Richard R. Crocker
What Does the Resurrection Mean?
Dartmouth College Chapel
Easter – March 31, 2013
It is now evening on Easter Day, just as it was near evening on the first Easter Day, when Jesus encountered Cleopus and his friend as they walked, disconsolately, from Jerusalem to the their homes in Emmaus, seven miles away – just about the distance from Hanover to Lebanon. Easter is full of mystery. The scriptures never tell us how the resurrection happened; they simply tell us that it did. And this mystery is symbolized by angels and visions – but mainly by absence. The body that the disciples had expected to find was not there.
When we regard such a mystery, we would be foolish to think that we can explain it. Of course, we can discount it as foolishness, or we can puzzle about it. Or we can believe it. But we cannot explain it.
In the midst of such mystery, it is good to be anchored in a simple story of disappointed travelers. Cleopus and his friend – perhaps wife? – were humble people, otherwise unremarkable. They had placed their hope in Jesus as “the one who would redeem Israel” – by which we understand they meant that he would be the one to liberate Israel from Roman rule. But their hopes were dashed. Their messiah had been crucified – a death reserved for rebels and traitors to the empire, and now his body had disappeared. They were disconsolate – beyond comfort, disappointed beyond words.
I wonder if you have ever been disappointed? I am sure you have, maybe in many small ways, maybe in big ways. Disappointment, the loss of hope, the failure to realize something that you had fully expected and wanted, is a terrible thing. It eats at us like a worm, We cannot take our minds off of what we have lost. We cry, we ache, we run away, we try to forget. But a truly significant experience of disappointment may well haunt us all our lives. I cannot overstate the power of disappointment to maim our spirits and poison our lives.
And so Cleopus and his companion were disappointed people, when, out of the blue, a stranger appeared beside them who was apparently ignorant of the events in Jerusalem. When they explained their disappointment, he began to talk to them and to explain that their hopes for a ruler to overthrow Rome were misplaced. Their expectations were flawed. They found his words compelling and invited him to have the evening meal with them. And as he broke bread and prayed, they suddenly recognized him. This was Jesus himself. And then he disappeared.
Now this story is also mysterious – but it is less mysterious than the resurrection itself. We all know, or can imagine, the thrill of recognition – when we understand something that had previously mystified us; when we find something that we had thought lost; when we meet an old friend unexpectedly in a crowded airport, when someone that we had thought lost forever reappears in our lives. It can happen in the most ordinary circumstances. Our disconsolate spirits are suddenly consoled, and our hopes are renewed.
This story of Jesus appearing after his resurrection to these two ordinary people on the road to Emmaus is perhaps the most powerful of the resurrection appearances for me, because it is so ordinary. No angels. No voices from heaven, just an encounter with someone who helps us understand what we had not understood, and who is for us, for a few minutes, Christ himself.
I said that the resurrection of Jesus is mysterious. We cannot understand it. We cannot account for it. We may find it hard to believe. But what the scriptures do establish beyond doubt is that many people, like Cleopos, like Peter, like Mary, like Thomas – said that they saw Jesus after had died. And their encounter with the risen Lord compelled them to live in a different way. These are facts. We can argue that these people were deceived, or imagined it; we cannot argue that they didn’t claim it. That is beyond dispute.
Chapel this term has the theme of the good life. That may mean many things. But one part of a good life, I think, is not being overwhelmed by disappointment. It means living hopefully, even in the midst of things that are distressing. Christianity at its truest and best, enables us to do that. The agonies of the crucifixion are real, and they continue. But cruelty, oppression, and death are not the last word. We can be hopeful even when we are very sad and disappointed when we remember Jesus, when we encounter him, even for a few moments, and realize that he is alive.
I expect that all of us could tell some story of disappointment. This week many applicants will receive word of their acceptance or rejection at college. Some will be very happy. Some will be very disappointed. I think particularly right now of those who have their hearts set on coming to Dartmouth and who will be disappointed. Some of us are perhaps still burdened by disappointment – in our parents, in a love relationship, in our grades; or we are saddened beyond words because we have lost through death our dearest friend. In such situations, words sometimes help, but only a little. The only thing that can truly comfort us is the hope that things will somehow still work out, that death and disappointment are not the last words. Such was the faith that has kept true hope alive in the world, and that we celebrate and remember tonight.