A man walks into a pub in Dublin for the first time. After finding a seat, he orders three pints of Guinness. When they arrive, he drinks all three, by himself, taking a sip out of each pint in turn. He does this every day for a week, after which time the bartender works up enough nerve to suggest that the beer might be fresher if he ordered them one at a time. The man laughs and explains that he is one of three brothers, one of whom lives in Australia and the other in America. The day they split to go their separate ways, they promised that they would each drink this way to remember the happy days they had together in Dublin. At that, the bartender nods his head approvingly. The man becomes a regular at the bar and he always drinks his Guinness in the same way: three pints drinking them each in turn. One day in late February, the man looking rather somber comes into the pub and orders only two pints of beer. The bartender and other regulars notice the missing pint and guess its significance – something must have happened. After the man finishes his two beers, the bartender approaches him and says, “I don’t want to interrupt you in your time of sorrow, but since you are such a faithful customer, I feel that I should offer you my condolences. I am sorry about your brother.” The man looks momentarily confused and then says, “Oh, oh no, no cause for grief. My brother hasn’t died. I’ve just given up beer for Lent.”
Lent is a season with goals and objectives – for forty days we are asked to take on a discipline or give up a pleasure. Lent is concrete, clearly defined. Easter is a season that is harder to get hold of. Easter proclaims the empty tomb. What can we say about that? We don’t even know what happened between three o’clock Friday afternoon when they took Jesus’ body from the cross and Easter morning when the women found the stone rolled away? We know that Joseph of Arimathea took the body and laid it in his own grave. That is all we know. The Gospels are silent, completely silent about what happened between sunset Friday and dawn on Sunday. Think of the irony found in the fact that the scriptures are silent about the “how” and the “what” of the central truth of the Christian faith. The Bible says nothing about the resurrection, except that it happened. There is no attempt at a description. The gospels only report that He rose, that Christ lives, the tomb is empty.
I stand here two thousand years later and I know nothing more factually today than they did then. I can’t describe to you what happened over those 40 hours and therefore, I cannot prove to you that the resurrection actually took place. I can’t prove it to you the way one proves a theorem. I wish I could. I wish I could show you slides, read a report, summon forensic evidence or produce a tape recording of the event – but I can’t. All I can do is what the church has done every Easter for two thousand years – tell the story and proclaim that Christ is risen. All I can do is tell you that the tomb was empty and as a result, human life has never been the same.
If we want to, we can say that nothing very real happened on this day. We can say that the resurrection means only that the teachings of Jesus are immortal like the plays of Shakespeare or the music of Beethoven. We can say that the resurrection means only that the spirit of Jesus is undying; that he lives among us, the way that Socrates lives among us in the teachings he left behind him. We can say that the language in which the Gospels discuss the resurrection is really the language of poetry and therefore, should not be taken literally. And yet, if we do this, then what we proclaim this morning is not the good news of the Christian faith, but something less. If we hedge our bets, because we don’t know what happened between Friday evening and Sunday morning and say that Jesus did not actually get up and leave that tomb, then we might as well say nothing at all. Because, if there is no resurrection, then there is no reason to be here, if there is no resurrection, then there is no reason to believe. As St. Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
“Fine,” you might say, “but where are the consequences? Show us how it matters that He is Risen? The world is still the same and that can be pretty awful much of the time. There is still suffering, death, hunger and despair. There are people rioting in Cincinnati and killing one another in Israel. Where is the resurrection? Show it to us. What has changed?”
I can’t speak for the world; I can only speak for myself. I know I have changed, or should I say, I know I have been changed. The truth that Christ is risen has forever altered my life. Life is still painful. Life is not fair. There is still death. But the truth that Christ has Risen means for me that pain and injustice and death are no longer the subtitles of this life. The truth that He is Risen means to me that love always lies on the other side of pain; hope always lies on the other side of loss, redemption and life always lie on the other side of death.
Maybe the scriptures are silent about the details of the resurrection because it is not something that can be told or taught, but something that must be discovered. Maybe the scriptures are silent about the guts of the resurrection because trying to describe it is like trying to describe falling in love and you can’t describe falling in love in any meaningful way – you have to experience it. Maybe the Gospels are silent about the actual events of the resurrection because God knows that each of us must, individually, in our own time, confront the empty tomb, just as the women did, and see for ourselves.
You see Easter has no real depth of meaning, no personal meaning, until we own it, until we take it from an objective story to our subjective truth. To say that in the resurrection, “Jesus conquered death,” means little until that statement is translated by each of us into the concrete reality of our lives. The full power of this day only makes sense when we experience and know that Christ’s living presence makes a difference in how we live our lives and deal with our losses.
I have a friend whose husband took his own life after he tried to take hers. She survived, but she is badly scarred. And even though life has been anything but kind to this woman, she is the most joyful of human beings. She is warm and loving and full of hope. She tells me her joy comes from the fact that she knows she is loved, from the fact that she knows there is nothing in life that can really harm her. She tells me her joy comes from the truth that she knows there is an Easter.
I have a friend who has had cerebral palsy all of his life. His body is bent and twisted and always out of his control. His speech is slurred and he is confined to a wheel chair. Even though life has been anything but kind, he too is the most joyful of human beings. He has an infectious laugh and a lively sense of humor. If he can’t verbally tell you a joke, then he types it out for you on his electronic keyboard. He greets you with a crooked smile and his mind, trapped within that broken body, is much sharper than my own. Unbelievably, he is a man of joy, whose life is not happy. He tells me he is joyful because he knows he is loved, because he knows there is nothing in life that can really hurt him. He tells me he is joyful because he knows there is an Easter.
“Prove to me the resurrection!” I can’t. But I have seen it in the struggle of husbands and wives who sin against one another and still hold together. I have seen it in their love for their families, in their willingness to swallow their pride to keep their families together. I have seen it in their struggle to value commitment and covenant more than pleasure and self.
“Prove to me the resurrection!” I can’t. Nevertheless, I can tell you that I have seen it in the love of family gathered together in the midst of death. I have seen it in the laughter that emerged from behind their tears. I have seen it in their gentle, caring presence in the midst of all the tubes and all the machines and all the fear. I have felt it in the strength of their love as we held hands to pray.
If I thought that when you strip it right down to the bone, this whole religion business was just really an affirmation of the human spirit, an affirmation of Jesus as a great philosopher and nothing else, if it thought that Easter was just a nice idea, then like Pilot I would wash my hands of the whole affair. I would turn in my collar and take up some other profession
Prove to you the resurrection – I cannot. I can only proclaim that two thousand years ago on this morning the Jesus who was dead rose up, with life in him again and God’s glory upon him. As a result, there is new life to be found in the midst of this old one – today, right now, this instant. It is all around us. Christ lives! Death has been swallowed up. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is they victory? He is risen! Thank God, he is Risen! Amen.