ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH APRIL 7, 2013
CHRIST IS RISEN!
Psalm 150; 1 Corinthians 15: 14 – 19; John 20:26 – 29
Imagine for a moment a funeral reception in the church basement. Grieving family members and friends are gathered with a cup of coffee or tea lovingly prepared by our women. Food is being eaten and the din of conversation echoes off the walls. A guest glances towards the door and turns to the person next to him, who elbows the person next to her, who grabs the nearest person and turns him around. Soon everyone is staring wide-eyed towards the door and an eerie silence has descended on the room. The deceased has just walked through the door! Can you imagine your reaction? “This doesn’t happen. It can’t happen! In fact, it’s impossible. What’s going on? Is this someone’s idea of a sick joke?”
No doubt that’s what ran through the mind of more than one disciple a few days after Jesus’ crucifixion. They were gathered together in a locked room grieving the death of their much loved teacher, mentor and Lord. The tragedy was overwhelming. He’d been the wisest, most loving person they knew. They’d hoped he was the Messiah – the promised deliverer. Now he was dead – brutally executed. Their dreams lay shattered at their feet. They comforted each other. They remembered his smile, his healing touch, his teachings. They mulled over Jesus’ promises – or the things they thought he’d said – and tried to piece it all together. Then all of a sudden “Jesus himself stood among them” (Lk. 24:36). They were as stunned as we’d be if the person we’d just eulogized stood beside us at the punch bowl. They were sure they must be seeing a ghost. They were amazed, surprised, speechless and “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering” (vs. 41). This wasn’t supposed to be happening. The dead don’t come back to have dinner with you.
And so it has been ever since. People struggle with resurrection. Every once in a while, another scholar or reassures us that because resurrection doesn’t normally happen it couldn’t have happened to Jesus either. A while back some archaeologists discovered an empty ossuary (a box in which bones were placed) with the inscription: “Jesus, son of Joseph”. Immediately people concluded these were the bones of Jesus and that the very foundations of Christianity had now been blown away. What they didn’t mention was that Jesus, Joseph and Mary were the most common names of that time. It would be like going into a cemetery in Scotland and finding a McDonald headstone and deciding this was the burial site of Ronald McDonald. Such speculation proves nothing, yet people keep looking for evidence of Jesus’ remains. It reminds me of Sam, a man who believed and told everyone he was dead. Most of his friends thought he was weird, but one kind soul tried to convince Sam he was alive. He asked Sam if he thought dead people could bleed. Sam replied that wasn’t possible – they were dead after all. So his buddy took out a pocket knife and pricked Sam in the finger. As the blood began to gush out Sam exclaimed, ‘Well I’ll be darned – dead people can bleed!’
The Chicago Tribune journalist Lee Strobel was an atheist. He wrote “in their gullibility, Christians sincerely believe Jesus rose from the dead and thus proved he was the Son of God. But there was no doubt in my mind that they were sincerely wrong.” For him the matter boiled down to three critical issues. Did Jesus really die or did he merely ‘swoon’ and resuscitate later? Was the tomb actually empty on Easter Sunday morning? And are the people who saw him credible witnesses? Looking for answers he interviewed specialists, academics and scholars and made these conclusions which were printed in an article in the Journal of the AMA), “Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted.” Jesus did die; there’s no possibility that he merely resuscitated in time for Easter. As for the empty tomb, the earliest Christian witnesses speak of it (1 Cor 15) and given that the tomb was known to everyone at that time, it would have been all too easy to produce a body. Everyone seems to agree the tomb, although under Roman guard, was empty. As for the witnesses, they were common folk without criminal records or political intentions. Many of the key witnesses were women; in that time women were not allowed to give legal testimony yet the record wasn’t “fixed” to change their gender in order to add credibility. These witnesses spent the rest of their lives proclaiming what they saw without any payoff from a human point of view. It was such a huge event in their lives that it radically changed their world views and the way they lived; they gave up their possessions and even their lives standing by its truth. Strobel himself was so persuaded by the evidence he uncovered that he became a Christian.
Just the same, believing in God and the resurrection of Jesus is still at its heart a matter of faith. We’re told in John’s gospel that Thomas had missed the disciples first encounter with the risen Christ. He must have suspected his buddies had taken leave of their senses, so he said, “Unless I see the mark of his nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). If we’re honest, there may be times when “doubting” Thomas seems like a good choice for a patron saint. But a week later Jesus appeared and gave Thomas his wish. Thomas was instantly convinced. Then Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (vs. 29). The belief Jesus spoke of is a clear affirmation that God raised Jesus from the dead. When he referred to “those who have not seen” he was referring to most Christians throughout history and certainly to people like us.
So Jesus says we’re blessed when we believe. Undoubtedly we’re blessed by the gift of faith in many ways. The most obvious way is that by our belief in Jesus, we’re united with him in his death and resurrection. Our sinful nature is destroyed and we become a new person. The futility of our existence is gone and we enter into an abundant life. Death is no longer a threat to us because we have the assurance of eternal life.
Another huge blessing of believing the Easter story is that we’re going to get some very important people. While Jesus hung dying on the cross, he told a criminal who was also being executed, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43). Paul wrote, “For since we believed that Jesus died and rose again even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died” (1 Thes. 4:14). Because of Christ’s resurrection, the day is coming when we’ll meet and live again with all those who are dear to us who have died. We’ll see grandparents and parents, spouses and children, siblings, aunts and uncles. Our friends will be there with us, as well as those we’ve worshipped and worked with in this and other churches. Easter faith maintains that the end of this life is not the end and one day we’ll see them all again. God has an awesome future in the making: a time when we’ll live fully without any pain, suffering or death!
Another blessing is this: we can live here and now with Easter at the centre of our lives. This may not come naturally but it’s a powerful blessing. Let me explain. We live in a world where there are many reports about what is bad and wrong. We read of rapes, murders and mutilations and see violence from just about every corner of the world on the 6 o’clock news. There are terrible accidents, death by starvation and natural disasters. We know of the death of jobs, of marriages and of loved ones. If this isn’t uncomfortable enough we can worry about asteroids colliding with earth. Sometimes it’s hard not to focus constantly on such things. It’s there all the time: squalor, pain and death nagging away at us. A friend of mine called this obsession with negative things “a death culture”. Death can become the lens through which we experience life. From this perspective, Easter seems like a fairy tale, a nice story told to give us a little boost and some positive energy to get us through the day and maybe the next week or two. It’s hard for us to embrace life in the land of death. Yet the risen Christ invites us to a whole other way of seeing the world and living life. We’re blessed when our lens is resurrection and our starting point is Easter. We’re blessed when we believe resurrection is the true way God has and does move in our world. When we get our heads around that and focus on the glory of Jesus’ resurrection, huge shifts happen. Eugene Peterson suggests “The Church is a colony of heaven living in a country of death. Easter allows us to be people who practise resurrection in a world that headlines death.” Because we are a resurrection people we’re blessed with the gifts of hope in the face of destruction; joy in the face of gloom, purpose in the face of despair and life in the face of death. By faith, we can embrace life even if the rest of the world has trouble doing so. We can get up in the morning anticipating a day filled with God’s presence and grace. And we can sleep at night knowing that “all manner of things will be well” because “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 37f) In that sense, Easter is not so much a glorious mountain peak that we celebrate annually (although Easter celebrations are glorious!). It is the very ground upon which we walk. We live it and breathe it and hold our heads high because of it. Easter is not only an event that happened to a man named Jesus 2000 years ago, it is the resurrected Christ alive in us – God’s greatest blessing to those who believe.