Text: Mark 16:1-8, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 V The Resurrection of our Lord
… According to the Scriptures
In the name of our risen Savior, God, and King, dear friends in Christ: Today we join the Holy Christian Church on Earth and the saints in glory in celebrating the Feast of the Resurrection. It’s the day on which our Lord Jesus proved the success of his mission to atone for our sins and release us from the curse of death by rising again from death’s cold grasp and showing himself to his overjoyed disciples. This victory is the single greatest event in human history. It is the best news that sinners like us could possibly hear. Small wonder then that Easter is considered by faithful Christians to be the highest of high holy days.
That being the case, did you notice anything missing from this morning’s Scripture readings? In the Old Testament lesson we heard about the great feast of celebration that the Lord has planned for his people on the final day when death is forever behind us. In the Epistle reading St. Paul stresses the foundational importance to our faith of Jesus’ death for sin and his rising to life again. And in the Gospel reading we join the women who rose early that first Easter morning and went to the garden tomb in order to complete the hastily performed burial of the Friday before. To their shock and horror, they find the stone rolled away, and the gaping mouth of the tomb standing open. With no small amount of trepidation, they peer inside expecting to find … find what? I’m not sure. Presumably the gruesome evidence that his enemies weren’t satisfied just seeing him abused and killed in worst way imaginable; no, they must have continued to vent their fury on him by desecrating his corpse. It’s something like that that they expect to see, and they brace themselves for the worst; but instead they see an angel appearing as a young man in a dazzling white robe. He’s seated there calmly in the gloomy shadows of the sepulcher as if just waiting for someone to stop in for a chit chat – which isn’t too far from the truth. To say that he startles the women would be a gross understatement. But they are even more shaken by his message: “Don’t be alarmed”, he tells them, “You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He’s risen; he’s not here. See the place where they laid him. But go now, and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” They just don’t go as instructed; we’re told that they were so full of terror that they actually fled from the tomb. And there the story ends.
So, what’s missing in all three of these readings selected by people a whole lot smarter than me to be the lessons for Easter Day, the Feast of the Resurrection, the highest of the Church’s high holy days? Well, Jesus is, of course. Here we are to celebrate his rising from the grave, and the risen Lord Jesus doesn’t even appear in any of our readings. Now maybe you wouldn’t expect him to show up in the Old Testament lesson; but if that’s true, I feel my eleven plus years here have been wasted. Jesus is all over the Old Testament. And perhaps you wouldn’t expect Jesus to make an appearance in the Epistle lesson; though that’s not out of the question either. I mean, there are a number of New Testament texts other than the four Gospels in which Jesus does indeed appear. Surely they could have picked one of them. But since they didn’t, it only makes sense that on Easter Sunday of all days we should have a Gospel reading in which the risen Lord Jesus shows up in such a way that someone actually sees him. But no; instead the story ends abruptly with frightened women fleeing from the tomb without having seen Jesus. In fact, there’s strong evidence to suggest that in the earliest edition of St. Mark’s Gospel that’s where the whole story ends. It’s very likely that Mark ended his Gospel right there without any mention of anyone having actually laid eyes on the risen Lord. But whether that’s the end or not, the women are instructed to tell the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection without themselves being eye witnesses of the central truth of the message they are to deliver. That’s kind of strange, don’t you think?
Not that it makes much difference anyway. We know from the accounts of the other evangelists that the disciples didn’t believe the women when they reported that they saw an angel. They thought the women were hysterical, or overcome with grief, or letting their emotions carry them away so that they were having hallucinations. Whatever. They simply didn’t consider them to be reliable witnesses. It only stands to reason that they wouldn’t have believed the women if they said they’d actually seen Jesus.
And all of this got me to thinking: here we are gathered to celebrate Jesus’ victory over death and the grave – the central truth of our faith – the truth on which Christianity literally lives or dies. Let me ask you, how do you know for sure it’s true? I’m willing to wager that none of us has ever seen the risen Lord Jesus. And if anyone here claims to have seen him, we’d all be thinking the same thing the disciples were about the women who claimed they saw an angel: you’re absolutely nuts. And yet you believe in the resurrection of Jesus, don’t you? At least I assume that you do since you’re here this morning to celebrate it. So, why do you believe it?
I’ve read a number of books on the topic of Christian apologetics. It’s the field of theology that attempts to defend the truths of the Christian faith using arguments from reason, philosophy, and by taking into consideration primarily non-biblical sources of information. The authors of these books usually claim that the resurrection of Jesus is one of the best attested events in the history of the ancient world. They argue that if any reasonable person just sat down and objectively considered the evidence, they’d come to the inescapable conclusion that Jesus Christ did indeed rise from the dead.
But what evidence is there really? Isn’t it true that when all is said and done we are in exactly the same place as the women who fled from the tomb that on first Easter morning? All we have is somebody’s word on it. We haven’t seen the risen Jesus. We believe in his resurrection only because somebody told us it’s true.
