What Happened on Easter?

What Happened on Easter?

What Happened on Easter?

What happened on Easter morning? It depends on who you ask. The Bible contains four accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But making one coherent story out of them is a mess.

None of the authors were eyewitnesses, and they wrote decades after the event, basing their accounts on reports handed down to them. They all agree that women went to Jesus’ tomb early Sunday morning. They were surprised to find the stone rolled away from the tomb, and messengers revealed that Jesus was not there but had been raised.

Each writer reveals details that others don’t.

  • Matthew tells us about a “great earthquake” and an angel sitting atop the stone that had been removed as if to say, “What stone? Hmph. Not even death is a match for the almighty God.”
  • Luke tells us the disciples dismissed the women’s account of what happened at the tomb as “an idle tale.”
  • John tells us about a very private encounter with Mary Magdelene.
  • Mark asserts that the women were too afraid to tell anyone what had happened.

Who was there?

Who were the women who went to the tomb? Again, it depends on who you ask. They all agree that Mary Magdalene was one of them. In John’s gospel, Mary goes alone. In the other gospels, she is accompanied by other women, but each gospel reports various names of who they were.

Who announced the resurrection, and when did Jesus first appear?

Matthew’s gospel presents a lone angel announcing the resurrection. Luke, however, says two men in dazzlingly white clothes inside the tomb gave the message, while Mark says the one young man in a linen robe outside the tomb delivered the message.

In some gospels, Jesus first appears to the women that morning. In Luke, Jesus first appears to two of Jesus’ followers who were making their way to Emmaus; then, sometime later, he appears to all the disciples.

In Matthew, Jesus first appears to the disciples on a mountaintop some 100 miles away–so it couldn’t have happened on Easter evening. I’ve always liked and wondered about his line that when Jesus appeared, the disciples worshiped him, but some had doubts, indicating that we can worship despite our doubts.

Can the accounts be harmonized?

So, what actually happened? It’s hard to tell. Some biblical scholars with much more knowledge of Greek and literary conventions of the time argue that the discrepancies are not outright contradictions. Over the years, many have written extensively about how the differing accounts can be harmonized. For example, if John says Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, it doesn’t necessarily mean she went alone.

The early church had no problem placing these four accounts beside each other. They didn’t get caught up in “gotcha” readings, saying, “Matthew says this, but John says that; they can’t both be true, so it’s all a lie!” They didn’t do that. They recognized that as good storytellers, each writer highlighted aspects of the story that helped them express larger truths they were proclaiming.

By focusing on Mary Magdalene, for example, John emphasizes the individual relationship, which underscores how Jesus comes to us as individuals–not a generalized vague notion of resurrection. His story invites us to ask what this means for our personal lives.

The early church was comfortable having four unique voices that disagreed on the details but found something meaningful in each account. The gospel writers are most interested in the consequences. As scholar John Dominic Crossan points out, none of the gospels show us a flash of light moment of resurrection when Jesus got up and walked out of the tomb. They only leave us with how people reacted to the fact of the resurrection after it had happened.

A physical or spiritual resurrection?

Many interpreters look at Mark’s ending, which does not include a physical appearance, and how the Apostle Paul described his encounter with the risen one as a spiritual experience. They conclude that the resurrection, for these authors, wasn’t necessarily a physical reanimation of Jesus’ body but a spiritual raising, a vindication of Jesus, and a validation of his message of forgiveness, compassion, and trust in God’s grace.

I’ve always resonated with that interpretation because whenever we encounter the risen Christ, it is a spiritual experience, so it makes sense to talk about it in these terms. John’s gospel concludes with a line about how blessed those who believe without having seen with their eyes.

Something powerful enough to change lives happened.

What happened on Easter? If you ask me, it was something powerful enough to transform lives. Undoubtedly, the disciples went from being cowardly cringers to daring disciples. Just hours after promising to stay with Jesus even unto death, they all abandoned him and ran away from the guards as they crashed through the thicket to arrest Jesus. After the crucifixion, they hid out, terrified that authorities would root them out and hang them on crosses, too.

