The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
I think Easter season is great. Don’t you think it’s great? There is so much joy and excitement in the church. There are alleluias all over the liturgy. The lessons are interesting – so full of wonder and amazement. The new Paschal Candle is burning every week; it looks so good back there by the font. And at my house, when the kids aren’t paying attention, there is still some Easter candy up for grabs. It’s just a great season. It feels good living in Eastertide.
I like everything about this season. Well, I mean, there is one thing. And I don’t want to seem like I am complaining; this is a great Church season. But we are sort of forced to think about and talk about perhaps our strangest creedal doctrine an awful lot: resurrection.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am big fan of the resurrection. But it is just not the easiest theological subject to discuss with one’s friends. And frankly, the biblical accounts do not make it much easier. They are marked mostly by confusion, fear, and doubt. So really, I think it is fair to say: the biblical accounts feel like very honest reactions to a rather stunning event – an event that continues to challenge the world almost as much as it is saving the world.
Resurrection seems to pop up everywhere during the Easter season. We find it in the Creed – both Apostles’ and Nicene. It runs through the baptismal liturgies that we celebrate at the beginning and end of this season. And though heaven is the much more popular after-life subject, our Christian doctrine would remind us that our hope is embodied. And if we believe Paul’s epistles and the book of Revelation, our final destiny is life in a resurrected body and our final destination is not some spiritual, harp-filled Care Bear Kingdom in the clouds but a new Earth. We are following in the footsteps of Jesus. He gets resurrection and so do we. It is such a strange idea that most Christians don’t even know that bodily resurrection is one of the primary theological assertions of our faith.
And it is all because of what happened on the first Easter Sunday. But, you know, there were other ways to tell that story – ways that would have made much more sense in the ancient world and fit more comfortably in a modern religious landscape that seems more ready to embrace a disembodied spiritual journey than the idea of living forever in a body 2.0. The gospel authors could have given us with a ghost story; that, after all, was the disciples’ first reaction. In the ancient world there are plenty of stories about ghostly encounters. Especially in the season of grief, following a death, it was not unusual for the living to have some experience of their dearly departed. And not just in the ancient world: it is not unusual to hear these stories still today.
Had the eleven, scared, grieving, hiding behind locked doors, had a shared encounter with the spirit of Jesus, I am sure that too would have been a powerful event in their lives. Had the Spirit of Jesus sent them into the world with a mission, that encounter would have been compelling enough to get them to vacate the locked room and get to work. There is a strong tradition in the Bible of God speaking to people through visions. Why not to the disciples? They could have told stories about the spirit of Jesus. A message from the spirit of a dead holy man, a martyr, a miracle worker, could have laid the foundation for the movement. Other religions traditions do not claim that their founder was resurrected. Everybody dies; there is no shame in that. They could have established the Church on a miraculous encounter with, a vision of, the spirit of Jesus. But they didn’t. They said resurrection.
Or…They knew this guy named Lazarus who was resuscitated – dead and then came back to life. He was the same guy when he exited the tomb as he was upon entry – easily recognizable as the same man. He was dead and then alive and then, eventually, he would again die. But even though it was just death delayed, it was still a pretty big deal.
Because of Lazarus, the disciples knew that resuscitation was possible. And that too would have been a great story – with at least some historical precedent. They could have told stories about Jesus, their friend who was dead, being resuscitated, charging them with the earthly continuation of his work, and then riding off into the sunset to live a peaceful life far from the Roman Empire that killed him the first time. That is still a compelling story. They could have told that story. But they didn’t. They said resurrection.
And resurrection had no precedent. Visions had a track record. Resuscitation: Jesus raised a few people from the dead in the Gospels. Resurrection: it had never before happened – and, by the way, has not happened since. Now, the basic idea was around. Some pious first century Jews believed in the concept of resurrection. But not like this. No one expected one person to be resurrected out of sequence. The resurrection of the body was thought to be a one-time event – all of the dead, together, at the end of time. Most Jews in the first century believed that God watched after the souls of the dead and one day, the last day, would raise them to new life, in new bodies. That was resurrection. And because that was how Jews, including the disciples, understood the doctrine of resurrection no one was expecting to see Jesus walking around alive and in a resurrected body. That was simply not a possibility. It was unheard of - until it happened.
Resurrection was not in the disciples’ plans. The Gospels make this very obvious. This kind of resurrection, a solo resurrection in the midst of on-going time, was unbelievable – in that no one would ever believe it. And if your goal is to convince people, your story should probably be at least somewhat believable.
No one would believe it, neither would they expect it. Which is why, for the second consecutive Sunday, our Gospel lesson finds the disciples locked in a room on the evening of Easter. It is also why, when Jesus appears to them, they are “startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost.” Even after Jesus shows them the scars, the only remnant of death that remained in this new body, Luke tells us they were still disbelieving. Now it is true that Jesus did talk to them about his death and resurrection before the cross, but the disciples had no way to process that information because not only was resurrection unprecedented, theologically it meant something entirely different from what they experienced on Easter Sunday.
And I think that is why the post-resurrection stories are all so odd. The writers are trying to explain the unexplainable, trying to tell a story that even they know makes no rational sense.
Think about the stories in the Gospels. They are not the most convincing stories were one writing them to simply convince. In Mark’s Gospel, the women come to the tomb to anoint the dead body and flee without saying anything to anyone because of fear; in John’s Gospel Mary Magdalene confuses the resurrected Jesus for a gardener, whom she is pretty sure stole the corpse; in the story that precedes today’s in Luke’s Gospel, two of Jesus’ followers meet Jesus on the road out of town, to Emmaus, and precede to explain to Jesus what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem; they finally recognize him at dinner and then when they do he disappears – something bodies, living or otherwise, don’t generally do. And then we have today’s Gospel, in which Jesus appears out of nowhere, like a ghost might. They are quickly disavowed of that ghost idea when their dead friend sits down at their dinner table and woofs down some fish. It was a lot of process. No one saw this coming. And those who encountered the Risen Christ had no idea what to make of it or him. And everyone, in every story, is confused and scared.
Easter Sunday was the end of a dizzying week for Jesus’ followers. They probably were feeling pretty good on Palm Sunday, when Jesus was welcomed into the city by joyous crowds. But Thursday night he was arrested and on Friday he was crucified and buried. And so obviously the joy is gone and it has been replaced by grief, shame, and disappointment. As the disciples on the road to Emmaus said, “We had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel.” Which is to say, he is now dead and so we were very, very wrong. And then Sunday happens and Jesus is standing in front of them and then eating dinner with them. And soon enough, days later, floating into the sky – not as a ghost but in a body that is new enough that some of his closest friends do not immediately recognize him.
There are not words to make sense of Easter, but they have to try. And so amazingly, they begin to share their impossible stories. The women who find the tomb empty, who flee the graveyard in terror, tell their stories. And the disciples, whose doubt and shame and fear, confines them to a secret hideout, they tell their stories. And the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the ones who walked with Jesus and failed to recognize him, tell their stories. They tell impossible stories. Stories that sounded foolish to the gentiles and sounded blasphemous to their fellow Jews.
They had options after Easter. They could have gone back to the lives they left, cut their losses and moved on – talked about the Jesus’ years at apostolic family reunions. They could have told stories of spirits and visions – disembodied revelations. They could have claimed to have witnessed another resuscitation. All of those stories were to some degree more believable, more socially acceptable.
But they preached resurrection. They believed in resurrection. They staked their lives on resurrection. And there is really no way to make sense of that…unless it is the Truth.