Text: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, 17-22.
Epistle for Easter
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Today is Easter Sunday, the Sunday of the Resurrection. This is the day when we, together with all Christians, proclaim to one another and to the world that Jesus Christ who was crucified for the sin of the world rose bodily from the dead. It is NOT, as you sometimes hear, the “day Christians celebrate their belief that Jesus rose from the dead.” The resurrection of Jesus, His empty tomb, the eyewitness appearances, are not matters of faith. They are matters of fact. The fact is that Christ rose from the dead. The faith is that as in Adam all die so in Christ will all be made alive. That is a matter of faith. But the resurrected body of Jesus is a matter of fact.
So, as they used to say on the old Dragnet programme, here’s “just the facts.”
Fact: Jesus died by crucifixion.
Fact #1: Jesus of Nazareth died by crucifixion. Few facts from history are more provable than this one. Without a crucifixion you can’t have a resurrection. By analyzing the historical data, medical doctors have concluded that Jesus could not have survived the gruesome effects of crucifixion. While Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus sweat drops of blood. This is a rare medical condition caused by such mental anguish and high anxiety that it causes the blood vessels that feed the sweat glands to burst. Having tender skin already from sweating blood, Jesus was then scourged. He would have had deep bruising and severe lacerations, resulting in massive blood loss. Even before the actual crucifixion, Jesus was in critical condition and suffering from shock.
As Jesus hung on the cross, the weight of His body pulled down on the diaphragm and the air moved into His lungs. Jesus painfully had to push up on His nailed feet to exhale, leading to a slow form of suffocation. Lack of oxygen, water, and blood caused Jesus ‘ heart and lungs to give out. The Roman executioners knew that they would face death if their victims came off the cross alive. So, it wasn’t enough that Jesus looked dead, they took a spear and pierced his side, just to be sure. Eyewitnesses reported that “blood and water came out” (John 19:34), referring to the watery fluid surrounding the heart and lungs. Few things are more certain in history; Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross.
Fact: Jesus’ tomb was empty after His burial.
Fact #2: Jesus’ tomb was empty after His burial. The empty tomb of Jesus is reported in sources which date so close to the events that they could not possibly have been products of legend. The first eyewitnesses who discovered the empty tomb were women. This helps strengthen the story’s credibility. In the first century, a woman’s testimony was considered inadmissible in court. There would have been no reason to report that women found the empty tomb if it wasn’t true. They would have been laughed at. This is nothing but an old wives tale! If you were making up a religion in the first century, you wouldn’t have women discover the tomb.
The reports also don’t paint the apostles to be any sort of heroes. The apostles were a cowardly bunch. In the garden of Gethsemane, they were so frightened that they fled and abandoned Jesus. In fact, they were not even expecting Jesus to rise from the dead and they didn’t believe the women’s reports. In fact, they were hiding in a locked room totally afraid the Jewish leaders were coming for them next. If you were making up a religion in the first century, you’d paint your leaders in a better light.
The site of Jesus’ tomb was known to Christians, Jews, and Romans, so it could have been checked by skeptics. In fact, nobody – not even the Roman authorities or Jewish leaders – ever claimed that the tomb still contained Jesus’ body. The Roman government had placed soldiers at the tomb so it was heavily guarded. To account for the empty tomb, the Jewish Leaders invented the absurd story that the disciples, despite having no motive or opportunity, had stolen the body – a theory that not even the most skeptical critic believes today.
If the tomb wasn’t empty, then Christianity would not have gotten off the ground. If the tomb wasn’t empty, and the apostles were running around Jerusalem proclaiming that Jesus was risen, a simple visit to the tomb would have proved them wrong. All the Jewish Leaders or the Romans had to do to squash the early Christian movement was to produce and publicly display the dead corpse of Jesus. Again, few things are more certain in history; the tomb was empty on Sunday morning.
Fact: Jesus was seen Alive.
Fact #3: Jesus was seen alive after his death on the Cross. The evidence for the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus didn’t develop gradually over the years, like a game of telephone. No, within forty days of the crucifixion Jesus disciples were already proclaiming his resurrection. This has been the Church’s message since the beginning! Our Epistle lesson from 1 Corinthians mentions specific individuals who encountered the risen Christ. This letter was written about 25 years after the crucifixion! Many people here know what 25 years is like. What happened back in 1993? That’s 25 years ago. I remember 1993, that’s when Jurassic Park came out in theatres. Bill Clinton became president in 1993. The first World Trade Center bombing was in 1993. I’m sure you remember 1993 too! So, Paul is challenging first-century skeptics to talk with these individuals personally to determine the truth of the matter for themselves. Jesus was seen by Mary Magdalene, by Peter and the Eleven Apostles, by doubting Thomas, by two disciples on the Emmaus road, by seven disciples who ate fish with Him, by over 500 brothers at one time, by James Jesus’ brother and all the apostles, and by Paul on the road to Damascus. That’s plenty of people to corroborate.
Was it a mass hallucination? Hallucinations are not contagious. People don’t hallucinate the same thing. It’s also hard to have the same hallucination by a different group of people in different locations at different times. People who have hallucinations normally have them because they want to see something or expect something to happen. The disciples were not psychologically prepared to hallucinate because they were not expecting Jesus to rise from the grave. In fact, Jesus had to eat fish and allow himself to be touched to prove to them that he wasn’t a ghost! Besides, if they were just hallucinating, why did no one produce a body to prove it?
And finally, nobody willingly dies for a lie. If it was just made up, or if they stole the body, why would the disciples give up everything, including their own lives? For a hoax? The apostles died gruesome deaths. They had nothing to gain! They truly believed that they had seen the risen Jesus. Apart from a real resurrection, there’s no good reason why enemies like Saul of Tarsus would have been converted and would have died for their faith. Few things are more certain in history; Jesus was seen bodily alive by up to 500 people at one time.
What does this mean?
We are celebrating the Resurrection, not as a product of wishful thinking, not as a beautiful metaphor, nor as an existential experience, but as an actual historical and factual event. It is a matter of fact just like any other fact of history from the First World War to the assassination of Julius Caesar. The tomb of Jesus is empty. The body of Jesus is risen. That is a matter of fact. Now, what does this mean for you?
It means forgiveness, life, and salvation. Christian preaching isn’t empty. Your ears aren’t full of fond wishes and empty promises. Christ is risen from the dead and his promise is true. There is a cure for Death and Sin. It’s the body and blood of the Risen Christ. The grave has lost its victory. It cannot hold you because it could not hold Jesus. “As in Adam, all die. So, in Christ, will all be made alive.” The grave is now nothing more than a resting place, a Motel 6 for the body, a temporary abode until we rise in the new creation. The grave has lost its hold on you. Christ has conquered Death and stole his crown. We need not fear anything in this world, even those things that could destroy the body. Christ is risen! It means that we are free to love, to serve, to hope, to endure, to embrace, to let go, to forgive. It means we can come to the Supper of the Lamb and eat and drink, for tomorrow we live!
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia.
And may the peace which passes all understanding keep your heart and mind through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.