Easter Sunday 2016

Article V:  “He descended into Hell, on the third day he rose again from the dead

          We come now to the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ. Let me begin by making a preliminary observation to set a proper table, as it were, for the feast. It must be admitted that if God did not raise Jesus from the dead, if the resurrection of Christ were proven to be a hoax or were it shown to be simply a metaphor, a way of speaking about hope in the future, as opposed to something that really happened to Jesus’ body and soul, then Christianity would be exposed as nothing but a house of cards and the whole theology of redemption through the sacrifice of God’s incarnate Son would come tumbling down. Saint Paul knew this better than anyone. As he said to the Corinthian church: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God...If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1Cor.15.14-17). There is no compromise to be made on this issue: either God raised Jesus, body and soul, from the dead or the gospel is not true. If his corpse rotted in the grave, then the scripture is not true: “You will not let your holy one see the pit” (Ps.16.10) the Psalmist said of the Savior. If Christ was not raised “according to the scriptures” (1Cor.15.3), then his body corrupted in the dust of death and he does not deserve to be called “the Christ, the Holy One of God” (Mt.16.16; Mk.1.24). It’s that simple.

       Jesus said, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again, this charge I have received from my Father.”(John10.17-18). “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.” Either Jesus laid down his life willingly on the cross in order to take it up again in his resurrection or he didn’t. If he did not do what he said he was going to do, then he was not who he said he was. But if he raised himself from the dead by the divine power he claimed to have and thereby revealed himself to have been God incarnate, (for who but God could manage such a feat as raising oneself from the dead?), then the gospel is true: the kingdom of God has come to us in a man, Jesus Christ, and he has redeemed us from sin and death by the sacrifice of himself on a cross in accordance with the scriptures.

       So you see, this is the whole ball game: either the resurrection of Christ is true, and we really have “been redeemed by his precious blood” shed for us on the cross (1Pt.1.19), or it is not. If it’s not, then we might as well recess to the undercroft, have a final farewell cup of coffee and go home in search of a new religion.

       The point I’m making is obvious but sometimes the more obvious something is the harder it is to see: the church preaches the resurrection of Christ because it’s the truth. God raised Jesus from the dead, completely vindicating him who died in disgrace (Is.50.5-9), and the church is one hundred percent certain of it (Acts 2.32). If we were not certain of the truth of this claim, the church couldn’t call its message the gospel, the good news. The gospel is the proclamation of an event, the coming of the kingdom of God in a man, Jesus Christ, God’s Son (Mk.1.15). If he died on the cross in disgrace under a curse (Gal3.13; Dt.21.23), then there is no good news in his death. But God raised him up, vindicating him against his accusers and thereby affirming the truth of his message: the kingdom of God has come to us in the man Jesus Christ. God has done this. This is actual news, very good news (Romans 10.15). The New Testament is not a cheap tabloid publishing rumor and gossip. The story that the New Testament writers tell about Jesus is the truth; and in particular, it’s the truth of his resurrection from the dead that makes his story not only news, but good news, great news for the whole world (Romans 10.9-13).

      Nevertheless the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ is disputed by many people. Many contend that the doctrine of Christ’s resurrection from the dead is a fiction for one simple reason: the dead don’t rise. The fact of death points away from any possibility of a resurrection being true. So how is it that the church can rationally claim that Jesus raised himself body and soul from the dead? Why should anyone believe this? The answer, as incredible as it seems is that anyone who looks at the evidence for and against Christ’s resurrection with an open mind will come to one reasonable conclusion: God raised Jesus from the dead. 

       Many will say, “Evidence; what evidence? I thought that belief in the resurrection was an act of blind faith, like faith in unicorns or the tooth fairy or the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end.” Many people think that Christian faith in the gospel of Christ’s resurrection is just blind faith, but they are mistaken. The case for the resurrection of Christ stands on three lines of solid historical evidence. First there is the empty tomb. Then there is the fact that hundreds of people, soon after his death reported seeing him, not as a ghost or a disembodied spirit, but seeing him fully alive, and showing them his wounds. They reported talking to him and eating with him. Then thirdly, and perhaps the most astonishing fact of all, is that his closest disciples, who fled when he was arrested, fearing that they too might be arrested for blasphemy and insurrection, began to boldly preach his resurrection from the dead, calling upon those same judges who condemned him just days before to repent of their sin and believe in him (Acts 2-4). They did this courageously with no regard for their own personal security or family welfare and they kept it up to the end of their lives, everyone of them, preaching the resurrection of Christ even as they were tortured and martyred for the faith. Bartholomew preached the resurrection even as his executioners flailed him alive, peeling off his skin with fish knives. The emperor Nero, scapegoating the nascent Christian church for a great fire that destroyed much of Rome in 65 A.D., ordered Peter to be crucified. Peter, whom Jesus called his “rock,” asked to be crucified upside down, claiming that he did not deserve to be crucified right side up as the Lord Jesus had been. Jesus’ apostles had absolute confidence that Jesus raised himself from the dead and revealed himself to them and that there was no reason whatsoever to doubt his gospel.

