Message at Durham Friends Meeting, April 1, 2018
Do you like crime stories? I do. Ellen and I watch them on TV: Magnum PI, Inspector Morse, Major Crimes. I am almost always reading one, too, and when I’m done I read another. Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Elmore Leonard, Ruth Rendell, Louise Penny: it is a long list that began with my father’s Ellery Queen magazines, a kind of pulp fiction of the 1950s. I even read the stories again once the details have grown dim in my mind – as they regularly do.
It’s not just that crime stories are entertaining, though they certainly are. I also find I learn a lot about human beings. What are people capable of doing and why? How might they have been more sensible, or more clever? Often I learn things about myself. Would I have known how wicked that person could be, I wonder? Am I capable of anything like that? If I did that could I avoid being caught and punished? Could I commit the perfect crime? I suppose all this is harmless entertainment so long as I don’t get any ideas that I might act on.
I’ve been reading one story over the past week – one of a series that features the same bad guy, and I want to tell you a little about it. It’s one of those stories where we know who the suspect is right from the start. The question is will he be stopped? This bad guy is especially fascinating to me.
He moves around a lot. He never seems to have a job that gives him an income, but he always seems to have places to stay, clothes and food to eat. He doesn’t want for anything. It’s suspicious.
He’s attractive and always has people around him: his crew you might say, his gang. When he needs accomplices to pull off something, there they are, always close at hand. None of them seem to work, either.
What does he do that’s so bad? That’s part of what’s so fascinating about this bad guy. The authorities know he’s a bad guy. They are always keeping an eye on him. They frequently stop him on the street and question him. They don’t like his answers much, but he rarely says anything directly incriminating. He’s clever. Sometimes it seems he is toying with the authorities, mocking them.
At first the authorities think of him as sort of a grifter. Always has money; never works; seems charming. He forever seems to do things that are against the law, but it’s hard to pin down – hard to catch him right in the act. At other times he performs tricks that look like sleight of hand. He turns one thing into another, or seems to, plain water into something else, for example, something more valuable. Sometimes he even seems to do miracle cures. Of course he isn’t a doctor. He doesn’t have any of the right training to make people better. That’s suspicious – but also a little worrying. Is he just scamming people?
Other times he just tells provocative stories that gather a big crowd. That worries the authorities. He doesn’t come right out and tell people to disobey what the authorities tell them, but that seems to be the gist of every one of these stories. The crowds can’t get enough of them. Suppose the crowd gets unruly. Suppose the crowds turn on the authorities. When he gathers a crowd, they seem more likely to follow his lead than to do what the authorities ask them to do.
This can’t go on forever, of course. It wouldn’t be much of a story if he just continued to dance outside the reach of the good guys. Eventually the authorities arrest him. They are just fed up.
This bad guy goes off to jail peacefully. But he acts strangely as he goes. He seems to know this is what was next. Oddly, his mind seems elsewhere. And he acts like he knows they’ll never be able to hold him.
In this story the trial comes quickly. There is plenty of testimony against him, even though much of it is contradictory and some of it simply false. Still, the outcome is never in any doubt: he’s going to be found guilty.
The big surprise is the main charge against him. He’s accused of treason, a crime punishable by death. He’s accused of presenting himself as the king or the lord of all things. Treason: who would have thought a grifter would have been accused of that?
He doesn’t even protest too much. His attitude is resigned, unconcerned. To his friends and followers he seems to say ‘what did you expect?’ Did you expect that this merry adventure of ours would lead anywhere else other than execution?
It’s clear treason is a put-up charge. So much so that some of the authorities try to coax him to plead out to a lesser charge with a lesser punishment. But the prosecution team is really steamed up, really angry. They want this treason charge to stick, and this bad guy doesn’t do anything to try to show the charge is foolish. When he is put on the stand, his responses only make matters worse for him.
If the trial was quick, the appeal is quicker still: over within hours. And now the general population is into this as well. While this bad guy still has some friends and supporters, the mass of people want him put to death, no doubt about it. They crave a humiliating, slow and painful death. That will teach him and his friends a lesson. And so he is taken to be executed.
Nothing that I’ve told you so far really makes this story unusual, really. It’s what happens next. Even his odd behavior at his trial doesn’t prepare you for it.
He escapes. But here’s the odd thing. He doesn’t escape before he’s executed in this slow, painful way. He escapes after we all know he’s dead. Anyone would be dead: you can see it; his body is broken and bloody. He’s buried quickly to make sure he’s forgotten.
But the next day the body isn’t there. It’s just disappeared. Talk about your locked room mysteries. How did he pull this off? This is no ordinary grifter’s trick. It’s no three-card Monte, no pea under a shell trick. This is stupefying. He hasn’t just escaped the tomb. He has escaped death itself.
Told as fiction none of us would believe this, would we? It’s beyond credibility. But this story isn’t told to us as fiction. This is the story of a man called Jesus (or The Christ, or The Messiah or The Promised One). It’s the story of an escape from death that we celebrate today as Easter. How’s that for a crime story?
We wouldn’t tell this astonishing story if we thought it was just a grifter’s tale. We wouldn’t tell it year after year if we thought it was all just a con or a made-up story. We tell it because we think this tale of a bad man is really an account of the best man ever.
Most crime stories end up with a resolution: all the loose ends tied up. But this story is different. It ends with questions for all concerned.
Was he really a bad guy? The authorities thought so. Probably still would.
Most people thought so — at least thought him a troublemaker. Deep down, probably still would. How about you?
What do we make of the authorities, both political and religious? Are they good guys or bad? Should we listen to what they tell us to think and to do?
Is this bad guy Jesus still with us, now that he has escaped? Does he yet live? Or has he gone away and could come again?
Will we escape death if we follow him?
And whatever might that mean: to follow him? \To escape death?