by Daniel Harrell
As most of you know I spent a good portion of this Lent with members of our congregation on a wonderful pilgrimage to Israel. I’ve been pulpit-bombing you with stories and pictures since, apropos to the Lenten season. So much of what we saw was where Lent and Easter happened. From the steep Palm Sunday road I showed you last week, and the ridge overlooking Jerusalem where Jesus wept, to the Temple Mount where Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to die. We trod the Via Dolorosa, on which Jesus carried his cross, which winds these days through an Old City shopping district. Each Station of the Cross offers a variety of Calvary-themed souvenirs, little crowns of thorns, rosaries and crucifixes, peddled mostly by Muslim vendors. The road ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which tradition marks as that place where Jesus was crucified, dead and buried. And from whence on this day he rose from the dead.
I’ve told you how competing branches of Christianity fight over who gets control of this premier religious site—sometimes with real punches. The Roman Catholic and Armenian Orthodox Churches each have their respective corners roped off, with the Ethiopian, Syriac and Coptic Orthodox Churches claiming various doorways and closets as their own territories. The literal infighting among Christian factions over the years in the church has led to a number of hospitalizations and incarcerations. So much for loving your neighbor. Thankfully a Muslim family owns the keys to the church’s main door or things might get really out of hand.
The Sepulcher proper, that is the empty tomb itself, is managed by the Greek Orthodox Church, which in turn has constructed an elaborate mausoleum out of what we presume would have been a humble hole. Hours long lines snake to the entrance, so we never got a chance to go inside. Just outside burns this single candle from which pilgrims from all the world come to light votive candles of their own. According to Greek Orthodoxy, this candlelight is Holy Fire that ignites in a most miraculous way. On the eve of every Orthodox Easter, this year on April 27, thousands of pilgrims will encircle the Sepulchre and sing hymns and beat drums in anticipation. A clean sweep will be made of the tomb to remove any trace of fire-making paraphernalia. When the hour of the miracle arrives, the masses will keep silence as an Orthodox high priest fearfully enters the tomb. He will kneel where Jesus’ head would have been and will intone a series of ancient prayers. At the amen, from within the core of the very stone on which Jesus lay, an indefinable and mysterious light rises up.
According to a priest who witnessed it, the light “cannot be described in human terms. It rises out of the stone as mist may rise out of a lake. The light does not burn—I have never had my beard burnt in all the sixteen years I have received the Holy Fire. At a certain point the light rises and forms a column in which the fire is of a different nature, so that I am able to light my candles from it. When I thus have received the flame on my candles, I go out and give the fire to all people present in the Church.”
I asked our secular Jewish guide what happens if one of the pilgrims trying to light their her candle accidentally snuffed out the holy fire. “It never happens!” our guide replied, a slight smirk betraying her own suspicions. “It is a miracle!” To which I say, hallelujah and praise the Lord! For anybody who died and rose from the dead, lighting and keeping lit a couple of candles a year is easy to do.
Protestants, being Protestant, have our own version of the empty tomb on the opposite side of the city. Located right beside an Arab bus station, our version dispenses with any iconography or liturgical folderol in favor of a simple and serene cemetery—with its own gift shop and souvenirs of course. At this empty tomb, there is no long line. You can step inside and lay where Jesus lay, and even take pictures like I did. As you can see Jesus is not here, which came as a huge relief. The gospels tell us how an immense stone covered the tomb that had to be rolled away. The gospels, however, don’t mention these iron bars guarding the grave—which must have made for an especially spectacular resurrection on Jesus’ part.
A recent Rasmussen poll has 78% of Americans believing Jesus rose from the dead, which is an impressive statistic until you read that 73% of Americans also believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Another poll, from Ohio University a few years back, seems a bit more probable. It reported that among professing Christians in America only 46% believe that Jesus really rose from the dead. In other words, most professing Christians do not believe the thing that makes Christianity, Christianity. And this would be surprising if not for the gospels themselves. As we’ve heard read this morning, the reaction from the first responders to the resurrection ranged from perplexed and terrified to skeptical and curious, the last emotion from the disciples themselves. There’s not a confident Hallelujah or Praise the Lord heard anywhere.
Later that first Easter day, two disciples of Jesus’ walked to Emmaus, a seven mile jaunt from Jerusalem. Artistic renditions of the scene notwithstanding, these disciples were not out for a Sunday stroll. They were heading home. They had likely never expected to see home or their families again; Jesus had been clear that following him meant giving all that up. But Jesus also said that back when he was alive. He was dead now. Executed in fact. And they were done. As far as we can tell—despite all that the Scriptures and Jesus himself taught—these disciples did not believe Jesus really rose from the dead either.
Sure, they’d seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, albeit temporarily. They’d seen him feed 5000 people, heal the blind and cure disease. They probably saw him walk on water and calm that fierce storm on the sea of Galilee. They’d heard him say how he’d get killed and buried like the other prophets. And no doubt they’d heard him say how after three days he’d rise up again. But crazy talk about his own rising from the grave likely got filed alongside all his other strange sayings, like about eating his body and drinking his blood, or about hating your father and mother, or about the last being first, the lost being found, the poor being rich or the least being greatest. None of that made any sense either.
Luke says these disciples were discussing all this as they walked; but the verb he uses is stronger than that. They actually were having more of an argument. Given the high hopes they’d had for Jesus—from the hope he’d eliminate Roman tyranny to the hope he’d eliminate world poverty—to have it all end so tragically had to have made them angry as well as sad. Deeply disappointed too. Seems they’d wasted some of the best years of their lives.
