Preached 19 April 1992 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
If, as you arrived at church this morning, you’d been waylaid by a redundant opinion-pollster, brandishing her clip board and asking `Do you believe in the resurrection?’, I wonder how you would have answered. And would it have made any difference if she’d put the question rather differently: `Do you believe that, on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead’?
I think that, faced squarely, those ten words from the Apostles’ Creed really show each one of us where we stand. Look inside yourself and test your own reaction to them now. `On the third day He rose again from the dead’.
Do you find yourselves reacting with total affirmation: shouting an inner `Amen’? Yes? Then, for you, the resurrection is a fact of history: something about which you entertain no doubts. You may have no idea how life re-entered the dead body of Jesus and changed it; how that body could pass through closed doors and yet be handled by doubting Thomas; how it could vanish and reappear and yet eat broiled fish and kindle a fire on the sea shore. But you are convinced that it did all those things: that Jesus was dead — stone-cold, clinically dead — on that first Good Friday night 2,000 years ago, but was alive again — warmly, vibrantly, physically alive again — as dawn broke on that first Easter Sunday morning. You’re a `Yes’ person.
Or do you find yourself reacting with a clear denial. An inner, if reluctant, `No’. Perhaps, for you, the resurrection is a myth, a fairy-story. A nice fairy-story — like the one about the angels and the wise men and the virgin Mary which we tell at Christmas. A fairy-story which you think the Church is right to keep on telling. A fairy-story which the world would be the poorer without. But a fairy-story nonetheless. You agree with the `Yes’ people that Jesus was stone-cold dead by Good Friday night. But you simply do not believe that as a matter of historic or scientific fact he was alive again by dawn on Easter Sunday. Perhaps the disciples genuinely believed He was. Maybe they had a mass hallucination. But, no, to be honest, whatever did happen on the third day, it was not that Jesus rose again from the dead. You’re a `No’ person. I doubt if there are many of you here this morning, but there might be one or two.
Or maybe you find yourself reacting in neither way. Your response to the words `On the third day He rose again from the dead’ is a kind of `Y…e…s, but …’. The resurrection is an article of your faith, no doubt about that, but you wouldn’t want anyone to press you too closely about what exactly happened on that first Easter Sunday morning. You believe that, in some sense, Jesus rose from the dead; but you’re not too sure in what sense. You suspect that the `resurrection’ was, perhaps, more of a spiritual thing than a physical thing; but, to be honest, you can’t think it really matters which. The important thing, for you, is that you are sufficiently committed to Christianity to suppress your disbelief — a disbelief which, after all, comes naturally enough to men and women of today — and sufficiently committed to the Church to affirm the religious truth of the resurrection. To the question `Did it really happen?’ you have to answer `Pass’. You’re really a `Don’t know’.
Well, whichever type of person you are, I think the Lord has something to say to you this morning; and the first thing I think He wants to say is this.
Belief in the real, factual, bodily resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter Sunday is not an optional extra article of the Christian faith. It is not even just a part of the Christian faith. It is the Christian faith.
If Christianity were a house, then belief in the virgin birth might be a bedroom, belief in the communion of saints might be the kitchen, belief in the holy catholic church might be the lounge, but belief in the resurrection of Jesus would be the foundation, the footings, the joists. You can get rid of a kitchen, take out a bedroom, knock a lounge through into a dining room and a house will continue to exist. It might look a mess when you’ve finished, but it will still be standing. But tear up its foundations, destroy its footings, remove its joist and the house will collapse. It will simply cease to be. So with belief in the resurrection of Jesus. It is the Christian faith. The one thing that nobody who claims to be a Christian can safely sit on the fence about is belief in the resurrection.
That’s what Paul was spelling out to the members of the church in Corinth in the reading from the epistle. Some of the Corinthians were saying that perhaps there was no such thing as resurrection. Paul’s response couldn’t have been more blunt. `If Christ was not raised’ he says, `your faith has nothing in it and you are still in your old state of sin. It follows also that those who have died within Christ’s fellowship are utterly lost’. If the death of Jesus on Good Friday was the end of the story, he says, you might as well get up and go home. Don’t waste your time hanging around here, singing hymns, praying, listening to sermons. Don’t waste your money, putting it in the collection. And don’t waste your thoughts on those you’ve lost. If Jesus is dead then, sadly, you’re never going to see them again.
But why should that be so? Why does everything hinge on the resurrection?
Quite simply, because the resurrection is God’s `YES’ to all that Jesus said and did.
