Easter (2)

There was an interesting TV programme on before Easter called 'The Battle for Christianity'. It was an investigation of contemporary Christian faith in the UK. The Christian Institute was featured, among others. It struck me that the premise of the presenter was that it was an open question whether Christian faith could survive in the contemporary United Kingdom. Thankfully his answer on this occasion was yes, not least because of the lively faith of so many immigrants. But anyone who understands the earth-shattering significance of that first Easter Day will know that Christian faith is utterly indestructible, not because of trends in immigration, or whatever, but because of the fact that Jesus is alive and Jesus is Lord. And those are my two simple headings this morning.

I want us to look at that account of the raising of Jesus from the dead in Matthew 28, so please have that open in front of you. That's on page 835 in the Bibles.

In our culture there seems now to be a largely unquestioned general assumption – at least in the media – that the resurrection didn't happen. There is in the air that we breathe a notion that people used to find it easy to believe in the resurrection, but modern people cannot possibly be expected to, as if rising from the dead used to be a regular event that people would have taken in their stride. But that is nonsense. The whole point about the resurrection of Jesus is that it is a unique event. Those who saw Jesus alive were witnesses to a one-off event that had never before happened in history and will never happen again before the end of time. By its very nature it's an event that flatly contradicts the normal experience of humanity through the ages. The whole atmosphere of the gospels is of a failure to believe that it was going to happen until the evidence that it had happened overwhelmed the disciples. There is always doubt in the air, not least at the time it all took place. So look at Matthew 28.16-17:

"Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him, but some doubted."

Do you see that? Even in the face of the resurrection appearances, there were some who hesitated to accept that it was true. And that's what you would expect because this was such an extraordinary event. But the facts overwhelmed the doubt of the disciples. So what do we say where there are doubts about the resurrection? Why believe that Jesus has risen? Why believe that Jesus is alive? I want to identify some of the answers that Matthew gives to those questions in this chapter. So my first heading:

Jesus is Alive

Why believe this? Matthew presents us with a series of events which he records in a restrained and sober way as historical, factual truth. He also makes it clear that from the first there were those with another agenda and an alternative version of events.

One version of events is the account of the disciples. The disciples of Jesus insist that what they are saying about the resurrection of Jesus is the truth. That insistence means they face persecution and death. But they will not change their story. That is impressive. The other version of events is the account of the chief priests and elders. If they can demonstrate that what the disciples claim is false, then their own consistent hostility to Jesus is vindicated and their own religious, social and economic position is protected. It was in everybody's short term interest for there to be no resurrection. But the truth could not be suppressed. It overwhelmed all attempts to deny it.

Let's look at the sequence of events that Matthew sets before us. Basically we have to decide who to believe. Who is lying here? That is the question. Is it the disciples who were putting their own lives in jeopardy? Or is it those whose whole standing in their society was under threat? Remember, for a start, that Jesus had predicted that he would rise. Look back to 27.62-63:

"The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, "Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, 'After three days I will rise.'"

What's particularly striking about that is that it is said not only by the enemies of Jesus but also before the resurrection took place. The authorities knew about Jesus' claim. They didn't believe it. What they were worried about was the body being stolen. But that Jesus had said he would rise from the dead was not in dispute. And indeed Jesus had been explicit, though the disciples didn't grasp what he was saying until later. So it's important to realise that Jesus clearly predicted what was going to happen. Next, notice that the Jewish and Roman authorities co-operated in securing the tomb. 27.64-66 – The Jewish leaders said to Pilate:

""Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, 'He has risen from the dead', and the last fraud will be worse than the first." Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can." So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard."

So the tomb was both sealed and guarded. But, despite these precautions, the stone was moved and the tomb empty. Again, those are facts that apparently were not disputed at the time by the enemies of Jesus and his followers. What became the issue was how the tomb became empty, not that it was empty. The next thing that happened was that an angel announced to the women, before Jesus appeared, that Jesus had risen; and the angel showed them the empty tomb. 28.5-6:

"But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay."

Does the appearance of blazing white angels make the account harder to believe? Far from it. We're talking here about someone rising from the dead. If that happened, then there is indeed a whole supernatural realm that we don't normally encounter. But if ever angels are going to make themselves known, this is the time. And the consequence of what the angel said was that the grief of the women was turned to joy. 28.8:

"So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples."

I read of a soldier who saw one of his best friends horribly killed. It was a memory that haunted him for the rest of his life. For years he wept in his sleep. Those desolate women visited that tomb to tend to the dead body of a beloved friend and teacher in his early thirties, horribly and bloodily executed just the day before yesterday. They had seen him die. That is not an occasion for joy, not unless something astounding has happened, like resurrection. The women's grief was turned to joy. And then, what is more, the women saw Jesus risen from the dead. These words are unfailingly moving. 28.9-10:

"And behold, Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.""

