Today is Easter Sunday, the holy day when Christians each year celebrate the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. After he died on the cross, his body was placed in a tomb. But in the midst of their mourning, his followers were astonished to find the tomb empty, and saw remarkable visions of Jesus alive as a powerful spiritual being.
The Apostle Paul highlights the resurrection of Jesus Christ as of central importance to the Christian faith. “Now, brothers and sisters,” he says in one of his letters to the churches, “I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved… Otherwise, you have believed in vain.”
Although Jesus died and was buried, says Paul, he was raised to new life, and “he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time… Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me” [1 Cor. 15:1-8].
At the time of Jesus Christ, there were lots of Jewish prophets claiming to be the messiah, and many of them were crucified. Only one of them is remembered today. Why wasn’t Jesus forgotten, like the rest of them?
If it weren’t for Mary Magdalene and the other women who followed Jesus, who found his tomb empty, he wouldn’t have been more than a footnote in history. And if it weren’t for Peter, Paul, James, and the other apostles and disciples who saw visions of the resurrected Christ and testified that he was still alive in the spirit after his physical body had been killed, it’s unlikely that the movement he started would have grown to become a major world religion.
Some people believe that Jesus was just a great philosopher, even a prophet, who was killed for speaking truth to power — and that’s where the story ends, with the crucifixion. As I explained in last week’s sermon on “The Incredible Power of the Cross,” the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was itself a very important event that can inspire us today.
But Christians believe that the story of Jesus doesn’t end with the cross — that there’s another chapter to the story: the empty tomb. The miracle of the resurrection sets Jesus apart from all other religious leaders throughout history, and if true, it lends greater authority to his teachings. Now in my opinion, that doesn’t mean that other religions have nothing good to offer. I actually believe that all the great religions have brought divine inspiration and profound truth and wisdom into the world. But if there’s a table in heaven where the great prophets and religious teachers sit and break bread, I would guess that Jesus sits at the head of that table.
The resurrection is the evidence of Jesus’s position as the greatest human being who has ever lived — the most divine, the most fully exalted in the image of God in which every human being has been created. Because of the testimony of the eyewitnesses to the resurrection, we see in Jesus the perfect Divine-Human — a being with total power, whose mastery of the game of life is so complete that he can even defeat death.
Consider the character Neo in The Matrix. He could bend spoons with the power of his mind, and jump off of tall buildings and survive, because he had come to fully believe that the matrix was just an illusion. In the real-life massive multiplayer role-playing game in which we live — the one that’s called “life on earth” — Jesus is the player who comes into the game to show us that it’s not really real. The flesh is just a temporary avatar that we wear, and our true home is outside of the game, in the world of the spirit. That’s what the resurrection was supposed to prove.
Many people, including some Christians, mistakenly think of the resurrection as the reanimation of a physical corpse, but that’s not what the Bible actually teaches. Paul, who saw the resurrected Christ, said that “When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed.” [1 Cor. 15:37]. Our spiritual existence after physical death is just as different as a plant from the seed. As Paul says, “it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” [vs. 44].
Jesus appeared after death not in physical flesh, but in a spiritual body that was seemingly not bound by the ordinary laws of physics and could appear and disappear from this world at will. When we attain to the resurrection, like Jesus, we will receive the same transcendent power to interact with the physical world in a spiritual form. Jesus was the “proof of concept,” one might say, who showed this is possible.
Science cannot yet understand how any of the seemingly miraculous events of the resurrection could have happened, but perhaps someday it will. What we do know, already, is that the laws of quantum physics are incredibly weird and hard to believe — real, scientifically proven laws that seem just as illogical and inconceivable, and require just as much of a leap of faith, as the stories of Jesus appearing to people after he died. For example, particles can be at more than one place at the same time, and time itself can run faster or slower depending on your speed. Light can be either a particle or a wave depending on whether somebody is observing it; in other words, consciousness causes physical reality to take one form or another. Quantum computers are now being developed that can do things that violate all the laws of common sense.
Indeed, today, it’s much easier to believe that incredible occurrences such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ might be compatible with scientific truth — though we might not yet understand it — compared to a hundred years ago, when modern, reasonable people imagined a universe that always obeyed simple and easily understandable laws that we thought we had already discovered.
But there’s another aspect of the resurrection that is just as important as whether the Easter stories and visions described in the Bible could have a basis in reality: the meaning of the resurrection in our own lives. If Jesus defeated death — if truly “He is risen… he is risen indeed!” as Christians proclaim in churches around the world on this hallowed day, as they have been doing each year for some two thousand years — then we are living in a world of remarkable hope. Our world is a world where any good thing is possible, if it’s God’s will. Perhaps, even as Jesus told us to believe, “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” [Matt. 17:20]
Sometimes, in our lives, we feel that mountains stand in our way of getting where we want to go. And sometimes, we feel ourselves climbing the mountain of Calvary, to Golgotha — the “place of the skull” — weighed down, burned out, and struggling to carry a heavy cross. Sometimes we feel the nails being pounded into our hands, as we experience the injustices of this world. And sometimes, we feel as though we are hanging naked, writhing and twisting on the crucifix, while the world gawks at us, pointing fingers and calling us names.
How, in such times of difficulty in our lives, can we muster the faith even of a proverbial grain of a mustard seed? How can we find the strength to move mountains? “Come down from the cross!” shouts the world, and like Jesus, we find that we cannot. How can we hope for the resurrection?
One of the most important things to understand is that even the man who overcame the power of the grave was the same man who, while hanging on the cross, wondered if torment and death might be the end of his story. “Why have you forsaken me?” he cried out to God [Matt. 27:46]. The Christian philosopher G.K. Chesterton says that God, in the person of Christ, “went not only through agony, but through doubt.” Christianity is the only religion in which “God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”
Perhaps the disciples of Jesus Christ might have become atheists, had it not been for the resurrection. But in raising Jesus to new life, God kept their hope alive — the hope of a world ruled by goodness, where injustice doesn’t have the last word. Just as surely as the rebirth of spring follows the darkness and death of winter, the testimony of Easter can fill our hearts with hope for a better tomorrow, both in this world and the world to come.
“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies,” says Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. In this classic film, Dufresne is an innocent man convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, where he endures terrible suffering. After many years, he manages to escape by crawling half a mile through a sewer pipe.
“Andy Dufresne — who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side,” said his best friend Red. Like Jesus, he had to go through the cross — a torment he didn’t deserve — but on the other side he finds new life and freedom. That’s the spirit of the resurrection. And in one way or another, it’s the story of us all.
What have you been going through in your life? Does it feel like you’re on the cross? Does it seem like your old life is dying, and you’re not sure what’s coming next? We all go through difficult times, times of suffering, uncertainty, and transition. When we do, let us look to the empty tomb of Jesus and trust in the story of the resurrection. Let us say boldly, with confidence, to ourselves and to a hurting world, “He is risen!”
Watch on video (starting at 10:40):