Easter is a good time for doubt. It’s a time when people occasionally dare to ask the pointed questions: “Jesus was good and all, but – you don’t really think he rose from the dead, do you?” They want the truth – and rightly so.
So consider what it means to read the Gospels in terms of what is true. The passion narratives grip us, filled as they are with raw emotions and experiences. Like all good stories, they invite us in, and at the least we can probably admit that the emotions are likely to be true.
In my Roman Catholic tradition, we call this practice of putting ourselves into the story the “Ignatian Method” of reading – but I think that many Christians confronted by the pathos of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection put themselves there at the cross naturally.
So at last week’s Passion Sunday service, when I heard Peter denying Jesus before the cock crowed three times, I thought, “Yup, I probably would have denied him too.” In order to make myself look good (or so I thought) I’ve been Peter, told people I wasn’t really – not really – connected to whatever unpopular group that was bearing the brunt of criticisms in my own life.
I’ve been in Pilate’s shoes, too – confronted by questions I can’t answer, wanting proof that I’m never going to get. I’ve felt at the brink of regret for making a decision that I think isn’t great, but that is “just the way things are.” I’ve wondered, “What is truth?” and used that as an excuse for my regretted decisions.
I’ve been there with the women and the other disciples at the Cross, watching someone I love suffer or die and being helpless to stop the pain and the journey into the unknown that is death.
I even identify with Jesus in some ways. I’ve sometimes felt forsaken and wondered, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” has been my own cry, sometimes for paltry stuff, and sometimes for gut-wrenching stuff.
At the end of the story of Jesus’ death, I’ve been the women waiting outside the tomb, standing in disbelief that a person I love has died. “How can this be?” I’ve thought. I’ve felt the shock of the aftermath of death, not knowing what to do with myself, but wanting to be close to the one who has died.
Is it harder to enter into the story on the other side of the Resurrection? Probably yes.
The thing is, there’s a difficulty with the Resurrection right in the story itself. In great contrast to the story that has come before, we don’t ever actually hear about the resurrection. We don’t have any details at all about what happens in the tomb.
Our scientific age wants those details. We want to be able to parse out whether and how the atoms and molecules could have arranged themselves behind the cold stone. Our desire to know whether the resurrection “really happened” in history is also a demand to know how dead feet came alive and touched the floor. What did he say? Where did he go? What did he do?
One of the Christian creeds proclaims that Christ descended to the dead, or as some versions have it, descended into Hell after he died. Yet, even the creed doesn’t say anything about how he rose – it just proclaims that we believe he did.
This makes sense. No one else has experienced a resurrection. Even if we knew the details, we wouldn’t know anything. As theologian Rowan Williams remarks in his book Resurrection, “Holy Week may invite us to a certain identification with the crucified, Easter firmly takes away the familiar ‘fellow-sufferer.’”
If we only identified with the parts of the story we can confirm as part of our experience, we’d simply be saying we’re pretty much like Jesus. As Williams notes: “To stop with Good Friday is simply to see the crucified as reflecting back to me my own condition.” Without the resurrection – which we cannot verify on our own good sense or will – Good Friday becomes an occasion simply to see myself, my own suffering, my own doubts.
So we don’t get to see the resurrection. Instead, the point where we pick up the story is after the resurrection has already happened. As with the pre-resurrection stories, we might find we can assent to other disciples’ experiences and emotions. We experience the shock of the women who go to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body. We in the twenty-first century are acquainted with stories of morgues losing bodies or things not being where we expected them to be. We can also imagine ourselves running with Peter to see for ourselves whether the story we heard is true. Even today, we want to verify what others say, especially when it’s something as strange as, “His body’s not there! Could it possibly be?”
Yet there’s more. The fascinating thing about the Easter story is that we aren’t just asked to imagine ourselves into the scripture. This story isn’t just like a gripping murder mystery, where the dead body is Jesus’.
The difference is: God physically invites us into the story, to become one with God himself. God asks each of us, very deliberately, to become participants in this story – to receive the bread and wine at the Supper of the Risen Lord. In baptism, we become members of his Risen Body, now stretching throughout the time and space of 2000 years. We minister to Christ himself, by “doing to the least of these” what Jesus asked us to do: to share our food with the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and those in prison, to preach the year of God’s favor. We become part of the story itself, threading along 2000 years.
More remarkably, this is not my story alone, or yours, or your congregation’s. It even belongs to our enemies, to the people we don’t think much of, to the ones we don’t even know exist. They, too, have this call.
We won’t ever know the details of the resurrection. That appears to be for God alone. But we know the details of the other side of the resurrection. We even know there’s a place for me and you on that other side of the resurrection.
On this Easter Sunday, I think the question for us is: are we living on the other side of the resurrection?