Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Some time in the late 60’s – I’m talking here about the actual 60’s as in the year 66, the Jews began a serious revolt against Roman rule in Jerusalem. It was an unsuccessful and extremely costly war and, in retaliation, Rome destroyed the Temple in the year 70. It was a bitter time. Jesus was crucified sometime in the early 30’s. Paul, one of the Jewish Pharisees who had been busy hunting down, torturing, and killing Jesus’ followers in the mid to late 30’s, was converted to full blown Christian discipleship through a painful experience on the road to Damascus. Paul then turned his whole life over to his Savior. He began to travel as an evangelist, in the 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s, spreading the “new” Christian religion, gathering small groups of Jews into what would become congregations to whom he wrote theological letters. But Paul too, was struck down in the Jewish revolt against the Romans, most probably having been executed, along with hundreds upon hundreds of other Jewish disciples in the late 60’s. The revolt against Rome was violent. Rome was determined to break Judaism, including that strange devotion to Yeshua who seemed to command, even in death, profound loyalty.
There was no temple. Jesus was gone, and he hadn’t returned as many of his disciples believed he would. Now Paul was gone, too. Peter was also executed about that same time – between 64 and 67. The hated Emperor Nero died in 68, only to be replaced by Emperor Vespasian, the military genius who accomplished the defeat of the Jews and oversaw the temple’s destruction in the year 70.
Soon after the defeat of the Jews and the destruction of the temple, when the nascent little faith was lying in the temple’s rubble, a Syrian who we call Mark wrote a chronology of Jesus’ brief, turbulent adult life, beginning with his baptism in the river Jordan and ending with the empty tomb. He wrote the story in Greek, intended not for Jews but for a Gentile audience, and, along with another oral collection of sayings of Jesus called Q, Mark’s chronology became the basis for Matthew and Luke’s gospels, written some time between 80 and 85, and then John’s gospel, written between 90 and 100. All of these dates are difficult to pinpoint with absolute accuracy, of course, but we do have writings of ancient historians that give fairly strong evidence that this was the timeline. Jesus was crucified sometime around the year 32. Paul converted to Christianity in 37. He began gathering little groups of disciples together to form congregations for about 30 years, or so. Both he and Peter were executed in the Jewish uprising against the Romans in Jerusalem in the late 60’s. The Romans destroyed the temple in 70. Mark wrote the first chronology about Jesus’ public years of ministry a couple of years after that.
I imagine you’re wondering if this little history lesson is going to be my whole Easter message of joyous celebration. If so, you are probably thinking I’m getting off to something of a slow start. You’re right. I am. I am getting off to the same kind of slow start the Christian story got off to following Jesus’ execution. In one sense, the history of that first hundred years or so, over and against the two thousand years that have followed, is not terribly significant. Easter celebrations have been polished and shined for so long that we wouldn’t know it was Easter if we didn’t smell the lilies, hear the trumpets, and feel the springtime air. But it wasn’t always so clear, so definable, so certain there was anything to celebrate.
This term I’ve been taking a course in National history. The line of inquiry has been how the United States has understood its national identity over the past two hundred fifty years. Who was excluded from our self-defined character? What was the nation before two hundred fifty years ago? Who were the deciders, and how long has deciding been the exclusive purview of white men of protestant, European heritage? It has been a fascinating survey of national history – fascinating and troubling. The origins of our national identity, an identity which still determines public policy, immigration laws, and social values, is so internalized by our nation’s citizens we can scarcely see that it’s the water in which we swim. We are where we are because of where we were in 1954 when “under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance, which was because of where we were in 1933, which was because of who we were in 1920, which was because of how we celebrated in 1892, and back and back and back. Everything has an origin and every origin is enigmatic, tentative, and wildly accidental. It’s all the butterfly effect.
Do you know about the butterfly effect? In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where the smallest change at one place and time can result in huge differences at a later place and time. In 1963 Dr. Edward Lorenz published a theoretical study of this effect in a paper called Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow. The phrase refers to the idea that the flutter of a butterfly’s wings could create tiny changes in the atmosphere that could, in turn, ultimately alter the path of a tornado. The fluttering wing represents a minute change in the initial condition of the entire system, which causes a chain of events that lead to large-scale repercussions. This is the theory that underlies the avalanche effect, tons of snow barreling down a mountain from the effect of one, tiny flake. It causes a chain reaction, domino effect, law of unintended consequences, the snowball effect. It’s the theory that traffic controllers apply when they are untangling the worst traffic jam imaginable that is still stopping an interstate hours and hours after the first slowdown to look at a deer running across a field.
Imagine the tiniest irritant, naked to the human eye, around which layer after layer of calcium carbonate is formed, producing a translucent pearl. Imagine, the first drop of water that carved out the Grand Canyon. Imagine the first glimmer of possibility in the heart of the despairing disciples that they had not been abandoned. Imagine the first star that led to an exploration of the universe. Imagine that first day of the week, while it was still dark, when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.
Inclined as we humans tend to be towards drama, pronouncements, fanfare, and spectacle, we may not be able to wrap our brains around something as diminutive as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings. But imagine, the tender, hushed, glimmer of possibility of God’s voice, whispered outside the tomb, whispered from the rubble of the destroyed temple, whispered in the dark of despair, whispered in the last breath of the dying soldier, whispered in the last drop of blood spilled from an innocent victim of violence, whispered in the ear of the tyrant when death demonstrates its egalitarian authority, whispered in ancient breezes through the leaves of the tree of life, “I am still with you”- the flutter of the butterfly’s wings that we call the resurrection. Amen.