The Great Experiment
J. Barry Vaughn. Easter 2010 (April 3, 2010). St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, AL.
The great physicist Albert Einstein formulated his theory of relativity by conducting what he called a “thought experiment.” Instead of going to a laboratory and firing up the Bunsen burner or measuring the velocity of electrons, he simply imagined what would happen to two clocks. One would be on a train that could travel at the speed of light and the other would remain stationary. OK, then, that’s about all I know about Einstein and the theory of relativity. But I like the idea of thought experiments, so let’s conduct a theological thought experiment.
Imagine a world without Easter. In the first book of the Narnia chronicles – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis tells us that Narnia is under the spell of an evil and powerful witch who has decreed that it will always be winter and never Christmas. But instead let’s imagine that it is always Lent and never Easter or simply that there is no Easter because, after all, Lent implies an Easter at the end of forty days.
What would such a world look like?
First, the New Testament would be entirely different. If we removed Christmas from the NT, we would lose only 2 or 3 chapters at the beginning of Matthew and Luke. There are no other references to the birth of Jesus. But if we remove Easter, then we lose the ending of all four gospels; we lose most of Paul’s letters because it seems as though almost every other sentence in Paul refers to the resurrection or at least presupposes it; and we lose much of the rest of the NT because on almost every page is an idea, a fact, a concept that makes no sense without the resurrection. The gospels make absolutely no sense without the resurrection. Take the resurrection out of the gospels and what do we have? We have some lovely parables; some pretty exciting miracles (hard to beat that one with the loaves and fishes); some truly impressive moral teaching; and several other very nice things. But Buddhism also has some great parables; Islam tells us of miracles performed by the prophet Muhammad; and every other moral and religious system in the world has a set of moral teachings that is probably 80% identical to the things that Jesus said.
In other words, without the resurrection, without Easter, the question we have to ask about the New Testament, in general, and the Gospels, in particular, is . . . so what? Why pay any special attention to Jesus of Nazareth? He was an inspiring speaker; he showed remarkable compassion; he may even have worked miracles; but he was not significantly different from half a dozen other spiritual, moral, or religious figures.
Second, let’s take Easter or resurrection out of history. If we take the resurrection out of history, then we suddenly lose our bearings. In the west, the resurrection is the great starting point. Our calendars begin with the life of Jesus (as I’ve already implied) not because of his parables or miracles but because he died and rose again. The resurrection of Jesus completely re-oriented life. In the Roman world, Sunday was not a day of rest; it was the first day of the work week, but the resurrection of Jesus transformed a working day into a joyous festival.
Third, take the resurrection out of the equation and there is no satisfactory explanation for the rise of the Christian church. By the end of the first century the Christian faith had spread as far west as the British isles; as far south as Ethiopia; and as far east as India. Why and how did this happen? What energized the followers of Jesus to risk their lives to take their message to the ends of the earth? What was it about the message they proclaimed caught the imaginations of people as diverse as the peoples of Britain, Ethiopia, and India? Well, let’s go back to our thought experiment. Let’s imagine that Paul and the other Christian missionaries of the first century had told their listeners the story of a Jesus who had taught people the story of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son and had healed the sick and even multiplied the loaves and fishes and then had been betrayed and arrested and tried and condemned and executed and then… well, that was pretty much it. What a … well… sad and dull and somewhat tedious little story.
But that is not the story they shared in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and took to the ends of the earth. Instead, they told about the parables and miracles and the suffering and crucifixion but what made the story different and caught the imagination of their hearers was the absolutely staggering ending: Jesus did not stay in the tomb; he rose again on the third day.
Let’s take the thought experiment one step further. What difference would it make if we acted as though the resurrection was real? I ask this question because I’m convinced that most of us think and act as though there was no Easter.
We’re great about giving up martinis and Marlboros for Lent but when Easter has come and gone, it’s pretty much business as usual.
What if instead of thinking of Easter as the end of Lent, we thought of it as the beginning of the most exciting part of the year? What if instead of giving up something for Lent, we took up things for Easter? What if we lived as if Jesus really did rise again on the third day?
Easter makes a difference, the resurrection makes a difference, because it reveals God’s plan for creation. It’s like turning to the back of the book and finding the answers or seeing how the story ends. It tells us that death does not have the last word. It tells us that God longs to gather human life in all its flesh and blood and messiness into the divine life and that there is future for flesh and blood beyond death and decay.
How might the world be different, how might we be different, if we took the resurrection seriously? The resurrection of Jesus is the story of a man unjustly condemned to death who is vindicated by God by being raised to new life. What does that imply for us? It implies that we belong on the side of those who have been unjustly and unfairly treated by political and economic systems – the unemployed, the uninsured, the unjustly imprisoned. The story of the resurrection is the ultimate miracle of healing. All healing is a way of pushing back death. The story of Easter tells us that part of our job as Christians is to bring wholeness to a world of fragmentation and death; to bring hope to the depressed and despondent; to seek out the lonely and unloved.
N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, and former professor of New Testament at Oxford, has wonderful parable about the resurrection of Jesus. Imagine that a wealthy patron of the arts has given a magnificent painting to a church. The congregation is grateful but their church is small and there really isn’t a good place in it for the painting. They try hanging it behind the altar but it’s too tall. They try putting it in the narthex but there isn’t enough light there. They put it in the parish hall but the heat and humidity might damage the painting. Finally, they come to the conclusion that to accommodate the painting they will have to tear down their church and build a new one.
That is what the resurrection implies. We have tried to modify the story of the resurrection to make ourselves comfortable, to accommodate the injustices of our economic and political systems. We have tried to tame the story of Easter to fit our belief in a world in which there are no surprises, no miracles, and in which dead men certainly do not rise again. But the resurrection will not be trimmed or modified.
In the Easter story we have been given a thing both surpassingly beautiful and uncommonly strange, so beautiful and strange that it does not fit into our world. We live in a world of death and decay but Easter speaks to us of a world in which death is destroyed, the world is renewed, and we can be born again to lives full of joy and wonder. But this news sounds too good to be true. We have been disappointed too many times, and as the poet says, we are “half in love with easeful death.”
Our natural reaction is to find ways to take away the beauty and strangeness of Jesus’ resurrection but instead we should ask, “How does this strange and beautiful thing change us and change our world?” That’s when the real work begins. That’s when we start to rebuild ourselves and our world in the image of the resurrection.