Telling the Truth about Easter
Next Sunday is Easter. At 6:30 a.m. when sunlight is just beginning to glow over the mountains to the east of Palmer, Alaska, I will, as is my custom, arrive at a sunrise Easter service to celebrate the resurrection of my Lord. I have already checked the lectionary and reread the resurrection story as recorded in Matthew 28:1-10. Millions of my Christian brothers and sisters will be reading the same ten verses.
Millions of sermons will be preached based on the Matthew account of the resurrection. An extremely small number of preachers will make even a mention of the history and background of the passage. A typical minister will not share what he/she learned in seminary about the resurrection passages while in theological seminary. Nor will they share this information on any other of the 52 Sundays of the year. Without the help of their highly educated pastor, one of three reactions will cover the Easter Sunday’s very large congregation. There will be those who will continue uncritically to read the Matthew resurrection story as an accurate historical report. There will be those who will be further convinced that the story validates their skepticism about the truth in Christian Faith. There will be those who truly want to be believers but are left on their own to figure out what truth there may be in the Christian Gospel.
Figuring out what happened to Jesus is not a simple journey. I do not recall when I first started raising questions. I do know that it began when I laid the resurrection accounts down side by side and started comparing the differing stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They cannot be reasonably reconciled. For instance, in Matthew an angel caused an earthquake and rolled the stone away from the entrance into the tomb. The angel then engaged women in conversation. The other story tellers tell of no earthquake and no angels. This kind of a story is beyond my own personal experience with earthquakes and angelic conversations. Believing in the resurrection story as history became more difficult to embrace.
The next step in my journey was to learn that the story cannot be connected to any eye witnesses. There is no known verification that any of the followers of Jesus, including his disciples, saw and touched a real live post-death flesh and blood Jesus. There are reports of ghost like appearances that float in and out of places and finally into a cloud in the heavens. These ghostly appearances are hardly verification of a flesh and blood resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The Matthew account was written at least 50-60 years after the death of Jesus.
Matthew looks more and more like a writer of fiction, not a reporter of history with verifying witnesses.
One can read the gospel accounts with skepticism but no one can doubt that within a few years a rapidly growing number of people believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. Under the leadership of Paul, a whole theological interpretation was given to the death and resurrection of Jesus. The humble prophet from a small village in northern Palestine was made into a universal figure that demanded recognition as the central figure of all human history. An ugly death on a Roman cross could not wipe out his significance. God raised his son, Jesus, from the dead. For these early believers the history of this transformation took place in real time, in real history, in real life.Every Easter presents people with a murky question. Did Jesus come back from the dead in real flesh and blood? If he did not, can a devout Christian hold fast in his/her faith. Can a questioning person still sing all those great Easter songs and celebrate Christ’s resurrection without crossing his/her fingers?
I have resolved the dilemma to the satisfaction of head, heart and soul. I do not believe Jesus was raised from the dead in flesh and blood. I do not believe he had a respectful burial. It is more likely that he was crucified and left for dogs to tear at his dead flesh and that scavenger birds pecked at his dead body. I do not believe that I am reading history when I read the resurrection narratives of the four gospels. Rather I believe I must read the resurrection narratives as mythology written by devout and believing followers who claimed Jesus as their Lord.
Our respect for mythology as a carrier of truth needs a rebirth. I contend that mythology is a time tested and honored literary tool to do truth telling. Technically, mythology is any story or report in which God or a god is the primary actor. Mythology will always defy historical analysis, so I should never attempt a fool’s chase.
Jesus was killed because he was a speaker of God’s truth and was an unrelenting advocate of justice. The resurrection stories make a profound declaration. Truth can never be killed and the truth teller can never be defeated.
At Easter sunrise service mine will be a hearty voice singing “Up from the grave he arose” and “He lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today.”
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Book by Howard Bess:
From Amazon: When a parishioner first said to American Baptist Minster, Howard Bees, "Pastor, I am gay," he accepted the challenge. Now in this timely book, Pastor Bess issues not a polemic but a plea, a plea for ministers and church members alike to becomes acquainted with gay men and lesbians and accept the challenge of reconciliation. The story telling style of the book makes for easy reading but not for easy digesting. It is a clear and provocative book on the subject of the relationships of churches and the gay-lesbian population. Whether one agrees or disagrees about his conclusions, Bess's pleas must be heard by Christians of every variety.