Easter for Our Times

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.

Sermon — “Easter for Our Times”

Those of you who come to church regularly have heard me say more than once that I am an unashamed Bible geek. Indeed, there are some of you in this congregation who are also Bible geeks. It’s a great time to be a Bible geek. Unrestrained by traditional Christian theologies, linguists, textual critics, social scientists, and a whole range of other scholars are publishing wonderful studies of Biblical texts these days — including studies of ancient Christian texts that didn’t make it into the official Bible. For me, being a Bible geek these days is as much fun as when I first bought my own personal computer twenty years ago, and while trying to superpower DOS wrote a bad command that completely killed the whole computer. Those were the days.

Now, for the Bible geek, the Christian holiday of Easter poses some interesting problems. Let me tell you what those problems are.

We all know the story of Easter: Jesus gets executed and dies at sundown on Friday; since the next day is the Jewish Sabbath, and since Jesus and all his followers are good observant Jews, they can’t prepare the body for burial on the sabbath so they put it for safekeeping into a tomb; then on Sunday, the followers go to get Jesus’s body only to find it gone, and suddenly there’s Jesus himself talking to them and saying he has risen. What a great story this is! I mean, I’m a religious naturalist who doesn’t admit of any supernatural elements in religion, and even I love this story. It has all the power of any great literature.

Problem is, that’s not quite how the story appears in the Bible. As any Bible geek is willing to tell you, there is not one story of Easter in the Bible: there are four Easter stories in the Bible, each of which is different, and some of which seem to contradict the others. It’s worth taking the time to briefly retell each of the four Easter stories in the Bible. And I think you’ll find that by retelling each of these stories, we can gain some insights into meaning that Easter might have for our times.

First story: this comes from the book known as the Gospel of Mark.

When the Jewish sabbath day was over, two women, Mary Magdala and Mary mother of James and Salome, go to the tomb, carrying spices to embalm the body, all according to Jewish ritual and tradition. They are a little concerned because it’s just the two of them, and they’re not sure how they’re going to get the door to the tomb opened. You see, these tombs were actually small caves cut into the side of a hill, and the doors were these big heavy stone circles that ran in a track; and the way you opened the tomb was you had to roll this big stone circle aside. Mary and Mary weren’t quite sure they were strong enough to do it themselves, and they’re wondering whom they could trust to help them open up the door.

But when they get to the tomb, the door is already opened. This was not good! After all, Jesus had been executed on trumped-up political charges; what were they walking into here? were they going to get arrested by the government forces? And then they look inside the tomb, and there’s this young man, a youth, sitting off to the right. Who is he? the secret police? an agent of the Romans? He speaks to them reassuringly, telling them not to be worried, and saying that Jesus is going ahead to meet them all at Galilee. These words do not reassure Mary and Mary, and as soon as they can, they break away from this mysterious young man and flee from the tomb out of fear and excitement.

And that, my friends, is the end of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus does not appear to reassure his followers — to reassure us modern-day readers, for that matter — that everything is fine. At the end of the Gospel of Mark, everything is most definitely not fine. We may sense that the moral and ethical movement founded by Jesus will continue, but we also sense that the fear of political repression will continue as well. I think of this as the pragmatic Easter story: Jesus’s followers will continue the struggle for righteousness, but they are fully aware of the price they must pay for continuing the struggle.

Second story: this comes from the book known as the Gospel of Matthew.

Mary Magdala and the other Mary go to the tomb on Sunday morning. Suddenly there’s a strong earthquake. There’s someone sitting in the tomb, although in this version of the story it’s not a young man sitting there, we’re told it is a messenger of God. He speaks to them reassuringly, telling them not to be worried, and saying that Jesus is going ahead to meet them all at Galilee. Mary and Mary hear this, and feeling apprehensive and joyous they hurry away to tell the other disciples. But whom do they meet on the way, but Jesus himself, who talks with them briefly.

Meanwhile, word gets back to some of the evil rulers of Jerusalem that Jesus’s body has disappeared. They bribe the guards to tell everyone that some of Jesus’s disciples came in the middle of the night and took the body away, and that’s why Mary and Mary didn’t find the body first thing in the morning.

So ends this version of the Easter story. You will notice that it is quite different than the first version: in this version of the story, Jesus actually appears on Easter. Also in this version of the story, we get the peculiar story of how some of the rulers of Jerusalem decided to bribe some guards to claim that Jesus’s followers had taken his body away in the middle of the night; as if the storyteller were trying to explain away what perhaps actually did happen. But overall, this is an essentially sunny, optimistic version of the Easter story, which acknowledges some of the political realities facing Jesus’s followers, while emphasizing the storyteller’s central theological point that Jesus didn’t really die.

Third story: this comes from the book known as the Gospel of Luke.

First thing Sunday morning, a group of women make their way to the tomb, to prepare the body. When I say it was a group of women, it included Mary Magdala, the other Mary, Joanna, and the rest of the women who were close followers of Jesus. They get to the tomb, which is already open, and they look inside. No body, no Jesus. Suddenly, two men appear and start talking to the women, telling them that they’re not going to find Jesus in the tomb, that Jesus had risen. So without further ado, the women walk back to the eleven male followers, and tell them what they had just seen; but to the men the women’s story sounded like utter nonsense, so the men refused to believe it.

That is, the men refused to believe the story until two of the men happened to be walking to another village, and suddenly there is Jesus walking along with them, except they don’t recognize him. And they get into this long conversation with Jesus, and finally Jesus says, Hey guys, you idiots, it’s me. Finally, the men believe, and they go back and tell the other men, who finally believe what the women have told them.

