He rose out of obscurity and made a tremendous impact on his nation. Crowds of people gathered wherever he was, fascinated by him. The authorities felt threatened; it seemed like all the old ways were up for grabs. Families quarreled over what he did. Those devoted to him sensed that a new era had begun.
Then, well before he reached old age, he met a tragic death. His abused body was laid to rest. All the joys he brought, all the release and new life, came to a crashing end. Those closest to him were lost in grief. So were many others.
But reports started to circulate that he was alive again. People familiar with his appearance saw him in one place, then another. He always took them by surprise, utterly by surprise.
Who is this, who had such a tremendous impact, died before his time, but was reported alive again? You may think weâre talking about Jesus Christ, but weâre really talking about Elvis Presley! He was once a cause for national controversy. He came to a terrible, pathetic end. And now stories keep circulating that he has come back from the dead.
What is happening here? I do not believe these reports are descriptions of objective reality. But they do point to something significant in the psyche of the American people. You can call those who have these experiences crazy people and fringe elements who act out the secrets of a society: it needs, it wants its crises.
The so-called appearances of Elvis also raise a question for Christians. What difference is there between a risen Elvis and a risen Jesus? Is the Man from Mississippi on a par with the Man from Galilee because both are said to have come back from the other side? Can we dismiss the Elvis reports and keep the Easter story?
The answers to these questions can be found when we consider the Easter experience and the difference it makes.
The tomb of Jesus is found to be empty. To this day, neither friend nor foe has been able to produce his body. As far as anyone knows, there is no serious claim that Elvisâ tomb is empty, and no one has bothered to check.
The Elvis who is sighted at shopping malls and fast food restaurants seems to make no more than a visual impression. The risen Christ, however, invites the inspection of his wounds, eats and drinks with his disciples, and organizes his followers for their mission. The Elvis who appears looks like a memory from the past. The Christ who appears acts as a force for the future.
The Elvis appearances leave people astonished but unchanged. Encounters with the risen Christ turn lives around. This transformation occurred in the first century. The cowardly, quarreling disciples, so often uncomprehending, so often impotent, become, through the resurrection, brave and united, perceptive, able to act. The resurrection happens not only to Jesus, but, in a way, to his disciples as well. They are lifted from the narrow tomb of their former existence and thrust into the sunlight of a spacious life.
This resurrection process has never stopped happening since that first Easter Day. People continue to be transformed. The places where they were once wounded have become sources of strength, for grace has done its healing work. Perhaps you have seen this phenomenon in someone elseâs life. Perhaps you have seen it in your own.
The return of Elvis brings with it no gift of forgiveness. He was his own victim. But Christ submits to a world of indignities heaped upon him, punishments undeserved, in order to build a bridge between our sinful lives and the utter holiness of God. This Jesus refuses to remain only a victim.
Still marked by the wounds of the cross, the risen Lord appears in the midst of his disciples, offering the world forgiveness. He fills his disciples with forgiveness first, and commands them to pass on this gift to others. Thus, the resurrection of Christ is no isolated event, a freakish wonder fit for supermarket tabloids. It constituted the seal of divine acceptance set upon the entirety of his life. The resurrection of Christ declares that our separation from God, our alienation from each other, our subservience to deathâall are overcome by a power that knows no equal.
Why then these stories about Elvis, when he is a dead legend who cannot help us? Because all people have the need for a savior, and if they do not meet the Good News of Jesus lived out in the Christian community, or if they refuse to respond, then they must establish for themselves some other savior. They may even be overcome by fantasies of a dead celebrity come back from the other side. But their lives will remain untouched, unaided, unchanged.
Yes, all people have this in common: the need for a savior. There is one whose tomb is empty. There is one who offers us the Easter experience. Contact with him makes forgiveness real for us. Contact with him brings transformation: we start to become what in our best moments we can be.
Each of us probably arrived at church this morning because at some level we feel a hunger for meaning in our lives. We want a savior who is real. It is important to be here on this, the greatest Christian feast. But Easter is not one morning only, or even the church season that extends for 50 days. Easter is a way of life.
The Risen One who meets us now awaits us on many occasions. The Risen One waits for us in scripture and sacrament, in prayer and music, in community and service. The Risen One waits for us in the faces of those who love us, and in the faces of those who need our live. The Risen One waits for us in the texture of our lives: the dreams and coincidences, the trials and joys. The Risen One waits for us in creation: the stars that fill the night sky, the oceanâs wild wave, the lilyâs exquisite flower. The Risen One waits for us in every corner.
Forgiveness, transformation, and a high purpose are what he offers. Jesus himself is the Easter experience available to us through all the days to come. His resurrection is not an idle tale. It is not even just barefaced fact. His resurrection is something more: it is a vibrant reality, a force for the future.