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 Infinite Regress


Old Testament Reading: 1 Kings 17:8-16

New Testament Reading: Luke 24:13-35


I want to start this sermon with a pair of thoughts from two thinkers who have shaped my own thinking to a great degree. The first is from New Testament critic and theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Somewhere, possibly in a review of Karl Barth's book The Resurrection of the Dead, I forget now, he said that as far as the events of Easter morning were concerned, the historian can go only so far and no farther. He or she cannot get behind the Easter faith of the first disciples. 

Bultmann and Gogarten were surprised that any so-called believers in the resurrection felt the need to go farther. It seemed perverse that these great believers would insist that there was an in-principle verifiable event prior to and outside of the faith of the earliest disciples, and outside our own as well.

Does this mean you are planning to set aside your faith to find out what that event is? Or have you already set it aside when you serve notice that the kerygma, the preaching of the gospel is not good enough for you, and you want to get out your video camera and find out for sure, like the child who plans to stay and see Santa for himself?

Bultmann was saying in effect that our faith is grounded on that early faith. Faith on faith. Now it may be that that first, fundamental faith is faith in fact. That's your interpretation. But I am saying, and I think Bultmann was saying, that you have no immediate access to the historical facts of the matter, whatever they may have been. We do indeed have immediate access to the Risen Christ himself, whom we encounter in the preaching of the church and in the sacraments.

Here is my second thought for the morning. It comes from the pen of Jacques Derrida, father of Deconstruction, as if you didn't know that by now. Derrida borrows a term from the technical language of heraldry and speaks of the Mise-en-Abyme, the scene in the abyss. It refers to the occasional practice of depicting on a coat-of-arms the arms themselves, a miniature inside the larger design. And if you could get out your microscope, you would expect to find a still tinier miniature within the miniature, and a tinier one within that one. And so on.

Infinite regress, we call it. You've seen the effect plenty of times, when you've been in restaurants or stores with mirrors on both facing walls. It gives the impression that the place is much bigger than it really is.

Derrida applies the idea to literature. He is thinking of instances where a narrative or essay about a certain phenomenon, perhaps inadvertently or perhaps on purpose, contains an example of that phenomenon. Whether that would count as life imitating art or art imitating life I don't know. But I think Bultmann clues us in to the fact that we have just such a case of infinite regress in the resurrection narratives of the gospels. In the very attempt, apparently, to ground our faith in realistic-seeming narratives of the resurrection of Jesus, they betray the fact that the faith of the characters in the stories is just as irreducibly based on faith as ours is.

The gospel resurrection stories seem at first to be stories of people being convinced by irrefutable evidence, but on closer inspection, they depict people like us having to rely on the preached message. They really had no advantage over us. And this is because the stories were told by people like us. Let me try briefly to illustrate this.

In Matthew 28 we have a story in which the disciples gather on some mountain in Galilee to get their marching orders. "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." In fact it is evident that Matthew has created this scene as a parting word to the missionaries for whom he has written his gospel as a handbook.

As far as we know the original disciples stayed in Palestine governing the Christians belonging to the 12 tribes of Israel. They weren't missionaries. And something else: some present in this scene "doubt." Surely this is possible for people like us, with no direct access to the Risen One, but, I should think, out of the question for the original 12. And look at the baptism formula: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Not likely on Easter morning. That Trinitarian formula only came into play much later.

Or take John 20. There we read that Thomas rejoins the disciples one day and hears the incredible news that Jesus is risen from the dead. He will not credit it. In other words, he is like you and me, dependent on the supposedly superior testimony of the original disciples. But it isn't enough. He doubts. Jesus then makes a special appearance for his benefit, but this is really an exception that proves the rule: the whole point seems to be that Jesus has shown up simply to rebuke Thomas' craving for more: "Do you believe because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." That is, you and me, people who weren't there.

I will try your patience with one example more: the story of the Emmaus Road, my favorite by far among Easter stories. You have just heard it. I won't repeat it. But I will read another, related story. This is the story of the evangelist Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. [Acts 8:26--40]. (Don't you realize that we are doing just what Jesus and the disciples, Cleopas and his wife Mary, did on the first Easter day? Examining the scriptures?)

And come to think of it, that's just what Philip and the Ethiopian were doing, too! Scholars have noticed how similar this story is to that of the Emmaus Road. Richard Dillon has pointed this out. In both stories we have someone headed home from Jerusalem after a feast there. The traveler(s) is (are) joined by a mysterious stranger who begins unraveling the puzzles of scripture with reference to Jesus of Nazareth who has turned out to be God's messiah. Then we seem to have the observance of a sacrament, the Lord's Table in Emmaus, the baptism of the Ethiopian, and then, just at that moment, the mysterious stranger vanishes into thin air, only to reappear somewhere else.               

Do you remember the Mission Charge, when Jesus sends out the disciples to preach? He says, "Whoever hears you hears me." Dillon suggests that this is the origin of the Emmaus Road story, and its meaning. The story grew out of that sort of encounter between a convert and a Christian evangelist or prophet who spoke in the name of the Risen Christ.

The point of the story is something like what 1 Thessalonians 1:13 says: "And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as what it really is, the word of God."

That is the point of the last minute recognition of the stranger at the communion table in Emmaus: faith arises that what this Christian prophet has said is really the word of the Risen Christ, and it becomes real precisely in the moment of partaking of the Lord's Supper. In the Eunuch's case, the identification became real in baptism.

On this reading, it wasn't literally Jesus of Nazareth the pair of disciples met that day. It was someone like Philip. This is hinted at in the strange detail of their not recognizing him at first. In other words, it didn't look like the Jesus they had known before, because on a physical, literal level, it wasn't. But on a spiritual level, it was.

Where does it leave us? Exactly on a par with the Emmaus disciples, with the disciples on the mountain in Galilee, with Thomas, in short, with the characters in the gospels.

You know, I used to secretly approach Easter with an inner sense of disappointment, as if what we were doing were mere play-acting. The real thing was long over, and what we were doing was some kind of poor charade. But I no longer think that. Nobody ever had it realer than we do. This is it. This is the real thing. There never was a realer one! This is the way it was the First Easter.

Are you disappointed? I wonder if that means you, too, have been resigned to celebrating a pale shadow of Easter. Is the belief that the First Easter was so different important to you because the only Easters in your experience are so dismal? So vapid?

Listen to me, Thomas, Thomasina: is it an encounter with the Risen Christ you want? Will that satisfy you? Well stop despising the place he may be found, the same place the Emmaus disciples found him, here at the Lord's Table. Open your eyes.


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