just like Peter. Just like Thomas. Just like all the disciples, hearing the good news is not enough. They have to see it with their own eyes. They need that message hand-delivered. They need to see it in you.
First preached at First Congregational Church of Saugatuck on April 8, 2012.
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