The history of humanity and the world is full of many great moments and human achievements whether it be the writing of Plato's Republic in 387 BC, or the building of the Great Wall of China in 356 BC, or the moment that Alleric invaded Rome in 410 AD, or the great discovery of radium by Marie Curie in 1898, or maybe that Newfoundland entered Canadian confederation on April 1st 1949, or maybe the moon landing in 1969, or maybe June 30th 1976 when yours truly managed to get a date for his High School Prom! All of these, with the exception of one, are great human achievements. They are recorded in the annals of history for posterity and for time to discern their wealth and wonder. But today, on this the last Easter Sunday in the millennium, we remember one day nearly 2000 years ago when a seemingly insignificant Jewish man from a poor town called Nazareth, in an area of little importance called Galilee, was declared to be raised from the dead. Ever since that day the world has been forever changed. On the basis of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead people have gathered to praise the name of God and have experienced the life-giving power of God.
"So important is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead," said John Locke, "that his being or not being even the Messiah rests on that one great and wonderful moment." He wrote, "From that moment on, believe one of those and you believe both, deny one of them and you deny both." The messiahship of Jesus, the legitimacy of his writings and teaching and ministry rise and fall on his resurrection from the dead. The Apostle Paul put it even more succinctly: "If Christ has not been raised from the dead then our faith is in vain and we are of all people to be pitied." For 2000 years, according to an article I alluded to in NewsWeek last week, this Jesus of Nazareth and his resurrection from the dead has influenced the art and music of the Western world. Our politics, economics, concepts of right and wrong, our understanding of body, mind and spirit are all interwoven in the teachings of this man, and all his teachings rest on this day, upon the Resurrection from the dead.
I ask us today, "On what is this resurrection based?" The answer is very simply, "Its witnesses." Those who first went into the empty tomb in the garden, those who first encountered the risen Christ. It is on the basis of their testimony and that alone that you and I gather 1900 and more years later to celebrate his resurrection and to affirm his living presence. I want to look at what happened to those witnesses, how they were transformed and changed because of this one day, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
First of all we find that these people who went to the tomb that day expected it to be inhabited. Most of the Gospel stories (particularly the one from Luke read by Marial) tell of the women who went to the tomb first, as was the custom. They were under no misapprehension; Jesus Christ their Lord was dead. They went to prepare the body taking spices because they knew that the smell of a body decomposing for a few days would be unpalatable. They had seen the sword go through his chest and seen the blood and water come from the wound. They knew that he was dead and they went to pay their respects and prepare the body, as any good Jew would do. They were under no misapprehension; their Lord was in a tomb.
But when they arrived their vision was clouded. All their expectations had been turned on their head. The tomb was empty. Where had he gone? The grave clothes were there; the stone had been moved. Where was their Lord? They hadn't got the message.
This is similar to when, in 1815, Napoleon and Wellington were fighting the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium. One of the ways that the British people could know what was happening was that they would send signals across the Channel and those signals would be picked up in England in the Tower of Ely Cathedral and transmitted to horse riders down below and ridden to all four corners of Britain and give the message as to who had won the battle. On that particular fateful day of the Battle of Waterloo, a fog had descended over the Channel and the signal was weak that was coming through but it came through nonetheless and said, WELLINGTON DEFEATED. So the riders and horses went to London and informed the monarch and the country that their great General had lost to Napoleon and they were dejected. The next morning when the fog had lifted there was another message being beamed across: WELLINGTON DEFEATED.....NAPOLEON!
Those women had gone to the tomb also got the wrong signal! That is why someone appeared to them and said, "Why are you looking for the living one amongst the dead?" These women had been confronted by a reality that they couldn't fathom. They said, "Dead people don't rise!" They were like that sceptic David Hume who said if it became a choice of believing the witnesses of a few Galileans or the law of nature, he would believe the law of nature. Those women didn't believe that Jesus was risen. They couldn't believe that the tomb was empty. They had gone to prepare the body and what they were confronted with was not just a metaphor for Christian hope. This was not a reconstruction of what they had happened to believe to make themselves look good. On the contrary, they didn't look good at all. They had gone to prepare a body that wasn't there; they'd expected it to be inhabited and it wasn't.
