This Easter 2019, how we particularly need to be reminded of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ – nationally and personally. For there is a level of national chaos. Brexit is causing fundamental questions about how we should govern ourselves. Our executive and legislative branches of government have difficulty functioning. And there are issues of law and order.
So we should thank God in situations like this, we have a Constitutional Monarchy with a Queen who reigns but does not rule, yet has great influence. However, that influence is related to her Coronation Oath, when she swore to govern according to law and custom, and also (I quote) to "maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel." And then immediately after that oath, she was presented with a Bible with these words:
"Our gracious Queen: to keep your Majesty ever mindful of the Law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; this is the royal Law; these are the lively Oracles of God."
Then a little later, she received the Orb with these words:
"Receive this Orb set under the Cross, and remember that the whole world is subject to the Power and Empire of Christ our Redeemer."
And all that – the laws of God, the true profession of the gospel, the truth of the Bible and the Power and Empire of Christ our Redeemer, has authority and force only because of that first Easter. For on that first Easter Sunday Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead leaving an Empty Tomb and he is now reigning as king of kings and Lord of Lords. And because that is true (as we will see) that oath and the message of the ritual once again need to influence our public life. But that requires not just the Queen and Christians in Parliament but all of us, as we can, to be witnessing vigorously to the principles and ethics that are in line with that heritage and are sanctioned by the Easter fact.
For it was a fact that Christ was crucified. It was a fact that Christ was buried, no one doubts that. And it was a fact that Christ rose from the dead, at least 36 hours later. For, although it was supernatural, that rising from death was no less a fact or real than his death and burial. But sadly some think the Resurrection is a half-way point – between fact and fiction. So while the crucifixion was a fact and the burial was a fact, the Resurrection was, they say, not a fiction, but less than a real fact. However, as a great former bishop of Durham, Bishop Westcott well put it:
"It is obvious that the power of the Resurrection, as the ground of religious hope, lies in the very circumstance that the event which changed the whole character of the disciples was external to them, independent of them, and unexpected by them … The Resurrection then is either a fact in itself wholly independent of those who were witnesses to it, or it is a fiction … on which no belief can be founded."
And if Christ was not raised factually and actually, death is the end. There is no ultimate hope. The Coronation oath is a sham. There is no grounding for our laws. Then power, violence and death are the only absolutes. And the gods that are left for the modern world are health, wealth and pleasure. Sadly such nihilism is the reality for millions today who have no knowledge of, or ceased to believe in, the Resurrection of Jesus. No wonder there is knife crime on our streets and confusion in Parliament. But thank God the Resurrection is true and the most important fact in the whole of human history. So this morning as we think once again about the Resurrection of Jesus, I have just three headings: first, The Fact of The Resurrection; secondly, The Meaning of The Resurrection; and, thirdly, and briefly, The Challenge of The Resurrection.
1. The Fact of The Resurrection
Four things need to be said.
First, it is easy to believe that doubts and scepticism are modern and the ancient world was credulous and believed anything it was told. But that is modern arrogance. For the Jews of Jesus day did not believe anything. They had courts where they could weigh evidence for establishing truth. They had a rule, quoted by Jesus and Paul, and found originally in the Old Testament. It was that
"a single witness shall not suffice – only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established" (Deut 19.15).
But in terms of evidence for Jesus' Resurrection, we don't have just two or three, but four witnesses – the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And this morning we are looking at John's Gospel in particular. So the ancient Jews could distinguish truth from error.
Secondly, yes, there used to be some scepticism about the Gospel of John. But as scholarship has progressed, many have seen this was misplaced. Dorothy Sayers, the novelist and dramatist, has an interesting comment regarding John's Gospel. Writing as a creative artist she says:
"It must be remembered that, of the four Evangels [Gospels], St John's is the only one that claims to be the direct report of an eyewitness. And to any one accustomed to the imaginative handling of documents, the internal evidence bears out this claim."
So let's look at John 20.1:
"Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, 'They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.'"
Some doubt the Gospel narratives because they are not all the same (I write about this in the Coloured Supplement in this April's Newsletter so I shan't repeat what I have said there.) However, part of the problem may be that some don't read the text carefully or with imagination. You can't say, for example, that John, unlike the other Gospel writers, thinks there was only Mary Magdalene at the tomb. For he reports Mary in verse 2 as saying "we [so she is not alone] do not know where they have laid him." And for a range of other reasons we must take the Gospel accounts as the result of the writer's accurate enough memory of what really happened.
Then thirdly, there is the fact of the graveclothes. Mary has gone to fetch Peter and John; and, chapter 20 verse 3:
"So Peter went out with the other disciple [John], and they were going towards the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus'[a] head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed."
So John arrives at the tomb first and only notes the burial cloths from a distance. Peter then arrives (being older and slower), goes right into the tomb and sees the burial cloths with the head (or face) cloth separate. John then (verse 8) "also went in [right in], and he saw and believed." On closer inspection, it seems, John saw something remarkable to make him believe Jesus had risen. Most probably he realized that someone who had stolen the body wouldn't have left the graveclothes as they were left. For the head cloth was separate from the rest of the graveclothes. It seemed to him that Jesus body miraculously somehow had just passed through these clothes. At any rate, John now believed. Up to this point (verse 9),
"… they [and the other disciples] did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead."
