The Challenge of Easter
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 5/04/2014
Based on Luke 24: 36b-48
And Jesus told his disciples, “48 You are witnesses of these things.”
In this morning’s scripture we pick up the continuation of the first day of Jesus’ resurrection. That first morning after the Passover, we have the two Mary’s going to the tomb where Jesus was buried only to find it empty , and then are greeted by a risen Jesus. They go back to tell the other disciples what they had witnessed and are greeted with total skepticism about what they had seem. To verify what these women were saying, we are told that Peter and John went to the tomb and found it empty. The story continued with two of Jesus’ followers walking back home to Emmaus being joined by a stranger who turns out to be Jesus himself. With this realization, they quickly run back to Jerusalem to testify to the disciples what they had witnessed.
Now evening has come and everyone was in an uproar about these strange reports – reports that go totally against common sense; a dead man just doesn’t rise from the dead. Yet here are three differing groups of witnesses, Mary Magdelene and another Mary who encounter Jesus at the empty tomb, Cleopas and an unnamed companion having walked most of seven miles visiting with Jesus, and Peter and John had verified the empty tomb. Then all of a sudden, there in the room with them, they see Jesus standing among them, dead silence fills the air as terror begins to take hold, as the disciples think that they are seeing ghost. Common knowledge says that in nine out of ten cases most people tend to freak out when encountering a ghost. Then Jesus breaks the silence by saying, “Peace be with you!”
This must not have been enough to dispel their fears, as Jesus then asks, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?” I can just imagine what thoughts might have been running through their minds at that moment: “Are you kidding Jesus? We believed that you were the Messiah, the one who God sent to save Israel from the Romans. Yet, when you had the chance to call down your angels at the trial, you didn’t do it. When you had the chance to have God display his might power and bring down the angels from heaven and destroy the Romans and bring you safely down from the cross, you didn’t do it. You let the Romans and the religious leaders kill you. And now you come before us after you are dead and wonder why we think you are a ghost? Of course we don’t know what to believe anymore.”
I’m not totally sure how sensitive Jesus is right at this point, doesn’t he understand that these people are still suffering from the shock of his death. Yet, maybe by appearing to them so soon after his death, Jesus is helping them to overcome their state of shock. Even with reports by some of their companions that Jesus had appeared to some, the majority probably assumed that what they had encountered was a ghost.
Jesus helps them with their disbelief by inviting them to physically touch the wounds that came from being crucified. Sensing that this wasn’t enough proof that he was real, he then asks them, as he must have done many times in the past, “what’s for supper?” It is at this point that they begin to realize that the man standing before them is not a ghost, because a ghost does not have a physical body, nor do they eat solid food. To come to understand that Jesus has overcome death was the challenge of Easter for Jesus’ disciples.
What is the challenge of Easter for us in the twenty-first century? Is it to go against the laws of physics as we currently understand in order to believe in a physical resurrection? Or is it to believe that God continues to work His will in a world that is filled with hate and war, where poverty exists for most and abundance for few, or where the environment that is being destroyed by self-interest with little regard for the future of human kind? When horrible things happen either directly to us or indirectly with others, we ask the same questions that the disciples asked when they saw their Messiah being tortured and killed. The question of “where is God in all this” “how can God allow bad things to happen to good people?” These questions are what challenges us, the Easter people.
I believe we can find the answer to this challenge through the story of Jesus’ death and of the story of his resurrection. The disbelief that the disciples were experiencing, the fear and the disappointment of seeing their master killed and wondering why God didn’t step in and stop it came because of their perception of how God works. We have the same questions as the disciples because of our perceptions of how God works within her creation.
Rev Barbara Essex, Director of Pastoral Services at Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, California says of Jesus’ death and resurrection: The appearance of earthly, human power had triumphed over him. The high priest, the skeptics, and the curious had all condemned Jesus as a scoundrel and blasphemer – guilty as charged! The governor, the Roman soldiers, interested bystanders, and criminals had condemned Jesus as a traitor and rebel – guilty as charged! Even God seemed to confirm the verdict, with no rescuing angels, no last minute acquittal, no surprise witnesses to change the verdict – guilty as charged!
But God and Jesus are in cahoots against the powers of the world. By raising Jesus from the dead, God declared to the religious and political leaders, who thought they had the upper hand and exercised all power that mattered, God declared that God has been working behind the scenes the whole time. Today’s text brings the work and ministry of Jesus full circle. Luke tells us at the beginning of his Gospel that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption for all of creation. God transformed a tragic consequence into a new thing – an acquittal and ultimate redemption. The ugliness of crucifixion gave way to the power of resurrection. pg 427, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 2
When we are asking the “why does God let these things happen” type of questions, we are questioning God’s design of “free will.” Either we understand God’s gift to her creation as allowing free will or we understand God’s control over creation by dictating each event. Over time humanity has developed a theology that God meddles at whim in certain event as a way of trying to understand the “why did God let this happen” types of questions. It actually goes back to the early Greek understanding of how whimsical the god’s on Mt Olympus were. In scripture we read an answer about what seems to be unjust acts by God, “the rain falls where it may, without discretion both on the good and the evil.”
God sent her son into the world so that the world might be saved. Does this mean that God sent her son to be crucified? I don’t believe that. For if it was true then God is not the creator that exists in love as we say. We cannot have it both ways, a God who sacrifices at will, and also shows redemption, that is inconsistent. But if God is consistent with what we call “free will”, then the act of crucifixion falls on the evil that humanity is capable of inflicting. So God sent her son into the world so that the world might be saved, but the world did not accept God’s gift, but rather wished to exercise their own power, telling God that they are in control.
But it is through the story of the resurrection that we see God stepping in. In other words, God lets events put into play by us, play out, then then in the aftermath shows her power through what we might call “unintended consequences.” For those who ordered Jesus’ death, the unintended consequence was the birth of a new way of understanding life over death. In the movie series of Harry Potter, Professor Dumbledore has a phoenix. In front of Harry, the old bird burst into flames and turned to ash. The professor didn’t seem dismayed and shared with Harry that it was the normal life cycle of a phoenix. Then Harry witnesses a new chick rising up out of the ashes. This is the understanding of resurrection. Out of death comes new life. Out of tragedies, even when we do not understand the “whys”, there comes new life, usually in unintended or unforeseen ways.
The challenge for Easter people is to understand that evil happens and that it isn’t because God has turned her back on us. But in the aftermath of that evil God’s power brings new life. As witnesses to Gods love and grace, we are challenged to participate in God’s work in our communities. No matter how we understand the resurrection, we are challenged to declare the presence and power of God in the midst of tragedy, despair, and death, for they are not ultimate, rather God is. As people of faith we are called to be witnesses to Christ’s presence among us, in our words and in our deeds. Amen