Today, there will be no place to park at church. It will be standing room only. I will have a seat because I lead the choir, but Becky will end up smushed in a pew next to a well-dressed young uncomfortable woman, looking uncomfortable, only there with her young family to make her mother happy who is sitting just on the other side of her, next to her granddaughter in the lovely yellow Easter dress and brand new shiny white shoes. She will squirm and fidget during the entire mass, looking to her mother for some glimmer of hope that the torment is going to end soon. The young father is trying to calm down the little girl in the only way he knows, through a stern look and whispered warnings, but there is nothing he can do.
Along the walls stand the both the people who had no idea that so many people went to church on Easter Sunday, and the regular parishioners, who simply forgot that there was anything out of the ordinary about this particular Sunday, and so went about their regular Sunday morning routine, breakfast, showers, coffee, newspaper, before toddling off to mass. Some of the people in the church have enough of a belief in the all mighty to feel the necessity of showing God they really do believe, they just don’t see the need to go crazy and do something like go to church every week. After all, God is everywhere, isn’t He? You don’t have to go to church to be close to God. God is wherever you are. That’s what they say.
I call these folks the C and E Christians, Christmas and Easter. They come twice a year. Either they grew up in some kind of church and get a certain amount of comfort coming to church on those holidays, or they just feel like you ought to show God some respect, and twice a year ought to about do it. Some of them aren’t even Catholic. They just went to the biggest, closest church to them. Others just think of Catholicism when they think of Jesus. And this holiday is all about Jesus, isn’t it? One priest I heard referred to these folks as his poinsettias and lilies. He asked us to be especially patient and kind with them. Who knows? They might come back. They might.
My question this Easter isn’t so much about why people go to church as it is about why people don’t. There is a reason I am a Christian, and not a Zoroastrian, Rosicrucian, Hindu, or any of the other perfectly wonderful religions. And it is true that there is nothing incompatible about being Buddhist, Taoist, or even Muslim, and Christian at the same time. They don’t preclude one another—sort of. I mean, if you get really dogmatic about any of them, there are elements of each that contradict one another. But then, that’s why there are different faiths. If you look at the simple message of all the world’s religions, you find that it more or less the same—a belief in a higher power, the transcendental divine power of love, the joy of compassion. The Christian faith has something that none of the other religions have, however. Christianity has Jesus.
Either you believe in Jesus, or you don’t. That’s really the bottom line of the faith. When it comes to making some kind of decision about Christianity and what it means, you have to come to some conclusion about Jesus. You have to decide if he really lived. You have to decide if he did what they say he did, rise from the dead. That is what Easter is all about. Did he get up and walk out of the tomb? Many folks will say that he did not because that is not their experience. People do not wake up from being dead. So Jesus could not have done that. But it seems clear that something must have happened. People try to start religions all the time and fail. Why did this one grow to be so successful?
There is no serious doubt that Jesus lived. The organized atheists out there often try to say that Jesus is a composite of other early mystery religions, but no scholars buy into that. We have the secular writings of Josephus and Tristan to confirm that Jesus lived. Moreover, the bible story itself is the best proof. That is, if you were going to make up a God, you would most certainly make up a better one than Jesus. He failed at everything. People would not make up a God that dies a criminal’s death. Other religions had gods that died and rose again, but they didn’t die like that. They died in battle. And if you were one of the followers of this new religion, you wouldn’t make your early leaders look so bad. They run away. They hide. They refuse to believe in their own master. No, if you were going to make something up, you’d do a better job of it. Jesus lived. And he died. But did he rise? That is the question.
Well, if he didn’t, then a lot of people are lying. The Romans lied, the Jewish leaders lied, and the followers of Jesus lied. They either lied, or were fooled. But put yourself in the place of those first century people. If you were a Roman or Jewish leader, the last thing you would want is for this false prophet to become a martyr. You would know that he claimed he was going to rise up and you would want to make damn sure that everybody knew that he didn’t. So if Jesus did NOT rise up, you would show everybody and produce the body. You’d show everybody. Hey look everyone! Still dead! But they obviously didn’t.
