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Old Testament Reading: Numbers 17:1-11

New Testament Reading: Acts 1:1-3

Introduction/Inquisition:  My text for the sermon on this Easter Sunday morning is not from the Bible, but that doesn't mean it doesn't proceed from the Spirit of the Risen Christ. Indeed, I am convinced that it does. The text is from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. It is Ivan Karamazov's prose poem of the Grand Inquisitor.

The scene is Seville in Spain in the darkest days of the Spanish Inquisition. Nightly the air is lit with the upright pyres of heretics condemned for daring to think for themselves, having the effrontery to challenge the authority of God's self-appointed vicars and decide for themselves what is the truth. With unerring instinct it is here that Jesus Christ chooses to return to earth, not as a conquering lion, but once again as an unassuming lamb. The humble of the land once again flock to him, and he heals their sick. As he once did in the village of Nain, he halts a funeral procession on its way into a church and takes the hand of the young girl, saying to her, Talitha cumi, little maid, arise! However, the hosannas of the crowd do little to warm the heart of the Grand Inquisitor who happens to be present. He has seen enough, and Jesus is arrested on the spot. After all, wasn't he, and doesn't he ­remain­, the greatest of heretics?

The next day the cardinal pays his ostensible Lord a call in jail and proceeds to catechize him in the religious wisdom of the world. In short he tells Jesus that in fostering a kind of spiritual aristocracy for those few who would dare to think for themselves, Jesus was laying a burden on mankind that it just could not bear. It has been the great work of the Church in all the centuries since then to lift that burden and to provide the security of authoritarianism, of unthinking obedience, to hold in trust for the common person the gift of his soul. Thus the Church lifts the terrible burden of freedom, a burden bearable only by a spiritual Atlas like Jesus.

Why is Jesus in jail? Simply because the Church cannot allow him to gum up the works again! He must be stopped before he can again, like some sort of spiritual terrorist, release the infection of freedom and autonomy to plague the sheeplike flock of humanity. Once he went to the cross, now he will go to the stake, and not a moment too soon!

There is an unholy trinity of factors on which the Inquisitor's plan hinges. They are Miracle, Mystery, and Authority. What is their interconnection? It is fairly simple: Miracle subverts the rational order of nature and leaves the jaw slack with wonder. Miracle compels belief in the power that was able to conjure it. "Who then is this, that wind and sea obey him!" Prodigies force belief, driving rational argument from the field.

A contrast between Mark and Matthew is instructive here.  In both, the crowds exclaim, "A new teaching, and with authority!" But what prompts this exclamation? In Matthew it is the hearing of the Sermon on the Mount, but in Mark, it is the spectacle of Jesus exorcising a demon! Do you see the difference? In one gospel, it is the inherent power of the teaching that wins his hearers' hearts, but in the other, they are simply bowled over by a magic trick, and hence whatever he says must be true!

Mystery is the charmed circle where arbitrary beliefs hide behind a false screen of holiness, like the all-too-human Wizard of Oz behind his curtain, hoping you will pay no attention to the artifice.

There are genuine mysteries, realities too great or too subtle for the mind to plumb. But the Inquisitor and his brethren call mystery that which is indeed amenable to rational scrutiny but which would not for many moments survive it! The accursed multitude cannot be allowed to consider for themselves, else they might come to some conclusion the Church deems dangerous to their souls.

The relationship between miracle and mystery was perfectly set forth by Lessing. He discounted the traditional proof from miracle by asking us to imagine a mystagogue who proposes to "prove" that "2+2=3" by making a ball vanish into thin air. Suppose he does actually make the ball vanish! Do two and two suddenly equal three? No, of course they do not! The miracle only proves the miracle can be done, nothing more!

But if you think it does prove 2+2=3, you have allowed miracle to whisk you away into the zone of credulity where reason abdicates its seat and any absurdity may be believed, as long as it is dignified by the rubric "mystery."

And who is it that makes balls to disappear and catechizes that 2+2=3? Who chooses what absurdities to dress up as mysteries? Well, who was it in Orwell's 1984 who had poor Winston Smith believing that 2+2=3 before it was over? It was Big Brother. It was the Grand Inquisitor.  It was Authority.

Authority here is a particular kind of authority. It is ­arrogated authority, authority usurped. It is, remember, not the authority that truth commands by the nobility of its own manifest virtue, but rather that commandeered by the bribery, the cajoling, the compulsion of miracle. It is the kind of authority that rests upon mysteries which are but mystifications, the cheat authority of the man behind the curtain.                   

Yet at the same time, it is not an authority imposed on the conscience by anyone but the owner of the conscience. It is authority given freely to the one who promises to give peace for freedom.

The Grand Inquisitor and his religion are like the great systems of political authoritarianism. Did Hitler and Mussolini seize power? Or weren't they given power by populations who where tired of the inefficiency and the dangers of freedom?

And don't huge churches fill up again and again because their members cannot dispense with the burden of freedom fast enough? They will yield it to any charismatic demagogue who promises them the security of inerrant dogmas and a ticket to an imaginary heaven of true believers as a reward for unquestioning assent.

