A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 24, 2011
Mark 16:1-8 GNT
Every so often, another religious artifact is discovered or rediscovered that some people latch onto in order to bolster their Christian faith. Or, such artifacts are used as proof or testimony of the truthfulness of the Christian message in order to convince an unbelieving world. If only it can be proved that such and such artifact was really associated with Jesus of Nazareth, it is thought, then there is concrete evidence that everything written about him in the Bible is true and should be believed.
Take, for instance, the Shroud of Turin, that discovery in the 13th century of a linen cloth bearing a blood-stained image of a man who appears to have suffered physical death in a manner consistent with crucifixion. The shroud is kept in the royal chapel of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, Italy. It purportedly is one of the most studied artifacts in human history. The blood stains on the shroud correspond to puncture wounds on the forehead and scalp, piercing wounds on the wrists and feet, and a puncture wound in the side—all corresponding to the wounds that Jesus is said to have received. Some contend that the shroud is the actual cloth placed on the body of Jesus following his death, and that the face image is, indeed, the face of Jesus. However, the origins of the shroud and its image are the subject of intense debate among scientists, theologians, historians and researchers. Some contend that the artifact is a forgery, having been created in the Middle Ages, citing carbon dating which estimates the shroud originated between 1260 and 1390.1
And then there is the stone bone-box (ossuary) that was discovered near Jerusalem and announced to the world in October 2002. It is a small box less than two feet long and made of limestone rock. Such boxes were used from about 20 B.C. to 70 A.D. In first-century Judea, it was customary to leave the body in a burial cave for about a year, and then when there was nothing left but the bones, they were gathered up and placed in an ossuary. What is significant about the ossuary that was announced in 2002 is the inscription on the outside: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Some have latched onto this artifact as a religious authentication that proves the family of Jesus as mentioned in the Bible.2 Others doubt its authenticity.
And then just this month, another relic, or I should say “relics,” have been in the news. Two rusty nails discovered in a 2,000-year-old tomb in Jerusalem are being hailed by some as the actual nails that were used in the crucifixion of Jesus. A new documentary film titled “the Nails of the Cross” follows three years of research, about which the filmmaker says, “What we are bringing to the world is the best archaeological argument ever made that two of the nails from the crucifixion of Jesus have been found.” Others, however, dismiss the claim as farfetched and a publicity stunt.3
Well, the question is, what role should such religious artifacts play in one’s foundation of faith? Should one’s faith depend upon such tangible “proofs”? Before we attempt to address that question, we are reminded that the first Christians had their own religious artifact of sorts that gave authentication to their faith; namely, the empty tomb. At least that is the way that Mark, the earliest of the gospel writers, tells the story. Now, I purposely chose Mark’s account of the resurrection for today’s reading. And I purposely stopped reading at verse 8. For, you see, the last verse I read to you was the ending of the original book of Mark as preserved in some of the oldest available manuscripts. Many scholars think that Mark’s original gospel ended with the empty tomb and was lacking in the post-death appearances of Jesus that are found in the additional endings of Mark that may have been added by later editors and that are found in the other three gospels. If this is true, then what this says is all that some of the early followers of Jesus had to base their belief on was an empty tomb.
But even an empty tomb is not enough to convince many people of the basis for an Easter faith. There has been much written over the centuries by skeptics who have posed all kinds of possible scenarios to account for an empty tomb. And, it is hard not to admit that some of the theories are plausible. And when it comes to something like a burial shroud, inscribed ossuary, rusty nails, or even an empty tomb, there is really no way that such things can ever be authenticated. So if one requires some piece of tangible artifact upon which to base his or her faith, then, it seems to me, that faith is shaky from the get-go.
Hence, it appears to me that Easter faith—or faith in general, for that matter—should be founded upon something other than physical, tangible artifacts. The word “faith,” and faith by its very nature, defies tangible evidence to begin with. Faith, as one New Testament writer defines it, is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Religious faith based on a linen shroud or rusty nails is not really faith.
Perhaps Easter faith proper—that is, faith in the idea of the possibility of some form of life or existence after death—has a foundation that goes much deeper than physical artifacts or tangible evidence. For some, Easter faith is grounded in their overall conception of God as the life-giving Spirit of the world. If God as Creating and Life-giving Spirit can give life to this vast, awesome universe of which we are a part which continues to come to life and expand, then surely God can give new life to Jesus. If God as life-giving Spirit can give life to this universe, then some form of life or existence is possible beyond the grave. For others, Easter faith may be grounded in the collective psyche or collective consciousness of humanity and the age-old hope, longing, and belief in life after death. Even ancient non-Christian religions held beliefs about life after death based on the cycles of nature. This fact is illustrated by an ancient, famous quote in which the speaker said, “I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, and that the living spring from the dead, and that the souls of the dead are in existence, and that the good souls have a better portion than the evil.”4 Who was the speaker of that belief in life after death? It was Greek philosopher Socrates, quoted by his disciple Plato some four centuries before Jesus. And we could cite other ancient religious traditions as well.
The point is, the hope, the longing, the belief in some form of resurrection life was there long before Jesus. But in the death of Jesus of Nazareth and the after-death experiences of those who were close to him this hope of life beyond death took wings and soared as never before, becoming the world’s great embodiment of the promise of Life. And whatever this Easter faith is about, I am convinced that it is not about a dead body coming back to life in its original state as people may be prone to think about it. A dead body come back to life in the same state it was previously would have to die again. There is no other way to look at it. And that is not what the early followers of Jesus believed about him. A number of the gospel stories involving resurrection appearances of Jesus go to great lengths to show that the post-Easter Jesus was different from the pre-Easter Jesus. As Marcus Borg points out, the followers of Jesus no longer knew him as a figure of flesh and blood, but as a spiritual reality. They no longer experienced him as limited by time and space, but could experience him anywhere. And as Prescott B. Winterseen contends, “Christian resurrection . . . is rising up, ascending to a higher state.”5
So, Easter faith can be broad and open-ended. It can mean many different things to many different people. It can be life after death. It can mean renewal of life. It can be new possibilities and new beginnings. It can mean rising to a higher plane of living. Easter faith can mean hope in that which is waiting to burst forth into new life. In short, Easter can be the great religious icon of hope and an annual reminder that we are meant to be people of life.
So, what is the foundation or substance of your Easter faith? If we all stood to answer that question, we might have as many different answers as we have people present. But I am pretty sure each of us has some kind of Easter faith, or we would not be here today. Perhaps what is really important is not the particular foundation that our individual Easter faith rests upon. But rather, how our Easter faith changes us, as it changed those first followers of Jesus. What is important is how Easter changes our overall outlook on life. Changes how we view life and death and the world around us. Changes how we live and relate to others. How Easter changes us is what is really important, is it not? For if Easter doesn’t change us, it doesn’t really matter, does it? Amen.
1Some material on the Shroud of Turin gleaned from Wikepedia. 2Some material on the ossuary gleaned from Wikepedia.
3Yahoo News 4Plato, Phaedo 5Prescott B. Wintersteen, Christology in American Unitarianism, 61.