What happened next? They were surprised by joy! I think the disciples who were called by the women to go to the tomb were caught off guard, just as the women had been. They'd heard from Jesus that on the third day he would rise again, but after the events of Good Friday they didn't believe that that was the case. They knew in their hearts that Jewish teachings said that there would be a bodily resurrection in the last day, in the Day of the Lord. But they didn't believe that day had come, so this couldn't be it. They simply didn't believe that this was going to happen. Yet, in the midst of this even the disciples themselves were confronted and surprised by joy. The Scriptures give us ten different accounts of Jesus appearing to people in different places and ways. He appeared in some ways as a physical person where you could touch him, in other times as a ghost walking through walls. They simply couldn't fathom what was going on. But one thing they did know: although they were caught by surprise, contrary to everything that they and their minds believed to be true, they had seen a risen Lord and they had to proclaim it.
They felt foolish. They had doubted Jesus and he had confronted them when they least expected it. I know just how they felt.......In my first year at University at Mount Allison we used to hold Floor Parties. These were nothing more than an excuse to imbibe exceeding amounts of alcoholic beverages. One of the concerns was that after the party, what was to be done with all the empty bottles? If people are staggering around they could hurt themselves. So the Monitor came and asked me, because he knew I was singing the next morning at the local United Church and assumed I wouldn't be having anything strong to drink, if they could leave all the empty beer bottles in my room overnight. So Stirling, as always being magnanimous and gracious said, "Yes." By the time I went to bed at midnight three walls of my room were covered with stacked beer cases from floor to ceiling. I can assure you that if you think a tomb with a decaying body has a stench, you should have been in my room that night! I went to bed with the odour of stale beer and had a hearty sleep ready to go to church the next morning. At 8:30 am there was a knock at the door and I went to find the great Reverend Clarke Macdonald who was going to be Moderator of the Church of Canada! He looked around my room and said, "I've heard about you from my brother." (Who was my minister in Bermuda.) "I thought I would pop by and see you before the service this morning. Good morning, Andrew!"
I think the disciples felt just like that. They had done everything that they could; they'd been with him right to Good Friday and then the gall of this Jesus to appear in their midst and to tell them once again to follow him. They were surprised by joy. And they were transformed with their joy.
The third thing we find about the disciples was that this encounter gave them courage. Peter went into the streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed that Jesus Christ was alive. Before Caiaphas and Annus the High Priests, he declared that a person who was sick is now healed because of the risen Christ. He was willing, even though he had denied Jesus and had almost been partially responsible for his death, to die for the sake of this risen Lord. And so were the disciples. They were so changed that we are left simply with their witness, with their testimony that they were willing to bear the grave also because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.
What, then, does this Easter mean for you and me? I think it shows us the living nature of God. It shows us as human beings that we have a living hope. Peter, or one of his followers, had this to write: "blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who according to his great mercy has born us to a new life to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." This new life is a living hope. This is a living hope for each and every day of our lives. We do not simply wait in hope for some anticipated day, although we do that as well, we have a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Wherever there is death there will be life, where there is injustice there will be justice, where there is unrighteousness there will be righteousness, where there are armies clashing, even on this day, there will be peace. There will be, as John Harries put it beautifully with the children, ever-afters, because of the living hope of Jesus Christ.
But we also have a living Lord. We do not go through this life alone as solitary individuals. We go with Jesus Christ walking with us every single step of the way. You see, a sepulchre and linen clothes could not hold him. Time and space could not constrain him. Jesus of Nazareth lives. He lives with us each and every waking moment of our lives.
Finally this is for us a living faith that is continually vibrant. This is the reason why people come out on this day of all days and why I'm so pleased to see you on this day of all days; this is when our faith lives. Especially today. The great Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his poem In Memoriam A.H.H., on the death of his friend wrote these words of Jesus Christ:
Strong Son of God immortal love
Whom we that have not seen thy face
By faith and faith alone embrace
Believing where we cannot prove.
The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is not for us to define; we cannot do it. It is not for us to try and meet the minds of others; it is simply for us to declare and for us to live.
One of the most moving things that I have ever read was in the writing of Dietrich Bonheoffer on the day before he was put to death by the Nazis. I couldn't help but think of his words as we see all those scenes from Kosovo today. Writing to his friend the Bishop of Chichester these were his last words and they have changed my life:
This is the end. For me the beginning of life.
Christ is risen! Amen.