TEXT: John 20:1-18
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’ … (John 20:18a)
Well, it’s Easter Sunday again. Looking back over more than two decades of sermons I’ve delivered on previous Resurrection mornings, it occurs to me that I’ve already said a ton of stuff on this subject. And I’m sure there’s at least another ton I could deliver. I guess you could say that—when it comes to Easter messages—I’m FULL of … stuff ..
However, this year, I’m going to do something different.
I’m going to quote to you—at length—something that someone else has written. Something I think is quite wonderful. It’s from an article by a young African-American writer named Sean Gonsalves. But before I do that, I need to tell you a little bit about a man named Paul Tillich. I’ll wager that every seminary student—no matter what denomination—knows that name.
Paul Tillich lived from 1886 to 1965. He was a German philosopher and Protestant theologian, and—truly—he was one of the towering intellects of the 20th century. Concerned that intelligent people might abandon Christianity altogether, he sought to rescue the Christian gospel from what he saw as simplistic, fundamentalist interpretation.
So, that’s who Paul Tillich was. Now, on to Sean Gonsalves and his article. It is in large part his account of an Easter sermon he heard at the Baptist church he attended as a child. Here’s what he wrote:
The preacher … had just given a powerful message about how the human spirit can be perpetually renewed by God’s Spirit. It was a magnificent display of the oratorical genius that has long been a part of the Afro-Christian tradition—the rhythmic cadences, the lucid and lyrical language, punctuated with anecdotes that highlight the tragi-comedy of everyday life.
“I am going to end this morning by telling you something that happened when I was in seminary,” he said. “I went to the University of Chicago Divinity School. Every year they used to have what was called ‘Baptist Day.’
“It was a day when they invited the entire Baptist community to visit the school, basically because they wanted the Baptist dollars to keep coming in,” he explained. “On this day everyone was to bring a bag lunch to be eaten outdoors in a grassy picnic area, giving the students, faculty, and visitors a chance to mingle.
“And every ‘Baptist Day’ the school would invite one of the greatest minds in theological education to give a lecture. This one year, the great Paul Tillich came to speak.”
Dr. Tillich spoke for two-and-a-half hours, proving that the historical resurrection was false.
He quoted scholar after scholar and book after book, concluding that since there was no such thing as the historical resurrection, the African-American religious tradition was groundless, emotional mumbo-jumbo, because it was based on a relationship with a risen Jesus, who, in fact, never rose from the dead in any literal sense.
The preacher told us that Dr. Tillich ended his talk with a sweeping, “Are there any questions?”
The silence in the packed lecture hall was deafening.
Then, finally … an old, dark-skinned preacher with a head full of short-cropped wooly white hair stood up in the back of the auditorium.
“Docta Tillich, I got a question,” he said—as all eyes turned toward him. He reached into his lunch bag and pulled out an apple.
“Docta Tillich …” He bit into his apple. CRUNCH, MUNCH, MUNCH, MUNCH …
“My question is a simple question.” CRUNCH, MUNCH, MUNCH, MUNCH … “Now, I ain’t never read them books you read …” CRUNCH, MUNCH, MUNCH, MUNCH …
“And I can’t recite the Scriptures in the original Greek …” CRUNCH, MUNCH, MUNCH, MUNCH … “I don’t know nothin’ about Niebuhr and Heidegger …” CRUNCH, MUNCH, MUNCH …
He finished the apple. Then he began to lick his fingertips and pick his teeth.
“All I wanna know is: this apple I just ate—was it bitter, or was it sweet?”
Dr. Tillich paused for a moment, and then answered in exemplary scholarly fashion: “I cannot possibly answer that question, for I have not tasted your apple.”
The white-haired preacher dropped the core of his apple into his crumpled paper bag, looked up at Dr. Tillich and said calmly, “Neither have you tasted my Jesus.”
The 1,000-plus in attendance could not contain themselves. The auditorium erupted with roaring laughter, cheers and applause. Paul Tillich promptly thanked his audience and departed the lectern.*
Sean Gonsalves concluded his article by saying how much he loves that story. I love it, too—and the reason why is very simple.
I love that story because it underscores the real truth of Easter—a truth that is perhaps hidden from great theologians like Paul Tillich, but which is revealed to all those who dare to trust God in simple faith.
And the truth is this: the apple is sweet. If you have tasted Jesus, his sweetness will sustain your faith, and it will guide your life. The sweetness of Jesus will fill your spirit to overflowing—even in the bitterest of times. Make no mistake about it: if we know that sweetness in this life, we shall continue to taste it forever, in God’s orchard.
Scripture assures us that God’s wish and hope for all of us is that we may taste that sweetness, and allow it to fill our spirits to overflowing. So that’s what I want to leave you with today—if not the sweetness of Christ, just yet, at least I want to urge you to believe that it is available to all who will accept it; and it is available to you as a freely-given gift. That is the gospel we preach; thanks be to God for it.
* Gonsalves has shared versions of this story on several platforms over the years. Here are links to some examples: