Jesus was dead, to begin with.
Okay, so I actually just stole that opening line from Charles Dickens. It’s the first line of a “Christmas Carol” – “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” But it works just as well, for Jesus:
Jesus was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The fact of Jesus’ death is probably the only aspect of his life upon on which there is universal agreement among historians. So we begin there. Jesus was dead, to begin with.
And unlike Marley, he left no great fortune behind him. His net worth was zero. His followers had deserted him. By any reasonable measure of worldly success, Jesus was not a success.
He was dead, to begin with; and then, there was the manner of his death – not a peaceful rest at the end of a long and successful life, not even a heroic death in battle, but a shameful death. He was a criminal, condemned and crucified. Crucifixion was a sentence designed to strip its victims of their humanity. Such a death was hardly the stuff of legends.
In fact there was a belief among some of the people at the time that those who were crucified were not only dead, but cursed; abandoned by God. Certainly those who performed the crucifixion intended to create that impression. Lynch mobs in every era claim they are hanging the devil on the tree.
In other words, Jesus was not only dead; he was dead wrong. His crucifixion proved it.
This Jesus was no Son of God – that title belonged to Caesar. Jesus was just another failed messiah, another would-be revolutionary, another heretic gone astray. Jesus would be barely a footnote in the history of the Empire; after all, history is written by the victors. Jesus was dead, and as far as the world was concerned, that settled the matter. End of story.
And indeed, that is how the story would have ended, were it not for Easter morning. Instead, it is how the story begins. Jesus was dead – to begin with.
You have already heard what comes next — how his lifeless body was laid in a tomb behind a great stone; how the women came in the morning, to find the stone rolled away, and the tomb empty. (Luke 24: 1-12)
The image of that empty tomb is so startling to us, that we sometimes can’t move past it. The idea of a dead body brought to life is so astonishing, so disturbing, really, that we either are transfixed by the miracle or turned off by it. This is not the sort of hope we are accustomed to embracing. It seems too good to be true.
And although we are here on Easter Sunday, I know that most of us probably cannot quite wrap our heads around the reality of this event. That’s okay. Let us proceed with the story; let us continue, as if, the tomb were empty. As if, Jesus was risen indeed. And let us ask ourselves: what does this resurrection mean?
Well, for those who were close to Jesus, the resurrection meant joy and thanksgiving: the one they lost was restored to them. For Peter, who had denied him, it meant forgiveness, and a second chance. For them, this personal, intimate aspect of resurrection would have been enough to make Easter holy.
But unlike the rest of the apostles, Paul never knew Jesus before his death. When Jesus died, Paul did not grieve. Indeed, he may well have celebrated. Paul – or Saul, as he was known at the time – was a fierce opponent of the Jesus movement, an agent of orthodoxy. In the years after Jesus’ crucifixion, Paul’s mission was to find those who still followed him, to round them up and bring them, as he supposed, to justice. Jesus’ crucifixion had snuffed the flame of rebellion, but there were still some embers scattered about, and it was Paul’s job to stomp them out.
When Paul finally encounter Jesus himself, it was not in the flesh, but as a vision, a dazzling light that stopped him in his tracks. Paul was travelling on the road to Damascus, when he experienced a sudden moment of absolute, blinding clarity in which he heard a voice ask: Saul, why are you persecuting me? — a question to which Paul suddenly found he had no answer.
Paul’s experience of resurrection came long after Easter morning; it did not involve an empty tomb; but a stone was rolled away nonetheless. The miracle of the resurrection was, for Paul, not so much a miracle of resuscitation, as it was a miracle of revelation. The truth that had been hidden, became suddenly plain, as he saw God in the face of the persecuted.
A remarkable thing happened, after that moment on the road to Damascus. Paul joined the very movement he had tried to destroy. He loved the people whom he had formerly despised; he told the stories which he had formerly suppressed; he bore the punishments he had formerly inflicted, and he bore them without fear or shame. For, as he wrote in his letter to the Romans (8: 31-39) : If God is for us, who is against us? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?
There was a time, in human history, when disputes could be legally settled by combat. The plaintiff and defendant would take arms, or choose a champion, and the two would battle it out in order to determine which party was in the right. Justice was determined by strength, and truth was determined by violence. The conqueror was justified by his own conquest.
Jesus lived in such a time. His own people may been people of the law, but the final arbiter of all dispute was the empire. Caesar was the ultimate judge, because Caesar had conquered. In such a time, there can meaningful distinction between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong. The only relevant distinction is between the weak and the powerful, the conqueror and the conquered, the winners and the losers, the dead and the living.
In such a world, winning is everything; and Jesus lost. For he was no conqueror. Just another voice in the wilderness, silenced by the powers that be.
Jesus was dead, to begin with. But not forever. Because history may be written by the victors; but the truth belongs to God.
We need this story of Easter today, because we need to know that truth is still truth, and that love is still love, and that God is still God, no matter who is on the throne. We need to know that the oppressed matter, that the persecuted are beloved. We need to resist the temptation to become conquerors ourselves, just to prove our point. For we are more than conquerors. We are the children of the resurrection.
We are not afraid.
For we are convinced, wrote Paul, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.
Jesus was dead, to begin with.
But we know how the story ends.