Listening to the many Easter sermons that will likely be preached this Sunday, a person might get the idea that the central question surrounding the resurrection of Jesus is whether or not it actually happened. Preachers across the land will dwell at length on the significance of the empty tomb and how its vacancy proves that Jesus was raised from the dead. The goal, of course, is to change the minds of those who doubt. For with doubt removed, faith will be born—at least that’s the hope.
Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the way it happens. Merely seeing the empty tomb is not necessarily convincing evidence. In John’s Gospel, we read that Mary saw the empty tomb but she did not believe that Jesus was alive until she encountered him in the garden. And even then she thought he was the gardener until he spoke her name.
All of which is to say the central question of Easter should not be whether or not it really happened. We can preach proof until we are blue in the face, but until a person has an encounter with the risen Jesus, and perhaps hears Jesus call his or her name, the matter will not be settled.
A better question to ask of Easter is this: What does it mean?
The New Testament offers several answers, the most potent of which is the idea that death is defeated in our midst. In the words of the Apostle Paul, death “has been swallowed up in victory.” Why is defeating death important?
Well, for one thing, death and the fear of it, drains life of its vitality and purpose. There are people who spend so much time trying not to die that they never get around to living. Jesus addressed this when he made as a condition of discipleship “taking up the cross.” Death is a part of life, and our fear and dread of it only distracts us from what is really important.
The other thing about death is that we resort to it far too frequently. There exists in the human spirit an angry and violent propensity to punish. When those around us violate our codes of conduct, our impulse is to strike them. And if the offense is great enough, the impulse is to kill them.
We see this tendency towards death in the unrestrained madness of a lynch mob as it drags some offending person to a tree. We also see it in the calm and orderly rituals of state ordered execution. And we see it everyday in the wars we fight–wars intended to rid the world of evil but which seem to always increase rather than decrease the suffering.
Jesus was challenged once to enforce the death penalty on a wrongdoer. He said that the only ones qualified to deliver such a penalty are those who are without sin. To this day, there has not been a single one of us who meets that standard. This is why it is a good thing that resurrection has defeated death. Swallowing up death in resurrection means we can choose to be free from an over dependence on it.
In other words, in the message of Easter death becomes irrelevant. We need not fear it as a threat to life, and we need not use it as a way to deter evil. Resurrection allows us to find in the life and words of Jesus a far better way to live and be alive.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.