by Eric Elnes
War on Easter?
Have you ever noticed how, come Christmas time, the news is full of stories about the “War on Christmas.” It’s like clockwork. You reach December – or even October or November – and suddenly the drums start pounding, the call to arms is made (usually by someone on TV who’s leading the charge) … and we’ve got a “war” on our hands. “Put Christ back into Christmas!” they scream.
Why don’t we ever hear about a War on Easter? Have you ever heard anyone demanding, “Put Christ back in Easter”? Yet if someone truly wanted to undermine Christianity, Easter would be a far larger target than Christmas. The apostle Paul never said, “Without the Virgin Birth all faith is in vain,” but he did say that if there is no resurrection, faith is useless.
Of course, like Christmas, attempts to dumb down Easter and reduce it to another excuse for a shopping spree have made inroads. Instead of Santa … it’s the Easter bunny. Instead of stockings and gifts, it’s colored eggs and candy baskets. Restaurants fall all over themselves to offer over-priced Easter brunches. Department stores have done a pretty good job convincing us that Easter just can’t be celebrated properly without a new dress or hat, or at least a table cloth for Easter dinner.
Yet even so, Easter seems to have a special power that seems to deflect even the strongest attempts to cheapen it. Perhaps there is no “War on Easter” because it needs no defense. Easter doesn’t seem to need Crusaders to defend Jesus against hoards of chocolate bunnies. Even Easter’s central claim – of resurrection – doesn’t seem to call for defense. Considering how preposterous that claim is, you’d think the “enemies of Easter” would have crushed it long ago.
Easter Though the Eyes of John’s Community
I wonder if the power of Easter resides in the fact that honest doubt in Jesus’ resurrection actually makes faith stronger, not weaker. As British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson once observed, “There lives more faith in honest doubt … than in half the creeds.”
The relationship between faith and doubt lies behind the Easter story of “Doubting Thomas” – and the final gift we will explore in our Gifts of the Dark Wood series: the Gift of Doubt.
You can read the story here, which only appears in the Gospel of John: http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=200906625
A little historical context behind this story reveals some pretty interesting dynamics lying below the surface.
John’s Gospel was the last to be written in the New Testament. It was written sometime between 90 and 95 C.E. – at least 60 years after the first Easter and 20 years after the last of the other gospels was written. Between the the other gospel accounts,and John’s, some huge – even cataclysmic – shifts took place in the ancient world that brought entirely different questions to bear on the Christian story. Seeds of doubt. More accurately, boulders of doubt.
During that 20 year interval, Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans, dispersing the Jewish community all over the orient – including to vast areas of what is now modern Turkey, where 16 of us will be travelling next week. During this period, Christianity exploded among the pagan population. By the time of John’s gospel, pagan converts far outnumbered Jewish ones, in fact. There were so many pagans converting to Christianity, in fact, that Rome started becoming VERY uncomfortable.
Why? Because Christians refused to worship the Emperor as a god. This didn’t make the Emperor particularly happy. It’s not simply that he had a big ego (though Emperors always did). Sacrificing to the Emperor was thought to give the Emperor power that related directly to national security. You could repulse enemies and conquer nations when the Emperor’s power was increased by the worship and sacrifices of the faithful. Every Christian who refused to do this was undermining the Emperor’s power.
The Romans had other problems with Christians too. For instance, if you were an artisan, or a metal worker, or any kind of tradesperson – even a humble wet nurse – you were likely part of a guild. A guild was kind of like a modern union back in the heyday of unions. If you weren’t part of a union, you didn’t work in your craft. Yet membership in the ancient guilds involved not just going to meetings and paying dues. It involved the active worship of, and sacrifice to, the patron god or goddess of that guild. Worship and sacrifice was thought to please the deity, who could then be expected to bless the guild with prosperity. Failure to worship or sacrifice was thought to displease the deity, resulting in anything from failed crops for the agricultural guilds to material shortages for the metal workers. In other words, Christians were bad for business. And if Christians weren’t working, they weren’t paying taxes either.
If you were a Christian who lived in a city, you had further problems. You were expected to make sacrifices to the patron deity of the city. Failure to do so, it was believed, resulted in city-wide crises – like disease, famine, or natural disasters like earthquakes, which were frequent in the region. In other words, Christians were bad for the community.
