Easter means a lot of different things to different people, ranging from family reunions to big dinners to Easter egg hunts to down time from work, and none of those things in themselves are bad things. Easter however, at its most fundamental level is not about us, not about our celebrating ourselves and our families. It’s about a once and future king, and a once and future event called resurrection.
It is easy enough for ministers to preach even stem winding sermons about what happened to Jesus way back then, way over there, but in some ways this is like memorializing and celebrating other great events in the past. We need to remember them, but at the end of the day they don’t really change one’s own life or future all that much. Life goes on, you go back to work, you go home from seeing the relatives, and ‘plus change, plus la meme chose’. What if however it were really true that Christ’s history is our destiny? What if Christ really was just the first fruits of a future bumper crop– a harbinger of things that will definitely come, and a proof that such things can really happen? Well that changes things, especially if the promise includes words such as these— “we shall all be changed…. we shall all be conformed to his likeness… the dead in Christ shall be raised.”
As many of you know, just two years ago, our 32 year old beloved daughter Christy, my sweetpea, died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. One minute she was alive in this world full of life, the next she was in eternity. When that happened, what brought me the most comfort and consolation was not ‘dying and going to heaven’ which only a small minority of texts in the NT discuss when it comes to the afterlife. No what gave me comfort and hope was the story of Jairus’ daughter— where Jesus said in Aramaic “little girl arise”. I do indeed look forward to the day when Jesus returns and says that to my baby. That’s when resurrection goes from being an abstract belief to a concrete reality in my life and the life of my wife. It’s not just when I am raised, but when I see my daughter whole again that it becomes personal for me as a father.
There are of course many things about the resurrection stories I love, not the least of which is, they are not really descriptions of the event of the raising of Jesus by God. We have no descriptions of how it happened, no blow by blow account of the steps in the process. Instead, what we have is stories of distraught disciples finding an empty tomb and fearing the worst, and the only thing that changes there mind are ‘appearances’ of the risen Jesus. It’s not the resurrection of Jesus by itself that was the game changer. No, it was the results of that event— the resurrection appearances of Jesus to both disciples and non-disciples.
Sometimes people have the curious notion that these stories of the resurrection appearances must refer to human hallucinations, or mass hysteria, or subjective wish projections called visions, or even encounters with a being from the spirit world, but not encounters with a flesh and blood human being. Or worse, we are told these are apologetic myths made up to convince the gullible that something miraculous happened when nothing did, myths made up to advance a new religion in the world. None of these explanations make any sense of the data that we have.
The stories that we have involve a variety of people in a variety of places at a variety of times receiving an appearance of Jesus. Notice that Paul, in our earliest appearance list in 1 Cor. 15, written about A.D. 52-53, but citing a list that goes further back before that time, within 20 years of Jesus’ death, keeps saying ‘and he appeared to….’ ‘and he appeared to…’ It does not say ‘and he was seen by’. No the emphasis is on the initiative being with Jesus– he chose to appear to this person, or this group, in this place or at that time. And never is it at a time or place where he was expected. To the contrary, these accounts all make clear the shock and disbelief of those to whom he appeared. I especially love the account in Mt. 28 where we hear that Jesus appeared to disciples in Galilee, and ‘many believed, but some doubted’. This is hardly the stuff of apologetic legend. The accounts do not cover up the fact that the disciples appear often in a negative light, even after the risen Jesus appears to them!
Or take the usual canard that Jesus only appeared to those who already believed in him. This is absolutely false: 1) we are told in Paul’s list that he appeared to James, the brother of Jesus whom is said in John 7.5 quite specifically not to believe in Jesus and not to be his disciple; 2) he appeared to Thomas, who was ‘apistos’ disbelieving, not merely doubting, and famously said there was no way he would believe unless he had the ocular proof, indeed the tactic proof that there was a living breathing flesh and blood Jesus back from the dead; 3) there is of course Saul of Tarsus, never a relative of or a disciple of Jesus at all. Indeed, an enemy of the Gospel. He had a hard time convincing people he was really converted after he saw Jesus on Damascus Road.
If we ask about the frame of mind of the disciples when the appearances begin we hear about grief, and mourning, and lost hope (‘we had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel…’).This is not the stuff out of which wish projection or fantasies and hallucinations come. All the disciples wanted to do was grieve and move on with their lives. They were not looking for a sequel without equal. And of course, if you are beginning a new world religion in a highly patriarchal society, you don’t make up the notion that women were the chief witnesses, were the last at the cross, the first at the tomb, and the first to see the risen Jesus. No way. That would be like arguing that Mohammed’s ascension into heaven from Jerusalem was only testified to by several female followers of his. Picture how that idea would go down in Taliban country in Afghanistan where they beat women who seek to get an education and become articulate witnesses of various truths. NO, these Easter are too improbable to be figments of human imagination. They require too much explanation and defending to not be based in historical events.
Or lastly, the notion that Jesus’ resurrection was merely a spiritual thing, the seeing of a ghost or spirit or the like. For certain, this is not what any early Jew meant by the term resurrection (see Wright’s Resurrection and the Son of God). Resurrection involved physical bodies, hence the stories about Jesus being touched on and after the resurrection, stories about his eating with the disciples, stories about there being both an empty tomb and a risen Jesus, not just one or the other.
No, at the end of the day, it will not do to dismiss these Easter stories, for they tell us something profound about reality, and about God. God’s yes to life is louder than death’s no. So, I can’t wait until I get to hear those blessed words that Jairus once heard— ‘talitha cumi’…. little girl arise.