Up From the Grave
April 9, 2023 John 20:1-18
Happy Easter Sunday! Today is the Festival of our Lord’s Resurrection and it is good that we celebrate it. While for some, today is only a time for candy and colored eggs, we recognize that on Friday Jesus was crucified, died and buried but on the third day, Sunday, he rose from the grave and went from death to life. Christians have been celebrating this day from the very beginning of the Church. Because of the Resurrection of Jesus we are here as his people and we celebrate God’s mighty work in Christ Jesus.
The Resurrection of Jesus is the key event in the Christian faith. Without the Resurrection, we would have no faith and no hope. The apostle Paul wrote the Corinthian Christians, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith (1 Corinthians 15:14).” In a few lines down the page in his letter to the Christians in Corinth, he again writes, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins (1 Corinthians 15:17).” The core doctrine of the Christian faith is the Resurrection of Jesus. Without Resurrection, we might as well see this day as a celebration of fertility and the renewing of the earth. Without Resurrection, we may as well believe as some disciples did on the Friday and Saturday of the first Holy Week that Jesus is dead and his body is buried in a tomb. Today without Resurrection we could say that his bones are either dust or still lie somewhere in the vicinity of Jerusalem.
Some people have problems believing the Resurrection story. In our culture, the word story is associated with fiction. A story is something dreamed up by a writer. It is a legend, myth or fable. We contrast fiction with historical fact. Some say a story is fiction while historical writings are fact. However, the evidence of the Resurrection of Jesus ought to get our attention and direct our thoughts to history rather than legend. As we read the account of the Resurrection of Jesus in Scripture, one of the first things we note is that no one comes forth with his body. If the temple authorities who pressed Rome to crucify Jesus had a body, surely they would have presented it to disprove the disciples’ talk about Jesus being alive. The temple authorities never produced a body. The Roman authorities never produced a body.
Years ago construction workers were excavating a road near Jerusalem and discovered a first century tomb. In the tomb were many Ossuaries, limestone boxes which contained human bones. On the outside of one of the bone boxes the name “Joseph son of Caiaphas” was carved. Archaeologists believe that the ossuary contained the bones of the High Priest. Today we have the box that contained the bones of the man who led the conspiracy to kill Jesus. We know that other religious leaders were dead and buried. Mohammed died and was buried. Buddha is quite dead. Years ago a finger of Buddha was sent from China to Taiwan on tour. We have no historical or physical evidence that Jesus remained in the grave.
The reports from the New Testament tell us that the eleven remaining disciples saw the Risen Lord. The women disciples saw the Risen Lord. Two disciples who were heading home in despair to the village of Emmaus walked with Jesus and even had dinner with him. Paul writes that over 500 people were witnesses to the Risen Christ. Given the ethical base of the early disciples, it is hard to imagine they invented the story of the Resurrection. They were not prone to lying and deceiving.
However, some might say, “Well, these stories were written to undergird the Jesus myth and are not credible.” What impresses me is when we contrast the behavior of the disciples on Friday and Saturday with their behavior in the days ahead. Even though Jesus taught his disciples about the Resurrection, they did not believe him. They heard what he said but did not comprehend it. On Sunday morning they were not expecting to discover that the tomb was empty and that Jesus is alive. Joseph of Arimathea and Nichodemus received the body of Jesus from the Roman leader Pilate and prepared it for burial. If they believed Jesus would rise from the dead, they certainly would not have gone to the expense of purchasing linen burial cloths and 60-80 pounds of spices to care for the body. When the women went to the tomb on Sunday morning, what were they expecting to find? They were expecting to find the body of Jesus. They had no expectation of Resurrection. They were at first convinced someone took the body from the tomb. After they reported their findings to the disciples who were hiding in the city, they were skeptical. They thought their report was idle women’s talk. When Peter and John ran to the tomb, they were amazed that there was no body but saw burial cloths lying there as if the body just vanished leaving the cloths. Then there is the story of the disciple Thomas. The other disciples told him they had seen the Lord. Did he believe them? No, he told them that he would not believe unless he would see Jesus too. He would not believe unless he put his fingers in the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet and place his hand in the wound in his side. Bottom line: No one expected that Jesus would rise from the grave and be alive after his brutal crucifixion. Myths and legends take time to evolve. The Resurrection accounts developed within a few hours of the day Jesus was raised from the dead.
