Community Unitarian Universalist Church April
Daytona Beach, Florida
One Person's Search for Easter
A Sermon by Lloyd H. Dunham
The pageantry of Easter at the church of my youth always impressed
me. I didn't really give it much thought.
I accepted what was. It was a given. It was fun because as a
boy soprano I often got to sing a solo.
I was living a neatly compartmentalized life:
those fascinating math and science classes at school
fit neatly in one box
and my religious practices
fit nicely in another box.
If my pastor said it,
If my church taught it,
Then that settled it.
The tomb was empty.
Jesus was resusitated!
I really didn't start to ask many questions until I arrived
at college in West Virginia. Our Bible professor,
dear old Dr. Brown, (he probably wasn't really very old!) opened
our eyes to many new thoughts and questions.
He gave us permission to think critically about scripture.
Each time Easter came around I heard again the amazing stories
and assumed it was all historical fact
Still it didn't trouble me as it should have.
When I shifted my career from religious education to preaching
in 1974 I was faced with what to say on Easter Sunday. The church
was always crowded on Easter But why? Did they all believe
the traditional story or were they hoping I would speak to their
doubts? What would they think if I told them there was no empty
Maybe it didn't matter what I said As long as there was impressive
pageantry and good music. More than ever before I really had
to sort out my own beliefs and faith.
While I had deep doubts about both the Christmas and Easter
stories I had a profound belief and trust
in the teachings and example of Jesus. The only way I could make
sense of it was to use a metaphor of a sandwich. Jesus' story
was like a sandwich. The stories of his birth were like one piece
of bread. The stories of his death and miraculous appearances
were like the other piece of bread. In between was the essential
without which there really was no sandwich. It was out of that
metaphor that I came to regard the birth stories
and the stories of the empty tomb as quite secondary to the life
that was lived between his birth and death..
The "meat" of the sandwich for me was the actual life
and the teachings of Jesus. I have come to believe that the stories
that bracket his life are stories put together to call attention
to one who was very special.
Western Christian theologians have over the years imposed
western style linear thinking on thoroughly Jewish midrash writing
of two thousand years ago. The facts or heresay were woven together
with cherished traditions
to form legends and myths that had great power for first century
people. When those stories were heard as historical accounts
they lost the intended purpose and meaning. As a result orthodox
Christians have been drawn into creeds that have little basis
in the events they are trying to portray.
As I have searched for meaning outside the rigid creeds I
have long looked toward Unitarianism. When Laurie & I were
serving a Dutch Reformed Church in Schenectady, New York in the
early 1960's, a local Unitarian minister decided that the whole
Easter thing was a big joke and justified publicly poking fun
at the Christian churches on his "Wayside Pulpit" bulletin
board. I soon found that he did not represent the best in the
My respect has recently been commanded by retired Episcopal Bishop
John Shelby Spong, who speaks from within the Christian church.
He has said that if his Christian faith depended on acceptance
of an empty tomb
and the physical resurrection of Jesus he would have to turn
away from the Church and the faith that has been his home for
his entire life. He notes that with him would be virtually every
contemporary reputable Biblical scholar, both Protestant and
The Church has made the legends and myths into literal accounts!
The ancient followers of Jesus had used these forms to express
their deep faith as best they knew how.
It seems obvious that something happened among Jesus' followers
in Galilee after his execution. Bishop Spong finds evidence that
after the crucifixion Jesus' disciples went back to their homes
and back to their familiar way of life. He suggests that Peter
had been deeply moved by the man Jesus. Peter knew how Jesus
had transformed lives, how he had lived what he taught. This
enormous impact on his life convinced him that there was more!
He gathered some of the twelve to talk about what had happened.
They shared a profound faith that Jesus still had a living presence
in their lives. Specifically what occurred we will never know
but whatever it was, it was powerful enough to change the course
of history in significant ways.
Bishop Spong believes that it may well be that six months
after Jesus died Peter and the other disciples returned to Jerusalem
for the Feast of Tabernacles to triumphantly declare the continued
reality of Jesus in their lives. The Feast of Tabernacles sound
more than a little familiar. There would be a procession for
days around the altar in the temple by people waving palm branches
and shouting "Hosannah!" "Blessed is he who comes
in the name of the Lord." Virtually every detail of the
Palm Sunday story can be found in the Feast of Tabernacles as
defined in the Hebrew Bible.
The prophets Zechariah and Malachi along with Psalm 118 list
elements of the passion story:
The ride of the king into Jerusalem on a donkey
The waving of palm branches
The shouts of hosannah
The payment of thirty pieces of silver
The cleaning of the temple
The people looking upon the one they had pierced
The Lord suddenly coming to his temple.
Some Christians accuse Bishop Spong of heresy. I welcome his
careful scholarship and his thoughtful and reverent expressions.
He frees me from rigid doctrine (which I find lifeless) to trust
in a caring and loving God
for those things I cannot know or see. What does that mean for
resurrection? For me it means that I can trust God to exceed
my best human hopes. I don't know what that might mean. It is
enough to trust the God to which Jesus pointed us.
In conclusion I offer you Bishop Spong's own words, as he
"For Jesus (life after death) seemed to mean something
like communion with God.
It meant being in touch with something that transcended all of
one's human categories, including transcendence of the self.
It meant having one's eyes opened to see dimensions of life not
normally seen and to have one's ears open to hear melodies and
harmonies not normally heard.
"This means I no longer look for God or for ultimate
meaning in some distant place beyond this world. I rather seek
these realities in every moment and in every relationship..
"For me heaven is an invitation into life, which, when
explored deeply enough, when lived fully enough, when engaged
significantly enough, is a way of passing into transcendence.
In this way finite moments slip into being infinite, timeless
I also believe that human life can be lived so deeply, that love
can be experienced so powerfully,
that incarnation in fact occurs again and again.
God is not a heavenly man, an external force, or a judging parent.
God is the creating spirit that calls order out of chaos..
God is the love that creates wholeness, the Being at the depths
of our being, the Source from which all life comes.
"This is the God I see in Jesus of Nazareth,..
This sermon is a reflection on the work of John Shelby Spong
in his book RESURRECTION: Myth of Reality? Published in
1994. Spong is the retired Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of