Our neighbor George recently commented on the many faces of Easter. Some are seasonal, that is, they come and go like the arrival of the chocolate rabbit, our own Westminster Peeps, blooming flowers and budding trees, or families getting together for a common meal.
At the same time some of us, while we enjoy seasonal faces, continue to search for something more — something everlasting, something eternal.
The celebration of Easter (or better said, the celebration of resurrection) has a specific day on the spring calendar but it is much more. One congregation proclaims that “we are the Easter people every Sunday morning” while another affirms “every time we gather we celebrate a little Easter.”
Three hymn writers pick up this theme: William James writes “every day to us is Easter” and Charles Wesley writes “Christ the Lord is risen today” (not just yesterday) and Brian Wren adds “Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine. He comes to claim the here and now and dwell in every place and time.”
The celebration of the resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian faith. The early followers of Jesus in their struggle to understand who Jesus was firmly believed (and wrote) that he had literally and bodily been raised from the dead.
Without the resurrection Jesus would simply have been another Hebrew prophet. Another faith healer who had upset the religious authorities and been crushed by the government. Simply a forgotten name in the history of Judaism.
But the resurrection changed all of that!
What about the resurrection event itself? There were no eyewitnesses. We do have testimonies of those who saw him and spoke with him. We have writings about the event although they were written 30 years later from different perspectives.
What we do know is that it radically changed the lives of the followers of Jesus. Even theologian John Shelby Spong (who wrote that “something incredibly powerful happened but it had nothing to do with the resuscitation of the body”) added “there is no question in my mind that had there not been some transforming experience that happened to the disciples after the death of Jesus that convinced them that he had conquered the boundary of human death there would be no Christianity.”
Theologian Laurence Stookey wrote “for too long popular Christianity has tamed the significance of the resurrection by treating it as a resuscitation. … The resurrection of Jesus Christ is that unique act in which the intersection of time and eternity becomes evident. The resurrection is a means by which God reveals another dimension of existence at work in our midst. … It is God’s word to us that there is more to reality than we can see through a telescope or under a microscope.”
For centuries, the faithful, theologians, Bible-students and others have struggled with the question “what was the Easter experience? What was the transforming experience?”
Some believe the followers of Jesus in denial wanted to see him alive again so they psychologically created him in their own minds. Others believe that he was truly there — they saw him and touched him and the experience (like that of Thomas) changed their lives forever.
Our neighbor George said that it might sound like a cop-out but he believes it was and still is a mystery. Something happened. Ethan Mack writes, “This remarkable shift in Peter and all the apostles can only be explained by a remarkable event; one that allowed them to encounter God's forgiveness tangibly and overcome their fear of death.”
It is interesting that the earliest writing about a resurrection appearance is not found in the Gospels but in Acts of the Apostles. Paul (Saul of Tarsus) “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” had a mystical experience of the resurrected Jesus and it radically changed his life. (Acts 9.ff) From a Jesus hater to a Jesus follower! Although Paul had never experienced the “physical” Jesus is it possible there is another dimension of existence beyond literally seeing or touching?
Our neighbor George said he would like to add a closing to this column from the comments that Rep. Paul Ryan made at the funeral of the Rev. Billy Graham. Ryan quoted words that Jesus said (taken from Deuteronomy 6.4) and applied them to the life and ministry of Graham: A questioner asked Jesus “which is the greatest commandment of them all?” Jesus replied “The first is … you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Ryan said this is how Billy Graham lived his life.
But George said he waited for Ryan to complete the passage which he never did. The missing words are: “And a second is like it — you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19.18). The questioner asked “who is my neighbor?” And (Gospel of Luke 10.25ff) Jesus tells the story of a Jew who was left for dead by robbers and while his own people passed by he was helped by his mortal enemy. Jesus asked “which was the neighbor?” And the answer came back “The one who showed mercy.” And then Jesus adds “go and do likewise.”
The message of Easter is a command for each of us to “go and do likewise.”
Writer Winnie Varghese writes: “The teaching of resurrection is that we are not defeated by the powers of this world. The Christian teaching is that there will always be hope for the fullness of God’s justice in every time. We will fight for it because we have a story of resurrection. We are not defeated by death. Our God is not defeated by death.”
We need to claim hope for the here and now! The command from the risen Lord is not only to believe in the power of resurrection amd transformed lives but to practice resurrection and the new life today.
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Let the dialogue continue. I only ask that you think on these things.