There is no doubt about the fact that Jesus was dead. After all his death was very public, neither the religious nor the secular authorities would have wanted any mistakes and just to make sure a spear was thrust into the side of Jesus. A request was made to bury Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea and Pilate double checked that he was dead. The women followed Joseph to check out where the tomb was, must have seen the body taken inside and made sure they knew their way back so that after the Sabbath they could finish the burial process. They may have been up early on the first day of the week, but Mark tells us that it was after sunrise, so they weren’t stumbling around in the dark.
They went to anoint a dead body; they were not expecting anything else. They had seen the miracles, heard the teaching, been part of the Palm Sunday procession and seen Jesus die. With his death went all their hopes and dreams. All predictions that he must die, all the Messianic imagery had vanished from their memory. It had all been consumed by the dreadful tragedy of two days ago. they were now wondering how it could all end like this, with the terrible emptiness that accompanies the death of someone you love.
Now after such a roller coaster of a ride you would expect them to be emotional. The thought of entering the tomb and have it all brought back in dreadful reality must have been so hard to bear. They were totally unprepared for an empty tomb and a supernatural encounter! They were not expecting Jesus to be alive. They had seen him die; the Romans had made sure he was dead; they had seen him buried. No wonder they were wondering about the empty tomb when the brilliantly clad figures appeared. This just wasn’t on the radar. The burial rites were to be completed and then they would have to start to pick up the threads of their lives.
An empty tomb threw everything into confusion; it didn’t fit. However, their response on hearing what the visitors had to say is interesting: they remembered his words. They remembered that Jesus said the Son of Man would be handed over to the authorities, killed, but on the the third he would rise again; then they went to tell the disciples. The assumption is that they have believed, or at least started to think about what Jesus said in the light of the empty tomb; and they certainly wanted to tell the disciples.
It is interesting that the Easter message is entrusted to the women. In rising from the dead and sending a message to his disciples, Jesus continues to turn things on their head. He spent his time with sinners and outcasts and treated women with respect, including those whom the religious authorities would have considered beyond hope. The message isn’t given to Simon Peter or Andrew or any of the others who were arguing over who was the greatest, and vying for left and right hand positions with Jesus in heaven. It was given to the women who were not even considered worth teaching.
The response from the men was predictable. Those designated ‘apostles’ didn’t believe, because it all seemed like nonsense. From their perspective, they were just beginning to face up to the fact that three amazing years have tragically come to an end; that their hopes and dreams have been shattered; that when they were most needed they ran away and none of the gospel writers tell us that they were with Jesus at the cross. They can do without a group of hysterical women declaring that they have seen supernatural visitors and that Jesus is alive! But Peter runs off to the tomb, but the empty tomb on its own doesn’t convince him. However, he is wondering and turning things over.
These are the people who have been with Jesus for three years, have seen amazing miracles and heard him teach. They experienced Jairus’ daughter being raised from the dead and the raising of Lazarus. They came worshipping Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem because of the miracles he had performed, but they don’t immediately accept this last miracle. As Paul says, Christ crucified is foolishness and a stumbling block, but we preach it. A little while later they are standing up in Jerusalem telling everyone that Jesus is the Christ and that they need to believe in him. They are prepared to face arrest, beating, imprisonment even death. What had changed? They met with Jesus face to face. The difference is that they had understood that Jesus came to die and rise again. Jesus, meeting with the two on the road to Emmaus takes them to task for not believing the prophets who pointed to the fact that the messiah had to suffer these things. This is what we believe as Christians; this is the Easter message: not that the Easter bunny has come to spread chocolate joy – easily consumed, the sugar rush wearing off and easily forgotten. It is that Jesus came to die and rose again from the dead, having overcome death and sin which causes death. Having overcome the power of evil in the world and in our lives, if we are willing to believe receive and follow Jesus.
The first disciples met Jesus face to face, but John tells us that those who believe but have not seen are especially blessed. The confusion and activity generated by the first Easter Sunday was all around the fact that Jesus’ body had gone and he had appeared to numbers of people at different times and in different places. Everyone knew that he really had died and the implications of Jesus being alive were and are enormous.
If Jesus rose from the dead, we had better start taking seriously his teaching about making a difference in the world, his teaching on adultery and divorce, on going the extra mile, loving our enemies, forgiving until it hurts and seeking God’s kingdom. If Jesus rose from the dead then maybe he was the one the prophets spoke about who would bring in a new a kingdom; and perhaps we had better start examining our lives and seeing where we need him to be at work. If Jesus rose from the dead then perhaps he was the Son of God who came to be the sin bearer and who gives eternal life with God on the day of resurrection. If Jesus rose from the dead, we need to understand that we are sinners, just like the people who put Jesus on the cross.
