A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 31, 2013
Luke 24:36-44 NRSV
Does Easter give place to disbelief, or doubt? This is the question I posed for this morning. It is a question that could take some of you by surprise, perhaps. How could he even consider such a question? you might be asking. In a sermon earlier this month, I noted how that the fastest growing group in America is the “Nones;” those who, when asked about their religious affiliation, are saying “None.” Among this group are a growing number of atheists and agnostics. I imagine that if questioned, those who identify as “Nones,” or atheists or agnostics, would have some serious doubts about the literalness and historicity of the resurrection.
And our society is not alone in the history of the Church by posing this question. The question about whether Easter gives place to disbelief or doubt was present in first-century Christianity. And it also has a legitimate basis in the Bible itself. In fact, the stimulus for that question and today’s sermon was verse 41 of the Easter day passage I read from Luke: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering. . .” In a similar way, Matthew ends his gospel with the story of the resurrected Jesus commissioning his followers. Matthew relates, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). And how could we forget “Doubting Thomas,” who would not believe unless he could put his fingers in the nail prints of Jesus’s hands? As we read the differing accounts of the Easter story (and there are several), it is evident that there was a marked tension in the way that the early followers of Jesus dealt with his death and what would come to be known as Easter Sunday. Skepticism, doubt, disbelief—they all are there in the stories of Jesus appearing to his disciples following his crucifixion. And so, the question, “Does Easter give place to disbelief or doubt?” is legitimate from many arenas.
And there is another thing: As we read closely all the differing post-crucifixion stories of Jesus, we see that even those who believed that Jesus came to life again on that Sunday had different ideas about what form that resurrected life took. A human body resuscitated such that he could eat fish with his friends. An unrecognizable stranger walking down a dusty road with two of his followers. A ghostlike form that could pass through locked doors. An invisible spirit whose presence could be felt but not seen. These are just some of the different ways the followers of Jesus described their experiences.
And so, when it comes to Easter beliefs, does Easter give place to some disbelief or doubt? In other words, considering all the diverse resurrection accounts, do we have to believe all of them to be Christian? And do you have to believe the same way that I believe? And do I have to believe the same way that you believe for all of us to be Christians?
This past Monday, I was invited to a reception held for Clifton Truman Daniel, the grandson of President Harry Truman. Daniel was in town to give a speech about his trips to Japan and a forthcoming book, and a select group of people were invited to meet him. As we were standing around waiting for Daniel to begin his informal remarks, the fact that I am minister here at the Chapel on the Hill came up. And one of our community’s leaders questioned me: “Your church does believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus, doesn’t it?” And I replied, “In our congregation, I think there would be a broad range of beliefs about the resurrection.” And I believe that is true.
The truth is, Easter means a variety of things to different people, from a secular celebration of bunny rabbits and Easter eggs and candy, to the different religious celebrations. And within the religious celebrations the idea of Jesus’s resurrection means different things to different Christians. Just like it did to those first Christians. Everyone in the early Church certainly did not believe alike. Some doubted this way and some doubted another way. But do Christian beliefs have to be exactly the same to be valid?
And so, when it comes to preparing the Easter Day sermon, I struggle a bit. For me as a minister, the Easter Day sermon is one of the most difficult of the year. You would think that it would be one of the easiest. But just think about it: the traditional belief that many of us grew up with says that Jesus was crucified and now he lives. How many different ways can you say that, so as to have a new Easter sermon every year? But as I have pointed out, there is no uniform account of Jesus’ resurrection in the four gospels, the Book of Acts, and letters of Paul. There are many variations on the story, and there are several different ways that the followers of Jesus reacted to and experienced that event. So deciding which way to go can pose a challenge of a different order.
But with all of that having been said, there is one Easter theme that all of us can agree upon, regardless of how literally or metaphorically we interpret the resurrection stories. And that other part of the Easter story is this: mixed in with their disbelief was joy. Regardless of what resurrection or Easter might mean to us, and regardless of how literally or figuratively we interpret the Easter stories, the main thing is that we experience the joy of Easter. The joy of new life. The joy of new possibilities and new beginnings.
Easter means we have come through the pain and darkness of Friday and have made it to the other side. We have seen the darkest hour and made our way to the light. We have seen the horror and atrocities that humans are capable of inflicting upon one another, but also the goodness that can overcome them. Easter says that though as humans we are capable of gross atrocities and inhumanity to man, we are more importantly children of the Kingdom of God and created to be better than we sometimes are. Easter teaches us that life can be hard, but there can be a way through the gloom. As writer Doug Muder put it in a recent article titled “Wrestling with Easter,” “Spring can’t just be flowers and bunnies and brightly colored eggs. The stone that the angel rolls away from Jesus’s tomb has to be heavy.”1
Easter tells us that everything Jesus preached, taught, and stood for, lived and died for, the vision he had for a Kingdom of God on earth—all of that could have died with him on the cross. But it didn’t. Something significant happened on that Sunday morning that inspired and empowered Jesus’s followers to carry his message and vision to the whole world. Regardless of how literally or figuratively we may interpret the idea of the resurrection, Easter says that good overcomes evil; in the words of Longfellow, “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail.”
As we read the differing accounts of the resurrection, and the different stories of how the followers of Jesus experienced him after his death, the one constant we see in all of them is sheer joy. Even in the midst of their doubts and questionings and disbelief and wonderings there was elation and joy.
And so, may I propose that this be our attitude this day and throughout this Eastertide season as well. We don’t all have to agree on what we believe about Easter, doctrinally speaking. It has never been that way in the United Church, I am guessing. But all of us can have Easter joy. And like the early followers of Jesus, we can be inspired and empowered by that joy, letting it fill our hearts and lives, and motivating us to go forth to love and serve in the world! Amen.
1Doug Muder, “Wrestling with Easter,” UU World, March 25, 2013.