Easter

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Reflections on Easter Sunday

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Last Sunday was Easter, a time for the ushers of the church to be on guard.  Easter Sunday, along with Christmas, is one of the few days of the year that much of the American population shows up at church.  Not that I’m complaining.  I’m happy to welcome these once-a-year guests in their bright spring clothing.  Maybe something moved them enough this year to produce a return visit.  It’s quite possible that an old tradition like Easter could be what triggers someone into faithful service.  You never know.

We had about sixty visitors last Sunday, and the auditorium was filled to capacity.  As usual, I worked the resurrection into my sermon.  It’s not that I believe Easter is a part of New Testament Christianity–the early Christians celebrated the resurrection on the first day of every week, not just one day a year.  But since much of the world is focusing on Christ’s resurrection anyway, Easter is a good opportunity to turn empty tradition into true devotion.

This year I reflected on the fact that history does not make sense without the resurrection.  How else can you explain more than 2 billion people gathering to their respective places of worship to celebrate Easter?  Is it possible that a myth created out of whole cloth evolved into this?

Rituals and movements are based on something.  For instance, I believe that in the sixth century B.C. a Hindu prince named Siddartha Gautama became dissatisfied with his religion’s way of dealing with the problem of suffering and developed the Eightfold Path of Buddhism.

I believe that around this time a child named Confucius was raised by a single mother in China.  He became a cabinet official of the Duke of Lu, only to resign at the age of fifty-five and become a respected teacher.

I believe that a thousand years later a man named Muhammad denounced the polytheism of his people and demanded that they follow Allah.  He claimed to be a prophet, and his teachings were recorded in the Qu’ran.  Under the banner of a new religion called Islam, he was able to unite the Arab peoples like no one before him.

There is no doubt in my mind that Moses led the descendants of Abraham out of Egypt in about 1445 B.C.  In the wilderness he received the Law from God and a group of people, now known as Jews, developed from that heavenly doctrine.

I believe all these things because, if it were otherwise, history would not make sense.  To challenge these basic facts is to leave the present picture of our world and its cultures unexplained.  Granted, religion has its share of myths, but even these are based in fact.  The ancient Japanese people in some dark quadrant of history discovered they were on a series of islands and imagined that Izanagi had dipped his spear into the ocean and formed those mountainous regions with the drops that fell from it when he removed it from the sea.  Many eastern cultures worshiped ancestors, for although they glimpsed a life beyond this one, the truth had not been revealed to them.  Homer, knowing nothing of the God of Moses, made his gods in the image of man.  Aside from these, religion can be condensed down into actual events, without which the entire human history cannot stand.

At the time of Christ’s birth the Jews had already been persecuted for 700 years by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and now the Greeks and Romans.  Despite this, while other ancient civilizations vanished, the Jews persisted.  The Hittites, Ammonites, Persians, and Babylonians have long been relegated to the ash heap of time, but even today the Jews persist.  Through numerous captivities, persecutions, and dispersions, they have survived.

The explanation behind the Jews’ tenacity is the social structures that are so important to them–the things that make Jews, Jews.  These they reinforced by passing them down to their children, teaching in the synagogue, and reinforcement through ritual.

Now, enter Christ: a thirty-year-old man from an insignificant town in Galilee, a carpenter’s son.  He preaches for three years, gains a following of low- to middle-class believers, and is crucified by the religious establishment, something that wasn’t all that unusual in a time when the Roman Empire crucified as many as 30,000 Jewish males.

But two months later, 10,000 Jews are calling Jesus the Son of God and putting their faith in his ability to save them from their sins.  Not only that, but they have given up those social structures that gave them their national identity, such as animal sacrifices, worship on the Sabbath, and the priesthood.  What explains this willingness to jettison beliefs that kept the Jews intact for so many centuries?

The only thing that can explain the origin of the Christian faith from Jerusalem is the resurrection of Christ.  Thousands of Jews began to profess faith in him in the days following his resurrection because there were over 500 credible witnesses who could attest that he had risen from the dead.  No legend could have erupted this quickly.  A dead Savior would not have produced this big of a following.

Easter is one of the earliest Christian traditions that does not originate from the New Testament.  It has held on for almost 2,000 years because of the substantial event that is behind it.

Let the skeptics keep digging for Jesus’ bones.  They’ll never find them.  Christ left his tomb a long time ago.  Everyone has his useless pasttime.  Some of us go fishing, some collect stamps.  And the deniers of the resurrection are with the children, shovel in hand, digging in the backyard for buried treasure.