There are two things we discover at Easter. They both have to do with the victory of Jesus Christ, the victory he won on this the first day of the new era in human and cosmic history.
First, we discover that Jesus Christ himself is vindicated. The power of all the forces of evil and death cannot silence and destroy Jesus of Nazareth. He lives and reigns in authority. The apostle Peter in his Pentecost sermon describes our Lord and says, "This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and knowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it." What a tremendous statement by the apostle Peter! Jesus Christ has conquered death. He is vindicated. And that is the fundamental and most basic significance of Easter.
But there is a second significance of Easter: Christ's victory also vindicates us. The second fact is at first harder for us to understand. Sometimes it's even harder for us to experience. But nevertheless, it's true. It's this second great fact of Easter that I want to reflect on today: Easter is Christ's victory, but it is also our victory.
When you were a child, when you went with a group of friends, did you ever come to a wide stream, just a little wider than you thought you could get across by jumping? You stand on one side of the bank, and you wonder if you can make it across that creek. Then one in the group tries it. This person makes a run and jumps and lands on the other bank. In landing on the other side, this person has won a victory over that stream. And that is that person's victory. But also it becomes your victory. Perhaps you were a little frightened about trying, and now you decide, "Hey, I can try it too." So you try it. And you also make it and win. So, the other person went ahead as a kind of pioneer, and what he or she achieved also becomes your victory.
If you're a skier, you know it's a little bit like that at the top of the hill. When you look down the hill, it looks almost impossible to ski. Then one person says, "Well, let me try it," and that person goes down and is still standing at the bottom. So you say, "Hey, let me try it. If that person can do it, I can do it too!" That's a big mistake some people make! But, the serious point is, "If that person can do it, I can do it." That's really how you learn to ski and how you learn to jump over creeks.
I think we have another dramatic example of this during the Winter Olympics. After a race or event, there are three victors: a gold, silver, and bronze medalist. You remember in the women's figure skating championship, one of the most exciting moments in the Olympics, that surprise silver medalist, young Elizabeth Manly; she was running seventh in the pack and came on with a brilliant, final performance to get the silver medal. Then there was Debbie Thomas with the bronze and Katarina Witt with the gold. Those were their victories. But the high point of the Olympics from a sentimental standpoint is those award ceremonies. When the victors stand on those three pedestals, that's when everybody is crying. The three flags are raised, and the national anthem of the gold medalist is played. Something else is signified there: not only did Katarina Witt win, and not only Elizabeth Manly, but their countries won, too. Not only their countries, but also their parents. Notice how the cameras try to find parents in the audience and their skaters' trainers and sometimes a whole town in Wisconsin—they all share in that victory. That's what makes it great. They not only won for themselves, they won for us, too.
Two great affirmations are made in all of the Easter narratives of the New Testament. One affirmation is that Christ has won the victory, and it's his alone. But the second theme, perhaps more subtly portrayed but also present in all the gospel narratives, is that we too win a victory on Easter day. Our Lord's victory is his vindication, but it's also our vindication.
It is a vindication of our current life
The first vindication we receive has to do with death itself. Jesus Christ defeated death, and that defeat of death makes all the difference for us. It's a victory for us. The angel said to the women, "Why are you looking for the living among the dead?" That's tremendous vindication for us. It will be several hours before these women fully know what that means. But when they discover what it means, they will not spend the rest of their lives fascinated with death. They'll spend the rest of their lives fascinated with life: "Why are you looking for the living among the dead?"
Do you know an interesting psycho-historical proof of the resurrection of Christ? It's the fact that the early church showed virtually no interest in the grave of Jesus or in his tomb. That came only later, in the medieval period, when people became fascinated with the tomb. But the early church was not interested in tombs. That's amazing when you think of their Jewish background and their Middle Eastern background, because all other Middle Eastern cultures are very interested in gravesites.
Think of the Jew. Did you know the most precious site for ancient Israel and for modern Israel is Mount Zion? What is Mount Zion? Mount Zion is where David is buried. It's the burial site of King David.
And what about Egypt? All of Egypt is one massive graveyard—Queen Hatshepsut's temple, the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings, the three great pyramids. They even built pyramids for bulls and animals. Gravesites are what everything is about in Egypt. It's throughout the ancient world.
