First Mennonite Church
April 21, 2019
Easter: Meaning and Evidence
Text: 1Corinthians 15:1-7
This week I read the story of a grandfather who wanted to know how much his four-year-old granddaughter knew about the Easter story. When he saw little Julie playing in the backyard with her friends, he asked them, “Who knows why we celebrate Easter every year?” One of Julie’s friends chirped up first: “Oh, that’s when you go to the mall and sit on the big bunny rabbit’s lap and tell him what you want in your Easter basket.” Her second friend’s answer was no better: “No, no, no! It’s when you get a tree and hang eggs on it—and you wake up on Sunday and there are presents underneath it.”
At that point Grandpa interrupted and gently said, “That’s a good guess, but it’s not quite right. Julie, do you know why we celebrate Easter?” Julie nodded her head. “It’s when Jesus was crucified. He died, and His disciples put his body in the grave. They rolled a big stone in front of the opening. And the guards went to sleep. On the third day, there was a big earthquake and the stone rolled away.”
Hearing all that, Grandpa was really encouraged that Julie knew so much of the Easter story. Then she continued, “When the earthquake happened, the entire town came out by the grave. And if Jesus came out and saw his shadow, they knew there would be six more weeks of winter!” (FamilyLife, February, 1995).
After twenty centuries that Jesus lived, died and was raised, modern men and women ask, how can we know for sure that Jesus really came back to life? And that is not only a reasonable question to ask, but also a very important question to make, especially if our hope of eternity depends on it. How can we know if Jesus really was raised from the dead? To begin with, the Gospels do not have identical accounts of it. There are some details in one that the other omits or extends. But all four gospels give an account of the event. Maybe to our surprise, it was not John, nor Matthew, the gospel writers who were actually disciples of Jesus, who wrote about the resurrection first. It was Paul, but he does not make any reference to an empty tomb. Yet, Paul speaks about the resurrection as a matter of fact. He speaks of Jesus not as some historic figure, but as someone alive and who is at the right hand of God interceding for us (Romans 8:34). Paul speaks of Jesus as the One who appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Paul speaks of Jesus as the Lord, who called him and gave him the commission to be the apostle for the Gentiles. Paul speaks of the resurrection of Jesus as the foundation and pretty much the center of his preaching and life. According to our passage of today, it was that message the Roman believers had received and by which they had been saved, if the held onto it until the end. Otherwise they would have believed in vain, Paul declares. The core of Paul’s message is: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
If you still doubt about the resurrection of Jesus, I want to tell you, you are not the first nor alone in that. In the Gospels we read that when Mary Magdalene and her two female friends went to the tomb, carrying their spices and ointments, their intent was to delay, as much as possible, the decomposition of their dear friend’s corpse, not to anoint someone who is alive. They obviously were not expecting to see Jesus alive. Yet, that is what exactly happened. Jesus appeared to them. And when they told the disciples that Jesus had met them and that he is alive, Luke tells us that these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them (24:11). Not even the Eleven believed that their Lord had risen. Mark tells us of the harsh words of Jesus to the Eleven for their unbelief. He rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen (16:14).
But something happened. It is Luke, again, who tells us what happened. In Acts, Luke writes that after Jesus suffered, “he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive” (Acts 1:3). From that moment on, and especially after they received the power from the Holy Spirit, these ordinary men and women could not be stopped in their witness of Jesus, as him crucified, buried and resurrected. Nothing could stop them from witnessing. “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact,” they proclaimed (Acts 2:32). When commanded by the religious authorities to cease and desist their preaching, Peter and John replied, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). So, “with great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33). All this, mind you, would have screeched to a halt if someone had produced a body, but no one did and no one could.
Many believed the apostolic message, but others mocked and scoffed at the idea of a resurrected Jesus. The religious authorities were “greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2). Because of the incessant desire to proclaim the message of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus, violence and severe persecution were unleashed against the Christian communities for three centuries. Steven was stoned to death (Acts 7), and a general persecution in Jerusalem scattered believers (Acts 8). King Herod arrested believers, executed James (the brother of John), and imprisoned Peter (Acts 12:1–2). In Iconium “the people of the city were divided” at the message of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:4). In Lystra Paul was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19), while in Philippi he was imprisoned for “throwing the city into an uproar” (Acts 16:20). Riots erupted in Thessalonica when detractors complained that the disciples had “caused trouble all over the world” (Acts 17:5–6). At Athens some believed Paul’s preaching, but when others heard about the resurrection of the dead, “they sneered” (Acts 17:32). So, there is hardly anything new about the contemporary doubt about the resurrection.
Do you believe that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead? Is our confession that Jesus was raised from the dead a life-changing force in our lives as was for John, Peter, James, Paul and others? And if so, what evidence do we have that Easter is real?
Two travelers met during a flight in Australia. One was a middle-aged man and the other said he was 90. By the mannerism, language, and spirit of the senior traveler, the younger man concluded that he must be a believer. “I guess you are a believer in Christ,” the younger traveler ventured to say. “I guess you have been a follower of Christ for a long time,” he continued. The older gentleman affirmed that he was in fact a believer, but said that he’d been a believer for only about one year. He said he’d been married for over 60 years and that he was a staunch atheist his whole life, but that his wife was a Christian. He also confessed that he used to mock his wife and to laugh at her religion, but he observed her way of living and as she came to the end of life he noticed a joy he just didn’t have. She died about two years before and he just realized, after she was dead, how wonderful the power in her life was, and so he became a Christian himself. He said it had been the most wonderful time of his life and he couldn’t wait to meet Christ in glory one day.
My dear friends, the great apostle Paul, describes his life a follower of Christ in this way: I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (2Corinthians 11: 23-29). But he also confessed the following: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And as he approached the day of his execution, Paul confidently said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2Timothy 4:7-9).
The Easter message is this: Christ died for our sins. He was buried, but was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. The resurrection of Jesus is the testimony of God’s power to free his beloved Son from the ultimate sign of the power of sin, which is death. Therefore, our confession that Jesus was raised from the dead is only evident when we live a life free from the bondage of sin and every force that keeps us from serving the Lord with freedom, joy, and faithfulness. Anyone who confesses that Jesus was risen from the dead, but whose life continues to be weighed down by the worries of this life or whose life is centered on things other than Christ himself, is void of the life-giving power of Easter.
So I want to encourage you: live the Easter gift of God to you. Live in the freedom of God’s life-giving power that raised Jesus from the dead. Give yourself completely to the Lord and you will experience that the resurrection of Jesus is not simply a hope for a distant future, but a reality available to you today. Surrender your life to the Risen Lord and you will be able to live a life of joy, enduring hope, but above all, you will be able to experience a close relationship with the living Christ, that nothing would be able to separate you from the love of God. Have a blessed and joyful Easter Sunday. Amen!