Walking up to the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is an experience that many Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land look forward to their whole lives. The church is the holiest site in Christendom, and marks the traditional site of the Mount of Calvary and the location of Jesus’ tomb, so you’d think that visiting this place would be a powerfully spiritual and emotional experience. Well, it may be for some, but it never has been for me.
First, the church is pretty non-descript, buried as it is in the midst of a bunch of other old buildings that cling to it like barnacles. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d walk right past it, though the crowds going inside the massive wooden doors might give it away.
Once you make it through the doors, however, you immediately feel not a little bit disoriented and perhaps a little bit disappointed. Right inside the doors there’s a set of steep steps that you go up marked as the Mount of Calvary. At the top of the stairs you don’t find a hill but a chapel that is crammed with people all jockeying for position. Monks yell at the crowd to stay in line and be quiet. People argue with one another about who got there first. I actually felt somebody tug at my wallet once before I slapped the unseen hand away. All of this to move to the altar in the little chapel, underneath which there is a hole in the floor where people, one by one, kneel down and stick their hands in and touch the “rock of calvary,” the place where Jesus was crucified. This should be a holy moment, but getting yelled at by a monk to “move along” makes it less so.
You join the crowd down the back stairs and across the church to a large rotunda, underneath which there is a small building which is considered to be the site of Jesus’ tomb. No garden here, like the Gospels talk about, just a crushing crowd of people waiting in line to go into a tiny room where there’s a slab of limestone that is supposed to be the place where Jesus was laid. But the stone comes from Europe and was put there in the 19th century to mark the place where the original slab probably stood.
It’s a strange mixture there at the holiest site in Christendom. Archaeologists generally consider the site to be accurate given the fact that the church was built on top of an old first century rock quarry with lots of first century tombs still evident. The church was originally built in the year 330 by Helena, the mother of the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine, who discerned the site based on the tradition of Christians worshipping at the site, and the fact that the Emperor Hadrian had built a temple to Aphrodite over the site in the second century—probably as a way of negating the Christian influence. Helena tore down the pagan temple and built the church, which has undergone many additions, rebuilds and renovations since. It’s one of the few places in Israel where you can say with some certainty that “this is the place” where Jesus was.
And yet, it’s a place that is buried under layers of church tradition and conflict. The site is now divided by seven different Christian traditions—Ethiopian, Greek, Syrian, Roman Catholic, Armenian, and Coptic—all of whom claim rights to the church and who defend those rights, sometimes violently. It is said that if a monk sweeping his tradition’s part of the church goes too far into another’s territory it can spark a riot, which happens with surprising frequency. The Israeli Police have to come in and break it up.
Interestingly, too, there’s a ladder on a ledge above the main entrance door that’s been there since the mid 19th century because none of the churches can agree on who has the authority to move it. Here, in the holiest site in Christendom, Christ-like compassion, peace, and care is ironically elusive. The true meaning of the cross and the resurrection seems to be buried underneath all those layers of church tradition, ornamentation, and conflict.
Every time I’ve gone there, I’ve thought about the idea that the reality of Easter isn’t only buried there in Jerusalem under layers of liturgical stuff, it’s often buried in many of our churches. Like angry monks we often have a tendency to see our traditions as needing to be guarded and defended, rather than asking the deeper question of what Easter really means biblically. When we do that kind of excavation, we tend to find a story that isn’t something to be defended, but something to be lived out.
So, what does Easter really mean? Well, as we dig into the resurrection stories in the Gospels themselves and into Paul’s understanding of the resurrection we will see that they are not, on the one hand, stories about a spiritualized idea of Jesus, nor are they, on the other, a comprehensive defense of Jesus’ divinity or of a heavenly destiny. That’s how the resurrection has generally been viewed by the left and right on the continuum. Ask most people what resurrection means and they’ll tell you one of those two versions. What the Gospels are trying to tell us instead, if we’ll listen, is that the resurrection of Jesus is the inauguration of a whole new world—a new creation that shatters all the old categories of life, death, body and spirit and leads to a very different worldview than the ones we’ve been given either on the left or the right.
