Acts 10.34-43 Matthew 28.1-10
Last week a BBC survey told us that a third of British Christians do not believe the Easter story. Can we be sure what we are really celebrating? In an age of science, history, and scepticism. What are the facts?
You’ve heard today’s Bible readings. You can study the evidence. The first Christians believed that something happened to the man who was crucified as Jesus. Something which caused them to claim that he was the Messiah and that now and forever the world had changed.
Listen to their testimony: the tomb was empty and we saw him, they say. People ‘ate and drank with him’!
Yet what if this is some unexplainable encounter with the dead? Those were as common in the ancient world as they are today. Ok… but what about lots of people all having similar experiences? Can it really account for the emergence of a new faith, which changed the world?
What about the tomb? Well, the first sceptic was Mary, who in John’s gospel, says in her distress, ‘They’ve taken him away.’ Grave robbery was common. But what about all these sightings of Jesus: a real, physical Jesus, who, in a way they couldn’t quite explain, was somehow changed?
Could it be a case of grieving men and women badly wanting something to be true. Being told it can’t be true only makes them more strident in their claims. Again, it happens today – it’s called ‘cognitive dissonance’.
But it doesn’t quite fit the story of Easter because the disciples weren’t expecting Jesus to be raised from the dead.
Were they overcome by some profound religious feeling, which somehow restored their faith? Sorry, but we’re back to the numbers again – there were many people who had seen their leader crucified and now said he was alive.
We’ve had two thousand years of people offering their suggestions as to what might have happened…
… what if Jesus didn’t actually die? As though the Romans didn’t know what a corpse was.
Could it be a case of mistaken identity by the women at the tomb?
Well, surely the accounts are surely biased. Yes, in the same way that everything comes from a certain point of view.
And so it goes on.
What about the other side of the coin? How do we explain the fact that women, who had no credible authority in the ancient world, are employed as key witnesses? Why would these disciples be prepared to suffer and die for their Lord, if their beliefs weren’t based in what they stood by as fact?
I’m not hiding anything from you, when I say: all the historical evidence points in one direction.
And yet, it is still so mind-boggling – Jesus in a new kind of physical body! But we must agree that something happened.
Let’s be clear: it’s not a matter of proof. In that sense, there’s no satisfying some of the historians or scientists. But let’s not forget, there are plenty ofevents which happen only once, or challenge the way we have understood the world up until now.
The rise of Christianity is best explained by a risen Jesus and an empty tomb. Listen to Peter in our first reading and it’s clear we’re in the realms of something different – a new world, a new creation.
So history, so science, can you help us make sense of this incredible story?
What if we say that today, on Easter morning we celebrate an event which is part of history, but it’s also a story which explodes the boundaries of history?
Take a step back for a moment: because Easter asks this this huge question in the context of the scriptures and the whole Biblical narrative; in relation to the God who is the creator of the world; and also, in dialogue with the life of people who believe and have faith.
So, can we open our hearts and minds to a greater vision? Not only in creation as we know it, but with the possibility of a new creation.
Can we do that? What if history then stands a little bit closer to the pronouncements of St Peter, and his confidence in the death, the rising and the many witnesses?
Think of Thomas, who like a good historian or scientist, needs to see and touch, but when eventually faced with the risen Jesus, proclaims, ‘My Lord and my God’.
Please note: this is faith in the ‘Lord’ – the one who is the climax of the history of Israel.
This is faith in God, who has raised Jesus from the dead at a certain point within history.
With Thomas we’re looking at a faith in the risen Jesus which takes us beyond what we know as history and science, while at the same time including them. And sometimes when there’s something which doesn’t fit our current paradigm, we have to find a new one.
So, look at Thomas. Look at the two Marys and their encounter with Jesus in the garden.
And let’s not forget Peter. Do you remember where he was just a few days ago – famously denying all knowledge of his friend and teacher? In the darkness of the courtyard of the high priest’s house, hiding in the shadows, to avoid the taunts, or worse, of strangers?
On Easter morning, Peter is invited to take a first step into a different world. As this morning’s reading makes clear, he will soon end up standing in front of crowds of strangers in foreign cities, declaring the story of his faith for all to hear.
But before he gets there, he needs that intimate face-to-face sit-down with Jesus: ‘Simon Peter, son of John, do you love me?’
Do you know what the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, said? ‘It is love that believes the resurrection.’
We can talk about facts, science, history, and scepticism, Jesus, Peter, Thomas, Mary and Mary. But as we finish, let us not forget, you – and me.
‘Simon Peter, son of John, do you love me?’
As we have seen, we can get only so far with the facts. Like us, Peter knew the world of politics, torture, denial and death. Easter is part of that world, but it’s also the beginning of a new world – a new creation.
Something happened. The world changed because of Jesus.
There are things in your life, where you know what you know, in a way that includes but transcends what is written down or what can be tested in a laboratory. It’s where we offer the whole of ourselves to another human being, to a cause, to our work.
On your wedding anniversary, you can run to the sideboard to look at your marriage certificate, the written evidence. Or you can share a kiss.
What about times of personal grief, or national crisis, when we forego much of what’s fact-based and objective, and turn to poetry, prayer and silence?
This is what we can call love. And: ‘It is love that believes the resurrection.’
So, know this.
Easter isn’t just what happened back then. Easter isn’t only in the readings or this sermon or this gathering.
Easter is that box in our vestibule, in which people leave items of food for those who need it.
Easter is the card and the flowers you sent to someone who is poorly.
Easter is the doors of this building, open to visitors, inviting them into a human space set aside for God.
Easter is the handshake or hug you will exchange with neighbour and stranger in a moment.
Easter is the worldwide Church, after 2,000 years of its own muddle and mayhem – still speaking up for something – and someone – unique in all of history.
Easter is the promise that men who make war and exploit the poor will not have the last word.
Easter is the possibility of a new worldview, of creation redeemed.
Easter isn’t rational. It can’t be grasped objectively. No one will ever prove it to you. ‘It is love that believes the resurrection.’
So much of what we can say we know truly is pure gift – it’s what we call faith. It’s where we place our hope. It’s where the flame of love burns in our hearts.
It’s Peter restored. It’s Thomas, as he falls to his knees and proclaims, ‘My Lord and my God!’
It’s Jesus in the dawn of that first Easter morning, turning to Mary, to say: ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell.’
Reverend Keith Griffin
With credit to Tom Wright, especially his book, Surprised by Hope