The First Easter

An Easter homily for children and adults, by Rev. J. Mark Worth


1 Corinthians 15:3-8, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

THE HOMILY There’s a joke that you may have heard, but maybe not. A group of Unitarian Universalist middle school students visited a Roman Catholic church to learn about the Catholic religion. After the priest had answered their questions, he said, “Now, I have a question for you. Who can tell me what happened on Easter?”

One of the kids raised his hand and said, “Is that in the summer when we have a picnic with hot dogs and hamburgers, and watch fireworks?”

“No,” said the priest. “I’m afraid that’s not it.” Another student said, “Is it in November when Grandma comes over to our house for turkey dinner, and we all give thanks?”

“I’m sorry, no,” said the priest. “Is it in December when we decorate a evergreen tree and wait for Santa?” asked another. “No,” said the frustrated priest. “Doesn’t anyone know what Easter is?” One girl said, “I know. Jesus was put to death on a cross on Good Friday, and on Easter Sunday he rose from the dead, and rolled away the stone from his tomb.”

“That’s right!” said the priest. The the girl went on: “And when Jesus stepped out of his tomb he saw his shadow, which meant there would be six more weeks of winter.”

Well, at least she had some of it right!

Our confusion about Easter ~

What did happen on that first Easter? We Unitarian Universalists have some difficulty explaining Easter. We understand Christmas. Yes, we wait for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, but we also know that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus.

And we understand Good Friday. When he was about 30 years old, the Romans put Jesus to death on a cross. It was a very cruel way to execute someone.

So Jesus was born on Christmas Day, and died on Good Friday. He was born, and he died. That makes sense to us.

But what about Easter? Christian churches say Jesus rose from the dead, that is, he came back to life, on Easter Sunday. That confuses the heck out of us.

We know that some trees lose their leaves in the Fall, and get new buds in the Spring that grow into new leaves. We know that the grass grows again in the Spring, and perennial flowers come back in the Spring. But they were never dead. They just went to sleep for the winter. They were resting, that’s all.

When something is really dead, it can’t come back to life. And when a person dies, if that person is really dead, he or she never comes back to life. When you’re dead, you’re dead.

And I want to be clear about this. We learn about science in school. And one thing we learn is that the laws of science are always the same in every time and every place. And that means that no dead person, if they were really dead, ever came back to life, any time, any place.

If Jesus was dead, his body did not come back to life.

So that’s why we have trouble with Easter. Other churches say Jesus was dead. And he came back to life. And that doesn’t make sense to us.

Now, first of all, I want to say to our kids, and to the adults too, if you disagree with someone about religion, you can disagree, but please don’t be disagreeable. We don’t make fun of other people’s religions. So today I want to explain what I think happened, and explain it in a respectful way.

Let me tell you a story. Years ago, my father had Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s a very difficult disease, and it affected his mind, and for a long time before he died, we couldn’t understand him, and he couldn’t understand us. It felt as though we lost him long before he was dead. And there was never any time we could say good-bye.

Six years after he died, my Mother told me something had happened. She said, “Mark, I’m not crazy. I wasn’t dreaming. I didn’t imagine this. It really happened to me. I was sitting in the living room and your Dad walked in the front door. He spoke to me, and said something that made me laugh, and then he walked into the back of the house. I thought, this is strange. He’s been dead for six years. So I got up and followed him into the back of the house, but he was gone. He had looked healthy and happy. It was as if he came back to tell me it’s okay, and to say good-bye.”

Now, there was a time in my life I would have said, “She imagined it. She was dreaming.” But she insisted that was not the case. For her, it really happened. So now I just accept the fact that something strange happened to her. My mother was certain she saw my Father, who had been dead for six years.

A vision of Jesus ~

I think that’s something like what happened on that first Easter. Jesus was dead. The Romans had killed him on Friday, and his Disciples, men and women like Peter and Matthew and Andrew and John, and Mary Magdalene, were pretty upset that their friend, their leader, was dead.

But something happened. By Sunday, they had hope again. They had enough hope and courage to start a new religious movement that became the first Christian Churches.

What had happened to them? They were convinced that Jesus wasn’t really dead, that somehow he was still with them. They became convinced that the Romans hadn’t won. Jesus had won. He was still alive.

Why did they think he was alive again? Because they had seen him, just like my Mother saw my Father. We call it a vision.

Some people say it’s a trick that the brain plays on us. But I don’t try to explain it. I just say, for my Mother it was real, whatever it was. And for Jesus’ Disciples, it was real. They were sure they had seen him.

And let’s go back to that reading from the Bible we heard today. Today we read from the Bible Paul’s description of what happened on that first Easter. He said, “He appeared to Peter, and then the twelve [Disciples].” Paul was the first person to write about that first Easter, and that’s basically all he says. Jesus appeared.

Paul doesn’t mention the tomb being empty, or the stone being rolled away, or angels at the tomb. Those stores came decades later, when the Four Gospels were written. You know what a “fish story” is? When a man catches a fish, and tells the story later, he says “it was this big.” The next time he tells the story, he holds his hands farther apart, as if the fish got bigger. And it gets beigger each time he tells the story.

I think that’s what happened with Easter. Every time someone told the story, the story got

bigger. Paul said Jesus appeared. Mark added the empty tomb, and the stone rolled away. Matthew and Luke had Jesus make appearances after that first Easter. John even had Jesus appear, and disappear, in a locked room. And had him grill some fish and eat it.

Jesus’ body did not come back to life. He did not walk through walls. He did not eat a fish after he was dead. But something happened. The Disciples had a vision. They thought they saw Jesus alive again.

I’m satisfied with the first version of the story, the one Paul told. Jesus appeared to the Disciples. They were sure they had seen him. And that gave them the courage to go on and establish the Christian Churches.

I can’t explain visions scientifically. And if you could go back in time with a camera, I’m sure you would not be able to take a picture of it. But for the Disciples, it was a real experience.

Eostre ~

By the way, do you know where we get the word, “Easter?” It’s not in the Bible. It doesn’t have anything at all to do with Jesus.

Easter is named for a Germanic goddess, Eostre. She was worshiped by ancient Germans as the goddess of the East and the Dawn and Springtime. We get the words “east” and “estrogen” from her name.

She was a fertility goddess, and was also associated with rabbits, because they have lots of baby bunnies, and with eggs, because eggs are also a symbol of new life. So, although rabbits don’t lay eggs, the Easter Bunny brings Easter eggs every year. And after church there will be an Easter Egg Hunt.

Happy Easter!