Now take the early church, which had absolutely no interest in the gravesite of Christ: "Why are you interested in it? If you've seen one empty grave, you've seen them all!" If you go to Jerusalem today, you'll see the tourist industry is in great division over the location of the gravesite of Christ. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is one site. The so-called Garden Tomb is the other site. I've heard people argue about this, and they get red in the face and say we've got to know where he was buried. But the early church would say, "Why do you have to know where he is buried? You've seen one gravesite, you've seen them all, especially empty graves! We're not interested in the empty grave. We don't seek the living among the dead, because Jesus Christ is alive!"
And that makes all the difference for us. That means we Christians are not necrological. We're not fascinated with death. Everybody is fascinated with death, but if you're a Christian, you don't have to be fascinated with death. Instead, we have an instinct for life.
We don't have time today to go into all the ethical implications of this, but the ethical implications abound when you think of the instinct we have for life because of the victory of Christ. It means we have a concern for the living. The whole source of Christian ethics is our concern for the living: for people who have needs here and now, to build toward life and what makes for life and for quality of life and for meaningful life. All because we have this instinct for life that we get from the resurrection of Christ. It's a victory for us. Jesus made a promise, and the promise is, "Because I live, you will live also."
It is a vindication of our future destiny
This vindication not only has to do with your ethics, it also has to do with your own future survival, your future destiny. An abyss is not what stands at the end of your life. At the end of your life—and our lives do end; they are "boundaried"—at the end of that boundary stands Jesus Christ, the living Christ. He is the one who meets you, and that makes all the difference.
Let me make a second reflection: The text says that Jesus told them the story of their lives. While they were walking on the road to Emmaus, he opened the Scriptures to them—first the prophets and then the whole of Scriptures—and showed how the Scriptures made it necessary for the Messiah to die and be raised from the dead. He taught them how the Scriptures referred to him. The sacred Scriptures for these two disciples are the story of their lives. The sacred Scriptures are the history of Israel, with all its ups and downs, with all its hopes and failures. It's the story of failure. It's the story of sin. It's a grim story.
It's a story about heroes like David, but heroes who fall. Because, if David is a great man of the Old Testament, he is also a terrible man of the Old Testament. For our Scripture lesson, I had David's Psalm 22 read, the Psalm our Lord quoted from the cross. The opening words of Psalm 22 are "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It's a Davidic Psalm, written by the great man who fell so hard. Yet he is a part of Israel's history, a history with all the yearnings that surround David and Abraham and Moses—the yearnings for deliverance, which the Jews, of course, celebrate every year at our Easter time, their Passover—which is the celebration of the exodus out of Egypt, God's deliverance. All these threads of the Old Testament, Jesus said to these disciples on the road to Emmaus, find their fulfillment in Christ. They find their fulfillment at the moment of the Cross and in the victory over death.
What Jesus doesn't do is give them a theory to explain their history. We have lots of theories of history. I'm not against theories of history. We need them. You think of the great models produced by Schleiermacher, by Kant, by Hegel and Engels and Karl Marx. All these models of history try to explain historical experience, explain where we come from and where we're going and what our destiny is. These are theoretical models. But yet, they don't really help us.
When you're in a hospital room and someone comes to you and says, "I'll explain why you're sick. You're sick because it's supposed teach you a lesson"—that's a theoretical explanation of why you're sick. Or "You're sick because you must have done some terrible thing and now you're getting the results of it." How comforting is that to you? How helpful it that when you're sick? It's not very helpful.
And take the Book of Job. We have a whole book in the Old Testament about a group of advisers who came to Job with theoretical answers for Job's crises. The only result was that Job kept getting sicker and sicker the more advice they gave. He says, "You advisers are making me more discouraged than before you came!" Their answers are all theoretical constructs, theoretical analyses of Job's crises. What resolves Job's problems in the book of Job? Job is resolved only when he meets the Lord himself.
Our Lord Jesus Christ makes himself the resolution of Jewish history. He makes himself the resolution of your history. Your sins and my sins, your crises, all the things you face, your dreams, the things that you can't solve in your own life, things that are unresolved—how do you answer them? Do you go to the psychiatrist and have him explain who you are? No. A psychiatrist can help you sort out who you are. But a psychiatrist or psychologist cannot explain who you are.
