By Matt Marino
Growing up in a non-religious household, I didn’t know what to make of Easter. It seemed even sillier than Christmas, which is tough! I mean, how do you top a guy in a red suit bringing kids presents by squeezing himself up and down your chimney like a giant red pipe-cleaner?
Easter as a holiday? Chocolate melting and eggs spoiling in the Spring sun — it’s a celebration of food-borne illness!
Whose idea was Easter suits with short pants? We’re all stuck with the humiliating photos.
And then I heard the astounding claim that Jesus Christ came back from the dead.
Not the creepy “not quite dead, not quite alive,” like movie zombies. Not a new age “his spirit is always with us.” Not even a motivational “he was knocked out but he pulled himself off the mat” to Rocky theme music. We’re talking the real deal.
The witnesses maintain that a man who claimed to be God walked Palestine teaching how to love God and neighbor and doing things that could only be described as miraculous. Then he was killed in a state-ordered professional execution, his blood drained from his lifeless corpse, removed from a crucifix, and sealed in a tomb behind a large stone.
They tell us the tomb was marked with the imprimatur of the most powerful empire on earth, and guarded by Roman soldiers, trained to hold their six feet of ground against an army. Yet on Sunday morning, when women came to finish the embalming rites, the stone was moved, the guard terrified, and Jesus gone.
When I first heard this, I thought, “Ridiculous! How can even Christians believe such a tale?”
Well, it turns out it is hard to stop people from believing even in shocking things, when they have seen them for themselves. The eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection couldn’t stop talking about seeing Jesus after his death, even when it got them killed. Eleven of twelve disciples died for failing to say three simple words: “It never happened.”
Even before folk could really tell you what Jesus’ resurrection meant, they knew it was earth-shattering, that it put Christianity in an altogether different category.
We have trouble with that, though. Since the 1960s we have heard, “All religions are essentially the same,” which is bizarre when you think about it. Even atheists like Harvard religion professor Stephen Prothero think so. In his book God Is Not One, Prothero points out that many Buddhists believe in no God, and many Hindus believe in thousands of them. And those gods are of completely different character as well: Is God a warrior or a mild-mannered wanderer?
Not only that: the view of the struggle of life and the vision for what being fully alive in the various religions looks completely different. We like to pretend that religions are benignly alike. But they aren’t. And you can’t just drop religion like a coat that went out of style. Religion is persistent. Humans are wired for religion — hardwired to worship. The trick is to make sure we worship the right object.
Since you and I are going to worship, pastor Tim Keller suggests we need three things in our search for one worthy of our worship: First, you need a system that plausibly explains our human condition. Second, you need one who can endure scrutiny. Third, you need one that tangibly improves the lives of its followers. Easter offers all three.
First, our human condition: the Christian faith says that we are enslaved, not by bad behaviors that we can change, but by an underlying driver of our behavior: sin and death. Sin and death chase us, explaining why we fear death and are uncomfortable around the dying — why we deny our mortality and try to hide the effects of aging. And sin and death rear their ugly heads in every relationship we have. The Christian faith explains our human experience.
Second, the Christian faith says that Jesus entered death and defeated it, and because he did, we will someday be as he is: never to taste death again. Because the Christian faith is based on an act in history, the resurrection, it not only endures scrutiny but invites it. The angel says, “Come, see the place where he lay.” Either Jesus exited a tomb and death is defeated or he did not and it is not. But give it a close look, because the empty tomb stands up to rigorous scrutiny.
And finally, Jesus Christ materially improves the lives of his followers. We have seen the Hemingway internet meme “The world breaks everyone.” And we think, “What a nice sentiment to develop resilience.” But we skip the rest of his statement in A Farewell to Arms: “and those that will not break it kills.”
Sin and death oppose us. They are trying to break us, and they are trying to kill us. And Jesus breaking out of the tomb means, as our Colossians reading said, “that when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Jesus Christ delivers life. Now and for all eternity.
Christianity, my friends, explains our experience, invites scrutiny, and delivers life.
And now, so what?
How should one respond when encountering a living Lord? Notice that both the angel and Jesus give essentially the same advice to the women at the tomb: “Rejoice. Don’t be afraid. Go and tell folk what you have seen.”
You can be gloriously alive in Jesus Christ. It can start today. Allow Jesus Christ to captivate and energize your life — place your trust in the risen one. “Rejoice. Don’t be afraid. And go and tell folk what you have seen.”
And, in case your mind isn’t made up, I end with the words of someone who describes Easter better than I can: a bit from a sermon by a preacher so powerful that his name, Chrysostom, means “golden tongue.” This is from a sermon he preached in the year 400:
Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!
Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
Have you toiled from the first hour?
receive your due reward;
Have you come after the third hour?
join with gratitude the Feast!
Arrived after the sixth hour?
You too shall be fed.
Were you delayed until the ninth hour?
Do not hesitate; you come too.
And You who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
Be not afraid for your delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
… Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice now for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally. Let no one go away hungry.
Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!
Let no one grieve at their poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed death by enduring death.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
… Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen!
The Rev. Matt Marino is rector of Trinity Parish in St. Augustine, Florida.