From the 2011 ForeWords archive
An empty tomb is not proof of resurrection. Nor is the discovery of neatly folded burial linens–or, for that matter, a heavy rock that has been rolled away from the entry.
The closest thing to positive evidence the Gospel writer John comes up with is with Mary Magdalene’s belated recognition of Jesus, but even then it’s only after he speaks to her that she knows who it is. Perhaps I’ve just seen way too many TV courtroom dramas, but I tend to think even the lamest cross-examination would cast doubt on that testimony.
Maybe this simply highlights the fact that John is interested in one thing only: Telling the story in a simple, straightforward way. His Gospel account conveys one thing: “Alleluia. He is risen!” And even if it’s not exactly an Associated Press account of what happened, there’s no attempt to explain the theological significance of what’s happened, either for the immediate characters involved or generations of subsequent disciples. There’s nothing here about dying for our sins, trusting in Jesus in order to be saved, or any of the other things we’ve come to associate with the Good Friday & Easter experience. And certainly there’s nothing remotely close to consigning unbelievers to burn in hell and eternal damnation.
Of course, there’s plenty of theological explanation and exposition later on in the New Testament, thanks to Paul, the other letter writers, Luke the writer of Acts, and the author of Revelation. Two thousand years of church tradition and teaching have added considerably to all that, both for good and ill. But on Easter morning, it’s all about the basic story. “Alleluia. He is risen!”
There was a time, not that long ago, when a Christian preacher standing at a pulpit on Easter Sunday could pretty much assume that everybody gathered to hear him or her was already familiar with the basics of the Jesus story. They may not know in detail everything from Bethlehem to the empty tomb, but they remembered enough to get by. Those people sitting in the pews probably had been reared in a church somewhere, and they could connect the sermon about to be given with remembered snippets from Sunday schools, vacation Bible schools, and previous worship services. Even if they now only showed up in church on Easter and Christmas Eve there was a fairly widespread shared memory of the “good news.”
As hard as it may be for us hard-core religious folk to admit, those days are gone–or at best going away quickly. First of all, the country in which I live is a far more diverse and pluralistic society than it was during my childhood back in the fifties and sixties. We can probably attribute at least some of that to a major shift in immigration law back in the mid-sixties. Today’s religious landscape includes not only Christians (Catholics, various Protestants, and a whole bunch of other Christians that tend to defy easy categorization) and Jews, but an amazing array of Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, and, well, you get the idea. Within each of those groups are to be found multiple expressions. And, I wish to quickly add: that’s a good thing.
But there’s another group, one that is arguably growing faster than any other: Those who, in describing their religious preference, check the box marked “none.” It’s a hard group to quantify. It includes a broad spectrum including atheists, agnostics, and those who self-describe as “spiritual but not religious.”
This may appear, at least at first, to be an odd question, especially for this most important week in the Christian calendar: How many “nones” will be sitting in church pews this Sunday, whether it’s to please Grandma or a spouse or some other host for an extended-family Easter dinner? How many “nones” do you know?
When that preacher stands to proclaim “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” will it make any more sense to a “none” than an Aesop fable or one of the Harry Potter books? Actually, those “nones” will most likely be far more conversant with the long, extended story line of Harry Potter (or “Lord of the Rings” or the Star Wars double trilogy) than the parables, teachings, and miracles of Jesus.
“So, you’re telling me that this guy Jesus was executed and buried, but when his friends showed up at the cemetery three days later the body was gone–and then they went out, and based on the belief that he hadn’t really died, founded what eventually became one of the world’s greatest religions, which in turn has dramatically altered the course of history for two thousand years.”
But that’s exactly what happened.
In fact, it was Peter–the same Peter who had three times denied even knowing who Jesus was after he’d been arrested–who within a short time after what we now call Easter Sunday boldly preached this to Gentiles and Jews:
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel is what has come to be known as the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
A couple generations or more ago that mission was widely understood to mean heading for African jungles or Asian rice paddies. But, of course, we really don’t need to go that far to “go and tell” the story of Jesus. One thing about those “nones,” however (especially the ones younger than about age 35), is that characteristically they’re usually not satisfied to be told anything. They will need to “see Jesus” in us before they’ll begin to listen. It simply won’t work if we wait for them to come to us (sitting in our comfortable pews) and patiently and politely listen.
This could be big.