How do you find out who you are? On Friday night, we had the Tenebrae service here. It's a beautiful service meaning "the service of darkness." It starts with seven candles; as we go through the narration of the death of Christ, each candle is extinguished in seven steps. It was very moving. During one of the reflections, a speaker narrated the crisis world we're in, and in just a few seconds she helped us to feel some of the weight of those crises—in Palestine, in Africa, in Northern Ireland, in Central America, in all the strife in the great cities of the world, in all the tragedies of injustice and suffering, in all these almost insurmountable problems. Then she shared some of the dreams and hopes we have, some of the positive threads that are part of our existence and how they all come and converge. She pointed out that they converge at the Cross in a person, not a theory. The one who comforts those who suffer is the one who himself suffered.
We meet the suffering Christ at the cross. He, not a theory, is the resolution. And that's another vindication we receive on Easter: It's Jesus Christ who is our vindication. It's he who makes sense out of the story of our lives. Do you have sins you cannot resolve? Do you have problems you're trying to sort out and you cannot sort them? Do you have hopes? They come into focus in Christ.
That's what happened to these people on the road to Emmaus. He took the story of their lives and showed how everything in that story pointed to him.
It is a vindication of joy
Let me make a third observation: These disciples were surprised by joy, too. I love the way the text puts it. As soon as Jesus vanished from their midst, they said, "Didn't our hearts burn within us while he talked?" That word burned is the Greek word for the Hebrew word for "tremendous excitement." "We were so excited when he talked to us!"
C. S. Lewis, when he wrote the story of his life, called it Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. He says at the end of that book that his big surprise in becoming a Christian was when he discovered that the serious business of heaven is joy—that God is the God of joy. That's the great surprise. He said something like, "I never expected it. I never expected that, when you get right down to it, the Christian faith is so fun."
Easter is supposed to be fun. In the Russian Orthodox Church at the end of worship, the priest hollers to the people, "Christ is risen!" And the people shout back, "He is risen indeed!" That is an exciting moment.
Malcolm Muggeridge became a Christian at that very moment. He was a journalist for the Manchester Guardian and a Marxist. He had been a Marxist all his life. He went over to Russia to do a story on the Communist party, and on the dying of religion in the Soviet Union. This was in the 1940s and 1950s. He interviewed people in the Kremlin, but then he made a mistake: he went to a Russian Orthodox service on Easter. He shouldn't have done that because Russian Orthodoxy has a great Easter heritage. As Karl Barth said, the Latin church, the Western church, is the church of the Cross; the Eastern church is the church of glory. The glory of Easter—that's the heart of Eastern Orthodoxy. Muggeridge went to a packed church, as he tells about in the book, Jesus Rediscovered.
At the end of the service, the priest said, "Christ is risen!" And the people said, "He is risen indeed!" Muggeridge looked out on the faces, "El Greco faces" he called them. He looked out at those faces and realized in that moment, he said, that they were right and Stalin was wrong. He said that's what tipped him over the edge: It was the joy of their faith; it was the reality of it.
"Our hearts burned," the disciples said, "when we talked with Christ."
A few years ago, I discovered American author John Updike's incredible poem, "Seven Stanzas at Easter." He wrote that poem when he was a junior at Harvard University. He submitted it to the New England Poetry Contest and won. Some of its lines are unforgettable. One of my favorites is "Let us not mock God with metaphor." If we're going to have a tomb, let's have a real tomb with a real rock, just like a rock that's going to be in front of our tomb—"not paper mache." It's the "rock of materiality" that closes the light of day. In that poem, Updike argued for the reality of Christ's victory. It has to be a real victory. It has to be a real death and a real victory or it doesn't help us at all. Notice: in a meal, in a concrete place, Christ met the disciples. And in the breaking of bread they saw him. That concrete element is present in all of the resurrection accounts because Jesus Christ really conquered death, just as he really died. It is terribly important to know that. Because this victory is for you—it's not just for him.
For Your Reflection
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Exegesis and exposition:
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Earl Palmer is a writer and speaker for Earl Palmer Ministries, and author of Mastering the New Testament: 1, 2, 3 John and Revelation (W Publishing Group).