In today’s Epistle reading, while building his case for the truth of the resurrection, St. Paul stresses the number of eye witnesses – people who actually saw the risen Lord. Paul writes, “He appeared to Cephas (that’s Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time” most of whom were still alive when Paul wrote to the Corinthians in AD 55, though, he admits, some had already passed on. What Paul is saying is, “Hey, if you don’t believe me, you can ask them. They saw Jesus too” – which was great for the Corinthians, I suppose; but friends, all of Paul’s witnesses are long dead now. So not only have you not seen the risen Lord Jesus, you can’t even talk to an eye witness and get a first hand account. And even if by some miracle you could hear from one of the eye witnesses, what would you have except for another person’s word on it?
And look, eye witness testimony is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Recent studies have proven how easy it is to influence what a person thinks he or she saw just by the way questions about an incident are worded. For example, they’ll show a group of people a film clip of a car accident. Then they’ll ask half the viewers how fast they thought the offending car was moving when it smashed into the other car, and the other half how fast they thought it was going when it bumped into the other car. Guess what? The smashed group will estimate a much higher average velocity than the bumped group every time even though they watched the same thing. The indication is either that eye witnesses tend to tell questioners what they think they want to hear, or that their actual memories of an incident can be influenced and perhaps even altered by the words others use to describe it. Either way the point is that eye witness testimony isn’t all that reliable. Couple that with the many folks who claim everything from having been abducted by UFOs to having recently seen Elvis Presley in a shopping mall and, well, you could probably find yourself someone who claims to have seen just about anything you can imagine.
So where does that leave us? Right back with those women who fled from the tomb, that’s where. We haven’t seen the risen Lord Jesus. All we have is someone’s word on it. And we’ve seen that the eye witness testimony of humans is always subject to doubt. After all, there are outright liars, there are those with delusions and hallucinations, and there are honest people who are mistaken about what they think they’ve seen. We simply can’t rely on human testimony. And yet we are called upon to believe in the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because as St. Paul correctly points out, it is the central truth on which Christianity stands or falls. You’d think, then, wouldn’t you, that we’d be left with something more reliable, something more concrete on which to hang our hats of faith? If the truth of the resurrection of Jesus is so critically important, and it is, don’t you think the Lord should have given us a more reliable witness? Of course!
And it turns out that he did. And though you might have missed it in today’s readings, it’s there – it’s there three times. It shows up first in the Epistle reading where St. Paul says, “for I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” The second time is in the next line, where he says, “that [Jesus] was buried, [and] that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” That little phrase “in accordance with the Scriptures” is often misunderstood by modern Christians. We tend to think it means that Jesus died and rose again just like the Bible says he did as recorded in the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But that’s not what it means at all. We know because at the time Paul wrote to the Corinthians these books hadn’t been written yet, or if they had, they hadn’t yet got much circulation. No, when Paul says that Jesus died and rose in accordance with the Scriptures he’s talking about the Old Testament – Moses and the prophets – he’s referring to what he would have considered to be the Scriptures in his day. What he’s saying is that Jesus had to rise from the dead because God in his Holy Word promised that he would. Men can lie or be mistaken; but God can’t – which is why Paul lists God as his first witness before he starts to run down the human eye witnesses. He’s putting his best witness on the stand first when he writes “in accordance with the Scriptures.” He’s saying you have God’s Word on it.
What Old Testament Scriptures speak of the resurrection of Jesus? There are too many to name; but we read one earlier in the Introit where the Spirit of Christ says through the psalmist, “My heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to the grave or let your Holy One see corruption.” In this and many more passages like it, the Son of God speaks of what is to come and what will happen to him – including his resurrection from the dead.
But I told you the witness of God’s Word showed up three times in this morning’s readings. The third time is in the Gospel when the angel says to the women, “[Jesus] is going before you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” The angel is referring to the several occasions that Jesus himself had told his disciples what was to come. He told them that he was going to Jerusalem; there he would be rejected, suffer, and die, and on the third day he would rise again from the dead, and that he would meet with them again later in Galilee. And so there’s an implied rebuke in the angel’s message to the women. He’s saying why are you looking for Jesus here? He told you to meet him in Galilee. Why didn’t you believe him? Why aren’t you waiting for him where he said he’d be? In Luke’s account of the women’s visit to the tomb this comes across even more clearly; but the point is the same: they had God’s Word on it. That’s all they needed because the Word of God cannot be broken – not even by death.
And that, my friends, is good news for us, because we are the inheritors of both the Old Testament promises of God and his New Testament record of their fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ. So we are not left to wonder or doubt if we’ve been lied to or deceived by someone who was crazy or mistaken. We have God’s Word on it. And through God’s Word the Holy Spirit works to create and sustain faith in our hearts so that we can be confident of Christ’s resurrection from the dead – and with his resurrection, everything that means for us; namely, that in him we are guaranteed the forgiveness of sins, our own resurrections from the grave one day, and eternal life with him in glory. We can be sure these things because they all must happen precisely as God has revealed his truth to us according to the Scriptures. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!