Before me is a copy of the Jerusalem Daily News. The edition is labeled “Extra,” and the date is Sunday, April 9, A.D. 30. The startling big-type headline reads, “NAZARENE’S TOMB FOUND EMPTY.” One of the column captions catches the eye with “ ‘Death Now Vanquished!,’ Cry Converts.” Another draws attention with “ ‘Body Stolen’—Pilate.”

The paper, it scarcely needs pointing out, is not from the archives of Israel. It can claim no kinship with the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is a fabrication of recent date. It is intended, not to fool anyone, but to convey, in the manner of contemporary journalism, something of the excitement—the quality of “breathlessness,” as one writer has put it—with which the story of the risen Jesus races through the New Testament.

The excitement survives, though less in both range and rapture than the numbers of today’s self-confessed Christians entitle us to expect. After World War II, during Martin Niemoeller’s first visit to America, a jaundiced newspaper reporter edged his assessment of Niemoeller with mild disgust: “Think of it, here is a man who spent three years in solitary confinement. When he comes out, all he can talk about is Jesus Christ.” Remove the huffiness of the speaker and the words stand as an exciting truth. The first disciples suffered through three anguished days when all the joy and hope they had known in Jesus were drained away. Then they came out of their prison. They came out of theirs because he came out of his. “Then … came Jesus and stood in the midst,” as we have it in John 20:19. Or, as John Masefield fashions it on the lips of a Roman soldier, in answer to the question of Pilate’s panic-stricken wife about the “escaped” Jesus, “Where is he now?”: “Let loose in the world, lady, where neither Roman nor Jew can stop his truth!”

So Easter was on its way—many-splendored and many-sided.

There is the Easter that rises historically. It would be truer to say that it towers. It soars. In saying this are we forgetting that some of this century’s distinguished theologians have shown a kind of ingenious reluctance to give our Lord’s alleged resurrection any status at all in the category of the “historical”? With a zeal worthy of a better cause they argue for the nonhistorical—that is to say, the “demythologized”—character of the rising from the dead, the empty tomb, and the post-resurrection “appearances.” The Bultmann position is well known: what is historical is not the resurrection as event but the resurrection as faith. It is unimportant whether Christ did in fact rise; what is all-important is that the disciples believed that he did.

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Therefore, says Bultmann, it is the task of theological interpretation to sort out myth from history. This is held to be important because sitting there in the congregation or working yonder in the laboratory is the sophisticated man of today, dedicated to scientific objectivity to about the same degree that Ivory Soap claims to be pure. This “now” man simply cannot swallow it when you tell him that the Nazarene was buried on a Friday and on Sunday next was alive and in convincing communication with his friends. “It is impossible to make use of electric light and the radio, and, in case of illness, to claim the help of modern medical and clinical methods, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament’s world of spirits and miracles.” That is Professor Bultmann stating his case. In making this huge concession to what some contemporaries love to call “man come of age,” he shows, on the edge of his main point, that he has no fear of dogmatism. After all, “impossible” is a word that is neither tender nor tentative.

A position at once more reasonable and more responsive to the whole biblical-Christian outlook is that taken by Bishop Lesslie Newbigin in his highly contemporary book called Honest Religion for Secular Man:

It is really rather absurd to suggest, as Bultmann does, that a man who uses electric light cannot believe things like this. It is no more and no less difficult to believe in the resurrection after the invention of electric light than before. Nor is this belief made more or less credible by the abandonment of the belief that the universe has three storeys and the world is flat. All this talk is irrelevant to the issue. It has never at any time been possible to fit the resurrection of Jesus into any world view except a world view of which it is the basis. This does not answer all the questions, but it eliminates a certain amount of nonsense.

Our incredulity may batter our brains. Our skepticism may feed our pride. No matter. The historical and theological singularity of that first Easter remains. “Nothing can resist it,” as Bishop Charles Gore has contended in a weighty sentence, “except that sort of treatment of the narratives which can render insecure almost any historical evidence.”