Jesus really did make the most astounding claims. He said he was God’s son. He said that he was so at one with his Father that when a person had seen him, that person had seen God. He said that his Father had placed the destiny of the world and everyone and everything in it in his hands. He said that anyone who rejected him would perish but that anyone putting his trust in him would have the slate wiped clean; would receive life of a new, eternal quality; would himself become a child of God; would live forever. He said that the world beyond this was his kingdom but that folk could begin to live in it and enjoy it now if they would commit their lives to him. He said that he alone was the way to that kingdom and that He alone represented the truth sought by philosophers and sages through all the ages.
And then, one dark and dreadful Friday afternoon, he was jostled through the streets of Jerusalem to a hill outside the city walls and was nailed to a cross and died.
Hollow claims, empty promises? It seemed so. The world fell silent and those who had followed him mourned. Mourned for him, but mourned for themselves too. Mourned for what might have been. But then, two days later, on the third day, on that first Easter Sunday morning, the silence was broken. God the Father’s deafening, exultant `YES’ ripped through the air and reverberates still, here, today, if we will hear it. The `Yes’ of the resurrection. It shouts to us that the claims were not hollow; that the promises were not empty; that every word was true. By raising Him from the dead, God set His seal on the truth of Jesus. The resurrection was, is, God’s warranty, God’s guarantee, God’s `Yes’.
And that’s why the resurrection is central to Christian belief. Without it, the claims and promises of Jesus are of no more relevance or value than the words of any other great teacher, past or present. The Buddha taught and the Buddha died. Mohammed taught and Mohammed died. But the Christian claim is that Jesus alone taught, died and was raised from the dead. If that claim is false, if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, why believe Jesus. His claims far outweighed in extravagance those of any other! Why not believe Buddha? Why not believe Mohammed. Or why believe any of them?
So let us now face, head on, the claim itself: On the third day he rose again from the dead. What evidence do we have, two thousand years down the river of time that it is true?
Some would say: `Very little’. And would point to the handful of documents we call the New Testament and say: `Look at them. Inconsistent, fanciful reports written by a biased bunch of fanatics. Evidence? Don’t make us laugh.’
That was the approach of Frank Morison in 1924. He set out to put the documentary evidence for the resurrection under the microscope and to prove it worthless. But he ended up a Christian, totally convinced that the Christian claim was true. He called his book `Who Moved the Stone’ and if you doubt the documentary evidence for the resurrection, I commend that book to you. It is the most exciting and entirely convincing proof, on documentary grounds, that anyone could ever hope to read.
But I’m going to ignore that evidence completely this morning — powerful though it is — and look for evidence from a different quarter entirely. Instead of us asking Frank Morison’s question `Who moved the stone?’, I want us to ask the question `What moved the disciples?’. And two disciples in particular. First Peter and then Paul.
The Gospels are painfully honest in their portrayal of Peter. The picture they give us is a `warts and all’ picture; particularly when they come to the events of the night before Good Friday. Jesus had taken supper with his disciples and had then led them to the Mount of Olives. On the way he had warned them that their faith in Him was to be sorely tested and that before the night was out they would have abandoned Him and fled. `Never’ Peter had said. `The rest might, but not me. If you’re going to die, I’ll die with you’. But, as you all know, by dawn the following morning, Peter had three times denied that he even knew this Jesus who was on trial for his life. And the Gospels record that, after the third denial, as the cock crowed, Peter `went out and wept bitterly’. Peter was a broken man. He was not at the cross on Good Friday. The news of Jesus’ death was brought to him, as he cowered in hiding and disgrace, by John and the women who were there. Yet turn now to the opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles and see this same Peter, within weeks of the crucifixion, standing in the heart of Jerusalem. See him facing the same priests who had had Jesus executed, excitedly proclaiming at the top of his voice the good news of Jesus to the crowds who were milling around him. See him being thrown into gaol for his preaching, and then emerging from jail only to carry on precisely where he’d left off!
What moved the disciples? What moved Peter out of hiding and onto his soap box? What moved Peter out of his darkness and grief and brokenness into light and joy and power and wholeness? Peter himself was in no doubt. `This Jesus whom you crucified,’ he bellowed, `God has raised up and of this we are witnesses’. His conviction was unwavering. In the end he died for that conviction, on a cross like his Master’s, but upside down because to die upright, like Jesus, would, he felt, be too great an honour and too great an equality.
Now, to my mind, the behaviour of Peter and the other disciples in the weeks and months and years following the first Easter Sunday conclusively knocks on the head one theory that is advanced from time to time: namely, that the disciples removed Jesus’ body from the tomb and pretended he had risen. And let’s be in no doubt about one thing: the body had gone from the tomb — as recorded in our Gospel reading. Peter was preaching only a few hundred yards from that tomb. If there had been a body there, his proclamation of the resurrection would have been exposed as so much nonsense within minutes. No, everyone to whom he spoke — priests, people, soldiers — knew the body had vanished. Where it had gone was an open (and much debated) question, but, as I say, one theory was, and still is, that the disciples had themselves removed it.
