The word Easter comes to us from the word eastern and easterly—as in the direction the western worshipper should be facing when he thinks of the source of his redemption in Jerusalem. It has been said that Christians are by nature an Easter people, and certainly in all generations of the church belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ has been the sine qua non of Christian faith--- the most essential belief of all without which a person is not a confessing Christian.
As far back as we can go chronologically in the NT, to the earliest Aramaic fragments found in Paul’s earliest letters, there is clear evidence that Jesus was worshipped after Easter, but not really in any full sense before then. Indeed, Jesus was prayed to in Aramaic not long after his ascension—as we can see from 1 Cor. 16.22b-- the famous maranatha prayer--- “Come o Lord”. Now a monotheistic Jew only prayed to God. He or she certainly did not pray to some dead rabbi to come back. But here is a tiny window into the prayer life of those Jerusalem Jewish followers of Jesus who are urging Jesus to return as promised. What was it that led to this remarkable change in their piety from before and after Easter. How had James, a non- follower of Jesus, become one of the three great leaders of the Jerusalem church, one prepared to pray this prayer? The answer is found only a chapter earlier in 1 Corinthians---“then he appeared to James” (1 Cor. 15.7). It is the resurrection which produced worship of and confession of Jesus as the risen Lord.
Now it is notable that the text does not say of any of those who saw Jesus after he was dead—“he was seen by…” The Greek verb here does not focus on subjective sight, nor does it encourage us to think in terms of a vision. Indeed, it focuses on the initiative of the one making these appearances--- Jesus himself. This is about Jesus appearing, not merely about disciples thinking they saw him. The language is clear here. And notice as well from 1 Cor. 15 that he appeared to many different groups and individuals in different places at different times, in some cases to those who had not been Jesus’ followers before (e.g. James and Paul), in some cases to those who had. There is even the insistence here of an appearance to 500 persons at once. Whatever else one can say, the variety of these appearances in a variety of locales and the fact that the appearances happened to both disciples and non-disciples of Jesus rules out the mass delusion or hysteria theory.
And notice that there is no suggestion at all in 1 Cor. 15 that any one saw the event of the resurrection, except perhaps the angels! No, they are claiming to have seen the results of the resurrection of Jesus—the appearances of the risen Lord. We do have a later apocryphal account in the Gospel of Peter of what Jesus’ resurrection looked like when he came out of the tomb, but this is just later amplification of the tradition. Our NY is notably reserved on this topic. Perhaps it occurred to them that an empty tomb and a risen Jesus was not enough to change the lives of those who had seen the crucifixion. There had to be appearances. And in a heavily patriarchal culture no one would make up the notion that Jesus appeared first to women like Mary Magdalene. That story in John 20 is too improbable not to be true! You don’t make up a first appearance of the risen Jesus to a Galilean peasant woman who was formerly demon possessed--- not if you want to start an evangelistic religion.
Some of my favorite Easter celebrations occur in strange places. Everyone should have the privilege of going to Athens at Easter and celebrating with the orthodox as they march through town in the darkness before down singing and shouting ‘Christos anesti’ Christ is risen. Or you should show up at O dark 40 on Easter morning in Winston Salem N.C. in the Moravian Graveyard next to Salem college where the Moravian band will be playing and marching through the graves singing Easter hymns like ‘Christ the Lord is Risen Today” ( a good Charles Wesley hymn). The Salvation Army has got nothing on these tuba and other horn players. Or you should have been with me in County Durham when I was preaching at a small pit head chapel (a chapel built near the mines as Methodists were the ones who evangelized these folks in the 18th century). I got to the chapel before the service on Easter Sunday and the chapel steward raced out and said “ I’m ever so sorry but I must ask you something first”. I said “Shoot”. He said, “Nothing so drastic as shooting.” I said “Go ahead”. He asked with a worried look on his face “You do believe in the resurrection don’t you?” I said, “Oh yes, that’s what Easter is all about.” “I’m ever so relieved he said, the chap we had last year didn’t and preached on some nonsense about the beautiful spring flowers.” Not me brother-- Jesus did not rise from the dead as part of the rites of spring. His resurrection was a supernatural miracle, and as Peter was to say in Acts 2--- the bars of death could not hold him. God’s yes to life was and is louder than death’s no. And anyway Jesus didn’t merely give the resurrection, he said “I am the resurrection”.
There are oh so many Easter stories. Like the lady in 1992 whose house received a letter from the welfare department in Greenville S.C. which said “ We have been notified that you are deceased and so we are canceling your food stamps. If your circumstances should change please let us know and we will begin sending you the stamps once more.” Were they looking for resurrection? George Caird was a fine NT scholar at Oxford, and I had been accepted to do my doctoral work with him. I decided however that I would do better to study with C.K. Barrett at Durham. As things turned out it is a good thing that I did. Caird had the ultimate exit. He died a few years thereafter on Easter Sunday morning--- apparently in church!
I thought I would leave you with my favorite Easter poem from none other than John Updike, perhaps our most celebrated American novelist of this era. You can find this poem in the volume I did with Christopher Armitage entitled The Poetry of Piety.
SEVEN STANZAS AT EASTER
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
It was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.
And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.
Happy Easter everyone……. :)