Jewish Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois
© Daniel Plasman
I’ve been a minister for 33 years. I’ve preached at least that many Easter sermons, plus a lot of funerals, but I’m no closer to figuring out exactly what happened on that first Easter in Jerusalem.
Maybe the events of that day happened exactly as reported in the gospel accounts; those events include an empty tomb and the appearance of the risen Jesus to his disciples in the Upper Room.
Maybe the resurrection of Jesus was as literal and factual as anything occurring on the human timeline of history, so real that it could have been recorded with a cell phone’s camera had the technology been available in 33 A.D.
Or maybe not. Maybe the events of Easter are not the stuff of historical fact at all. Another way of grasping Easter is to understand it as a metaphor or a parable. Maybe the resurrection was the early church’s attempt to explain how the reality of Christ was present even after his death, a presence that could be explained only in the categories of an “empty tomb” and “appearances” in rooms with locked doors.
We all know that stories can be true without being factually true. Whether or not there existed a Good Samaritan, who helped a victim on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho in the parable Jesus told, doesn’t enhance or diminish the truth the story conveys.
It doesn’t make any difference if one believes that the Easter story actually happened or not; what makes all the difference is what the Easter story means and how it shapes the way we choose to live it.
Here are some quotes I come back to every Easter that help me make sense of the story; they inspire me to live in such a way that testifies to Easter’s truth.
Easter proclaims the truth that while you can crucify God’s love you cannot keep it dead and buried . . . The Easter message says that all the tenderness and strength which on Good Friday we say was scourged, buffeted, stretched out on a cross – all that beauty and goodness is again alive, and with us now not as a memory that inevitably fades, but as undying presence in the life of every single one of us, if only we recognize it. (William Sloane Coffin)
The meaning [of Easter] is that God has said “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the powers who killed him. God has vindicated Jesus . . . Jesus is Lord. Without this personal centering in God, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would not have had the freedom and courage to engage in a conspiracy against Hitler. Without it, Desmond Tutu could not have opposed apartheid with such courage. Without it, Martin Luther King, Jr., could not have kept on keeping on in the midst of all the threats that he faced. (Marcus Borg)
Was Easter a literal event or not? Did it actually happen as the gospel writers say it did? Whether I answer yes or no is not nearly as important as pointing to Easter’s truth in the way I choose to live.
Of this I’m certain: not even a cemetery, surrounded by a fence with barbed wire and secured with a padlock, can prevent God from doing what God is going to do.