     Those are the facts. The facts leave three questions that must be answered.  Why wasn’t Jesus’ body in the tomb on the Sunday morning after his death? Who removed it from the tomb?  Where did they put it? Secondly, if the hundreds of people who said they saw Jesus risen from the dead did not see him risen from the dead but saw something else, what did they see and why did they say they saw Jesus?  And third: why were his apostles so convinced of his resurrection that they were willing to devote the rest of their lives to telling others about him and to die for their beliefs? They weren’t willing to die for their beliefs the night he was arrested. What changed them? These are the questions surrounding the resurrection of Christ.  Let’s look deeper at the facts because the facts point to the answers.

       Fact number one is that early on the Sunday morning after his death, some of the women, including Mary Magdalene, went to his tomb (Lk.24.10). The women knew where he had been laid to rest, because on Friday afternoon, after he had been taken down from the cross, they followed Joseph of Arimetha and Nicodmeus, the two saints who had Pilate’s permission to take Jesus’ dead body off the cross, to the tomb (Lk.23.50-56; Jn.19.38-42). They watched from a distance as the men put Jesus’ corpse in the tomb. The women knew where he was buried and they, in their grief, were anxious to visit his grave as soon as the Passover ended. They were going to anoint his corpse with spices according to Jewish burial custom. But when they arrived at the tomb, they found the tomb empty. Jesus’ body was missing (Mk.16.1-8). Where did it go? Who took it? One is tempted to say, “Your guess is as good as mine.” But there is no guess work about it. We know who took Jesus’ body from the tomb and why Jesus’ body went missing. God raised him up.

        If God did not raise Jesus up from the tomb, then there are only two possibilities. Either Jesus’ disciples stole his body, hid it and made it look like God had raised him up (Mt.28.11-15) or Jesus did not really die on the cross; he was laid to rest in the tomb still breathing and he later, having gained strength walked out of the tomb on his own accord and disappeared from history. That later theory, known as “the swoon theory,” was revived in the DaVinci Code. It’s a clever theory that provides a naturalistic explanation for the disappearance of Jesus’ corpse from the tomb, but it’s also utterly implausible. For Jesus not to have died on the cross, the Roman executioners would have failed to do their job. There is no chance that the Roman soldiers failed to do their duty. There is no chance that the Virgin Mary, weeping at the foot of the cross, mistakenly thought her son was dead when he wasn’t. That leaves only the possibility that Jesus’ disciples stole the body and then concocted a story about his resurrection from the dead. This is what the Jews claimed his lying disciples did. Let’s remember that a detail of temple guards sealed the stone and kept watch on Jesus’ tomb in order to prevent this kind of “fraud” from happening (Mt.27.62-66). Were the guards part of the conspiracy also? Do you really think it’s possible that Jesus’ disciples conspired to create this dramatic hoax?

       It is not possible for two obvious reasons. The first is that hundreds of people met Jesus fully alive after his death (1Cor.15.3-9). He appeared not only to his friends but to enemies as well. Saul of Tarsus, a Jew who was persecuting Christians, encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus and was so moved by the experience that he renounced his Jewish faith and became a Christian immediately (Acts 9). Saul is known to us today as Saint Paul, a man whose tireless missionary work and whose impassioned epistles spread the word of Jesus around the Roman Empire. And he appeared also to James (1Cor.15.7), his half-brother, who prior to meeting him resurrected from the dead, did not believe in him (John 7.5; Gal.1.19). James went on to become the bishop of the Jerusalem Church. It would be one thing if a small cabal of conspirators went around saying they had seen Jesus alive but for people like Cleopas and his friend who met him on the road to Emmaus(Lk.24.13-27) or for Thomas who had fled and came back a week later to have seen him (John.20.24-29), that’s something else entirely. Unless the conspiracy included hundreds of people, how do you account for all these extremely diverse appearances?

       The effect that the appearances had on those who experienced them was life–changing. I have met, so may have you, many people who have seen ghosts and spirits. Haunted houses are very well documented. Duke University has a department dedicated to researching poltergeists. No one is laughing at them. But seldom is anyone’s life dramatically changed by a vision of a spirit. The people who saw Jesus alive after his death were adamant that he was not a spirit. “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have” he said to them (Lk.24.40). Those who met Jesus resurrected met a real person; a person who changed their lives forever. They fell so deeply in love with Jesus after meeting him resurrected from the dead, that they gave their hearts and minds to him totally. They dedicated their lives to spreading the word about Jesus around the world, something they would not have done had they not seen him risen from the dead. Their conviction testifies to the fact that they really believed the message they were preaching.

