The following is an edited version of a sermon preached Easter Sunday, 2010
I was once heckled while preaching. While in seminary, I preached at a couple of assisted living centers and on one particular Sunday a lady on the front row began to audibly moan; the more I talked, the louder she got. Finally, after she had evidently had enough, she yells as loud as she can: “Sit down and shut up!” I pretended I didn’t hear and finished the sermon. The following month I dreaded my return; I could feel the fear rising when she came into the room, and sure enough, as I began to teach she began to verbalize. This time she ranted, “Same old story, same old story!”
I suspect most of you are probably not thinking “Sit down and shut up!” But, when it comes to Easter, it’s hard not to think “Same old story!” So, I have nothing new to say this morning. Which is good news. Because the story of Christ’s resurrection is unchanged, it has the power to shape you and to alter your life.
This morning, there are probably two types of people here. There are those who are committed to the Christian faith, and for you the resurrection is the confirmation of your faith; confirmation of your expectant waiting. Then there are those of you who are skeptics, but who are curious. You think it is a good story, and you may even wish it were true, but for you the story strains credulity; that’s why you think Christians might be sincere, but are sincerely wrong.
But the question for all of us, whether we identify ourselves as followers of Christ or not is this: “Is your life being shaped in a way that brings you life, hope, joy, and freedom?” The challenge this morning, especially for those who are unsure of Easter’s reality, is to come to Easter with an open mind; to come asking the question: “What if the resurrection is at least plausible? And beyond that: “What if it is true?”
To explore the question, we need to look at three things the resurrection of Christ offers: a challenge to our minds, a word of grace to our hearts, and a mission for our wills.
The Challenge to Our Minds
For many here, the first response to “He is Risen” is not, “He is risen indeed!” You may not be exactly sure what happened [that first Easter] but you’re sure it wasn’t that. But if Christ wasn’t raised from the dead, you have to come up with an alternative explanation. And so you might say, “Well, these are great stories but they are legends, they are simply not historical writings because they were written decades after the events so we don’t know for sure.”
But John, as well as the other gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—challenge our thinking on this. Each one bases his account not on secondhand information, but on eyewitnesses. The closer your source is to the actual event, the more likely their testimony is accurate.
But here, I think, is the critical question today: To whom did Christ first reveal himself? The answer: Women. According to John, Jesus first reveals Himself to Mary Magdalene. Mark also adds that His mother Mary and another follower, Salome, also saw Him before the disciples did. That’s important because of the status of women in the ancient world. At that time, a woman’s testimony was largely inadmissible in court. And we know that Celsus, an early Roman opponent of Christianity, rejected the faith because he believed the testimony of the resurrection was largely based upon a “hysterical woman.” Sorry, ladies, that’s the ancient world for you.
If you were going to make up a story in that era, and if you wanted the story to be believed, you wouldn’t have based it on the testimony of women. Which means there’s only one possible reason for depicting the story that way: That’s the way it happened.
“All right,” a skeptic might say, “but the reality is, this was a superstitious world where everyone naturally believed things like this. They didn’t think rationally the way we do.” Well, John challenges that assumption too. Look again at verses 2 and 9: Mary’s first response was, “They removed His body—where did they put Him?” Let’s stop for a minute and ask, what was Mary doing at the tomb in the first place? When Mark narrates the same story, he points out that Mary came with spices, the kind that were used to mask the smell of decaying flesh. It may be inconceivable to us, but His own disciples didn’t expect the resurrection; they expected decaying flesh! As John later notes parenthetically in v. 9, “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” Jesus had said over and over again that He would die and be resurrected, but that detail seemed to have escaped them.
Why was that? Because they really didn’t understand what it meant—that He was the Messiah. Like so many of that time, they thought of the Messiah as a political reformer or revolutionary calling God’s people to arms against their oppressors.
Here’s the point: They only believed when they let the evidence challenge their assumptions. It’s easy to be intellectually dishonest on this, dismissing Christianity without a proper investigation of it because you have said to yourself, “The resurrection is not possible in my worldview.” But it wasn’t possible in theirs either. They only believed because they let the evidence challenge their beliefs. Have you?
And if the resurrection is not true, then you have to come up with an alternative explanation for why, after Christ’s death, the growth of Christianity exploded (see Rodney Starks’ Rise of Christianity for commentary on this), for why Christianity altered the known world, for why Christ’s followers were willing to physically die for their faith, not as suicide bombers, but filled with joy!
A Word of Grace for Our Hearts
To know Christianity, you must discover the meaning of grace. Jesus appears to the disciples and says, “Peace be unto you! (v. 19)” He didn’t say, “You miserable and faithless disciples, now you’re gonna pay for denying me!” Or, “If you have any hope of being reinstated into my movement, you better start groveling!” Instead, He re-introduces Himself with a proclamation of “Peace!” which, for them, meant reconciliation.