Yet it didn’t stop there. Families also were believed to have patron deities that were kept happy through devotion. Mothers relied on these deities when giving birth and nursing children. The health of the entire family was dependent upon pleasing this god or goddess. In an era of high infant mortality, can you imagine your spouse turning to you and saying, “So our child just died. How’s your Christianity working for you?” – the implication being that child might have been saved had you honored the family’s protective deity.
So, if you were a Christian, you were thought to be a threat to national security, bad for the economy, bad for the community, and anti-family. A Communist living in the United States during the height of the McCarthy era would have been accorded far more respect and dignity. By the time we get to John’s gospel, Christians had endured two enormous, bloody persecutions, first under Nero, then under Domitian. It was a lot more dangerous – and humiliating – in John’s day to be a Christian than it was in was Matthew, Mark, or Luke’s. The threat – and negative stigma – was found not just at a local synagogue, but EVERYWHERE YOU TURNED.
Set against this backdrop, do you suppose an average, run-of-the-mill Christian might start to entertain DOUBTS about her faith?
How would your own faith be challenged if, every time something bad happened to you, people’s explanation was, “It’s because of your wacked out faith! It’s because this Jesus guy is a fraud. A phony. Your belief is misplaced and dangerous!”
Can you enter the story of Easter as seen through the eyes of John’s community? They could relate to the disciples starting the day huddled together in a locked room for fear of the world surrounding them. They could identify with fearing for their lives. They could identify with all the doubts that must have been swirling through the disciples’ minds before Jesus appeared.
And they could REALLY identify with Thomas.
Thomas and the Gift of Doubt
What would have been particularly special about Thomas in the eyes of John’s community – is the particular nature of his doubt. Thomas wasn’t there when the other disciples saw Jesus. Neither was John’s community. Thomas was in such a state of befuddlement and distress that not even the claims made by his closest friends could bring him to belief. And why would anyone from John’s community have had reason to believe the claims made not by their closest friends but by people they never knew who lived 60 years ago?
What brought Thomas to belief was not the authority of those who claimed to have seen Jesus, but his refusal to whitewash his doubts. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
In this statement, Thomas not only challenged the rest of Jesus’ disciples. He challenged GOD. “Prove it to me! Don’t expect me to risk my livelihood, and even my life, based on the word of others – even those I know and love. There’s a lot at stake here. I will never believe until I experience Christ’s resurrection for myself.”
And what is God’s response to Thomas’ lack of belief? Punishment? Ridicule? Eternal torment in hell? No. Jesus showed up. Jesus showed up, blessing Thomas with a word of peace. And Thomas’ response after experiencing Jesus first-hand? “My Lord and my God.”
Curiously, after blessing Thomas, Jesus adds this statement: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Does this statement make any sense when none of the other disciples believed before they saw Jesus standing before them? Why single out Thomas for this kind of chiding when the other disciples needed the same proof?
Because the Jesus of John’s gospel is not talking to Thomas. He’s talking to those who are reading John’s gospel. He’s talking to people who had never seen Jesus face to face, in flesh and blood. He’s talking to you and me.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
You will never believe in the Living Presence of Jesus without experiencing the Living Presence of Jesus in some powerful way. What Jesus is saying to John’s community – and to you and me – is that it’s okay to doubt. Jesus doesn’t need an army of Crusaders defending his status as Resurrected Lord to ensure that Easter means more than eating chocolate bunnies and coloring eggs.
What John’s gospel is saying to us – not just “saying,” but practically screaming at us – is that if you have any doubts about whether the Spirit of the Living Christ is alive and well in our day – if you have any doubts that it is possible to experience the transformative power and love of God in a personal and intimate way – then you should face your doubt. Name it. Claim it. Tell your friends that you doubt. Tell your neighbors. Tell your minister. Most of all, tell God: “I will not believe that any of this amounts to anything more than religious fantasy and wishful thinking until you show up in my life!”
Of course, don’t say this unless you’re willing to have your world turned on its head.
For the fact of the matter is, it’s hard to keep a good man down! At least if he’s Jesus. Jesus may not walk this earth in flesh and blood, but his Spirit lives on – not off in some remote heaven, but right here. Right now. On earth as it is in heaven.
As C.S. Lewis once observed, “If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified, we were believing what clearly was not worth believing. But if doubt is answered, our faith has grown stronger. It knows God more certainly and it can enjoy God more deeply.”
Or as Alfred Lord Tennyson once observed, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” Don’t make doubt your creed. Make doubt your cry. If Easter is real, your cry will be heard. And answered.