The 21st century doesn’t like the word ‘sinner’; it smacks of judgmentalism, making out that someone else is better than others, someone’s else’s lifestyle is better. In an age of no absolutes and everything being relative, to say that someone is a sinner causes offence and puts up barriers. However, the word ‘sinner’ refers to anyone who lives in opposition to God and needs to know God’s forgiveness. It refers to anyone living in opposition to God or living indifferently to God. The church has no right to come in judgement, but has a responsibility to challenge and present the message of Easter.
There is a verse in the Bible that says everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. If anyone is passing judgement it is God, whom I believe has the right to judge; and it is God who bears the punishment on the cross in our place, in Jesus Christ. Today we celebrate the fact that God made the supreme and perfect sacrifice in Jesus Christ, in order that the whole of creation may be redeemed; in order that we can know God in our lives. And yet it becomes an offence in people’s minds and suddenly their pride kicks in: ‘I don’t need anyone to save me’.
Paul wrote a number of letters in order to encourage and build up the early Christians. In Corinthians he says, ‘Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.’
He talked about the cross appearing to be foolishness. How could Jesus so foolishly walk into the hands of his enemies, rather than capitalise on the position he had? How can anyone proclaim the cross as ‘victory’? Why on earth would God choose to act in this way? It is nonsense. No-one understands death as victory: certainly not this death. Paul – who was no fool – tells us that the cross is the power of God. It is God undermining the pedestal on which humankind had and has put itself: the powerful, the knowledgeable, the wise are the gods to follow. The celebrities and self promoters – they will lead you into life and enlightenment; to think or live otherwise is just foolishness.
If the cross was foolishness then the resurrection is the ultimate in wishful thinking. It is hoping against hope that life does not come to an end. Paul’s assertion that Christ has indeed been raised from the dead may be fine those who believe, but it doesn’t disprove the statement that Christ hasn’t been raised from the dead and we are all deluded – unless of course there is some basis for making the assertion about the resurrection of Christ and some evidence to back it up. Paul, no fool, had not been deluded by a myth of fairy tale. Setting aside his personal encounter with Jesus, he cites the witnesses to the resurrection, which included 500 in one go, many of whom could have been found and spoken with at the time Paul was writing.
Many eminent scholars accept the reliability and truthfulness of the Bible and the witnesses to the resurrection. Many eminent scientists were and are believers in the resurrection of Jesus. Many intellectual people were and are followers of the risen Christ. They still face the same charge of foolishness from those who wish to dismiss Christian faith and are vehemently opposed to it. The message of Easter is that Jesus rose from the dead and welcomes all who receive him, into the Kingdom of heaven. Perhaps the strongest evidence comes from the transformation of the first witnesses and the honesty of the accounts about what happened on the first Easter.
- The disciples were scared and locked away in a room.
- No-one was expecting Jesus to be raised: the women went to anoint a dead body.
- There was confusion on that first Easter Sunday morning and the only immediate record of belief is that of the women and ‘the other disciple’.
- The women are recorded as the first witnesses and bearers of the news; a mistake to have them as the first in line in Middle Eastern culture of the time. They were unreliable and in a court of law their evidence was inadmissible.
- The transformation of the disciples from fearful people thinking about picking up the threads of their lives, to proclaiming Christ risen in the place where he was crucified.
- Their willingness to be imprisoned and die for the message of resurrection.
- The struggles of the early church against persecution.
In addition, the authorities who could have squashed all rumours of resurrection if they still had the body, failed to do so. And there were a number of occasions when Jesus appeared to people and also to 500 at one time.
There is also the testimony and witness of people down through the centuries to the present day who have encountered the risen Christ personally and been changed as a result. However, all the evidence counts for nothing unless you are willing to accept the implications and put your faith in Christ. Unless we meet with him ourselves, no amount of arguing will make any difference.
The message to the women at the tomb was that Jesus should be handed over to sinners, crucified and raised again. When Peter preached a short while later, some believed and some didn’t. The authorities were offended and had him arrested. I believe in the power of the cross of Christ to bring forgiveness for sin and reconciliation with God. I believe in the resurrection of Jesus, vindicated by God the Father. I believe that he gives eternal life to all those who will put their faith in him.
Where do you stand?