Proving Resurrection? Thoughts on Easter Preaching

Of late, I’ve loved to remember the stories of the woman/women at the tomb on Easter morning. I love the disparities between the stories which, among other more important things, give rise to the possibility of picking a favorite version. All things considered, Luke is my favorite. And it is so almost entirely because of the question asked of the women by the two glowing men: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

For some readers, however, the disparities generate concerns about the historical accuracy, authenticity, and inerrancy of the gospels. Can we trust a story if we aren’t confident about every detail?

One Easter morning, I recall, a pastor taking a long time to summarize some detective’s work that was supposed to prove the Bible’s testimony about Christ. In a large, seeker-friendly church like his, the pastor rightly assumed that Easter morning would draw many visitors. A substantial number of those visitors, he must have suspected, would doubt the veracity of the Bible and the resurrection. So, what should he do? Apparently, he felt that he should preach a sermon with the goal of persuading people about the truthfulness of the Bible so they might believe the story of Christ’s resurrection. This seems reasonable enough, doesn’t it?

But is that what an Easter morning sermon should do? Is the goal of preaching on Easter to prove, defend, or resolve what the church has traditionally called the mystery of our faith? There are plenty of grounds upon which to argue for the Bible’s trustworthiness and there is a place for historical research in Christian ministry. But I am convinced that the preacher should not trade simple proclamation for these kinds of persuasion, especially on Easter Sunday. To do so is to risk committing rhetorical, pastoral, and exegetical errors that, in all likelihood, will leave congregants wanting and skeptical visitors unpersuaded. 

I am convinced that the preacher should not trade simple proclamation for persuasion, especially on Easter Sunday.

The rhetorical error arises from an assumption that the audience will change their mind once given certain facts. But why should we assume that evidence will change the listener’s mind, especially evidence coming from a person who represents the largely distrusted profession of pastoral ministry? (In late 2017, a Gallup poll found only about 2 of every 5 Americans think pastors are honest and trustworthy.) Even if the listener is among the minority of Americans who trust clergy’s moral character, there is no guarantee that they will trust the evidence you provide. Basically every Facebook comment thread confirms this. I am not convinced that we live in a post-truth, post-fact world. We are, however, living in a time when individuals are predisposed to trust themselves over professionals for the simple fact that they can support their own beliefs with the bits of information they find scattered across the four corners of the Internet. In a time when people distrust clergy and have Google, why would they believe your “proof” that the Bible is true or that Jesus really raised from the dead? 

The pulpit of St. Peter’s First Community Church, Huntington, Indiana.

A second error is pastoral. Preaching to prove the truthfulness of the Bible or the reality of the resurrection is not the job of the pastor nor is it the task of any Easter sermon. Pastor Paul, as Scot McKnight calls him, makes the point clearly: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5). Preaching like Paul, then, is to observe how God’s love is endlessly enduring, how God works through Christ to raise up new creation, and how God the Spirit is actively transforming us and the world. None of this, however, permits us to think we are called into the business of persuading someone into faith by historical argumentation or pseudo-investigative journalism. Rather, the goal of preaching is to help people find themselves within the story of God’s redemptive mission by inviting them to see the ways in which God is already working salvation together. Our preaching must present God’s power. In short, preaching to persuade through proofs reveals a misunderstanding both of the pastoral vocation and the goal of preaching. Pastors tell the story of God’s love. God captivates the hearer’s heart. What I’ve just argued is powerfully confirmed by the disparities between the gospels, which I mentioned earlier. If the goal was to “prove” historically what happened on Easter morning, then the Spirit ought to have guided the church in creating a singular account of the story, with a witness inside of the tomb at the time of Christ’s rising. The Spirit’s wisdom, however, guided the church to keep the four gospels with their disparities and all. The four gospels are themselves preachers and the essential content of all preaching. They reveal that the preacher’s chief goal is not to clear up the historical data but to bear witness to the power of God as revealed in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. If the Spirit saw fit to guide the church to keep the four gospels with their narrative inconsistencies and missing details, then the Spirit must also have deemed each story uniquely capable of persuading doubters and non-believers, and the four together as bearing unified, powerful witness to the essence of the story: Christ is risen. We should follow their example.

The four gospels are themselves preachers and the essential content of all preaching. They reveal that the preacher’s chief goal is not to clear up the historical data but to bear witness to the power of God as revealed in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

The final error that I see in this is an exegetical oversight, at least when working with Luke. It seems that preaching to prove resurrection runs directly contrary to Luke’s story of the women’s own preaching on Easter morning. This is highlighted by the question the two glowing men ask the women. When the women arrive at the tomb very early on Easter morning, a curious observation peaks their interest: the stone has been rolled away from the tomb. Dozens of questions must have surged through their mind. They climb into the tomb to begin investigating; the mystery needs solving. But the glowing men interrupt their investigation: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Here is the trouble with preaching to prove the story: it is a distant relative of what the women were doing. The women could have spent all day trying to piece together just what happened and how. The glowing men’s question implies that that would have been to focus on entirely the wrong thing. Their question reveals that Easter morning is not to be spent dusting Christ’s tomb for fingerprints, like Ace Ventura, seeking proof thatsomething really did happen. Easter morning should be spent running breathlessly to tell people you know and those you don’t that God has raised Christ from the dead. Easter morning is to be spent joyfully seeking the living Christ who is loosed from death, who longs to be found, and whose power alone will reassure the doubting and persuade the non-believer.

This year, as churches utilize livestreams and other digital options, Easter worship will be more public than any time in recent history. Preachers may have an opportunity to speak to people who otherwise would never hear them. Will you keep those people, who are likely desperate for the good news of the gospel, waiting in the tomb all morning? Or will you rush them out of the tomb in joy, taking them by the hand and leading them on a search for the living Lord? Will you make them turn over yet another stone in the grave or will you tell them with boldness that God raises life from the dead? In a time when certain cities are running out of body bags and morgues are overflowing, I believe a simple proclamation that death is defeated would be more powerful than a thousand pages of proofs.

I’ll read Matthew on Easter morning but the beautiful question from Luke’s gospel will remind me how to preach.

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