We begin with the story that is at the heart of Christianity, according to the Gospel of Luke:
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 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.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. –Luke 24:1-12 NRSV
Ah yes, women and their idle tales! What if those eleven men had never believed their incredible story? What if Peter had never gone to the tomb to check it out for himself? And what if, after going home, Peter had kept it all to himself and returned to his previous occupation?
Yes, there’s a lot of “what ifs” there. Of course, an empty tomb on its own proves nothing. Maybe somebody had overpowered the Roman military guards, managed to roll back the boulder, and stolen Jesus’ body. It’s possible–and, let’s face it, a whole lot more reasonable an explanation than that Jesus had risen from the dead, leaving behind two angels to share the most important good news in all of history to a bunch of women who had come to take care of the rituals necessary for a proper burial.
Those angels asked a question themselves: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” There’s more to that than the simple implication that those women were in the wrong place and doing something unnecessary. Is this whole story of Jesus’ resurrection something that belongs among the dead of 2,000 years ago? Or is it a living story, as meaningful and powerful today as ever?
Certainly there are folks today who believe in a living Jesus, in the sense that he’s still around as their best friend. It’s a position somewhat akin to saying “God is my copilot,” I suppose. But then I find myself asking, Did Jesus die on the cross so he could become my (and lots of other people’s) best bud? Certainly it’s a comforting thought, but it seems to fall far short of what God must have had in mind by exhibiting divine power in such an incredible way.
And there are also lots of folks who believe Jesus died a gruesome death on the cross so that all their individual sins (meaning shortcomings, failures, and the guilt that tends to go with them) were washed away by the shedding of his blood (although to be more historically and theologically consistent with Hebrew sacrificial ritual, it was his blood as the true Paschal Lamb that symbolically covered up their sins). That just seems to me a tad too individualistic, mechanical, and almost trivial when what we’re talking about here is Jesus’ resurrection as the mid-point or meridian of all history!
I realize I’ve probably offended a fair chunk of Christianity by even saying this. But maybe somebody’s got to. And, of course, I could well be dead wrong about it all. But if Jesus was raised from the dead just so people could now consider him their “best buddy” or be relieved of any and all guilt for every bit of naughtiness they’ve ever done, I’m not sure I’d want to have anything to do with that kind of Christianity.
We proclaim every Easter (and, as Christians, every day for that matter) not only that Christ has risen but “Christ Is Risen”! Yes, it needs that exclamation point. Jesus was put to death by the greatest and most powerful force in the ancient world, the Roman Empire. Say what you want about the Romans, but when they executed somebody (usually by slow, painful, and humiliating crucifixion) they stayed dead. Until Jesus, that is. But even though the Romans represented the greatest of all the principalities and powers and domination systems on the planet, they were no match for the power of God.
When we say “Christ is risen!” we’re not meaning that God is on our side but the other way around: We are on God’s side. Despite all that we may see and experience, and that others in this world may see and experience in ways that we Westernized, “first-world” folks can never truly know, we can return to this one proclamation with boldness and surety: We are on God’s side, for God has changed all the rules and turned the things of this world upside down. That proclamation doesn’t by itself eliminate all the misery, misfortune, hate, injustice, and, yes, evil in the world. But we locate ourselves with the source of hope for the present and future of the world: Just look what Almighty God has done in Jesus Christ!
Easter Sunday does not negate what happened at Golgotha on Good Friday or in the Garden of Gethsemene on Thursday evening. It will always remain a divine mystery how it is that we are to be all these various and different things: a people who struggle to know God’s will, a people of the cross, a people hiding in vigil and waiting hopefully, a people of the empty tomb, a people on the road to Emmaus, a people of doubt, and a people of faith.
Sure, there will always be plenty of people who look at us followers of Christ, who hear this story and yet turn away, shaking their heads and muttering, “What an idle tale those silly Christians tell.”
Christ Is Risen! Alleluia!
*From the 2013 ForeWords archive