In 1963, workmen, while laying the foundation for the new YMCA in Jerusalem, discovered the skeleton of a man whom they said had a very high forehead and was about 2,000 years old. There are lots of old skeletons about but this particular one came with the implication it might have belonged to Jesus. Unfortunately for the 1963 skeleton, other construction workers were digging again in Jerusalem near the site of Joseph of Arimathea's tomb in 1970. Once more they came up with a skeleton. This one actually had nails driven through his hands. Again, the doubters implied that this might have been Jesus' skeleton. These skeletons proved only what we already knew, a lot of people died at the beginning of the first century.
The number of old skeletons that have been found — and those yet to be discovered — are many but too many reports of this kind only confirm the truth of Christianity's great miracle. We must come out at the same place as Martin Luther did. John Osborne, the playwright, pictures Luther as casting a doubtful eye on the number of apostles' bodies, which were showing up in those days. There were just too many of them. Luther, with irony, remarked, "How does it happen, of Jesus' original twelve apostles, eighteen of them are now buried in Germany?"
Can we glibly deny these old bones? Yes. Why? One simple reason: the ageless vibrancy of the church could never have been called to life by Jesus' bones. Skeletons and skeptics will always abound, but the witness of the New Testament is not one that forged a company of martyrs out of frightened men by showing them Jesus' skeleton. Quite to the contrary, the apostles all had to deal with a living dead man and their eerie yet victorious encounter with the resurrected Jesus changed their world and ours.
For all who know the power of the living Christ, Easter is a season of bright joy. The reality of the Resurrection is laid out in the Bible. Acts 1:3 says, The Lord Jesus Christ showed himself with his passion, being there some forty days after the resurrection. And the entire New Testament taken together lists thirteen times when the dead Christ showed himself alive. Paul lists six of these.
But Paul's account of the sixth appearance holds a wonderful conclusion to all this. "Last of all," says the Apostle, "Jesus appeared to me as one born out of due time." Paul's appearance came two years later than the others. Some of the church in Paul's day never liked counting his encounter as a genuine resurrection appearance. The other resurrection appearances came within forty days after Jesus arose. Then two years after Christ's ascension, Jesus makes a resurrection call on the Apostle. Paul came to believe in Easter as "one born out of due time."
What does it mean to be one born out of due time? It means that Easter comes to all of us exactly as it came to Paul. We, like Paul, are all post-ascension believers. We are all "born out of due time." But as Jesus told Thomas, it's one thing to believe after you have seen, but it is even better to believe before you see (John 20:29). We will, as Tennyson suggests, see "our resurrected pilot face to face." In the meantime, we, like Paul, celebrate that anticipation as those born out of due time.
Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia;
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia.
Reprinted in part from Decision Magazine, April 2001.