The story of Thomas provides a prime example of this shift in worldview in the Gospel of John. The disciple most often known as “Doubting Thomas” is sometimes used by preachers and commentators as a kind of straw man representing skepticism of the Christian message, but the story is less about Thomas’ doubt than it is about his belief.
John tells us earlier in the text that Thomas wasn’t the only one who questioned the story that Jesus had been raised. Mary Magdalene was the first one to see him, and then rushed to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (v. 18). Notice, however, that the disciples hiding out in the house “for fear of the Jews” didn’t seem to believe her until Jesus himself showed up. Only when they saw him themselves did they “rejoice” (v. 20). Thomas hadn’t been with the disciples at that moment, but the disciples told him, as Mary had told them, “we have seen the Lord” (v. 25). Thomas isn’t that different from the other disciples who cannot quite grasp what the empty tomb means.
Thomas, however, is more honest in his attempts to guard his reason. Like a good historian, Thomas wants to see and to touch. He wants to see the nail prints and the scar in Jesus’ side, just like his friends had seen. Rather than doubting their story, Thomas needs to see evidence before belief. The word “doubt” doesn’t actually appear anywhere in this text. In the Greek, the word is “apistos” or “unbelief.” Thomas, in other words, isn’t dismissing the good news, he simply wants to guard his reason until he sees evidence that demands a verdict.
But the evidence that Thomas is looking for isn’t something that can be categorized in the normal way. We know, as they knew, that people who die tend to stay dead. We know, too, that some people report seeing visions of departed loved ones or report seeing apparitions, but this wasn’t that kind of account. Thomas wants evidence that can be seen, felt, touched. A ghost you could explain away, a vision you would understand, but an embodied, risen Jesus? This I have to see to believe!
And Jesus obliges, showing up a week later with an invitation for Thomas to touch and feel. Now, you’d expect that John would give us a short sentence saying that Thomas did just that—that he would examine the evidence with his sense of touch. But John doesn’t say that. Instead, Thomas transcends the kind of knowing that he had intended to use and passes into a deeper and richer one. In the midst of the risen Jesus, Thomas moves from unbelief requiring evidence, to belief requiring a response.
It is Thomas, the historian, who thus speaks the first words of confession about what the resurrection of Jesus meant to him, to the disciples, and to the world. He simply says, “My Lord and my God!” He moves from guarding his position to giving his worship
Thomas’ statement is a loaded one that draws together all that we’ve been talking about over the last several weeks. When Thomas calls Jesus “Lord” it’s a title granted to a king—the one whom all of Israel had been waiting for—the one whom would inaugurate God’s kingdom and begin setting the world right—the one who announced that this new creation was at hand. In the first century world, “Lord” was a title reserved only for Caesar—Thomas now declares the first Christian creed in two words—“My Lord”—you are the true king and the kingdom has truly come.
And then, “my God.” Remember the hope of Israel—that God would return to Zion in power and dwell with his people in a renewed and restored temple. Well, here was Jesus, the one in whom heaven and earth come together, the one who, like the temple, was destroyed but, unlike the temple, the one who rose again. God had indeed returned—beating Israel’s greatest enemy, death, by going through it and out the other side to the kind of resurrected life so many of them had been waiting for. The resurrection of Jesus was the coronation and vindication of Israel’s true king—the king of the whole cosmos, and in him a new creation had begun.
The resurrected Jesus stands as the evidence of that new creation that transcends the categories of the old. It’s not merely a spiritual kingdom, but an embodied one, as his scars and, later, his appetite suggests. But it’s not merely a physical kingdom, either. Jesus is embodied, but he seems to appear behind locked doors. His friends didn’t seem to recognize him right away. In Jesus’ Easter body there seems to be both continuity and discontinuity with his pre-resurrection self, and he announces a new kingdom that has both continuity and discontinuity with the present world. It’s a kingdom that brings heaven and earth together, and we see that most beautifully represented by the risen Christ. We’ll talk about that more next week.