There it is: the first Easter! Tall and tremendous. Witnessing incomparably that “Jesus is Lord”—Lord of death, and life, and righteousness, and forgiveness, and cleansing, with evidence held fast in his scarred hands that, though not coercive of faith, is handsomely conducive.

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The swift sun nibbles the frost

As the long morning shadows dwindle in fear.

This is a day for joy and triumph.

This is not a day for chatter

Though it rings over the garden

Where the blue jays scavenge the garbage

That was scattered for the Spring-hungry mouth

Of Rototiller and spade.

How incongruous is the raucous, cerulean flutter Of their carnage.

This is not a day for death,

With the fat-breasted robin Rounding the mud of her forming nest With a motherly bosom,

Her industry sacrificing unceasingly For the coming of birth.

This is a day that is wrong;

A morning that is out of joint;

It is a time, untimely,

And the white dove pinioned On a cruciform of plum already knobby with bloom

Is like cruel laughter.

This is not a day for our hands to be bloody And our eyes dilated with hate.

Let us tremble. Let us listen.

Let us wonder … and wait.


If the first of our four Easters rises historically, the second returns annually. The link between the two is obvious. If the first was inauguration, the second is celebration.

The Bible is concerned with mnemonics. If you doubt it, take any good concordance and look up the word “remember.” Annual feasts bulked big in Israel’s life of worship. Why a Passover every year? “Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee” (Deut. 15:15).

Why an Easter every year? It would be a tawdry answer to say it is because the early Christians inherited the springtime festival of the pagans. Exactly ten years ago I celebrated Good Friday and Easter in New Zealand. And there it is autumn rather than spring. Does this mute the music or muffle the trumpets of resurrection assurance and joy among the Christians? Not at all. Indeed the editor of Auckland’s influential newspaper, the Star, wrote:

Since the crucifixion of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, dated by some at Friday, April 7, A.D. 30, Easter has throughout Christendom had a significance that obliterates all others. It commemorates the central fact of the Christian religion and throughout the succeeding centuries has been the chief festival of the Christian year. Thus has a pagan celebration been transformed and hallowed. And thus have men and women refreshed and rededicated themselves in the ancient faith that brought new hope to the world—and eternally renews that hope.

Of the throngs that fill our churches on Easter Sunday we may take either of two views. We may say, This is empty conventionality—all these people showing up in their springtime finery, many faces we shall not see again in the sanctuary until the Christmas carols are sung. Or we may say, This is engaging opportunity—these people, with all their shallowness and churchly sentimentalism, will be exposed, so help us God, to the deathless music, and the praiseful prayers, and the convinced and convicting preaching, that gather richness and relevance from the Christ who “died for our sins and rose again for our justification.”

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It may be that some ministers are suffering from a misplaced worry. Instead of wringing their hands because so many of these “religion in general” people will not be back for many a moon, the minister might well ask himself how much conviction, how much robust “good news” faith, he is prepared to share with them. There is little prospect of conversion when a groping William in the pew is met by a doubting Thomas in the pulpit.

The Easter that returns annually should glow with remembrance and gleam with hope.

Our third Easter is the one that recurs weekly. In that rather highly regarded Christian document of the second century known as the Epistle of Barnabas we read: “Therefore also we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose from the dead, was manifested and ascended into heaven.” That Easter comes once a year is true, but it is not the whole truth. For the Christian community it comes once a week.

Some episodes in Christian experience bear repeated telling. This is true, I judge, of what happened one day in the study where England’s renowned preacher, R. W. Dale of Birmingham, was preparing an Easter sermon. Suddenly a truth that he had held for years—“the third day he arose again from the dead”—caught fire within him. He no longer held it; it held him. With a sort of ineluctable clairvoyance he saw it, felt it, was mastered by it—this aliveness of the risen Jesus. Later he set down these words in his diary:

“Christ is alive,” I said to myself: “alive!” And then I paused: “alive!” And then I paused again: “alive!” Can that really be true? Living as really as I myself am? I got up and walked about, repeating: “Christ is living! Christ is living!” At first it seemed strange and hardly true, but at last it came upon me as a burst of sudden glory; yes, Christ is alive. It was to me a new discovery. I thought that all along I had believed it; but not until that moment did I feel sure about it. I then said, “My people shall know it. I shall preach it again and again until they believe it as I do now.”
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After this experience, Dr. Dale insisted that each Sunday the congregation should sing at least one hymn that struck the resurrection note.