And if you were one of those followers of Jesus, what would you do? I know I would make myself scarce. If my leader were just arrested, tortured, and killed, I would get as far away from Jerusalem as possible. I’d change my name. I’d find a new line of work. I would try to lose myself in the first century world, where there were no computers to track me down and where I wouldn’t need a driver’s license for identification. I sure as hell wouldn’t try to keep the message alive. It would not require a chariot scientist to see that all that preaching would just lead to my own arrest, torture, and execution. It’s not like there was money in it. There were no Pat Robertons back then. Nobody was getting rich and famous talking about Jesus back then.
So why would I go travelling all around the ancient world organizing churches in the face of such danger? Why would I try to build up the new faith right there in Jerusalem under the very noses of the people who killed my teacher? Why would I be willing to suffer prison, torture, and even death rather than simply admit that my teacher was wrong? The only reason I can come up with is that I wouldn’t, not unless I really believed. At the very least, I would have to believe that my teacher, this Jesus, had risen from the dead, was still alive, had the truth. The gospel of Mark says:
When the Sabbath was over,
Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome
bought spices so that they might go and anoint him.
Very early when the sun had risen,
on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb.
They were saying to one another, “Who will roll back the stone for us
from the entrance to the tomb?”
When they looked up,
they saw that the stone had been rolled back;
it was very large.
On entering the tomb they saw a young man
sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe,
and they were utterly amazed.
He said to them, “Do not be amazed!
You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified.
He has been raised; he is not here.
Behold the place where they laid him.
But go and tell his disciples and Peter,
‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.’”
The earliest versions of this gospel end with the empty tomb. Most scholars agree that the part about the young man in the white robe, his words to the women, were all added later on. This was either because none of this happened and early leaders added it to make the story more believable, or because other versions of the gospel had this story and it was added in later to fill the gap and complete the story. The first draft of Mark ended with an empty tomb. That is how it should be. We have to decide for ourselves what happened to Jesus.
Maybe somebody stole the body. But why would they do that? What would be their motive? The Romans wouldn’t do it; neither would the Jews. The disciples might, but then, why choose a life of persecution for a lie? It doesn’t make sense.
Clearly something happened two thousand years ago. There was this guy. He had a message. They killed him. Later, his tomb was empty. You have to face the challenge of the empty tomb. Mark’s gospel ends with an empty tomb. You don’t have to believe he rose up, but then, what DID happen? In my mind, whatever is left after eliminating all that doesn’t make sense, no matter how weird, is truth.
You don’t have to believe that the earth orbits the sun, but it is the only thing that makes sense. The church refused to see this for centuries and we thought they were nuts because of it. A sun centered solar system didn’t make sense in their view of creation so they stubbornly refused to believe in it, regardless of the evidence to the contrary. Are we, as a modern scientific society, any better? Many people refuse to believe that this simple guy two thousand years ago was anything more than just a wise itinerate preacher who lived, taught, and was executed by the Romans, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. But if he did not rise from the dead, then what DID happen? Why did this religion persist?
You can choose to ignore the empty tomb. I did for a long time. But that seems less than honest. And the truth of Mark’s gospel, his original gospel, keeps bringing us back to that empty tomb. Something happened with the body of Jesus, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth. You have to come to terms with that before you dismiss the claims of Christianity. Once you accept that he was, in fact, someone totally out of the ordinary, you can look for the truth in the Christian message, whatever you find that to be.
You don’t have to accept the dogma of the organized church, but you have to take a closer look at what he taught. You may not want to believe it, but then the Republicans don't want to believe in climate change. Not wanting to believe you have diabetes won’t make the disease go away. Not wanting to believe in things doesn’t make them go away. You have to face them. Did Jesus rise up?
Today, Christian churches everywhere will be filled with people who have not given a moment’s thought to whether or not Jesus was who they say he was. They are there because they think they ought to be, either for their family, or because it’s what you do twice a year. But if you are seriously looking for truth in the universe, then you have to face the same thing that those two Marys and Salome had to face all those years ago—an empty tomb.