Today is the greatest celebration of all for Christians. Without Easter day, we would not be here. Every Sunday is a celebration of Easter, of Jesus rising to life again on the first day of the week. In the early years of Christianity, Sunday gradually replaced Saturday as the main day of the week for worship in honour of the resurrection. But what else did it change? It is tempting for Easter with its eggs and fluffy bunnies to be no more for us that a celebration of springtime, the renewing of the earth, of nature bursting into life following the cold dark days of winter. Our world appears little changed by the resurrection. Disasters still occur. Conflict is perpetuated. Death is still feared. So what happened on that first Easter morning and does it change anything?
In our bibles we have five accounts of the resurrection of Jesus; one in each of the four gospels and a fifth by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. Each differs in what is included and omitted as might be expected. There are other accounts in gospels which are not included in the bible which were considered by the earliest church to be less trustworthy. But even they, together with the biblical material affirm the story of an empty tomb; of Jesus being raised in body and spirit by God and his appearances to many of his disciples leaving them in no doubt that he was alive again.
Today, we have read from Matthew’s account. (Matthew 28.1-10) He follows quite closely what Mark has to say. He may well have had a copy of Mark to hand when he wrote. Like all the other gospels, we hear that it was the women followers of Jesus who come first to the tomb. That they find it open, the body gone and then have an encounter with the risen Jesus. If these stories were being made up, would they have had women as the first witnesses of the resurrection in a culture where their word was not considered reliable? Indeed, Luke makes the point that even the disciples did not believe the women. (Luke 24.11)
But Matthew adds to Mark’s story. He alone tells us that there was an earthquake. His intense interest in the Old Testament in which the presence and action of God is often accompanied by earthquakes perhaps prompts him to record one here as he does at the time of crucifixion. Jerusalem is an area known for seismic activity. Such quakes could have been the physical cause of the temple curtain tearing at the time of Jesus’ death.
He then describes the angel mentioned by others, as the one responsible for rolling away the stone and sitting on it. As a result of this, the guards are paralysed with fear. Whatever did happen, the only human witnesses at this point were the guards. Did Matthew have access to their testimony? None of the five biblical accounts have any witness of the actual resurrection itself; only its aftermath although Matthew comes closer than any.
This does have significance for us in that our belief in the resurrection is not based on the science of what happened in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. It is based on the five biblical accounts which assert that the tomb was empty. The angel in Matthew’s account rolls back the stone not to let Jesus out, but to let the Marys in to see that the tomb was empty.
But there is more. The emptiness of the tomb could have been due to the body being stolen or removed by the Romans. So the accounts move swiftly to encounters with the risen Jesus. Indeed, Matthew again adds to Mark as the ladies suddenly meet up with Jesus and he greets them. They try to hold on to him but he urges them to set up a meeting for him and the disciples in Galilee as the angel had already suggested. This meeting becomes the setting for the great commission of Jesus with which Matthew ends his gospel.
We cannot be sure of exactly what happened in what order on that first Easter morning, but the convergence of the accounts make it perfectly reasonable for us to believe that the tomb was empty, Jesus was alive again in every possible way so that his followers were convinced and gave their lives to spread the word.
But how does this change anything?
What is clear from the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection is that although the world continued much as it had always been, life would never be the same again for those who had had that encounter with the risen Jesus. The disciples knew that because Jesus was alive again, everything he had taught them about himself, his mission of healing, wholeness and forgiveness was absolutely true. They would now have to continue to use their lives as they had in the past to teach others this truth. That was a daunting proposition until they received the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost…but that’s another story. It is down to the difference that the resurrection made in their lives that we are here this morning two thousand years later to worship the risen Christ.
Those gospel accounts together testify to one further truth about Jesus and his resurrection…he did not die again. Lazarus whom we thought about a couple of weeks ago did! Not Jesus. His final encounter with disciples we call his ascension into heaven, yet he appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. Many of the saints and others in history along with lots of people today will attest to having real though not physical encounter with the risen Christ.
For most Christians, the experience of Jesus will not be linked to a particular moment. It will be the quiet assurance that confessed sin is forgiven and the guilt associated with it is taken away. There will be the confidence that physical death is not the end of life but an invitation to share with Jesus his resurrection life. There will also be the gradual sanctifying work of God’s grace, the presence of the Holy Spirit which enables love to be offered universally without small print and forgiveness to those who have caused wrong experiencing the peace which leaves retribution in the hands of God.
Is that you? Alleluia, Christ is risen. The resurrection is making a profound difference to your life and the lives of those around you. In the words of our New Testament reading: ‘You have been raised with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.’ (Colossians 3.1)
Not sure if that’s you? Can I take you to another verse? It is words of the risen Jesus spoken in the Revelation of John to the church at Laodicia: ‘Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you and you with me.’ (Revelation 3. 20) Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite artist famously pictures Jesus knocking at the door. There is no handle for him to open because it is on the inside. The risen Christ knocks the door of every human heart. The effect of resurrection floods in when it is open. Why not nudge it open today and experience the difference the resurrection makes to the world.
Alleluia, Christ is risen.
Easter Day 16.04.2017