Monday, March 28, 2016

What Happened on Easter

Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
Easter Sunday
March 28, 2016

What Happened on Easter
What Happens on Easter

All of you, I am sure, are familiar with the Easter story. Jesus, the Christ, rose from the dead. That is what we celebrate. But what do we really know about what happened? I want to make two assertions. First, we as Christians cannot claim to know more than we know. And, second, we as Christians cannot claim to know less than we know.

What actually happened on Easter? The only accounts we have about what happened on what we now call Easter Day are in the Bible, in the Gospels. There was no news story published in The Jerusalem Times! And although the four gospels all assert that Christ rose from the dead, the details are quite different.

All the gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified, and that his body was put in a tomb, which was sealed with a large stone. But then, the stories differ. All four gospels say that Mary Magdalen went to the tomb early in the morning. She is the only person so mentioned in all four gospel accounts. But John says that she went alone; Mathew says she was accompanied by “the other Mary”; Mark says she was accompanied by Mary the mother of James and Salome; Luke says she was accompanied by Mary the mother of James, Joana, and other unnamed women.

What they reportedly saw varies. John says that Mary Magdalen saw a young man, who she first thought was the gardener, but who was in fact Jesus himself. Matthew says there was an earthquake, and the two women saw an angel “descending from heaven”, ”whose appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow”.  And then they saw Jesus himself, who said “Greetings!” Mark says ”they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side” of the tomb. Luke says they saw “two men in dazzling clothes.”

 In each story, the woman, or the women, received a message from the young man, or the angel, or the angels – but the messages vary.

In Mark, the angel says: “Do not be alarmed, you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” And the women, afraid, fled and told no one.

In Matthew, the risen Jesus himself tells the women to go and tell the disciples that he will see them in Galilee. The women delivered the message, and the disciples then left for Galilee.

In Luke, the men in dazzling clothes asked the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” and told them, “He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” So the women went and told the disciples, who did not believe them, except for Peter, who got up and ran to the tomb, where he saw only the cloths in which Jesus had been buried.

In John, after he called her name, Mary Magdalen recognized  that the young man, whom she thought was the gardener, was in fact Jesus,  and she heard Jesus himself say: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them ‘I am ascending to my father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Which Mary Magdalen did. And the frightened disciples, except Thomas, huddled in the upper room in Jerusalem, where we remember that Jesus himself appeared to them on Easter night.

My point in going through these stories is to show that we really do not know exactly what happened. The stories vary; the details are significantly different, and the substance of the story – that Jesus rose from the dead - is beyond comprehension. It is, perhaps, a mark of authenticity that these stories do not agree in all details. When everyone tells a story the same way, we know that they have probably been coached. These stories reflect different voices. The only significant point of agreement is that when Mary Magdalen, and possibly some other women, (and remember that they all were women), went to the tomb early on Easter morning, they did not find the body of Jesus, and they all reported extraordinary visions or encounters. We don’t even know much about Mary Magdalen. Legends have grown up about her, but the only thing the gospels tell us is that one of them, Luke, reports that Jesus had healed her.  She apparently became very devoted to him. Matthew, Mark, and John report that she stood by his cross while he was crucified, and they all report that she went to the tomb on Easter morning. She is sometimes called the “apostle to the apostles” because she carried the good news to his disciples, Some scholars have even speculated that she was herself a disciple, even perhaps the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” But that is all speculation. We do not know.

And so, when we talk about what happened at Easter, we cannot claim to know more than we know. What exactly happened is a mystery, and the point of a mystery is that we do not know, we cannot explain it. If the writers of the gospels cannot explain it, neither can we.

But if we as Christians cannot claim to know more than we know, we also cannot claim to know less than we know – because we do know a great deal. And what we know does make all the difference.