But something happened that changed them because soon after the resurrection, they put their feet on the pavement in the city streets, boldly proclaiming the same message that got Jesus killed. What a transformation! Something powerful happened. Easter happened for them. It was a spiritual experience that reassured them that everything Jesus promised was possible, that his mission could continue, and that it must continue through them.

Whatever else Easter is, it is this belief that even when the worst happens, there is still something God can do to breathe new life into the situation.

The relentless surge toward life and creativity.

The principle of resurrection is woven into the fabric of the cosmos. Scientists tell us that to get the heavy minerals that comprise Earth, some distant star had to be born, live its life cycle, explode in a supernova, and wind up here. The death of a star makes our lives possible. We see it all the time. Winter gives way to spring. The leaf falls from the tree, composts, and creates fertile soil for new life.

God is in the business of breathing life out of death, of continuing to create and bring goodness out of terrible situations. Have you not seen it yourself? I have.

I’ve been to the tomb.  

I don’t know what happened on Easter, but I believe in the truth of the resurrection in daily life. I’ve been to the tomb enough times to see stones rolled away, not to believe it. Resurrection doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen. Resurrection is the belief we need when life gets messy.

A woman whose son had terminal cancer, early in the process, came into my office unannounced, sat in a chair across from my desk, and wept for an hour without saying a word. The loss crushed her, but surrounded by a community of support, she got through. She walks every year. She raises money for walks she does for cancer research that, over the years, has made life possible.

I’ve been to the tomb of addiction, seeing how it has ravaged relationships when that compulsion takes over and leads to destructive choices. I remember Ken, a gambling addict who mounted insurmountable debts and lost his family, his home, and his reputation. He said hitting rock bottom is like entering a tomb. He didn’t tell anyone because of the shame of it all. Who would understand? But he reached out, got his life back, went public with his journey, and wrote newspaper articles chronicling his disease, which helped countless others realize they weren’t alone and that they could get their lives back. Every Friday night, he went to meetings with other compulsive gamblers in a musty church basement, doing what he needed to keep on track and support others. The stone gets rolled away, and they help others in their recovery journey.

I’ve been to the tomb of loneliness – utter isolation.  I remember a woman in despair. She could not think of one person to call – didn’t have money to go out – no support or affection.  She sat and smoked and pined away for a different life.  Then she discovered church – invited by a neighbor who offered to take her.  She wasn’t sure if she believed all that stuff, but she was attracted to the sense of community in church. She calls it “the kindness club.” She now has a place to go, friendships, and connections.  She feels loved and supported.  And, she is beginning to understand the peace and assurance that faith can bring.

I’ve been to the tomb of desolation – the stone was rolled away.

I’ve been to the tomb of devastation – and guess what?  That stone was rolled away.

I’ve been to the tomb of shame – that big heavy stone – it was rolled away.

I’ve been to the tomb of regret – you got – the stone was rolled away.

I’ve been to the tomb of rage – and even that stone was rolled away.

It’s no idle tale.  I’ve been to the tomb and seen it with my own eyes. I have experienced it, and I know it is true.

Resurrection Hope

One of my favorite authors says, “Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing.” (repeat and say it with me)

The dark, damp, stinky, awful tomb does not get the last word.  The stone that blocks all light is small work for the God who has overcome darkness.  The stone that seems like it will never move – WILL move.  Life on the other side may not look like we planned, but it can be even more beautiful than we can imagine in God’s redemptive hands.

We are Easter people!  We KNOW the stone gets rolled away.  The challenge to our faith is to believe this – even while you are still in the tomb.  There is life on the other side.

Perhaps this all seems like an idle tale to you….all this talk of resurrection.  All I can say is that I’ve been to the tomb – and the stone is rolled away.  Thanks be to God!

We can say with Paul in Romans 8.

37 No, in all these things we are more than victorious through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

AMEN