Easter Sermon (with audio)

He Is Risen Indeed

He is Risen indeed. The resurrection of Jesus is the linchpin of our faith and the foundation upon which Christian hopes are founded. As Leslie Newbigin once said, “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!”

And for these reasons, it’s very important that the story is true. As the Apostle Paul said to the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Those who have died in Christ are dead, and we are of all people most to be pitied.”

So, I often find it troubling that we now live in a world where the claim of Jesus resurrection is often treated with derisive skepticism. And even among the religious, it receives a lot of doubt. As the late ABC news anchor, Peter Jennings, once said of his faith, “I believe, but I'm not quite so certain about the resurrection.”

But this is, in a way, nothing new. Because the church’s resurrection claim also faced a lot of skepticism in the first centuries of the church. And we see in our passage today, that it even faced skepticism from the very first people who heard of it, Jesus’ own closest disciples.

So how did they come to believe it? They investigated. In our passage, where it says Peter went in & looked at the tomb, the Greek word there is θεωρεῖ, which means eye-witness investigation.

Peter sees the body gone and the clothes lying there. If grave robbers had come in they would have left the body and taken the clothes that had all the expensive spices wrapped up in them. And over there in the other corner is the head wrapping that’s been rolled up like someone just took it off. Peter here is doing a kind of basic crime scene investigation. He looks at the evidence and tries to figure out what’s going on.

So, what I want to do this morning, is I want us to do our own investigating into the resurrection and examine two things very briefly: What is the evidence for the resurrection? And what is its significance?

So, first, what’s the evidence?                                                                           

Well, if you had asked Biblical scholars and historians back in the 60s and 70s (unless they were Evangelicals) they probably would have told you not much! They tended to think that the four gospels were written very late, maybe centuries after Jesus’ death, and that the stories of Jesus had been handed down orally over a long period like a bad game of telephone. Most of them dismissed the resurrection as a fairy tale. The gospels stories of Jesus – especially the miraculous stuff – were just inventions from a religiously zealous fringe group that somehow caught on.

But in the last thirty years or so, some highly respected historians and scholars have done new historical investigation that has radically changed the scholarly consensus on this. Even atheist-leaning scholars will now admit that Jesus’ disciples experienced him alive again after his death. What happened?

Well, a lot, actually. But we only have time for a few things. Here’s the short list:

First, it has been shown that the gospels in the Bible were written a lot earlier than scholars had imagined. The new scholarly consensus is that the Biblical gospels were written within 35 to 65 years of Jesus’ death. There’s a great wealth of internal and external evidence that shows that to be true. Just for example, the biblical gospels show intimate knowledge of second-temple Judaism, which ended in 70 AD.

Second, you might still ask, well, 35-65 years is a long time. That’s like if we were today going to write the biography of Martin Luther King but we didn’t have any recorded speeches or writings about him. It would be impossible to separate fact from fiction. But that is not an accurate comparison. Because we now live in a highly literate society that is inundated with digital memory devices. So, our brains’ capacity to remember speech and history is pretty pathetic, and it’s getting worse every year.

But, in pre-literate cultures, like that of Jesus’ day, people’s capacity for memorization would blow you away. And these kinds of cultures have strategies and devices for mental memorization in order to preserve important historical data.

For instance, I just read an article about how scientists were shocked to discover that the origin story of a native tribe in western Canada was true. The remains of an ancient village from 14,000 years ago provided the proof, showing that accurate information was preserved orally for 14,000 years. Next to that, 35-65 years is nothing.

And the first century Jewish culture was among the best at accurate oral memory. The Pharisees had a whole set of extra-biblical scriptures that was transmitted purely orally. That’s part of why Jesus teaches in parables and speaks in highly-memorable sayings (do unto others). So, it’s clear that the disciples could and would accurately preserve Jesus’ teaching and history.