Now perpetuating a lie is OK so long as it doesn’t cost you anything. But is there anything in your human experience which will allow you to believe for one moment that someone will allow himself to be beaten-up, imprisoned and ultimately crucified upside down in support of a lie that he himself has fabricated? No! Peter and the other disciples were convinced with every fibre of their beings that Jesus was risen. If there is one thing that is certain, it is that they did not remove the body from the tomb.
But neither did the priests and neither did the Romans. Both groups were desperate, once Peter had begun to proclaim the resurrection, to quash the claim. But they could not. And they could not because, quite simply, they were not able to produce the body. The tomb was empty. The body had gone.
But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that it was the mere fact of the empty tomb that had shot Peter and the other disciples out of the wings and onto centre stage in Jerusalem. Their claim was not that the tomb was empty. It was that Jesus was alive. Peter’s claim was that Jesus, in living flesh and blood, had met him, touched him, talked to him and forgiven him for his denials. And, I submit, that that is the only thing that can account for his, and the other disciples’, behaviour after that first Easter Sunday morning.
If you want to deny or even doubt the physical resurrection of Jesus, you must somehow come up with an alternative explanation of what moved Peter. And nobody, but nobody, has been able to do that in any way that carries conviction.
You must also come up with a convincing explanation of what moved Paul.
Paul wrote the letter to the Corinthians from which our first lesson was taken. And it is clear from that letter and all his other letters in the New Testament that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was the corner-stone of his belief. But it was not always so. Let’s go back to Jerusalem in the weeks following the first Easter Sunday and see where Paul stood then.
Paul was a Pharisee — and a particularly fanatical one. He reacted to the message of Peter and the first disciples with unbridled fury. When Stephen was stoned to death in Jerusalem for proclaiming the risen Christ, Paul held the cloaks of those who were doing the stoning and looked on with satisfaction. Later, when news came through to Jerusalem that the new faith had taken hold in Damascus, Paul sought and obtained permission from the chief priests to go and persecute the Christians there on their behalf. But, on the way, something happened to him. He left Jerusalem as one of Christianity’s fiercest opponents; he arrived in Damascus as a Christian. And he went on to become Christianity’s most powerful proponent, eclipsing even Peter in his missionary zeal. What moved Paul?
The story as Paul himself tells it is that he met the risen Jesus on the Damascus road. Not in flesh and blood. The physical appearances of Jesus had ceased by then and, according to the disciples, he had ascended into heaven. But the encounter was real, dynamic and cataclysmic for Paul. He — along with all Jerusalem — had known that the body of Jesus had gone missing on the Sunday following the crucifixion. But now he knew where it was. The disciples hadn’t stolen it after all. Jesus had risen and had ascended to his Father in heaven. He knew it was true, for he had encountered the risen and ascended Jesus.
And here we come to the heart of things, for Paul is nearer to us than Peter. Like we, Paul never knew Jesus in the days of his flesh, either before or after his resurrection. But Paul nonetheless had a personal encounter with Jesus and that became to him the proof of the resurrection. Indeed, on the strength of that encounter, he numbered himself among the witnesses to the resurrection. And so do I; so do many others in this place; and so do tens of thousands throughout the world. It was an encounter with the risen Jesus that moved every disciple then and that has moved every disciple since. It is encounter after encounter with the risen Jesus that has changed the world.
Over the last few weeks, we have seen pictures on our television screens of the molten lava from Mount Etna creeping down the mountain, engulfing everything in its path. Looking at that mighty, unstoppable stream of lava, can we doubt for one moment the massive eruption, hidden from sight beneath the earth, that brought it into being? And looking at the massive lava flow of the Christian faith, which, within weeks, engulfed Jerusalem, then Judea, then Asia Minor, then Europe, and has since engulfed the whole world, can we likewise doubt the reality of the mighty resurrection of Jesus that lies behind it? Can that vast flow of faith have sprung from a fairy story or, to give it its proper name, a lie?
All we `Yes’ people shout `No’! Jesus is risen! We add our voices to those of the thousands upon thousands down the centuries who have proclaimed it. And how do we know? We know because we have met Him in the here and now. And so can you. He is here this morning in all his risen and ascended glory, waiting to speak your name just as he spoke Mary’s name in the garden of that resurrection dawn; waiting for you to recognise him, acknowledge his Lordship and commit your life to Him. Greet him this morning in your heart by faith and share in his resurrection as he raises you into newness of life.
For Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!