Easter Sunday, Possible
We think of Easter as very cheery. We decorate with pastel colors. It takes place after the sparse time of Lent. We associate it with the freshness of Spring. Our spirits usually feel a little lighter. We celebrate, because we can enjoy once again whatever we have given up for Lent. So… Easter Sunday often feels like a long overdue celebration, a release from darkness.
This Easter of course feels very different. We are living a very uncertain time. In the shadow of COVID-19 we do not know exactly how we are supposed to act. We are prevented from feeling the excitement and the energy that comes from gathering as a crowd. Large groups bring energy and excitement that can’t be replicated at home. And sadly, and honestly, we are all struggling with doubts and confusion.
This Easter feels very different, because of the uncertainty, because we feel in the dark. In that way it is very much like the Easter experienced by the first followers of Jesus. On that very first Easter Sunday, the apostles and other followers of Jesus were not outside the tomb waiting for him to rise from the dead. No, when Jesus died on Good Friday they thought it was the end of their hopes and dreams. They believed that all had been lost. For years they had followed him and been amazed by him. They were amazed by his poise and sense of purpose and mission. They saw him work incredible miracles. With their own eyes they had seen him heal the sick, give sight to a blind man, hearing to the deaf and speech to the mute. With their own eyes they had seen him feed over five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. They had seen Jesus do these things with their own eyes. So they came to believe. They believed he was someone special. They came to believe that connecting their lives to his life would make their life a whole lot better. They believed that if they followed him, all their hopes and dreams would be fulfilled. They came to believe that he had been sent from God as their long-awaited Messiah.
However, on Good Friday those hopes and dreams were dashed. The crowds turned on Jesus and rather than following him, they cried out “Crucify him.” They mocked him, nailed him to a cross and placed his limp, lifeless body in a tomb. It was game over.
So what were the apostles and followers of Jesus to do? They didn’t know. They weren’t sure what to do. Their whole lives had been disrupted. They were filled with fear for the future. Everyone knew that they had followed Jesus. Now that he had been executed as an enemy of the state, they felt they too were in danger. So they hid in darkness and despair.
Darkness, despair, and disillusionment. Fear, dismay, anxiety. They had a great concern about the future and a loss of hope. That was the emotional state of the first followers of Jesus on that first Easter Sunday morning. They were not waiting with hopeful expectation for Jesus to rise from the dead. But then something happened that totally changed their perspective. It shifted their emotion from despair to hope. They moved from fear to faith. They moved out of disillusionment to new dreams and confidence in the future. They had a total change of view not because the external circumstances had changed at all. To the outsider everything seemed the same, but they saw and experienced something that changed everything.
We have four separate written accounts, dating back two thousand years of what the earliest disciples experienced and saw that changed their point of view.
That doesn’t seem like a big deal to us, but paper and ink were not as plentiful two thousand years ago as they are now. Ink and paper were expensive. Writing cost big bucks. We have autobiographies and writings from wealthy people in ancient times because only the wealthy could afford to produce books. But Jesus was not wealthy. He didn’t even own a home. Yet, people went to great expense to write about his life. They felt they simply had to spread the news about him.
One of the people who felt he had to tell the story was the Gospel writer John. He shares his story of what changed for him on that first Easter morning.
He writes: Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb on Easter Sunday morning. She goes to the tomb not because she expects that Jesus has risen from the dead. She goes because Jewish people had a custom of mourning at a loved one’s tomb for three days after death. Mary Magdalene loved Jesus so much that she felt it was her responsibility to mourn his death.
John tells us that it was still dark. The darkness describes the time of day and the emotional and intellectual state of the disciples. Their hearts and minds were very much in the dark.
Mary assumes mistakenly that someone has taken the body and the burial clothes. Grave robbery was such a problem in the first century that it was an offense punishable by death.
When Mary tells the disciples, Peter and John jump up and begin running to the tomb to see what has happened. They have to go see for themselves what is going on. John being the younger guy, naturally in better shape, gets there before Peter. John looked inside the tomb but didn’t go in? Do you know why he didn’t go in? Because it was a tomb. Who wants to go into a tomb?
But there is more to it than that. What he sees is not what he expected to see. He expected to see a completely empty tomb. He assumed there was nothing in there. If grave robbers had taken the body, the burial clothes would not have been there. The burial clothes were valuable. It would be like someone stealing your wallet but leaving behind the cash and credit cards. No robber would do that. So it was clear that the body had not been stolen.
And no person would take the burial clothes off the body and then leave the clothes there. If someone had taken the body, they would have taken the clothes as well. He couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing.
John is a reflective person, so he just stops and examines the situation. Peter is the more impetuous person, so he runs into the tomb. He doesn’t stop at first to examine the situation. He sees that the burial clothes are there but the cloth that had covered his head is rolled up in a separate place as if someone had taken the time to fold it up. So it is more evidence that the burial clothes are there but there is no body.
