This Holy Week, hundreds of frazzled preachers around the world have undoubtedly heaved a sigh of relief. Instead of having to fret over what illustration to use on Easter Sunday morning to capture their listeners’ attention, they can simply seize the opportunity the calendar has handed them.
This year, Easter falls on April Fools’ Day, which means that countless sermons will be able to employ some version of the following introduction: “On Easter Sunday, we Christians celebrate the fact that a dead man came back to life. This might seem like the ultimate prank—dead people just don’t climb out of their graves, period—but this year, it turns out, God’s April Fools’ joke is actually true!” (More adventurous preachers might even try reviving the old “fish hook” theory of the atonement. According to that ancient model, in the ultimate April Fools’-style prank, God dupes Satan by enticing him to kill Jesus—only thereby to ensnare the devil and win a victory at his expense.)
Were I to occupy a pulpit this year, I too would happily take advantage of this fortuitous convergence of holidays. But I’m not sure the real divine April Fools’ prank is quite what many preachers will say it is.
The Scandal of the Cross
It’s true, of course, that Jesus’ resurrection came as a shock to his first followers. And one of them, famously, did, in fact, view it as a hoax. “Doubting Thomas,” as he’s usually called, was like me when I was a child. Every April 1, I determined that this would be the year I’d avoid being taken in by the jokes my family and friends were sure to be peddling. Thomas, likewise, having had his hopes shattered by Jesus’ crucifixion, promised himself he wouldn’t be hoodwinked by any ghost stories about a resuscitated corpse.
Even so, I think it’s telling that when the apostle Paul tries to pinpoint the real “foolishness” of Christian faith, he doesn’t locate it in the events of Easter Sunday—as if the idea of resurrection were inherently unbelievable. Rather he finds it in the scandal of what happened on Good Friday: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:22–23, NRSV, emphasis added). For Paul, it seems, if God played an April Fools’ joke on humanity, the joke was more in the crucifixion than it was in the empty tomb.
The Apostle Paul’s Backwards Thinking
When the apostle Paul met Jesus for the first time, Jesus had already died. That may seem an obvious enough fact but consider: Paul, marching toward Damascus, his fist clutching a mandate to jail the Christians he found there, was suddenly blinded by the dazzling appearance of the resurrected, exalted Jesus. Having grown up Jewish in a pagan town hundreds of miles north of the Jerusalem temple and having thus memorized in his youth the stories not only of the smoking crags of Sinai but also of the resplendent Greek and Roman gods who hurled thunderbolts from mountain peaks, Paul would scarcely have considered it unusual that Jesus would appear to him in radiant light with a thunderous voice. That was just what the nations’ gods—as well as the true God—did.
But what was unusual—what turned Paul’s entire way of thinking upside down and made him eventually declare that the message of Jesus was, to worldly minds, utterly laughable—was what this glorious apparition said to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). It soon became clear that this radiant person speaking to Paul from heaven was claiming solidarity with beleaguered, earthbound human beings.
Jesus’ question to Paul implied that when he threw Christian believers into prison, Paul was actually wounding Jesus. The eternal Son of God had somehow become vulnerable to human whips, chains, and even death. The great glorious titan of splendor had apparently descended to feel the sting that human beings had long endured below the heights of Sinai and Olympus.
As the New Testament scholar John Knox observed years ago, the direction of Paul’s thinking thus moved “backwards.” Paul first encountered Jesus as the king of heaven, the one whom another early eyewitness described having hair that was “white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters” (Rev. 1:14–15).
Paul would have been unfazed by this kind of splendor. He knew that, if there was such a thing as a God-man, this was how he should appear. What shocked Paul to his core was the dawning realization that this one—this shining King—had submitted to abject humiliation, had, in fact, died naked while gasping for breath under the watchful gaze of idolatrous, hubristic foreign occupiers. And that’s why Paul wrote to the church in Corinth that the “message about the cross is foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18).
God’s Easter Sunday Prank
To this day, I suspect most of us find it easier to believe that God could show up in the miracle of a resurrected body than in the senseless murder of a good man. For instance, if someone tried to prank me by claiming that my deceased friend Chris had turned up at his favorite pub, I’d laugh and wink, but it wouldn’t necessarily undermine my fundamental convictions about how the world works if it turned out to be true. I’m prepared to meet God in the miraculous, in the glitter of the supernatural and in the joy of favors I’ve repeatedly prayed for.
If, however, someone tried to convince me that God was “hiddenly” at work in the year that I collapsed in depression and had to take a hiatus from grad school or in the moment when I got the news that a beloved colleague was given six weeks to live, I’d frown in skepticism. “I don’t think you realize just how painful that was,” I’d say. “God couldn’t have been connected with those heartaches.”
But such, it seems, is what Paul finds most bizarre and offensive and, indeed, foolish about Easter. For Paul, the Resurrection wasn’t so much a neat parlor trick—“Look, God knows how to re-enliven a cadaver!”—as it was an ironic statement of where God is now to be looked for. The Resurrection revealed a suffering, humiliated man as the Lord of the universe, thereby inscribing defeat and suffering into the definition of what salvation is all about.
What the Resurrection communicated to Paul, in other words, wasn’t just that God was at work in the world’s most hopeless and stomach-churning event—the execution of his Son—but that that execution would from here on out serve as the fundamental marker of Jesus’, and indeed his Father’s, identity. The Resurrection freeze-framed the scars on Jesus’ body, permanently projecting them onto the silver screen of the cosmos, you might say.
Every Easter Sunday from here on out, we can all look up and remember the most famous April Fools’ joke of all time: that God was there at “the place of the skull” (John 19:17), in the blood and the tears of broken humanity, reconciling the world to himself. And that is he is now to be found in our tears too.
Wesley Hill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.