For now, however, like those guardian monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, we can continue to guard our positions on the continuum or, like Thomas, we can choose to confess that the risen Jesus is both Lord and God not just of the future, but of our present. We can stop trying to fit the resurrection into our existing scientific and spiritual categories and, instead, begin to see it as the first event of the new creation and as our vocation to participate with Jesus in making it a reality. If the resurrection means that Jesus is Lord (present tense), then it means that we, as his subjects, have work to do in announcing his kingdom. If the resurrection means that Jesus is God returning to take up residence with his people, then we have a vocation to live and act as if God’s justice and peace and glory is already filling the whole world. Easter means that God, in Christ, has beaten the enemy Death and that all that remains is to announce that victory in advance of his coming. Resurrection then isn’t just a position to be defended, but a vocation for us to live out every day until he comes!
This is clearly what the disciples did. Before Easter, they are hiding out in a locked room wondering if they should quietly go back to fishing. After Easter, they are soon traveling around the ancient Mediterranean world telling people about the crucified and resurrected Messiah, which would have been a blasphemy to many Jews and a puzzling anomaly to many Gentiles. They knew this message was bizarre, but they preached it anyway—they preached it because they witnessed it, and no amount of persecution or even their own violent deaths could stop them from doing it.
Now, a lot of people in the world believe some crazy things, but they usually do so for some personal benefit—that they’ll have many wives, or get their own planet, or advance in levels of knowledge or status. But the early Christians had no upside to their beliefs that would benefit them in the present—no secret knowledge, no promise of riches, no social status. Quite the opposite, actually. They could only expect scorn and ridicule at best and being torn apart in the arena at worst. Being a Christian in the first two plus centuries after Jesus was a dangerous proposition, and it still is today in some places. Did you see the story about the Iranian Christian Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, who has been sentenced to death for converting to Christianity? He and others like him reflect that apostolic spirit. The disciples, weren’t concerned so much with personal reward as they were with the renewal of the whole world. They preached Easter not just as a future hope but as a present reality. You could kill them but they still believed they’d be back, embodied and renewed one day. They didn’t go out to fight for their faith, but to give it away sacrificially. You can’t stop a movement like that—and Easter movement, a resurrection movement—a movement that believes death itself can be and will be beaten.
But we’re a long way from those early days, and most of us aren’t on the edge of real persecution. We tend to only talk about resurrection once a year, on Easter. That’s the day that, like every day at the Holy Sepulcher, the guardians start mixing with the tourists—those who come to look around and try to figure out what it’s all about—something to do with tombs or bunnies and eggs and the like. The world is confused about Easter because the church has been confused about it as well.
On my second trip to the Holy Sepulcher, I squeezed into the door at the tail end of my group and joined the crowd pressing up the stairs to Calvary. At the top, waiting there in line, a young couple behind me tapped me on the shoulder. They were Italian, and in broken English they said, “Can you tell us what this place is?” They were in Israel on holiday, and had apparently just followed the crowd into the church. That’s what tourists do. I told them the story, but what they heard seemed to not connect with what they saw in the crowded chapel. I wanted to tell them more when it was quiet, but then they were gone, whisked away by the crowd.
I wonder how many people crowd into churches every Easter, or look at Christians and wonder, “Can you tell us what this is all about? How we answer that question is vitally important. Is Easter the event that changes everything, or is it just another religious holiday?
Instead of a theory, instead of a tourist attraction, instead of a spiritualized formula, what they need to hear is the story—the story of how Jesus is both Lord and God and how his resurrection makes all things new, and that that’s what we’re up to right here—practicing resurrection and bringing the life of God’s new creation to bear on a broken world groaning to be made whole again.
May we recapture the call to be Easter people—not just believing in resurrection but living it. People who proclaim Jesus as Lord and God as King—right now, today, and every day.