Why? How could Jesus respond with grace and forgiveness after being rejected by His very own (Peter) at His greatest moment of need? The answer is in the last words Christ uttered on the cross: “It is finished” (19:30). The natural question is “What? What was finished?” The answer: payment for our sin.
Not long ago I sat down with a friend who, for 16 years, had been haunted by anxiety. When something goes wrong for him—a divorce, losing a job—he sorts through his history to see what bad karma caused it. Karma teaches that one’s future is determined by good and bad actions; by good and bad thoughts. Salvation, nirvana—whatever you want to call it—can be attained through good self-effort; that’s the key to understanding karma. But, karmic debt for “badness” as my friend explained to me, has to be paid. There are inviolable laws in the universe, including punishment of bad karma.
The problem, as he and I discussed it, is this: What happens when you fail to meet the standard? If you believe in karma, you have to believe in judgment. How then do you escape punishment? Well, you don’t.
In C.S. Lewis’s the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund, one of the Pevensie children, betrays Aslan, the great lion. The White Witch, who encouraged the betrayal, immediately seizes on it and declares Edmund’s life forfeit. His blood, the Law says, must pay for the treachery. In debate, she says to Aslan: “Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?”
“Let us say I have forgotten it,” answered Aslan gravely. “Tell us of this Deep Magic.”
“Tell you?” said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller. “Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the fire-stones on the Secret Hill? Tell you what is engraved on the scepter of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to kill … . And so that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property … unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water.”
The Deep Magic, since the dawn of time is the inviolable Law.
Do you know why the Cross of Jesus is so shocking? Because it says to us on one hand that we are indeed guilty of breaking the Law of the Emperor (God). But, on the other, it says that payment for our sin has been made. “It is finished” literally meant “paid in full.”
If you hit my car and you don’t have insurance, you owe me for the damages—that is just. I have every right to make you pay but, if I choose to absorb the cost myself, that is mercy.
God didn’t look the other way. He didn’t forget our evil. He didn’t forget the debt we owe. But He is merciful. He paid the debt. In the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Aslan takes the place of Edmund the traitor and is murdered on the Stone Table. But soon afterwards, as the children mourn the death of Aslan, they turn to hear the voice of the resurrected Lion. One of the children, Susan, asks, “What does it all mean?” And Aslan says this: “It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”
In Michka Assayas’s Bono: A Conversation in His Own Words, Bono (of U2) talks about many things in his life, including his spirituality. At one point he tells Assayas, an agnostic who questions Bono’s beliefs, this: “What keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.” When asked to elaborate, Bono talks about how grace defies reason and logic. He talks about how, “love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very news good indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.”
When love interrupts; when you trust by faith that your debt has been paid by Christ, it leads to a transformation of your life, making you a better citizen. You are freer, you’re humble and more forgiving … . The greatest repenters are the greatest lovers, because they’ve experienced the greatest love; the greatest forgiveness.
The Resurrection Gives a Mission for Life
The bodily resurrection of Christ is important because of what it means, not simply for our life to come, but for how we live now. For example, if you think this is the only life there is, you fear suffering and death in an altogether different way. If you believe this in the only life there is, there’s no hope that suffering can be meaningful or redemptive.
And if you think the promise of Christ is simply that you’ll be taken out of this “Godforsaken world” one day, you become indifferent to suffering and injustice now.
But, with the promise of the bodily resurrection, we’re neither tempted to place our hope in this world, nor to ignore it. We know that Christ is redeeming it. The resurrection promises renewed bodies, which means we can serve with an other-centered focus, without care what we get out of it. We can care for the world, and enjoy it rather than hope to escape it. Martin Luther was once asked what he would do if he knew Christ was coming back tomorrow. His reply: “I would plant a tree.” When we understand the promise of renewal, ordinary things become special—eating, dancing, conversations, planting trees, caring for God’s creation. Celebrate this Pentecost!
Finally, the resurrection makes our longing for justice stronger. Can you imagine, if we didn’t believe in a physical resurrection; if, instead, we said, “You know, the resurrection of Christ is a great story even if it didn’t really happen, so let’s be nice to each other.” Those who suffer unjustly could only respond, “Great, just what I need, a symbol, not a reality.”
If you’re a skeptic, don’t you wish this story were true? It’s the only real basis for believing that the world can be a better place; the only hope that it one day will be.
It is Easter reality that motivates us towards mission. That’s why, historically, most of the reform and justice movement have been led by Christians. We have a resurrection hope that tells us God will “put to rights” everything that has gone wrong, including all injustice.
If Jesus was raised, His defeat of sin and death shakes us to the core. It means we can’t be the same. It means He has authority (Lordship) over all of creation, including our lives, and we submit our agendas, our relationships, sexuality, finances, and so much more to His redemptive agenda. It means that today, because of His grace, we can serve, we can rejoice, we can plant trees, and we can sing a new song—a song of lasting hope.
Rev. Scott Armstrong is lead pastor of City Church Eastside, in Atlanta, Ga.