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Easter & This Jesus Fellow

After all the chocolate bunnies and painted eggs, what's all the fuss about?

Choosing the title of a presentation several weeks in advance sometimes (like this morning) leads to some strange situations. If I were choosing the title right now, it would be Easter - after all the chocolate bunnies and painted eggs, what's all the fuss about. But since the two - Easter and Jesus - have a pretty tight connection, I will plunge bravely onward, and let you decide which title is the better fit.
Editor's note: The original title was This Jesus fellow - After all the chocolate bunnies and painted eggs, what's all the fuss about?

There are those among my friends and colleagues who would be shocked, offended, incredulous, or some combination of these reactions on hearing me ask what all the fuss about Easter and Jesus is all about. Especially right now. It is, after all, the first Sunday after Easter when, according to some traditions within the larger Christian tradition, the whole world is supposed to have been radically changed, once and for all. Or at least, we are one week past the anniversary of that momentous event. The fuss is surely about the saving of the world and everybody in it, and that should be worth a very great amount of fuss indeed.

Of course, there is the odd string attached. It seems that only some of the human residents of the world (past, present, and future) are going to be saved. Just exactly who that will be has been the subject of considerable discussion over the years. (Such discussions are often frustrating, since everybody involved seems to know that they are right and that, therefore, everybody else isn't.) But whichever take one subscribes to, surely the Easter event, in which a man who had been most assuredly killed three days earlier, walked alive and well out of a stone tomb is a worthy cause for fuss, and lots of it.

But wait a minute. I suspect (quite strongly) that I'm not the only one here this morning who has a great deal of difficulty with this take on that first Easter morning. It is simply so far outside of our experience and understanding that we cannot relate to it at all, other than as groundless superstition. And if this story falls apart, what happens to Christianity as a whole? Is it all, to borrow a line from Shakespeare, much ado about nothing?

I don't think so. But I do think it takes some pretty serious exploration to get at the real fuss, the fuss that may yet have something to say to us. (Don't worry; I'm not out to convert anybody to anything this morning. What I'm about to say has, in the eyes of several people, disqualified me as a Christian anyway.) I suspect that most writers would agree that it is exceedingly difficult to convey the actual personal experience of something. About ten days ago, I was in the hospital for some very routine tests. As part of the process, a nurse needed to take my vitals. (I was hopeful she would return them promptly.) She hooked up her little machine to read pulse, blood pressure, etc., and immediately an alarm went off. The machine said I had a pulse rate around 30. For several minutes, there was a fair bit of excitement as they tried to figure out what was going on. Eventually, they decided that I wasn't teetering over the grave, and went ahead and did the tests. The whole thing was worth about ten minutes.

It's not hard to tell you that part of my experience that morning. What is vastly harder is to tell you what it felt like to me as it was unfolding. The swirl of fears, questions, hopes, memories, perceptions, and so on that were churning around in my mind didn't (and still don't) lend themselves to direct conveying to you or anyone else. What I can convey to you is the story of that morning, and included in that story would be my explanations of that experience.

Now that is a somewhat simple example of what I am talking about, but I hope it conveys a point. When we want to tell somebody about something we have experienced, we usually move pretty quickly from experience to explanation. We have the language for explanation, and somehow explanation is easier for us to get our heads around. When the experience is something that is genuinely new, perhaps even foreign, to us, then it is even harder to convey, because we haven't had the experience often enough to develop the language it requires. As a result, we rely more and more on explanation. And when we really don't know how to talk about the thing we want most to talk about, we almost always tell a story (or two or three). It is characteristic of this particular kind of story that we can say, as aaboriginal people sometimes say of their stories, I don't know if it happened just this way, but I know this story is true.

I think this is what was going on in the Easter stories we find in the Bible. The stories themselves, on the face of them, are fantastical, unbelievable. Jesus was just like he had been (witness the marks of the nails in his hands and feet and the wound in his side), except that he walked through walls. Or he wasn't recognized by two of his disciples during a 7 mile walking conversation, not until he broke bread with them. The disciples apparently experienced him as very much alive - they even shared a seashore cookout with him - but he kept doing these really strange things. He commissioned his disciples - gave them their marching orders - which was very much in character with the man they had known, but then he ascended into heaven, which was, to say the least, very much out of character.