The Inquisitor's religion is like a security alarm service for the mind. It promises "perfect peace" as long as you are hooked into the system. You just embrace the prescribed dogmas, and any time an unorthodox thought dares approach your mental fortress, the alarm begins to sound. "Heresy!" "False Doctrine!" Warning! Alert!

Resurrection/Inquisition: Today is the day we celebrate the greatest miracle, the greatest mystery of the Christian faith. Here is what concerns me: is the claim that Jesus Christ rose from the dead any more than another tool of the Grand Inquisitor to buy and compel the surrender of our critical faculties in the name of religion?

Our Old Testament reading this morning, scarcely a typical one for Easter morning, is a clear case of the Inquisitor in action. The story of Aaron's rod that budded is a tale told by the Aaronic priests in order to cow the masses lest, as had occasionally happened, a non-Levite dare to claim that others beside the priestly tribe might approach God ceremonially. This story is but one of many bits of reprehensible priestcraft in the Levitical arsenal which offer the tale of an improbable feat to cut off dissent, to bring questioners in line with repressive orthodoxy.

But can it be, God forbid, that the wonderful story of Christ's resurrection is cut from the same cloth?

I will venture to say that this is true of at least some of the resurrection accounts in the New Testament, including the one we read this morning from the Acts of the Apostles. This becomes evident once one sees the agenda of Luke and Acts as a whole.  

Have you ever noticed that at the end of Luke Jesus ascends into heaven on Easter Day, while in Acts 1, written by the same author, he ascends no less than forty days later? Why the difference? Because Luke is trying to prove two different things from the resurrection, so he needs two resurrection scenes to get it all done.

In his gospel he wants to demonstrate the fleshly reality of the resurrection (something Paul rejected hands down, by the way!). But in Acts he is trying to secure the authority of the Twelve Apostles, or to tell the truth of the matter, the authority of those in Luke's own day, the bishops of the emerging Catholic Church, who claim to be the successors of the apostles. (This is why Luke says Jesus taught them about the kingdom of God for 40 days yet tells ­nothing­ of that crucial teaching! Why not? It is a blank check for the bishops! It is equal to whatever they may say! They can fill in the blank!

It is all ecclesiastical politics, you see. It is all a question of who is going to be in authority over the Church, over the consciences of the flock of Christ. It is all a question of who is going to be the Grand Inquisitor.

In our day it is not uncommon to find similar uses of the resurrection. Many conservative theologians will argue that the chief thing about the resurrection is that it proves Jesus was God incarnate and thus that everything he said must be true, and since supposedly he believed in the infallibility of the Bible, then the resurrection proves the infallibility of the Bible and -- guess what? -- vindicates the authority of those theologians, which comes in pretty handy, since they seek to control what is taught in churches and seminaries!

The pattern is complete: a miracle (the resurrection) secures a mystery (the inerrancy of the Bible), which in turn secures the authority of a priestly elite (the denominational hierarchy of the Southern Baptist Convention). Don't you see? Protestants have learned to play the Inquisition game, too!

But is the resurrection itself, is the resurrection inherently, a cheap imposture designed to enslave the religious conscience? I think it is not. Not if the Risen One can appear to Paul of Tarsus and call him to be an apostle over against the Twelve. Not if the Risen Christ can appear again in Seville to carry on the work that led the Inquisitors of his day to crucify him in the first place!

Not if Christ lives on in the Gospels continually saying to every age, "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath." "O man, who made me a judge or arbiter over you?" "Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?" "Call no man on earth 'father,' for you have only one Father, and he is in heaven."

Some years ago there was something of a controversy in Germany over the views of New Testament scholar Willi Marxen. He denied, or seemed to deny, the historical objectivity, the verifiable facticity of the resurrection of Jesus. He maintained instead that the doctrine of resurrection is simply one of several admissible interpretations of the fact, or inferences from the fact, that in the preaching of the gospel, we still hear Jesus calling us to discipleship. He still speaks powerfully and at least in this sense still lives to summon us. If we experience this, all subsequent discussion of the resurrection ("But how was he raised? With what kind of body did he come?" -- cf. 1 Corinthians 15:35) can only be dismissed as secondary and moot. Marxsen preferred this way of putting it: "the cause of Jesus lives on." There is a key insight here, I think. If Jesus is preached as raised from the dead, but if his cause remains cold in the tomb; if that resurrection message promotes a picture of Jesus at odds with the iconoclasm, the radical challenge of the pre-Easter Jesus of Nazareth, then I deny such preaching. I categorically reject any resurrection gospel that makes of Jesus a marble figurehead for a self-arrogating Church that would enslave the human conscience.

But there is a resurrection gospel in which Jesus rises, once more to summon men and women to take up the heavy cross of individual responsibility before God.  I will believe in a Christ like that, a Christ who warns us not to barter our souls for security, not to sell them to any institution or creed, but to take the terrible risk of individual freedom. That Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!




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