Easter may be seen in yet another guise. We may think of it as the Easter that remains continuously. Viewed historically, even the essential Easter can be remote. Viewed annually, the festive Easter can be merely a commemoration. Viewed weekly, the repetitive Easter can be an all but hidden bow to antiquity. Somehow a link must be fashioned, a circuit must be closed, between A.D. 30 and now, between last Easter and now, between last Sunday and now, that will give to Christ’s conquest of death the dynamic immediacy and continuity we find it had for the New Testament Christians.

Failure here gives rise to the complaint that Paul Scherer once voiced in a sermon: “We Christians seem to have developed a kind of memorial complex.… I grow a bit weary of anniversaries. Religion is like marriage in this; it can fall away until it becomes little more than a celebration of anniversaries. It never seems to occur to some couples that they could do more than just remember that they were happy once.”

Yet there have always been cadres of Christians who have lived in the now of a dynamic union between the living Lord and themselves. Here in truth applies that startling thought James Denney once expressed: “The early Christians did not remember Jesus.” Without its context it is a puzzler. What the revered theologian meant was that the disciples we meet in the Acts and the Epistles lived chiefly in the consciousness of Christ’s presence with them, not on the fading stimulus of recollections of the past.

There is a hint of this in one of the resurrection narratives. When Luke tells the story of our Lord’s appearance to the two shattered devotees who were trudging along the Emmaus Road, he says, “Jesus himself drew near and went with them” (24:15). Easter is more than a parade to; it is a pilgrimage from. From the shrine on Sunday to the shop on Monday. From the church where the hymns are sung to the chamber where the legislation is made. From the pews where the prayers are said to the playground where good sportsmanship is shown.

This perpetual history is more than hinted at by the risen Master himself: “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20). Knowing full well that the early Christians took this seriously and, on the whole, radiantly, Luke the historian begins the Book of Acts by saying, “The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach” (1:1). Paraphrase it: “All that I told you in the book of Luke is but the beginning of Christ’s mighty doings and directings!”

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And something hugely more than a hint of Easter’s perennial vitality was dropped by St. Paul when he prayed for the Christians at Ephesus that they might know “how very great is his power at work in us who believe. This power in us is the same as the mighty strength which he used when he raised Christ from death, and seated him at his right side in the heavenly world.… God put all things under Christ’s feet, and gave him to the church as supreme Lord over all things” (Eph. 1:19, 20, 22, Good News for Modern Man).

But now the secret! Now that link, that closing of the circuit between past and present, between Easter formal and Easter functional. What is it? Twice, in the immediate setting of our quotation from Ephesians, Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit. The God whose saving acts, made known objectively in our incarnate Lord—birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension—are made known subjectively, immediately, situationally if you please, by and through His holy Spirit.

Regrettably, there is a pseudo-sophistication, found even in our churches, that regards all conversation and witness about the Holy Spirit as hopeless mystification. We should not be intimidated. Such sophisticates are plagued not by too much intellection but by too little. They should try tracing what happens when an idea passes from one brain to another. The nonphysical and the physical are related by processes that are incredibly mysterious.

Little more mysterious—in principle, perhaps not at all—is the process by which the Spirit of God, whose norm of action is what we see in Jesus Christ and whose resources infinitely transcend our own, illuminates the minds, focuses the emotions, and energizes the wills of those who are open to his action. This is Easter now. It is the Easter between Easters. Indeed it is the Easter between Sundays—where life must be lived by dying, where self must be crucified into conquest, where Christian presence becomes really authentic in high demand and lowly drudgery. It is where G. Campbell Morgan’s magnificent apostrophe to his own soul leaps into reality:

Oh, my life, thou shouldest keep perpetual Lent within the sacred chamber of thy being, and everlasting Easter on thy face!

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