a sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth
Easter is the highest of Christian holy days, and a day often fraught with difficulties for Unitarian Universalists. We will celebrate the resurrection of the Earth and the coming of Spring, and yet Easter is more than that. We will celebrate the symbols, metaphors, and realities of this important day. There will be an Easter egg hunt for the children after church.
Corinthians 15:3-8. This is the earliest written description of Easter:
I told you the most important part of the message exactly as it was told to me. That part is: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all of the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me, even though I am like someone who was born at the wrong time.
We Unitarian Universalists understand Christmas: Jesus was born. We understand Good Friday: he died. It’s Easter that’s difficult. So here it is: I believe in the resurrection. Let me explain.
Jennifer, not her real name, had an incredibly difficult childhood. Her father left home when she was in the second grade. Jennifer’s mother was later diagnosed with a mental illness that causes both mood problems and a loss of contact with reality. When Jennifer was seven or eight years old she became her mother’s primary care-giver.
Jennifer developed various coping mechanisms to deal with her complicated home life, but one day her mother was just so difficult that nothing seemed to work. Jennifer, not knowing what else to do, went outside and sat on the front steps of her apartment and cried. As she was sitting there, crying, a man came up to her and said, “Are you okay?”
She politely said that, yes, she was okay, although in reality she wasn’t. As she looked up at the man, the sun was behind him, giving the impression that he had a halo. She thought, “An angel has come to help me.”
He sat down with her and held her hand. When he sat down she could see that he was just a regular human being. Yet somehow her initial impression, that he was an angel, stayed with her. He said, “I know your mother.” No more than that. And he listened to her story.
Many times since then she has remembered when the man sat and held her hand and listened. The memory has been a source of strength to her. Now she is an intelligent, well-adjusted young woman with an impressive resume, and a passion to help build a better world. When I met her a few years ago, she was a grad student at an Ivy League school.
Jennifer’s story is a story about resilience, maybe even resurrection. Her childhood could have been the kind of childhood that left her crippled. It might have crushed her spirit; it could have meant a kind of death, but somehow it didn’t. She managed to find the resources and the relationships that sustained her life. She said that at crucial moments in her life, “angels” – like the man who held her hand and listened to her story – appeared in her life to help her along the way.
A resurrection mystery ~
Today is Easter Sunday, the day for resurrections. Easter is named for Eostre, a Germanic goddess of the East and Springtime. We’ve passed the Vernal Equinox and entered into Spring. We see flowers in bloom – daffodils and forsythia – the buds on the trees are getting ready to open, and the birds are already singing. This is, indeed a season of resurrection!
Christians say that Jesus was crucified on Friday, and rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. While none of us can go back in a time machine to see whether it really happened, many people have opinions. Some are certain that, as the Christian creeds say, Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Others are equally certain, as former Catholic priest John Dominic Crossan says, “I do not think that anyone, anywhere, at any time, brings dead people back to life.”
I’m convinced that something happened to the followers of Jesus. On Good Friday, Jesus was
dead. His disciples were in despair. And then, by Sunday, something happened that completely changed their outlook.
Did a miracle occur? Thomas Paine, one of our nation’s Founding Fathers, wrote that when a preacher mentions a miracle in order to prove a doctrine, “it implies a lameness or a weakness in the doctrine that is preached.”
Did a miracle occur? In the ancient world miracles were associated with all great men, including Pythagoras, Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, Moses, the Buddha, and Muhammad. If you were great, you performed miracles. That’s the way people thought in ancient times.
Did a miracle occur? My mother had a vision of my father six years after he died. She saw him, and they had a conversation, after he had been dead six years.
My friend, Helen, was with her husband at the Bar Harbor, Maine, hospital when he died. Later that evening, when she arrived home, he was standing in the living room looking out the window at the ocean. He turned to her and said, “Now I understand.” Then he looked at the ocean. She looked at the ocean, and then back at him, but he was gone. (I wish he had told her what he understood!)
At one time I might have dismissed such visions. I would have said, “She imagined it; she dreamt it.” But now I say, “I don’t know what it was, but it was real for her.”
Did a miracle occur? I think something happened to the followers of Jesus on that first Easter. The resurrection is not to be completely dismissed out of hand. The Disciples experienced something that changed everything for them.
The Easter story is told in each of the Four Gospels, and the stories disagree on the details: how many people went to Jesus’ tomb, who they were, whether they went before or after sunrise, whether they saw one angel or two, whether they saw Jesus or not, and who Jesus appeared to first. In one Gospel (Mark 16:6-7) the angel tells Mary Magdalene that Jesus is not there. But in another Gospel (John 20:14-18) Jesus is there at the tomb, and he talks with Mary Magdalene.
Thomas Paine said that if the four gospel writers testified in court, and contradicted one another as much as they do in the Bible, their testimony would be thrown out by the judge!
But maybe it doesn’t matter whether or not they agree in the details. The Four Gospels are not history; they are testimonies of faith. We call the Gospels “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,” but we really don’t know who the authors were, or what their names were. The Gospels were written anonymously, 35 to 60 years after Jesus died, by people who were not eyewitnesses.