It was probably at this point that Jesus popped in. He’d been making the rounds that morning. These disciples didn’t recognize him, and I understand that. If it’s one thing you ought to be able to count on it’s the dead staying dead. For all of the hope that it offers, resurrection can be very upsetting. It can mess with your head. A few weeks ago we held a funeral for a faithful gentleman who was a longtime member of our church. Though he and I had not been closely acquainted, I vaguely had placed his name with his face. And I was sad to hear he’d died. Then last Sunday he walked up and said hello. I thought I had the right name and face, but now I’m a little scared to ask.
The disciples didn’t recognize Jesus, but if you read the fine print, Luke writes that they were kept from recognizing him. Luke uses a voice theologians label “the divine passive,” which means that they were kept from recognizing Jesus by God. God was messing with their heads. Jesus asked what they were arguing about. One of them, named Cleopas, wondered aloud: “Are you the only stranger in town who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” Luke displays his cleverness as a storyteller here. Cleopas was shocked that Jesus didn’t know about Jesus, when the reality is that Cleopas didn’t know about Jesus, even as he stood looking at Jesus. This is ironic.
Jesus played along as Cleopas went on, “Have you not heard about Jesus of Nazareth? Powerful prophet? Mighty miracle worker? Prospective Redeemer? Total Rock Star? Crazy Talker? Condemned by the religious authorities? Sentenced by Pontius Pilate? Executed as a criminal? Some women reported his body missing this morning. Said some angels told them Jesus was alive. We sent our guys over to check it out (you know how women exaggerate). They were right about the body being gone. But nobody saw Jesus.”
Cleopas said “nobody saw Jesus” while looking straight at Jesus. What a chowderhead. “How foolish you are,” Jesus said, “and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” And then beginning with Moses, Jesus interpreted to them the things the Scriptures predicted. About how Moses anticipated another prophet like himself who would emerge to save God’s people from slavery again—not from Egypt, but from slavery to sin and death. About how Isaiah foretold a suffering Savior, one to be “pierced for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities,” and “by whose wounds we are healed.” And how King David sang in the Psalms of a Savior whom God would never abandon to the grave nor let rot in the ground. A coming King who would draw all nations into his glorious Kingdom. All that and more, it was all in the Bible. Why didn’t they believe it?
This is a good question. Especially if you’ve ever read a Bible. It’s pretty unbelievable. Even if you ignore the prophets and just read what Jesus said: Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor and have treasure in heaven? Consider the lilies and don’t worry about your life? Pray for whatever you want and it’s yours? Love your enemies and forgive your persecutors and you will be blessed? Kill me dead and three days later I’ll rise? I don’t know.
I once had a church visitor ask how she could know the Bible is true. I reeled off reasons such as the Bible being the most reliable document in antiquity, the reams of corroborating archeological and historical evidence, the countless billions of people who have been totally transformed by its words, the continued thriving existence of the church itself; but these reasons only take you so far without faith.
I had another inquirer ask whether the Bible condoned free-market capitalism; said he couldn’t believe in a God who was a socialist. He could have said the same about a lot of other things, from same-sex marriage to evolution, from slavery and suffering to pets in heaven. I asked this inquirer whether he believed Jesus rose from the dead. “No, not exactly,” he replied. “Well then why in the world would you care what the Bible says?” I wondered. In the end, the Bible is only true if the resurrection is true. As the apostle Paul famously put it, “if Christ was not raised then our faith is futile and we’re the biggest losers on the planet.”
We sometimes think believing would be easier if we had visible proof. If only Jesus would show himself to me, and walk me down the road, explain the Bible to me. I’d believe if I could see. But then you have these two who did see Jesus risen and they didn’t believe it. So what chance do I have? I don’t even know what Jesus looks like.
As the disciples neared Emmaus, Luke writes that Jesus “walked ahead as if he were going on.” That’s right, he faked it. He was messing with their heads again. He wasn’t going to chase them this far for nothing. But he wasn’t going to force himself on them either. He wanted an invitation and knew that by acting as if he was leaving the disciples would invite him inside. How did he know? (Well, because he’s Jesus, duh!) But also because cultural obligations of hospitality required them to invite inside any stranger met on the street at nightfall. The bad news was that they still considered Jesus a stranger; but the good news was that they invited him to join them for supper. Good news usually happens in the gospels over supper. Luke reports that as they sat down to eat, Jesus, shifting from guest to host, took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them—just like he’d done in their sight when he fed the 5000. Just like he’d done in their sight the other night when he told them this bread was his body.
And suddenly, Luke writes, again using the divine passive voice, their eyes were opened, and then, just as suddenly, Jesus vanished from their sight. Once they no longer saw him, they were able to recognize him.“Were not our hearts burning within us?” To believe is to see. Now everything changed.
Which is another reason that resurrection can be so upsetting. To believe Jesus rose from the dead saddles you with all that implies: namely, that Jesus is the Son of the Living God, that He is King of kings, that he is your Master and your Lord. Resurrection upsets everything and turns your world upside down. The last being first, the lost being found, the poor being rich and the least being greatest all now make total sense. And once you believe, everything changes and you have to live your life differently because if you don’t, then you don’t really believe.
Had these two disciples stayed put after recognizing Jesus, Luke would have left them out of his story. What kind of gospel just has people sitting around? But there’s no way these disciples could have stayed put. As soon as they believed, they were out the door. Even though it was late at night, they took off and ran the seven miles back to Jerusalem, where they found the rest of the disciples, and became part of a handful of changed people who ended up changing the whole world.
How do you believe in such a way that not only changes your life but also changes your world? There’s only one way. God has to open your eyes. To which I say, hallelujah and praise the Lord! For anybody who died and rose from the dead, opening your eyes is unbelievably easy to do.