‘Resurrection,’ ‘Transcendence’ and new life

Text: Matthew 28:1-11 (the empty tomb)

“Do not be afraid. Jesus the crucified is no longer here. He has been raised!” With these words of an angel, our Lenten journey of 40 days and nights has ended. We have arrived at an empty tomb and with the Risen Christ.

Today, we celebrate the resurrection of both Jesus and of ourselves. We are new people, blessed members of the Body of Christ.

Death and resurrection form the heart of our faith, of course. But they are also themes that appear regularly in books, movies and TV shows. Today, I reflect on Easter through the lens of some of those works.

This spring, ABC has a TV series called “Resurrection” in which people from a town in Missouri are stunned by dead loved ones who show up years after their burials.

Then there is “Sleepy Hollow” on Fox TV, a modern-day retelling of an 1820 fable by Washington Irving. In it, an American revolutionary war soldier is resurrected more than 200 years after his death in order to fight the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the biblical book Revelation.

On Friday, I went to see a movie about death and resurrection — “Transcendence” starring Johnny Depp. While not an explicitly religious film, its themes of life, death, and the dangers of technology resonate with those of Easter.

Depp plays a researcher into computer intelligence who is shot by a terrorist. Before his body dies, his wife uploads his consciousness into a computer network with powerful and unexpected results.

I didn’t love the movie. But I appreciate works like “Transcendence” that are based on trends in science more than ones like “Resurrection” and “Sleepy Hollow” that are about the supernatural, especially when are linked to the Bible.

Today, we may enjoy cheering for heroes like Spiderman or being scared by movies about ghosts and goblins. But outside of books and movies, we assume that all events happen for natural reasons.

For me, this is also true for Easter. The good news of Easter doesn’t require believing in a supernatural spectacle. Easter morning is not a story about how God revives a person who has had no blood flow to the brain for 36 hours. For me, it describes the gracious nature of reality: that death is a path to healing.

I will admit that Matthew’s account complicates things. Matthew is a copy of Mark. Unfortunately, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are two of the places where Matthew adds to Mark’s account. In Mark’s story of Easter, there are no angels or earthquakes. In Mark, Jesus doesn’t appear and the women don’t tell anyone about the empty tomb.

I have yet to find anything added by Matthew to Mark that I appreciate. Take, for example, the reading from Matthew we heard on Good Friday. He copies Mark’s account of Jesus death word for word: “Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” But Matthew then extends the last sentence as follows: “And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook; and the rocks were split; and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they walked into the holy city and appeared to many.”

Yikes! Only Matthew includes this scene of tombs being opened and dead bodies walking around Jerusalem. It might just be the first zombie story ever written! Matthew uses it to embellish an account he otherwise copies from Mark, and to no good effect, in my opinion.

For me, reality is mysterious enough on its own without such embellishments. For instance, this year’s reboot of the science series “Cosmos” on Fox TV contains all the beauty and awe my heart could ever crave.

Science can help us think about spiritual questions. Research into brains, minds, and artificial intelligence teach us about consciousness. What is our ego? Why is it so close to what is most sacred to us and also the source of so much pain and sin?

On the other hand, the computer revolution presents challenges. If electronic networks do become self-aware, some of the dangers portrayed in movies like “Transcendence” might follow.

Computer intelligence would also deal another blow to the idea that humanity is a special creation. It would convince more of us that self-consciousness, emotions and intelligence — although of sacred importance — are not supernatural. They are phenomena that emerge naturally in fiendishly complicated environments such as human brains and minds, and perhaps soon in computer networks.

Will science-fiction speculations about computer intelligence ever come to pass? Many of us are surprised that 70 years into the computer revolution, computer intelligence is still so primitive. But given the exponential growth in computer power, I wouldn’t bet against the emergence of artificial intelligence in the next 70 years. In an era of cell phone apps that answer spoken questions, the idea of machine intelligence becomes more and more plausible.

At Easter, we hear what may sound like a supernatural story. But it is not about dead bodies coming back to life. It is about the death of God at the hands of empire and the resurrection of the God who is Love.

Love is indestructible. In the face of violence, human illusions about god may die, but the God who is Love lives on and is always available to us.

Regardless of the details of the four different Easter Sunday accounts, Grace is real. The resurrection of the God who is Love following crucifixion is real. The possibility that any of us, after hitting rock bottom, can be raised to new life is real. And the understanding that we will be freed from our egos and their anxieties at the end of life is real. I have no doubt about these proclamations despite the different accounts of Easter.

Good Friday presents a grim reality. Easter Sunday shows that Grace is equally as real and ultimately more powerful.

Christ is Risen! Risen indeed!

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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