What do we know. We know that whatever happened on Easter was so powerful that it not only transformed the lives of his friends and disciples, but led them to be willing to die for what they knew. We know that Jesus’s disciples - not only the 11, but his women friends, his cousins, his family – came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. They didn’t know exactly how, either, but some of them later claimed that they had seen the risen Lord. And these claims were not made casually, as a matter of rumor; they were made openly, definitely, and sometimes defiantly. Peter, who had denied that he knew Jesus only three days before, later was himself crucified for his testimony that Jesus had risen from the dead. We do not know how many early disciples testified to the truth of their belief by giving up their lives, but we do know that many did. And of course we have the testimony of Paul, who encountered the risen Lord in what was surely a vision, but a vision so powerful that it totally changed his life, and led Paul also to imprisonment and execution. This we know. It is not a matter of speculation. It is a matter of fact.

During the last few centuries, some skeptics have tried to discredit these testimonies by saying the story of the resurrection was a hoax, based either on a plot to steal the body of Jesus and claim that he was resurrected, or on hallucinations.  Such skepticism, for me, fades in the face of the facts that we know: disciples experienced imprisonment, torture, and execution. Would they do that to perpetuate a hoax or a delusion?

Consider the testimony of Paul, which we read earlier, but which we should listen to more carefully now, “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. The 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 unto me.”

Paul’s account here is different even from the account in the gospels -  but remember, Paul had not read the gospels. They had not been written when he wrote his letters. But he had received the stories, the stories on which some people whom  Paul himself had been persecuting were betting their lives.

So we know for certain that what happened on Easter caused many people not only to believe it, but to bet their lives on it, to live for its truth, and to die for its truth. That is what we know. We cannot claim to know less than we know.

We also know that the meaning of Easter has not yet been fully understood. We are slow disciples. We know that, in addition to proclaiming the love of God, and the power of the risen Christ, as one who has experienced and transcended torture and violence and death, we know that Christians have sometimes - indeed, far too many times – have inflicted torture and violence and death on others.  This is a sad but undeniable fact. We cannot claim to know less than we know.

But we also know, beyond dispute, that people, many people, thousands of people, millions of people have gathered on every Easter Day for almost 2000 years to proclaim their hope, their faith, their belief in the mystery of Christ’s resurrection, the victory of the crucified one. In good times and bad, wartime and peace time, in youth and in age, among admirable people and sometimes among unadmirable people, the faith has endured. We know this, don’t we, even if we know nothing else. That itself is miracle.

And we are part of that miracle today. Some of us, some of you, may be, like Thomas, doubters. You have heard the testimony, but you cannot fully believe it. You are not like the apostles, who saw the resurrected Christ. You are not like Paul, who was stunned into blindness by a vision of the resurrected Christ. You are still, however, part of the  throngs who have heard the  word, and whose life is sustained by the possibility, the hope, the faith that God has shown us that death does not win, that power does not prevail over goodness, that our suffering, whatever it may be, is somehow redeemed in the crucified but risen Lord. You are among those who yearn and work for the day when, as promised in Isaiah, there will be an end to torture and violence and disease and war, and “they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” To the extent that the story touches your heart and finds a place in it, you are also part of the miracle. We do not know everything about what happened on Easter, 2000 years ago. But we do know what happens on Easter, right now.

We cannot claim to know more than we know. But we also cannot claim to know less than we know. And what we do know makes all the difference in the world. Amen.

Easter Prayer March 27, 2016

Almighty God, in Jesus Christ, the resurrected one, you have conquered the power of death, cruelty, violence, and despair, and you have called us to follow him, in faith. We pray, O Resurrected One, strengthen our faith:

In a world where violence and hatred are resurgent,
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For a world in which many live in poverty, with no access to the riches around them; and where many a, driven from their homes, are in search of refuge;
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For those facing the trials of loneliness, disease, and despair; for loved ones who have died, and those of us who are approaching our own deaths,
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For our families, whose lives we value more than our own, but whom we know we cannot completely protect.
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For those imprisoned, justly or unjustly, and for those who are imprisoned by addiction.
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For the church, for all its ministers and members, that we may more boldly follow in your way,
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

For ourselves, in the trials we face, the doubts that paralyze us, and the false gods in which we so often put our trust;
we pray, O resurrected one, Strengthen our faith.

Give us grace¸ we pray, to follow in the way of the Resurrected One, who taught us to pray:

Our Father