You will notice that this version of the Easter story is different than the first two. First of all, there’s more of everything: all the women go to the tomb, not just one or two; two men appear in the tomb, not just one; there are long conversations with Jesus, not just brief exchanges. Second of all, there is almost no hint of Jesus’s political life in this story: this is a story where the storyteller’s theology hides nearly all traces of Jesus’s politics. Finally, and to me most importantly, in this story the women are the smart ones: they’re the ones who really get what has happened, and when they tell the men, the men are too stupid to get it.

Fourth story: this comes from the book known as the Gospel of John. It is about as different from the first story as you can get.

In this version of the story, Mary Magdala comes alone to the tomb to prepare the body. She sees that the tomb is already open, so she goes back to tell two of the male disciples that Jesus’s body is gone. Followed by Mary, the two men go to the tomb, they look around, it’s empty, they go back home. But Mary sticks around, and suddenly she sees two heavenly messengers, and next thing you know, there’s Jesus standing there too. She has a conversation with Jesus, during which he says, “Don’t touch me,” and then she goes back home. And that evening, Sunday evening, Jesus appears to the other disciples, says “Shalom” to them, and has a brief conversation before disappearing again.

When you actually read this version of the Easter story, there’s a sort of dreamlike quality to it. I think of this as the mystic’s version of Easter: the storyteller is telling us about grand theological events, while the characters in the story are divorced from mundane realities like political struggle, fear of arrest and torture, grief, and the need for secrecy.

So there you have it. Four different versions of the Easter story: the pragmatist’s story of ongoing struggle; the sunny, optimistic story; the story where the women are the smart ones; and the mystic’s story. As different as each of these stories may be, there are common threads that run through them. And at least three of these common threads are still woven into the warp and woof of our lives today.

The first common thread I would like to pick out is the thread that has to do with physical bodies. Most obviously, each of these four Easter stories is very concerned with determining what happened to the physical body of Jesus. What happened to the body of Jesus that Easter morning? Did his body rise up, to fulfill the predictions of later Christian theology? Did some of the followers arrive in the middle of the night to remove the body, forgetting to tell Mary Magdala and the other Mary? Was his body removed by person or persons unknown, in order to carry out one or more political objectives? I find no definitive answers to these questions in the Bible.

But what I do find in the Bible is a deep and abiding concern for bodies in general. Bodies were important to the people who wrote the Bible; bodies were not things to ignore or dismiss. In these Easter stories, I don’t find false divisions between mind and body, between matter and spirit; in these Easter stories, we are our bodies. I am particularly interested in that first Easter story we heard, the pragmatists’ story from the Gospel of Mark: Mary Magdala and the other Mary show up at the tomb only to find that Jesus’s body is missing; when things look fishy, they don’t risk themselves, they flee. They take care of their own bodies, so that they may continue the struggle for justice and righteousness another day.

I would offer that as the first bit of wisdom we might gain from these four Easter stories. I was not in the pulpit last Sunday because I got ill and instead of taking care of myself I tried to ignore my illness which only made things worse. Don’t do as I did a week ago. Take care of your body; be gentle with yourself; and be gentle with others. We can learn from these Easter stories to be concerned with, and to take care of, our bodies. While the struggle for justice and righteousness is important, we carry out that struggle as embodied beings; so our first priority must be to care for our bodies.

The second common thread which I would like to pick out for you, a thread which runs through these four Easter stories, has to do with community. Jesus was not alone in his struggle for justice and righteousness; he had a strong community of people surrounding him and supporting him. Perhaps I am more aware of this because I am a Unitarian, and therefore I am not confused by notions that Jesus was some sort of God or God-like being. Jesus was a human being, and he was one part of a community of human beings who worked together to try to create heaven on earth. Yes, Jesus was the most important human being in his little community while he was still alive; he was the moral and spiritual leader of that community. But they all knew he was going to be arrested on trumped-up political charges, so the community was prepared to continue without him. Not that we’re ever fully prepared for the grief that comes when someone we’re close to dies. Yet when Jesus did die, his community of followers was able to carry on without him.

I would offer that as the second bit of wisdom we might gain from these Easter stories. This powerful bit of wisdom applies to every one of us here this morning. At some point, let us hope in the very distant future, each one of us is going to have to die. Yet because we have invested ourselves in communities and social networks while we are alive and active, because of that investment we will achieve a level of immortality after our death. For a religious naturalist like me, this is the real resurrection of Easter: knowing that the communities and social networks I help nurture today will carry on long after my death, carry on and carry forward the ongoing struggle for justice and righteousness.

The final common thread I would like to pick out for you from these four Easter stories is probably obvious to some of you. Jesus was executed by the political and religious powers of his day because he and his followers wanted to establish a kind of heaven on earth: an idealized form of government where no one would be more powerful than anyone else, where the poor and oppressed would be more than equal to the rich and powerful, where the paramount law would be to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That kind of heaven on earth enrages the rich and powerful, because they think they will have to give up so much of what they now have while gaining nothing in return.

And I offer this as the final bit of wisdom that we might gain from these Easter stories. The struggle for justice that Jesus participated inn two thousand years ago continues today. Today, just as was true in the days of Jesus, the rich and powerful people of this world continue to oppress and impoverish whomever they can so that they may remain in control. So it is that today, just as was true in the times of Jesus, that the rest of us continue to strive to establish a kingdom of heaven here on earth. That is to say, we continue to engage in moral political action that will allow all persons — regardless of age, gender, race, national origin, economic class, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability — to live their lives without fear and without hatred.

And on this Easter Sunday, let us commit to continue following this ideal of Jesus. We will not do this alone, for we have this church community and many other social networks who will support us. And as we continue to follow this ideal, we will take care of our bodies, being gentle with ourselves and with each other. So may we nurture heaven on earth, with true peace and true justice for all.