Do you see a pattern emerging in these stories? Presence and absence, same and different, seem to circle each other through all the stories. All of these stories suggest a Jesus who was recognizably the same person whom the disciples had followed for one to three years (depending on which Gospel you read), but who was also completely different. All of this suggests (to me) that the disciples (or perhaps more accurately the Gospel authors) were building a new relationship with the person who had died. They realized that Jesus was still the central figure in their lives, as he had been in the years immediately before his death, but also that he was simply NOT the same. Their stories raise these themes again and again. The imagery is about physical resurrection. I think this is because that was a pretty fair metaphor for what they were experiencing. The Gospels tell us of a couple of instances of people being raised from the dead -- the son of the widow of Nain, Jairus' daughter -- but they are told so briefly and pssssed over so quickly that they seem to have made little if any impact. Yet the new relationship the disciples were building/experiencing with Jesus was so powerful that physical resurrection was the best available metaphor to convey the experience.

There is a model for the grieving process (whose author I haven't been able to locate) which suggests that the final stage of grieving the death of a loved one involves, among other things, building a new relationship with the person who had died. This didn't make much sense to me until I found myself doing it. On my last day of classes at Atlantic School of Theology (where I had studied for three years in preparation for ordained ministry), as I sat waiting for my last class to begin, a classmate came into the room and told me that Ed Aitken, the Acting President of AST, who was to teach the class, had just taken his own life. I could not have been more shocked. I had known him not only as professor and President at AST, but also as a parishioner at the church where I did my student ministering, and as a friend whom I deeply liked and respected. In the weeks and months that followed this tragedy, I was, by turns, sad, confused, angry, lost, and a host of other conflicting emotions each time I thought of him. But time did pass, and I became fully immersed in learning the practise of ministry. In beginning my practise of m inistry in Marysville and Penniac, I had jumped into the deep end of the pool, and learning to swim was very important to me. One day, as I was wrestling with some problem that had landed on my plate, I found myself mentally talking to Ed, drawing on his vast experience in the church and the wisdom he had gained from it. After this had happened a few times, I gradually realized that I was, in fact, developing a new relationship with him. It was a strange process, but I assure you it was very real, and the relationship became very important to me. Ed was very much a presence in my life while I was studying at AST. The end of that time of studying coincided painfully with the end of his life. Yet he came to be a presence in my life in the years that followed, one which was deeply influential to me.

I've come to accept that it really can happen, that forming a new relationship with someone who has died is not just psychological mumbo-jumbo, but a pretty accurate description of a real and living process. I've learned that the relationship thus formed can be very powerful and enduring. I strongly suspect that the resurrection stories are reflections of just that process.

All of this has led me to think about the notion of influential resurrection. The person who has died remains present to the survivors, in that they, through their own grieving processes, build new relationships with the deceased. Those relationships are very real, and can have a very powerful influence on the survivors' lives. Just how powerful, and what influence, varies with each case. Our experiences are not always positive ones - an abuser may also be influentially resurrected, and the subsequent relationship between that person and a survivor may be destructive and damaging. What seems clear, when all the narrative devices (eg empty tombs, post-resurrection appearances, etc.) are set aside - or at least recognized for what they are - is that Jesus experienced a uniquely powerful influential resurrection among his followers. The depth of that power is revealed in the metaphors they used, like physical resurrection. An experience of great power requires great metaphors, and the story of a person being publicly tortured to a brutal death, then physically rising from death's tomb is a very powerful metaphor indeed. But it is, in my view, precisely that: a metaphor.

And all of this may shed some light on just why this story has endured so well for so long. We have all experienced the influential resurrection of someone. Like the Biblical writers, we express it in a variety of ways - I remember how Grampa used to deal with that, It felt like she was right there with me, and so on. When I was in high school, a half century or so ago, my favourite author by far was the American novelist John Steinbeck. I think I reaqd everything he had written. In East of Eden, there was a character named Lee, a wise old Chinaman, who often seemed to represent Steinbeck's thoughts. Lee said, No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us. . . . A great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting - only the deeply personal and familiar.

Clearly, we don't resonate with things like empty tombs, resurrected corpses, heavenly ascensions, and so on. But I do not believe that these things are what the Easter and post-Easter stories are about. Rather, they are about deep and profound influential resurrection, so strong as to be permanently life-changing. While we may not have experienced that phenomenon as powerfully as those described in the Biblical narrative, I suspect that most of us have indeed experienced it. It is because of that that we recognize ourselves in these Easter stories. We resonate with them. When we read of it happening on such a grand and powerful scale, it exerts a call to us, like a model of what just might be.

I don't know if it happened just this way, but I know that this story is true. And that's what all the fuss is about.