       Say what you will about Jesus’ disciples, they sincerely believed the gospel that they preached. People can be sincerely wrong. Sincerity by itself is no guarantee of integrity. But something caused them to believe that the man they saw crucified on Friday was alive the following Sunday and that he really was the Messiah after all. What healed their broken hearts and turned their minds around to believe in a crucified Messiah if not the resurrection? The gospels are clear that the disciples did not believe in a crucified Messiah before his resurrection revealed this truth to them. When Jesus told them that he would be killed, Peter tried to stop him (Mt.16.21-23). His faith in Jesus was so weak that on the night of the arrest, Peter denied even knowing him. With the exception of Saint John, all the disciples fled Gethsemane in fear when he was arrested. And yet soon thereafter, we see them bravely standing in the streets of Jerusalem preaching Christ crucified and baptizing coverts by the thousands (Acts 2). What changed them? They were by their own admission cowards before his death and confused about his mission. But after his resurrection they were courageous saints. And again add Saint Paul to that list. No one had more courage or conviction than he did (2Cor.11.21-33). Where did his faith and courage come from if not from an encounter with the risen Christ (Acts 9)? Funny, if this was a conspiracy and a hoax, how did he happen into it?

       By all rights, after Jesus died, his disciples should have gone back to doing whatever it was they did before Jesus recruited them for his mission. With his death, his mission should have ended. The messiah who was supposed to rule Israel forever died. It was effectively over when he failed to come down from the cross and save himself. But soon after his death, the mission of the church began. And the mission of the church was never just to tell people to be loving and kind as Jesus had been. The mission of church was to preach the forgiveness of sins thru faith in Jesus the crucified messiah who died for us and rose again according to the scriptures (Acts 10.34-43; John3.16).

         If you reject the gospel that God raised Jesus from the dead that leaves only one alternative explanation, that the gospel is a conspiracy based on lies and hallucinations; a cleverly manipulated hoax that took on a life of its own and just snowballed out of control. The conspiracy theory may answer the riddle of the empty tomb but it doesn’t explain his appearances to many or the faith of the church. The suggestion that his appearances were the result of hallucinations that the grieving apostles suffered may explain away the appearances but that doesn’t answer the question of where his body went or why the church believed he had been resurrected. Saying that many people in the ancient world were superstitious may explain something about them, but it doesn’t explain their courage to suffer death for their convictions, nor does it explain the empty tomb.

      So, here’s the bottom line: there is only explanation that fully satisfies all three questions surrounding Jesus’ mysterious disappearance from the grave. That God raised Jesus from the dead and that he appeared to many teaching them the meaning of his death and resurrection fully explains why the tomb was empty, why so many people claimed to have seen him alive after death and why the church went forward enthusiastically preaching Jesus Christ, the crucified savior risen from the dead. No other explanation answers all three questions.

       People are not stupid. We all know that the dead don’t rise again of their own volition. But what if God took on a human nature while remaining fully God? Such a man could do what no other could even dream of doing. Hundreds of people saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the tomb (John 11. 38-53). Is it such a stretch to believe that he had power also to raise himself from a tomb? We live in a world where the unimaginable happens every day. Some one somewhere everyday says to a friend, “Hey, you’re not going to believe this but...” The resurrection of Christ is one of those events that proves the dictum: “Truth is stranger than fiction”.

       It is tempting to dismiss the resurrection of Christ as a myth and think that we are being modern and smart for rejecting an ancient superstition. But the modern age is an agnostic age that suffers from the vanity of its own peculiar superstition, the superstition of naturalism, scientism and philosophical materialism: the dogmatic denial of the supernatural wedded to the atheistic prejudice that man is no more than the sum of his chemical parts. There can be no resurrection of the dead, the modern age admonishes us, because there are no miracles and we know there are no miracles because there is no supernatural. There is no age more singularly closed-minded and superstitious than ours. It’s a pity how anti-intellectual the post- Christian West has become. There are many superstitions in the world that obscure our ability to think clearly about reality but the resurrection of Christ is not one of them.

        There is a reason that we have more and better sources for the life of Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean peasant, than we do for Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. It is because those great men only conquered nations; Jesus Christ conquered death itself. Our ancestors wanted us to know to remember the one man among them who made the greatest difference. Why do you look for the living among the dead? “, the angel said to the women who came to the tomb on Easter morning looking for Jesus. “He is not here he is risen” (Luke 24.5; Mt.28.6). You wonder who Jesus really was. He is the man whom the tomb could not restrain. You will not find him buried in the past. He is the one who lives eternally in the present. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said (John11.25). For any other man to make such a boast would be an absurd vanity. But Jesus Christ, by his resurrection from the dead has proven who he is. And He who has defeated death promises to share his risen life with all those who believe in him. Believe in him, trust him, love him and obey him. His word is true and his promise is this: “This is the will of my Father “Jesus said, “that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”(Jn.6.40)