Some might say that the disciples came up with a good story and ran with it. They might also say that Christians are still running with it. Where were the disciples on Friday, Saturday and Sunday? They were hiding in fear of the authorities. They knew Jesus was crucified and worried that they might be arrested and suffer the same fate. They were hiding behind locked doors in fear for their lives. Can you imagine this discussion? Peter says, “Fellows, I’ve got this great idea. Let’s just tell everyone we meet that Jesus was raised supernaturally from the grave and is alive today. We could make a good living conning people.” Even if the disciples were not hiding in fear, they certainly were not of a mind to create a big lie and convince others that the big lie is the truth of God.
Something happened that transformed the disciples from people hiding in fear and hopelessness to men boldly proclaiming that Jesus was raised from the dead and that that they saw him. In a few short days, Peter and John were in the temple area telling everyone who would listen that Jesus was raised from the dead and is the living Lord. Something happened to make a radical change in the behavior of the disciples. It was literally like night and day. Their lives were completely reversed. Suddenly, they were risking their lives for Jesus and turning the world upside down. Dr. Thomas C. Oden, theologian and Bible scholar believes the best evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus is the radical change in the lives of the disciples and that the change could not happen without the Risen Lord. Dr. Oden writes, “Their behavioral change was instantaneous, radical and continuing.”
Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, a physician who focuses on how to maintain health, writes about two kinds of religious belief and their effect on people’s lives. The first he calls “extrinsic belief.” He says that “extrinsic belief may include bare membership in a particular church . . . the rote, mechanical recitation of a liturgy, or the intellectual affirmation of a particular set of convictions or a statement of faith.” So far, my discussion of the Resurrection is rather intellectual. Just saying Jesus was raised from the grave might be an intellectual belief that qualifies as extrinsic belief. Dr. Cooper continues, “The distinguishing feature of this sort of belief is that it remains in the head and never makes it to the heart.” There are problems associated with extrinsic belief. Dr. Cooper says it, “has no power to improve one’s spiritual states, emotional well-being, physical health—or much of anything else.” From a Christian perspective, extrinsic belief means that one has the form of religion but not the power. One can intellectually believe in the Resurrection but it might have little or no effect on one’s faith or the way one lives.
Dr. Cooper contrasts extrinsic belief with intrinsic belief. Intrinsic belief “is characterized by such qualities as profound spiritual commitment, a sense of having found the ultimate meaning in life, a devotion to heartfelt prayer, and a quest for a truly transformed life.” The one who has intrinsic belief perhaps also has head knowledge of faith but such knowledge then becomes part and parcel of their being. The Word has become flesh within them. The Resurrection moves from just being an interesting story or historical fact to a strong belief that informs everything they do in life. The one who has intrinsic belief can say as the old hymn puts it, “and he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.” This kind of belief is powerful. Dr. Cooper speaks about research studies which report that intrinsic belief “has the capacity to spark major personal enrichment in every area of life—including dramatic improvements in physical health, emotional well-being, and levels of fitness.” A heartfelt belief is where genuine religious faith lies. If you want to live in Resurrection power, pray that God will give you a heartfelt experience of the risen Lord.
Living the Resurrection is living day to day in the power of the Risen Lord. It means seeing the world from a different and holy perspective. It means having your heart broken by the things that break God’s heart. It means serving and giving, rather than being served and taking. It means living in eternity rather than living for the pleasures of the moment. When Jesus was raised from the dead, a new era began, and our Lord invites you to step into that new era. The defining characteristics of the new era are life, joy and peace. Death has been destroyed forever. Without the Resurrection, our faith is in vain and we would have no hope. We gather today to affirm that Jesus is the Risen Lord and that in spite of all efforts to exterminate him, he lives! As the hymn writer Alfred H. Ackley clearly proclaims: “I serve a risen Savior; he’s in the world today; I know that he is living, whatever foes may say.”
A sermon preached at Veterans Memorial Chapel
CH (COL) Michael W. Malone, AUS (RET)