Then the bible tells us John entered the tomb, and he saw and believed.
John saw and believed what? He saw deeper into the evidence and believed Jesus had risen from the dead. He believed the tomb was empty, not because the body had been stolen, but because Jesus had risen from the dead. Many times Jesus had predicted his death and resurrection. When you read through the Gospels, Jesus constantly tells his followers what is coming. And the announcement goes right over their heads. They don’t get it. John had heard Jesus say it several times, and he never paid all that much attention to it.
But now, seeing the evidence before him, he comes to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. In that moment of belief, everything changed for John.
Faith and hope go together. Faith is belief that God exists. Faith is trust in God’s character, that what he says is true. The Christian faith is based not on the bible.
The Christian faith is based on a person, Jesus Christ and the event of his resurrection from the dead.
The early Christians came to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. They came to believe in his resurrection not out of some kind of wishful thinking but because of what they saw and experienced. Out of their experience they came to believe in something they had never thought possible. As they believed in Jesus’ resurrection, they were filled with hope for the future.
Hope is a confident expectation that goodness is coming. It is the desire to experience God’s promises. Hope corresponds to our natural desire for happiness. Hope is a confidence that we ultimately find our happiness and fulfillment in God. Hope is faith directed towards the future. Faith believes God exists and has the power to bring goodness into our lives. Hope is a confidence that he will bring that blessing into our lives, especially in times of darkness. Hope keeps us from discouragement and sustains us in times of darkness.
Faith is the foundation of hope. Faith is a gift.
Faith in Jesus’ resurrection is first and foremost a gift that comes from the grace of God. Without God’s intervention and revelation, faith in him is impossible.
You cannot make yourself have faith. You cannot give yourself faith. You have to receive it. It has to be revealed to you by God. We cannot see this on our own. To help us grow in faith, God sets up scenarios that are suited to our personalities, interests, and experiences. When you read through the resurrection accounts in John’s Gospel, you discover that no two people come to faith in exactly the same way. Each person is approached by Jesus differently. Each is given different types of evidence to come to faith in the resurrection.
Some people only need a little bit of evidence as in the case with John. Others are much more skeptical and demand to see greater evidence such as touching Jesus’ wounds like the apostle Thomas did. God wants to give each of us the gift of faith, but we all have different trajectories and paths. We all need something different to receive faith in Jesus’ resurrection.
This is why it is wrong for Christians to ever judge other people who do not have faith in God. We have received that faith as a gift. We didn’t earn it. We received it. When you receive a gift, you don’t judge other people who have not received it. Instead, you are grateful for it.
While faith is a gift, that does not mean we are completely passive. We have to explore the evidence. We have to have a willingness to receive the gifts God gives us to bring us to faith in Jesus and his resurrection. We explore the things in our lives that don’t make sense. Like Mary, initially Peter and John, did not believe Jesus had risen from the dead. They thought his body had been stolen. They went to the tomb to see for themselves what had happened, to examine the evidence.
Faith comes from a willingness to study the evidence. While faith goes beyond our rational capacities, it doesn’t contradict it. Faith is not irrational. Faith means believing what we can’t see based on the evidence we can see. You cannot get all the way to real faith through reasoning alone, yet faith is not less than rational either. You can’t get to real faith without reason and thinking. Why? Because mature faith is an act of the whole person.
The early disciples were just as incredulous of Jesus’ resurrection as modern people would be. They required the same kind of multiple sightings and hands-on, eyewitness experiences that we would require in order to convince them that Jesus was really alive. And in this respect the narratives fit perfectly with what we know historically of those cultures.
While these ancient cultures did not hold, as many modern people do, that miracles are impossible, resurrection was equally implausible and unimaginable to them as it is for most people today. They needed evidence and a willingness to explore the evidence to come to faith in Jesus and his resurrection. As they explored the evidence they came to believe. They came to believe so much in the resurrection that they were willing to die for that belief. They didn’t believe and find evidence for their belief, they experienced evidence of the resurrection and were willing to come to the conclusion that Jesus had really risen.
Over the next four weeks we are going to look at the evidence and experiences of the early Christians and the hope which that brought into their lives. Faith and hope are two things we desperately need right now. They are available. So I want you to make a few commitments to get the most out of this series. One, commit to join us here online, each Sunday. This is a series that you want to be a part of. It will help deepen your faith and give you hope for the future.
Second, I would encourage you to read the Gospel of John. Just chapters 20 and 21 over the next week. You can read those chapters in about 10 minutes. Read a little bit each day or read them over and over again. Whatever you prefer. If you already believe, these verses will strengthen and bolster your faith. If you don’t believe, or maybe aren’t sure yet, it is a great place to explore the evidence.
Faith in Jesus’ resurrection brought the earliest followers of Jesus from despair to hope, from fear to confidence in the future. It will do the same for you too.