Thursday, April 9, 2015

What Should We Make of the Empty Tomb? An Easter Sermon


Our Easter Gospel this morning is rather sparse. The author of Mark’s Gospel is characteristically simple and direct. Three women go to anoint the body of Jesus, but find his tomb empty. A young man in a white robe—presumably an angel—tells them, “He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.”

Periodically, some historian or archeologist looking for their fifteen minutes of fame will present some new, ground-breaking, research or discovery that promises to uncover new light on Jesus and shake the foundations of the Christian faith. For instance back in 2007 there was a book published called The Jesus Family Tomb. There was also a tie-in documentary film produced by Hollywood director James Cameron. What the book and film claim is that archeologist have uncovered the remains of Jesus resting in a family tomb. Needless to say, although the book and film made an awful lot of money, they did not change the course of world history. The overwhelming majority of scholars did not find the discovery to be authentic or very significant. The main argument for the tomb’s validity rested on the fact that the names on the ossuaries coincide with biblical figures, but Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were all rather common names at the time. The clincher is that it isn’t even entirely certain that the inscription on the tomb even says Jesus! 

While the claims of opportunist scholars seem to disappear as quickly as they are made, the proclamation about the empty tomb and the resurrection of Jesus persists. Here we are gathered together two-thousand years later in a far off land to celebrate and recount these remarkable events. 

The resurrection of Jesus is the meaning of the Church’s existence, and the empty tomb is the foundation of our faith. Saint Paul writes, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor 15:14). So how can we be sure that Jesus’ grave really was empty and what does it mean for us that it was?
Here are four solid reasons why the story of the empty tomb can be trusted.
First, the earliest reference to the empty tomb was written by Saint Paul less than thirty years after Jesus’ death. Paul also claims to be indebted to even earlier sources. He writes, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). 

The Apostles first proclaimed the resurrection in Jerusalem, the very city where Jesus was arrested, put on trial, and crucified. They preached boldly to the very ones who handed Jesus over to be killed. Why didn’t their critics simply point people to Jesus’ tomb? If Jesus was still in his tomb, the only thing necessary to bring the whole early Christian movement to a grinding halt would be to produce his body. The record and preaching of Jesus’ resurrection and the empty tomb were simply too close to the actual events to be effectively fabricated.

Secondly, the earliest critics of Christianity admit that the tomb was indeed empty. There does not appear to be any dispute on this matter. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that the chief priest spread a rumor that Jesus’ disciples stole his body. Why would they risk discrediting themselves by inventing such a rumor if it wasn’t true?
Third, all four gospels name the first and primary witnesses of the resurrection as women. Why is this significant? Both the Jewish and Roman culture of the time had a rather low opinion of the reliability of women (they were wrong about this!). The testimony of a female witness was not considered admissible in court. So let me ask you, if you were going to make up a story and try to make it as believable as possible, would you base so much of your testimony on witnesses considered completely unreliable? Probably not! The most obvious explanation why women play such a large role in the account is because that is the way it actually happened! 

The fourth reason is that the alternative theories simply don’t hold water. One popular theory says that Jesus actually survived his crucifixion and escaped his tomb. This is just plain silly when you consider the manner of his torture and death. The Roman’s knew how to execute criminals! Besides, even if he did somehow revive, Jesus would have been in very serious condition and hardly likely to be mistaken for a victorious savior!

 Some claim that his disciples stole the body and made up the story of the resurrection, but would the Apostles be willing to suffer persecution and martyrdom for a lie? Others claim that a third party took Jesus’ body and hid it away, and the Apostles mistakenly concluded that he was raised. If not one of Jesus’ disciples, who would this individual or group be? What exactly would be the motive here? I also need not point out that while this may offer an explanation for the empty tomb it does nothing to explain the Apostle’s eye witness testimony of meeting the resurrected Christ. 

All of these alternatives are rather weak. As the noted legal scholar Sir Norman Anderson said, “The empty tomb forms a veritable rock on which all rationalistic theories of the resurrection dash themselves in vain.”

The case for the empty tomb is pretty strong, but what does it mean?Here are just a few of its implications. 

First, It means just as the angel said, that Christ has been raised! Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Many of the Jews of Jesus’ day were eagerly awaiting the Kingdom of God and the age to come when all things would be put right. They expected at that time that there would be a general resurrection of the dead. No one expected it to happen this way, but Jesus was raised first as a kind of first fruit of the things to come. A new creation had burst forth right in the midst of the old one. Jesus’ resurrection is a confirmation that God is indeed making all things new. 

Secondly, it means that Christ has conquered sin and death. Jesus took the sin of the entire world upon himself on the cross. He paid the penalty for sin which is death thus fulfilling the justice of God. The grave, however, was not able to contain him and he broke the bounds of death and rose victorious. Having conquered death, he has made a way for all who put their trust in him. Jesus’ resurrection is the promise of life beyond death. 

Third, it means that Jesus is Lord. In raising Jesus from the grave God powerfully confirmed the truth of what Jesus taught. We rejected him but God has accepted him. The resurrection proclaims to all the world that Jesus is the Christ, the king of kings, Lord of Lords, and son of God. Again Saint Paul writes, “[Jesus] was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).

Finally, Jesus was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). Just as Jesus was our representative in bearing the penalty of sin, he is also our representative in receiving the blessing of God. We are accepted by God through Christ and share in his victory through faith. This means that we have been forgiven our sins and given the power to live righteously and courageously.   

In our gospel reading today the women all run away terrified, and Mark says that they told no one about the things that they saw. This seems like a puzzling and unsatisfying ending, but it is compatible with the rest of Mark’s Gospel. Everyone abandoned Jesus in his time of need because they were overcome with fear. Although the women stood by him faithfully during his crucifixion, now it is their time to flee in fear. It is only after Jesus appears to them that they are able to receive forgiveness and the courage to be his witnesses in the world.

Do you believe that Christ has risen? What will you do with the truth you have received? Will you keep it to yourself, out of fear, telling no one? The resurrection is good news for the entire world. It is the proclamation that the Kingdom of God is among us, death is defeated, the king is seated on his throne, and sins are forgiven. Receive the love of God in your risen savior. He has gone out ahead of us with reconciliation for the world. Go, tell the world and follow him in his mission.

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