So there was no wish-fulfilment about the Resurrection events. And there can't have been deception either on the part of the disciples as subsequent history proves. It has been well said:
"Men might indeed be willing to die for a passionately held illusion; but not for a piece of flagrant deception."
Then, fourthly, what really convinced the disciples that Jesus was alive, wasn't just the empty tomb. It was Jesus' appearances. And among the first people to whom Jesus appeared was Mary Magdalene. That was after (John 20.10) "the disciples [Peter and John] went back to their homes."
So, four things to note: the Jews could distinguish truth from error; the four Gospel writers from their perspective reported what had actually happened; the graveclothes were significant; and the empty tomb together with the appearances of Jesus proved the Resurrection was fact not fiction. And that brings us to our second heading:
2. The Meaning of The Resurrection
It means so much. Let me give you just four meanings.
First, the Resurrection means we can be assured there is a God. This universe is not a matter of blind chance. And, on the one hand, Jesus Christ really is God the Son, who came to this earth in human form; and, on the other hand, by his death on the Cross in our place, he really was victorious over sin and death. We, therefore, can be sure no one is too bad to be forgiven. So Paul writes (Romans 1.4):
"Christ Jesus … was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord."
And he also writes (1 Cor 15.17,20):
"… If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins … but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead."
Secondly, the Resurrection means we can be assured of God's power. Paul writes in Ephesians 1.19-20 that he is praying that people may know
"what is the immeasurable greatness of his [God the Father's] power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places."
Of course, we need not just past sins forgiven, but power to live for God in the present.
Thirdly, the Resurrection means despair can be turned into joyful hope as is clear from our verses 11-18. Look at verse 11:
"But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." Having said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus."
So Mary is weeping; and after interaction with the angels, she then sees Jesus, but has no idea who he is. And verse 15:
"Jesus said to her, 'Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?' Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, 'Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.' Jesus said to her, 'Mary.' She turned and said to him in Aramaic, 'Rabboni!' (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, 'Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God."' Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord'—and that he had said these things to her."
So a fundamental meaning of the Resurrection is that the risen Jesus can change despair into hope. Instead of weeping John reports that Mary (verse 18) enthusiastically "announced" …
"to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord' – and that he has said these things to her."
Peter himself later in life summarized the hope that the Resurrection of Jesus brings to the believer. He begins his first letter to a Church already suffering or soon to suffer persecution like, horrifically this Easter the Church in Sri Lanka has suffered (1 Peter 1.3):
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."
So what is the living hope for? Answer, 1 Peter 1.4:
"to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ."
The hope is for a wonderful future beyond this life, when Christ returns. So think of this life as training for that wonderful future. This training may be quite hard. Some of you know that this morning. You are going through really hard times. But as Peter says, if you are
"born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead," …
… "by God's power" you will be "guarded through faith" – through your response of faith to God's working, as you trust and obey him. So a third meaning of the Resurrection is one of hope instead of despair.
And, fourthly, the Resurrection means that the risen Jesus is available to all everywhere and at all times. When Jesus revealed himself to Mary, she wanted to "cling to him". And (verse 17) …
"Jesus said to her, 'Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God"'".
You must realize that Jesus' resurrection body was related to his earthly body, but, seemingly, not in any way limited. In the second half of John 20 you read how Jesus could appear and disappear at will and through closed doors. But although his new body was so different to his former body, he was recognizable, yet at times he could be incognito. And he was touchable. Mary could touch Jesus. So later could doubting Thomas touch Jesus. However, these unique appearances were only temporary.
Mary may have been thinking Jesus would continue to relate to people in this quasi-physical way. But Jesus has to tell her that soon he was to "ascend" directly to be with his Father at, what the Bible describes as, the Father's right hand. And from there, and by his Holy Spirit, the risen Lord can relate to everyone not just Mary. This is an absolutely wonderful meaning of the Resurrection. For Jesus Christ is able now to respond to everyone anywhere at any time spiritually in a way he wasn't able to do so before.
So, the Resurrection means so much; it certainly means, Jesus is God come in human form and the good news that he really is the Saviour from all sin; it assures us of God's power; it means hope not despair; and it means Jesus Christ is approachable always.
So that brings us finally and briefly to
3. The challenge of The Resurrection
There are two well-known challenges. The first is from Paul who writes:
"if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raise him from the dead, you will be saved". (Rom 10.9)
Who needs to heed those words this Easter morning, and openly commit themselves to the risen Saviour?
And the second challenge is from the risen Jesus himself and his final words as recorded in Matthew's Gospel (Matt 28.18-20):
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and [importantly for these days] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
And disciple making involves witnessing appropriately to the fact that Jesus is risen and what it means in the world today. So how are you, if you are a believer, responding to that commission of disciple-making, directly, or indirectly (by helping others directly) fulfil it?
And I conclude with a request. Can we, above all, pray for God's resurrection power to be working in our own lives, and in our nation at this needy time, so that God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven?