Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Sunday: But Did It Happen?

[This was shared during the second worship service with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today, Easter Sunday. Our son, Philip, a second year seminary student, preached at the early service and, in my humble opinion, did a fantastic job. I hope to share his sermon on this site later.]

Matthew 28:1-10
On this Easter Sunday morning, as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, I want to consider a simple question: Did it happen? Was Jesus raised from the dead on the first Easter?

We live in a skeptical age. The so-called “New Atheists,” people who not only adamantly reject the existence of God, but also reject all truth claims made by the Bible, are given great prominence these days.

Even within the Church, there are theologians who claim that Jesus was not physically raised from the dead, that what the first disciples called “the resurrection” was only their subjective experience of the dead Savior’s presence in their memories.

And truth be known, even the most pious and convinced of believers have their moments of doubt.

But let’s be clear: If Jesus didn’t actually physically rise from the dead, we may as well pack up, go home, sell our church properties, and distribute the proceeds to some worthy charity.

And if any church member doesn’t actually trust that Jesus rose from the dead, going to church only out of habit or because they think that church is a good place to learn morals and meet friends, or just because church helps them get through their weeks (all of which can be very true, by the way), they would be well advised to do something else with their time.

In the first century, the apostle Paul wrote this to church members in the Greek city of Corinth: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”

That’s what the apostle Paul said. But what do we say on this Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011?

Through the centuries and still today, some read or hear the words of Paul or those of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and dismiss it all.

One fifth grader in our congregation told me a few weeks ago that a classmate of his, no doubt echoing words he’d heard at home, didn’t believe in God or in Jesus. The kid said that Christianity was all a big conspiracy.

A teenager from our church shared with me too, that an adult of her acquaintance, a member of a church, had told her and other young people that the word “evangelical,” a word rooted in the Greek New Testament word for “gospel” or “good news,” the very word that Martin Luther used to describe his theological conviction that the risen Jesus gives new life as a free gift to all who are baptized and believe in Him, the word evangelical, this woman said, was “a bad word.”

 So, what do we say?

Are we evangelicals like Luther, who believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ’s resurrection or, at least, open to such belief?

Do we believe in (or are we open to believing in) the good news that all who trust in Christ have life forever with God?

Or are we wasting our time here this morning?

Let’s consider the evidence. Please pull out the Celebrate inserts from your bulletins and go to the Gospel lesson, Matthew 28:1-10.

Before we read it, by way of background, here are a few things to consider: In all four of the New Testament Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—there are two common elements: an empty tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid and the appearances to the risen Christ.

Anyone who takes the time to lay out the four Gospels’ different accounts of the first Easter side by side will see differences: different women are named among those who went to the tomb; Matthew says that the women simply went to see the tomb, while other gospels say they went to anoint Jesus’ body; and there are other differences.

But these differences shouldn’t bother us. They should, in fact, help convince us that the report of Jesus’ resurrection was no conspiracy, but the truth. As one New Testament scholar has said, “a calculated deception should have [caused the conspirators to agree on the details of the resurrection story]. Instead, there seem to have been competitors: 'I saw him first!' 'No! I did.'” That makes their common story that Jesus rose from the dead more likely to be true.

Now look at Matthew 28, verse 1, please. It says:
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 
The Jewish sabbath, of course, runs from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. As our lesson begins, the sun is rising. The women went to the tomb with no expectations of finding any good news. They had watched Jesus die. Like billions of people who have lost good friends or loved ones, they went to the cemetery only to pay their respects, to grieve and, maybe, to remember together. Jesus’ promise that He would rise again seemed like a fairy tale memory to them. The fact that the women who went to the tomb didn’t expect to see evidence of Jesus’ resurrection ought to make us give credibility to their later saying that Jesus, once dead, was alive again.

Now look at verses 2 through 7. It says:
And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 
Notice to whom this news—the greatest news in the history of the world—is being given: women.

In patriarchal first century Judea, the testimony of women wasn’t considered valid. A woman could not testify in court.

If the first Christians had made up the story of Jesus’ resurrection—if Easter was one big conspiracy, they certainly would have been shrewd enough to say that men were the first to meet the angel at the empty tomb and not women whose word would be automatically dismissed by that society.

This is a powerful proof that there was no Easter conspiracy. God chose women to be the first ones to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ resurrection because, as Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, in the kingdom of the risen Jesus, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” And Jesus Himself had promised that in His kingdom, those considered weak and insignificant by the world would be privileged characters, while those who were considered powerful and important by the world would take a back seat; Jesus put it this way: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Please see what happens next in Matthew 28:7-10:
So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” 
None of Jesus’ first followers ever claimed to have seen the precise moment when the corpse of Jesus came back to life.

Instead, they all said that they were shown an empty tomb and like us, were asked to dare to trust that the Savior Who had never once lied to them was good for a promise He had made, that He would rise again.

It was only after the women at the empty tomb chose to be open to believe and chose to act on the angel’s message that they saw the risen Jesus.

When it comes to faith in God, you and I cannot fold our arms and demand that God prove Himself to us. Nor will God ever force us to trust in Him. In faith, seeing is not believing; believing is seeing!

So, did it really happen? Did Jesus really rise from the dead on the first Easter Sunday? The evidence, I think, indicates that He did.

But, even if we find the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection convincing, the resurrection will still be nothing more than a bit of trivia or a blip on our calendars unless we, like the women met by the angel at the empty tomb, dare to believe—to trust our whole lives to Christ—and dare to act on that belief.

In his new book, The Power of a Whisper, Bill Hybels tells of being with a group of pastors and asking them how they had come to faith in the risen Jesus.

One pastor said that he grew up in an unchurched home, his parents deeply hostile to Christ and the Church. Next door was a couple who believed in Jesus, were active in a local congregation, and sensed that God wanted them to invite their neighbors to church.

So, one day, they came to that young boy’s home and invited his family to worship with them. The parents were venomous in their response to the invitation, “We want nothing to do with your God…[or] your church…[or] you.”

But this boy, even after hearing his folks, said, “Hey, Dad. I’ll go.” The parents thought to themselves, “Free babysitting!” So, they let junior go to church.

All through that boy’s junior high years, the neighbors took him to church Sunday in, Sunday out. While in high school, he surrendered his life to Christ. Later, he became a pastor and started a church on the East Coast, which today welcomes thousands of worshipers each week, changing lives and bringing hope to people for this world and the next through the risen Jesus.

And it all started when one couple sensed that, like the women met by the message of Jesus’ resurrection at the empty tomb, they needed to share Christ with others.

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! It really happened and He can change the eternities of all who repent and believe in Him.

Tell everyone you know!

To paraphrase the angel at the tomb, “This my message for you.”

This is God’s message for you. Happy Easter! Amen!

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