It was dark and stormy here this Easter. The wind woke us early, and we drove to church through a hard rain. My daughter’s first Easter egg hunt had to be conducted inside; we even had some violent hail in the afternoon. It’s ironic too, since Friday and Saturday were clear and warm. Proof that the world has not yet reached its goal, I guess; creation still groaning in expectation.
On such a gloomy day, one might wonder what difference Easter makes. Did anything really happen that morning two thousand years ago? Is the world really any different? Yesterday I mentioned the differences between the biblical resurrection accounts; each tells the story slightly differently, and they cannot be fully harmonized. Many think this proves it’s all fiction, perhaps of symbolic value, but nothing historical. After all, the Bible does contain a great deal of myth and symbolism, and such elements can be found here as well, particularly in Luke’s account of the road to Emmaus.
Here we find two disciples, leaving Jerusalem in the wake of the crucifixion, who find themselves walking with Jesus. But they don’t know it’s Jesus until “he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them” (Luke 24:30), about as clear an allusion to the Eucharist as you could find. The point, it seems, is that despite Jesus’ apparent absence, he is nevertheless alive with us when we join together in communion. Given this, it almost seems inappropriate to ask did this happen? The more pertinent question is: does this happen? Do we continue to meet Jesus in the breaking of bread? At the least, this is certainly a story that has been framed for its symbolic rather than historical value, and it is hard to rule out the possibility that something similar informs all of these accounts.
Honesty demands that we not ignore these things, and pays us back by revealing deeper significance to these stories. But it is possible to take such skepticism too far. It is true that these accounts have been shaped and reworked for reasons other than objective historical interest, but there remains a core here that cannot be dismissed as myth: that the tomb was empty, and that Jesus’ disciples were convinced that he had been raised. These are distinct, but closely related. We will take them in reverse.
Whatever tensions we find between the Easter accounts, it can hardly be denied that the earliest disciples experienced Jesus as alive again in some profound way. This is necessary to explain the origin of the Church at all. The first century was full of Jewish figures claiming to be the Messiah. Like Jesus, each built up a large following but then met a violent death. In every other case, such a death proved that the figure was not the Messiah. Indeed, this seems to have been the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ death. Leaving Jerusalem dejectedly, the two disciples in Luke 24 tell the figure they don’t yet recognize that “we had hoped he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (24:21), the implication clearly being that his death had convinced them otherwise. Yet something changed them, dramatically. However scattered and legendary the accounts of Jesus’ appearances, we know they experienced something deeply profound and unexpected, and the simplest explanation is the one they themselves gave: that they had unexpectedly seen Jesus.
But what were these appearances? James has been arguing that they were essentially spiritual, intangible, such that it doesn't much matter whether Jesus’ body remained in the tomb or not. There is a certain strength to this view; it fits well with Luke 24, for one thing. Clearly, whatever kind of life Jesus was raised to, it was no mere resuscitation of his old physical body. He was said to pass through walls, to suddenly appear and vanish, to be sometimes unrecognizable, or appear with bright light and sound. All of this points to something very different than normal earthly life, something much more.
But that is only half the story, for the disciples did not merely claim that they had suddenly realized that Jesus was alive despite being dead. They insisted that he had been raised. Not all Jews believed in resurrection, but those who did agreed about two things: that it was in some sense physical, and that it wouldn’t happen until the age to come. That Jesus’ disciples claimed this about him, even though the eschatological age clearly had not come as they expected, points to something more: They didn’t just claim that Jesus’ soul had survived death, but that somehow, on that Sunday morning, all of history had changed, the new age had dawned, Jesus had been vindicated.
To make sense of such a claim we must turn elsewhere. For the Gospels do not just speak of Jesus’ appearances, but also of an empty tomb. That it was empty that first Sunday is nearly certain, for its discovery by women simply wasn’t the sort of thing the church would have invented. Women weren’t considered reliable witnesses in Jewish society, as the disciples’ own reactions to their report indicates. Further, the surprise and ensuing conviction of Jesus’ followers counts against any claim that they themselves had stolen the body. Granted, by itself the empty tomb proves little, to them or to us, but combined with Jesus’ appearances it was transformational. It took this ragged group of deserters and turned them into the seed of a church that stormed the world with the message that Jesus is Lord.
Were they right? History cannot answer that conclusively, though these facts are telling. For me, however, the proof lies not so much in that ancient tomb, but in the present day – in our church full of people who, despite awaking to gloom and the rain, could not be kept from gathering in love for one another and worship of the one who has changed our lives. Is the world any different because of Easter? It still rains, but I know that we are different because of it.