The testimony of women was considered to be worth little in first century Jewish society. But ironically that just makes this account all the more authentic and credible. Someone trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the Jewish world would not have gone about it in this way. What, then, was the official reaction? The religious authorities tried to suppress the news by bribery and deception. That's what's going on in verses 11-15. And it's an astonishingly cynical piece of attempted media manipulation. The guards came to the priests with the facts. The priests devise a damage limitation strategy which has one main casualty: the truth. They give the soldiers a fat cheque, indemnity against prosecution, and a story to tell the press which is a bare-faced lie. It all has a horribly contemporary ring to it. Verse 13:

"Tell people, 'His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.'"

And verse 15:

"So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day."

Of course, if the chief priests were here this morning, they would tell you that it's Matthew who is lying, along with all the disciples who bear witness to the resurrection. Somebody is lying. I gladly stake my life on the assessment that Matthew is the one telling the truth. And that certainty is reinforced by what happened next: the disciples saw Jesus risen from the dead. Verses 16-17:

"Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him…"

There is in our society a great deal of plain ignorance of the basic facts on which the Christian faith is built. This series of events that's recorded in Matthew 28 adds up to compelling and convincing testimony to the central fact of the resurrection of Jesus. And that's just this passage in Matthew. There's plenty more elsewhere in the New Testament. And it's hard to imagine how the evidence for this unique event could be stronger. So this Easter time it's good to be reminded that the Christian faith is historical. It is fact. It is true. Jesus has risen. Jesus is alive. What then are the implications of the resurrection? Once again we'll limit ourselves to what Matthew records here. And it's all summed up in my second and last heading:

Jesus is Lord

Here then are four implications of the fact of the resurrection.

1. The word of Jesus is true.

That's really the force of what the angel says in verse 6:

"He is not here, for he has risen, as he said."

Jesus said he would rise, and he did. What Jesus says is to be believed. He could hardly have demonstrated that more completely. So that means everything Jesus said before his death – all that he claimed, all that he taught – and everything the risen Jesus says should be received as absolute truth. He has established his right to be believed.

2. Jesus has defeated death.

Death could not hold him. There's enough cause for celebration in that one simple statement to last a lifetime. Death is not invincible. Imagine a world in which Jesus has not been raised. The statistics of death are one hundred per cent. One out of one dies. One out of one stays dead. But it only takes one person to destroy death's perfect record. And that's what Jesus has done.

We now know that one man – and only one man – can show us the way through death and out the other side. The grim reaper no longer has the last word. There is hope in Jesus. When we belong to Jesus, we might well not look forward to the process of dying, but we no longer need to fear death itself. When we take Jesus at his word and entrust our lives to him, his death means our forgiveness. And our death becomes the gateway to eternal life. Beyond death we will meet Jesus face to face, and live in his presence. That is reason for joy. Once and for all, Jesus has defeated death.

3. Jesus has the full authority of God. Verses 18-19:

"And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples…"

'All authority has been given to me,' says Jesus. By whom? By his Father – by God himself. The resurrection is not only the victory of Jesus over death. It is his accession to the throne of heaven. Jesus has the full authority of God because he is God – God made flesh, God and man. Jesus said in John 14.9:

"Whoever who has seen me has seen the Father"

Understand that, and any notion that there can be a way to God that bypasses Jesus simply becomes absurd. You cannot get to London by a route that bypasses London. The risen Jesus alone is the bridge between God and man. So, Jesus has the full authority of God. That means that he has authority over all people. Hence his command: 'go and make disciples of all nations.'

4. Everyone should believe in Jesus, accept his word, and submit to his rule. Verses 19-20:

"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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you."

Baptism is the outward sign of that faith in the risen, living Christ who is Lord. Worshipping him, learning from him and obeying him make up the way of life of the believer. This is not a matter of preference. It is not a lifestyle choice. The resurrection means that Jesus makes absolute demands on every one of us. This of course means that Jesus is the rightful King of those who are atheists. They just don't see it yet. But they need to. It also means that Jesus is the rightful King of those who follow religions that deny the divine authority of Jesus. They just don't see it yet.

And whether someone lives in a country that's had a Christian culture for centuries, or in a country that's been steeped in another religion for thousands of years makes no difference. Jesus is Lord. Everyone needs to know it. There can be no biblical Christianity that is only for some people. The good news of Jesus must be communicated with sensitivity, respect, gentleness and humility. But it must be communicated to all the nations of the world. Because Jesus has authority over everyone. No exceptions. So the key task of those of us who do believe is to do all that we can to teach the rest of the world to believe as well. And that's exactly the job that Jesus gives his disciples. Is that beyond us? Alone – yes. But we are not alone. Jesus is alive. And Jesus promises in verse 20:

"… behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

When Jesus is with us – Jesus who has risen from the dead, Jesus who is alive today, Jesus who is Lord – then we can do anything that he asks us to do. So let's rejoice in the implications of that first Easter Day. And let's be confident that Jesus is alive, and Jesus is Lord. And let's get stuck in to the battle for Christianity knowing that we're on the winning side – for the glory of the risen Jesus.

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