Third, there are markers in the gospels that speak to their historical accuracy. We have several right here in the gospel passage today that give us reason to accept it as historical. I’ll mention 2:

One, we have the presence of insignificant details. The text tells us that John outran Peter to the tomb, that the head covering had been rolled up and thrown to the side, that Mary exclaimed the word “teacher” in Hebrew when she saw Jesus. Modern writers will add insignificant details to a story to make it seem more authentic. Ancient writers did not do that.

Two, we have what historians call the criterion of embarrassment. The criterion of embarrassment means that if an element of a historical document is likely to be embarrassing to the ancient writer, you have good reason to believe it wasn’t made up. The fact that Mary’s story is in the gospel at all is quite surprising, because it’s rife with potential embarrassment for the author and the church.

It was an extremely patriarchal and sexist society, in which women were not considered reliable witnesses. You’ve probably heard that women’s testimony was not admissible evidence in ancient Jewish courts. But this story is not a courtroom scene, so that fact isn’t quite so significant. More significant is that women weren’t considered reliable sources for revelation from God. And even more significant here, the fact that a woman has priority in receiving revelation from God, would have been deeply embarrassing to the men in the story. Historians have found a first century Jewish document that speaks about that.

And on top of all that, Mary Magdalene is not just a woman, but a poor and marginalized one at that, who had been formerly out of her mind, possessed by many demons. In the first century, that would have made her testimony highly suspect, as it might even today! Thus the earliest critics of Christianity dismissed the resurrection as the testimony of a “hysterical female.”

There just isn’t a scenario in the first century of how this story gets invented. It seems to me that the only scenario that explains its inclusion in John’s gospel is that he knew his first readers already knew it and knew it to be true.

So, for these and many other reasons, I think the best way to think of the gospels is as eyewitness testimony. And indeed, they present themselves to us as such. Luke even makes it explicit:

"The original eyewitnesses handed these stories down to us. And since I have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I decided to write it down for you."

Finally, more important than all of this, recent historians have argued convincingly, that if Jesus’ disciples didn’t see him alive again, it’s impossible to explain the rise of the early church. It’s impossible to explain how a guy like James, Jesus’ brother who didn’t believe in him, came to believe after Jesus death and was so convinced that he was willing to face public execution for his faith in 65 AD. If he wasn’t absolutely convinced, he never would have done any of that.

So, I think the evidence is strong! But, what’s the significance?

What makes Jesus’ death more significant than, say, the raising of Lazarus? Well, for one, Lazarus eventually died, and Jesus ascended into heaven. But more than that. The significance lies in the way that Jesus died.

Jesus died the death of the accursed by God. For the ancients, a death where you were betrayed by your own people and publicly executed by your enemies was absolute proof that God had abandoned and rejected you. I think that’s why Jesus’ disciples weren’t looking for him to return even though he said he would.

BUT, when Jesus dies the death of the accursed and yet is raised by God to new life, that means something different and wonderful is happening. Jesus has taken the curse of death from Adam’s sin and the sins of all humanity upon himself. And in doing so, he has overcome death and forged a path through death for us to follow out into eternal life on the other side.

We see so many sad things in the world. So many tragedies, from deadly gas attacks to famine to church bombings – heart wrenching images of children caught in the middle of it all. Earlier this morning, Coptic Christians gathered to worship in churches that were pockmarked by bomb shrapnel.

And on top of that, the personal struggles and heart-wrenching disappointments that everyone faces in life. But we see good and beautiful things too. And rooted deep in the human heart is a primal hope that the world can be different. That is what the resurrection means. Not just that the world can be different, but that the world will be different.

If the afterlife is just an escape from death, then all the tragedy is still tragedy, no matter how far we fly from it. But if Jesus has overcome death, then in Him, all the tragedies of the world can be reversed. In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, “everything sad will come untrue.”

In Christ, our sins are paid for, the curse is gone, the sting of death is no more, and eternal life in God’s presence and the renewal of all things is now assured. The Christian hope is so extravagant, who could dare believe it? That’s why we must carefully investigate everything from the beginning and see, yes, it is true. It is true.

Through faith in Christ, we have the blessed assurance that like Mary Magdalene, one day Jesus will call us by name… and turn all of our tears to joy.