St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Easter Day, 2016

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 Today is a day marked by the quantity of questions which surround it.
 
What do we believe about Easter? Why are we in Church today? Did Jesus really rise from the dead as the gospels declare and as Christians have always believed? How do we account for the resurrection narratives? Why did the early church believe them? 
 
Answers vary, but in the theological world, as opposed to the church world many of the scholars believe that the early church wanted to believe in the Resurrection so they essentially concocted the stories of Jesus rising from the dead. Others suggest that Jesus somehow rose in the hearts of his disciples so that it doesn’t matter if he literally rose or not.
Not really a scenario on which you want to base your faith life.
 
Let me hasten to say that this sermon is not about the sceptics, but I do believe it is important to notice the vast amount of space given to their views. The people of the world have always struggled with Easter. What really happened on that first Sunday morning 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem? Did Jesus rise from the dead or didn’t he?
 
It may surprise you to know that there were doubters and sceptics from the very beginning. In fact, S Matthew records the very first Easter conspiracy. He reports: “While the women were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day. That passage you will find in S Matthew 28:11-15.
 
Earlier S Matthew records that it was the Jews who asked Pilate to place guards around the tomb because they remembered that Jesus had said, “After three days I will rise again.” The ironic fact is that on Holy Saturday the only people worried about a resurrection were the people who put Jesus to death in the first place. The guards were there because the Jewish leaders feared that something strange might happen at the tomb.
 
Thus the first Easter conspiracy was hatched even before the resurrection and was consummated afterwards by bribing the Roman guards. But that was only the first of a long line of attempts to cover up the truth about Easter. Over the centuries sceptics have concocted a number of theories to explain away the resurrection of Jesus. Here are seven of the most popular alternatives to the empty tomb.
 
Theory 1: Jesus didn’t die
Some sceptics have proposed that Jesus survived the crucifixion, swooned on the cross, revived in the tomb, came forth on Easter Sunday and fooled everyone into thinking he had risen from the dead.
We need, however, to remember that the whole purpose of crucifixion was a brutal, agonizing death. No one could possibly survive beating, scourging, the torture of crucifixion, and being pierced by a spear. The Romans were good at killing people. It was one of their specialties. They knew the difference between a dead man and an unconscious man.
 
Theory 2: The disciples stole the body
We need to ask why would they steal the body. All the gospel writers agree that they were not expecting a resurrection. When the women went to the tomb on Sunday, they were expecting to anoint a dead body, not meet their risen Lord.
 
Besides, how do you explain the amazing transformation of the disciples from insecure cowards locked away to fearless and effective evangelists? Why would they all go to their death proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. People might die for a myth they wrongly believe, but it is impossible to think that they would willingly go to their death for a lie.
 
Theory 3: The Jews stole the body
This is a plausible theory except for one tiny fact. If the Jews stole the body, then all they had to do when the Christians said that Jesus had risen from the dead was to roll out the dead body of Jesus. End of story. Besides, why would the Jews steal the body? They wanted to keep Jesus in the grave at all costs.
 
Theory 4: The Romans stole the body
This makes no sense because the Romans weren’t worried about Jesus one way or the other. They weren’t worried about a missing body (like the Jews) and they weren’t mourning a dead leader (like the disciples). As far as they were concerned, Jesus was just another dead Jew. They had no reason to tamper with the body.
 
Theory 5: The body just disappeared
Fine, but what does that mean? Bodies don’t just disappear. Something had to happen to it. A disappearing body still doesn’t explain why the early Christians unanimously believed that Jesus had risen from the dead.
 
Theory 6: Mass hallucination
This theory suggests that, perhaps, the early Christians suffered some kind of mass psychosis that caused all of them to have visions or hallucinations that they mistook for the risen Christ. This is difficult to square with the facts as we know them and with the reality of human nature. Visions tend to be intensely personal events. Two people rarely have visions that are even remotely similar, much less identical. But Jesus appeared many times to many people over a 40-day period after his resurrection. At one point, he appeared to 500 people at once, according to S Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7, which lists a number of post-resurrection appearances. It strains credulity to believe that 500 people would have the same hallucination at the same time.
 
Plus, you still have the fact of the body. If his resurrection was a vision, then what happened to the body? No one has ever satisfactorily answered that question.
 
Theory 7: Early church made up the story
This is the current position of most liberal scholarship. It actually combines elements of several of the previous theories. But like all the others, it stumbles over several hard facts. First, what happened to the body? If it simply rotted in the grave or was eaten by wild dogs, surely the early Christians would have known of that fact. Or the Jews would have used it to debunk Christianity. And why would the disciples suffer and die for a lie? And how do you explain the unanimous testimony that Jesus rose from the dead? It takes far more faith to believe this theory than it does to believe the straightforward testimony of the four gospels.
 
For 2,000 years no one has produced a convincing answer to the question, “If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, what happened to his body?” This is the ultimate unanswered question. 
 
Where is the body of Jesus? No one throughout 2,000 years of Christian history has provided a credible answer to that question. In fact, I will go so far as to state that no one ever will. A number of scholars have claimed that the bones of Jesus lie somewhere in Israel, but I am sure that were you to try you could start in the north and dig to the south or start in the east and dig to the west. You’d find bones everywhere you dig. But you won’t find the bones of Jesus because they aren’t there.
 
On this Easter Day around the world over one billion Christians will unite to proclaim that Jesus Christ is alive. This morning we join with Christians around the world to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour. We stand in a long line of believers who proclaim with the angel, “He is not here, for he is risen, just as he said.”
 
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! 
 
 

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