From tragedy to triumph ~
But before the Gospels were written, there was an earlier telling of the Easter story: writing to the church in Corinth, Paul gave his version in 1 Corinthians 15, the reading we used this morning. Paul’s story is the first and the simplest. He never says that the stone was rolled away, or that the tomb was empty, or even whether there was a tomb or a stone. His version has no angel who announces the resurrection. He merely says that Jesus died, was buried, was raised from the dead on the third day; and that he appeared to Peter, and to the Twelve, and to many others. That’s all.
Paul wrote that account about twenty years after Jesus died. Next comes Mark’s Gospel, about forty years after the crucifixion. That story adds the angel, the empty tomb, and the stone that was rolled away. The earliest copies of Mark end without Jesus making any resurrection appearances.
Matthew and Luke tried to improve on Mark’s Gospel by adding resurrection appearances. And in John’s Gospel, written sixty or seventy years after the crucifixion, Jesus cooks breakfast, and even appears from out of nowhere inside a locked room (John 20:19-29).
So, like a fish story, the resurrection story seems to grow as time passes, from Paul’s simple explanation that “he appeared,” to John’s Jesus who materializes and dematerializes in a locked room.
But for now, let’s put the various accounts of the resurrection to one side, because the stories can be truthful without always being completely factual. A story or a parable can teach an important truth, even if the facts didn’t happen exactly that way. So to me the miracle of Easter is that it is possible for a tragedy to become a triumph. What we would expect to be the end, isn’t the end.
Something happened that changed the outlook of the disciples. They had visions of Jesus alive again, although I’m certain it wasn’t the resuscitation of a corpse. Even if we read the Bible literally, we discover that when Jesus showed up on Easter, and afterward, his friends often didn’t recognize him at first. Mary Magdalene thought she was speaking to the gardener (John 20:14-18). In John 21:4, Peter, Thomas, and other disciples went fishing, and Jesus stood on the shore and carried on a conversation with them, but they didn’t recognize him at first. Two Disciples going to Emmaus walked for several miles with Jesus, and yet they didn’t know who he was until they sat down to eat, and Jesus blessed the meal, and then vanished (Luke 24:15-31).
Why don’t they recognize him? If Jesus was raised bodily from the grave, why don’t his own Disciples know who he is? This is why I think that the resurrection is not about the resuscitation of a corpse. It is a mystical experience, a vision, not a biological event.
Resurrection happens ~
So, no, I don’t think a dead man got up out of the tomb and started walking around like a zombie; but do I think something happened. One or more people had visions of Jesus, and it affected them profoundly; it changed their outlook about his death. Out of tragedy came a triumph. Out of an ending came a new beginning. Out of death came life.
Did a miracle occur? Rev. Robert Hardies of All Souls Unitarian Church, Washington, D.C., says, “As I see it, my job on Easter Sunday is not to convince you that the resurrection happened, but to remind you that it happens. … The way I look at it, each and every one of us in this room this morning is proof positive of the resurrection. For whom among us doesn’t have a story to tell, a very personal story, of rebirth, of emerging from the tomb of depression or despair, pain or addiction? Who among us can’t point to a time in our lives when all seemed lost, and then suddenly hope returned? … You, you, are witness to your very own resurrections. What other proof do you need?”
Did a miracle occur? Remember Jennifer. She was a fragile little girl, despairing about how to deal with her mother’s mental illness; and she grew up to become a competent, capable, compassionate young woman at a top university. That’s a resurrection.
In Jesus’ day the people of Israel, oppressed by wealthy landowners, and ruled by the Roman Empire, were looking for a Messiah who would restore Israel to independence and glory, sit on King David’s throne, and usher in the Messianic Age of peace and justice.
Many were disappointed, heartbroken, when Jesus was executed on a cross just like any common criminal. It looked as though God had lost and Caesar had won.
Yet somehow that wasn’t the end of the story. Somehow there was a triumph that came out of defeat. The message of Easter is that something good is possible on the other side of suffering; not just some day in the sweet by-and-by, but here, today, in this life.
So, what if those who experienced Jesus alive among them were somehow right? What if the crucifixion on Friday isn’t the end of the story? What if poverty, or the loss of a job, or an illness, or the death of a loved one, isn’t the end for you? What if addiction isn’t the final word? What if there is resurrection? On Friday there is only death and sorrow, but on Sunday there is resurrection and hope. That’s what we’re talking about: an Easter faith in a Good Friday world.
We can debate what happened that first Easter, but we can’t test it in a laboratory. Resurrection isn’t a scientific proposition; it’s an experience. So, let us be agents of resurrection, activists for resurrection. Good Friday isn’t the end of the story! Winter isn’t the end of the story – spring is in the air! All of our senses can testify to that fact. The birds are on the wing, daffodils and forsythia are blooming, and children are singing! Go forth and be agents of resurrection!