Grandma and Grandpa Herrman had a storm cellar. The small, limestone-lined space was dug-out beneath their house, but one entered it through a door in the backyard, just as Dorothy tried unsuccessfully to do in The Wizard of Oz. My numerous cousins and I spent a lot of time in our grandparents’ backyard, because, if the weather was good — and when isn’t the weather in Kansas beautiful, the Dorothy scenario excepted — our parents would be talkin’ on the front porch. They would encourage the kids to count license plates, walk to the filling station for a “pop,” or harvest blackberries, which we called Schwarzeberries. We’d take a bucket to the backyard and start-in on the berries. They were pea-sized and grew on bushes more akin to high weeds. We’d promise Grandma enough to make a pie, though, once the bottom of the bucket was no longer visible, we’d eat all of the berries ourselves.
The backyard was a wonderful spot! My grandparents house lay on the edge of town. Funny, I’ve just realized that I come from edge-of-town folk rather than Main Street stock. I reckon that people on Main Street had indoor toilets. Grandma and Grandpa had an outhouse, so it’s not as though we were ever completely unsupervised in the backyard, not with all of the beer and ice tea being drunk on the porch.
Grandpa had a huge vegetable garden at the end of the yard, with rows of carrots, radishes, onions, and potatoes, each a long, straight line stretching out beyond the cucumber patch. Beyond that lay the endless prairie and its wheatfields. Grandma grew large swathes of dill, which we loved to walk through and smell. She raised it for her pickles, which she canned and preserved in the root cellar. New York Delis take pride in their dill pickles. I could never understand why.
There was one Fall, however, when Grandma was disappointed in her dills. I remember the supper when she told everyone that several of her Kerr jars contained unexplainedly spoiled pickles. That had never, ever, happened before! I piped up, “They were fine when we ate them in the root cellar last summer.”
“You opened my pickles?”
“Uh...yeah...We didn’t think you’d notice, because we each took a pickle from a different jar.” To this day it’s still a contentious question among my relatives whether it was my brother Harold or my cousin Eldon who masterminded the deed. There’s even a, sadly rather substantial, branch of the family, blaming the poor kid who “turned state’s evidence.”
Sometimes, when discussing the resurrection of Christ, I ask students why Jesus didn’t appear to Pilate, to Caiphas, or to any of those who had sought his death. Wouldn’t that prove, beyond any doubt, that he had risen from the dead? I let them stew on that one for awhile, like ripening dill pickles, but they rarely produce a satisfactory reply. Often they suggest, “He only appeared to those who already believed in him,” but I point out, “Yet the scriptures themselves tell us that, while the disciples believed him to be a great prophet of God, some, even the promised Messiah, they themselves initially professed disbelief at what they saw. They weren’t expecting Jesus to rise from the dead.
So why didn’t Jesus appear to his enemies? For that matter, why didn’t he simply stay around for more than forty days? That would have placed the resurrection beyond any doubt.
But that’s the issue. The resurrection can’t stand above all dissent. We may think that we want a God-made-manifest beyond any doubt, but such overwhelming God would drain the very dregs of our humanity. Why? Because to be human is to grow and to develop. In that sense, we’re a bit like dill pickles. We need time to ripen. A God who intruded into human freedom would destroy that freedom and its fruit, like someone opening a pickle jar before its time. The resurrection, like every other activity of God in human history, is meant to cajole, to win the human heart, not trample it down.
That’s not to say that there isn’t good evidence for the resurrection of the Christ. All sides agree that the tomb was empty. How do we know that? Because if it hadn’t been, the Jerusalem powers could have immediately squashed rumors of resurrection simply by producing the body, but there was no corpse to proffer.
Did the male disciples steal the body? But, by their own, sorry admission, they were too afraid even to accompany him to Calvary. Peter would have had to give an incredible half-time talk to convince these men to do such a thing. And to what conceivable end? “We’ll be founders of a world religion. At least we will be, after we’ve also been martyred.”
Likewise, the very fact that women are recorded as the first witnesses of the resurrection is itself a strong indication of the gospel’s probity. Why make up a story, using what was then considered to be such unreliable testimony? Recording that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection is akin to my admitting that we had taken the pickles. Why confess to what doesn’t make you look good, unless it simply is the truth?
The resurrection is quite credible, especially when one considers the rapid transformation in the disciples, who go from fearing for their lives to proclaiming boldly a gospel for which they would shed their blood. If the resurrection didn’t happen, what produced such swift change?
And yet for all its credibility, the resurrection isn’t beyond doubt, especially in human hearts blinded by sin and prejudice. But it has to be that way. God calls, but God doesn’t compel. God woos us with the wonder of the resurrection, but God’s great act of witness doesn’t wrestle away human freedom. Yes, that Palestinian tomb was opened by the power of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, but, like a woman who knows her canning, who lets dill pickles do their time, God gives each of us the freedom we need to ripen, to respond to wonder of resurrection, which, in the end, is all that life’s about for a Christian.
Rev. Terrance W. Klein