The Meaning of Easter: Miracles Still Happen
Jesus' resurrection was a true miracle that changed the world then, and continues to transform lives now.
In 1978, I was at a little Methodist chapel outside Durham, England, about to preach the Easter service, when the chapel steward raced out to me all in a bother. Looking at me with some fear and trembling, he said, "I am ever so sorry, but I must ask you something before you go in to the service." I responded: "Go ahead." Timidly he asked, "You do believe in the resurrection, don't you?" I assured him that I did. Looking mightily relieved, he said, "Thank goodness, I am ever so glad. The chap we had last year didn't, he just talking about the cycle of the crops and the popping up of the spring flowers. It was awful. Nothing about Jesus at all."
We all have personal reflections on Easter. My own memories are of churches packed with people wearing new and brightly colored clothes, huge dinners with relatives and Easter egg hunts, and of course way too many chocolate bunnies.
But all of this is simply on the periphery of Easter for me. The heart of the matter is not "beauty in the ordinary" or the rites of spring, but a unique historical miracle that has spawned other miracles ever since.
To put the matter directly, Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus and his appearances to his disciples shortly thereafter. There are those who dispute that this was an historical event, but the evidence is pretty compelling. The gospels tell us that the inner circle of disciples denied, betrayed, and deserted Jesus in his hour of greatest need. They tell us that his death was basically witnessed by a few female disciples, and that it was these women who first went to the tomb and encountered the risen Jesus.
Several things must be said about this: 1) By all accounts, Jesus died by crucifixion--the most shameful and public way to die in antiquity. In an honor-and-shame culture, Jesus' death by crucifixion should have put an end to his following and stopped any trumpeting about Jesus being the messiah or savior (see Luke 24.19-21: "We had hoped [past tense] he would be the one to redeem Israel"). It is very difficult for historians to explain the transformation of the inner circle of Jesus from cowards to some of the most courageous people of their era if Jesus did not arise and appear to them.
2) No evangelistic religion in its right mind, operating in a highly patriarchal world, would make up the idea that the chief witnesses to the heart of their creed (death, burial, empty tomb, risen Lord) were women. The witness of women was considered suspect throughout the Greco-Roman world, including Judea.
3) In the context of early Judaism, resurrection meant something that happened to a body. It was not seen as a purely spiritual or visionary matter, which is one reason why the Gospel accounts stress that the risen Jesus could be touched and could eat. These accounts, in their very specificity and physical detail, were clearly not intended to be metaphorical. They are a record of a world-changing physical miracle: the return to life of a previously-dead man.