Life is full of emotional ups and downs, isn’t it? From the birth of a child to the death of a spouse, life includes tears of joy and tears of sadness. There are seasons of sorrow and seasons of celebration.
The life of Christ was no exception. Within a week the euphoria of Palm Sunday gave way to the grief of Good Friday. And as we come to the first Easter Sunday today, the emotional rollercoaster continues. Because, as Luke describes for us this morning, the first Easter Day began as a day of sadness, but ended as one of celebration. A uniquely emotional day for all involved. One they certainly would never forget – and nor should we!
First came the sadness. Because, humanly speaking, the first Easter Sunday was all set to be the conclusion of a very tragic tale – it got off to a sombre start. A group of bereaved women got up “very early in the morning” (v.1) to anoint the body of an executed man, Jesus of Nazareth:
• A man who had been killed by crucifixion at a tragically young age, innocent of any crime.
• A man who had been executed under the orders of Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, for reasons of political expediency rather than justice.
• A man who been rejected by the Jewish religious leadership, despite showing every sign of being their long-awaited Messiah and Lord; and
• A man who had been abandoned by his friends in his hour of need. Even Peter, his closest companion, had denied knowing him.
Only the women in this tragic story seem to have stayed by Jesus to the end. The Gospel accounts tell us they were present at Christ’s death and afterwards had prepared spices to anoint his corpse.
Yet when they trudged sadly to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body they found the tomb empty and his remains gone. It had been “raised from the dead”, they later claimed. But why is their story to be believed? Is it history or merely a myth?
In our reading this morning, Luke offers three pieces of evidence to persuade us that Christ’s tomb was truly empty.
• Firstly, in verse 3 of our passage he tells us that when Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the Mother of James went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body, they discovered it was gone. There is no question that the women went to the wrong tomb and made a mistake. In the previous chapter Luke has already told us that two days earlier they had seen Jesus taken down from the Cross and laid in the tomb. The women knew where to find his body – or so they thought.
• Luke names another witness to the empty tomb in verse 12. Hearing the women’s report, Peter was curious so ran and entered Jesus’ tomb. He too found it empty. Only grave clothes remained as evidence of where Jesus’s body had been laid – a historical detail to confirm the event’s authenticity. Physical evidence that the empty tomb was no hallucination.
• And finally, Luke shares with us the disciples’ doubts. The women went to the tomb because they expected Jesus’ body still to be lying there dead. The ten disciples initially thought the resurrection was nonsense (v.11), and even Peter could only wonder at what had happened (v.12). These key witnesses to the empty tomb weren’t expecting a resurrection; they weren’t gullible people willing to believe anything on a whim. Confronted with the empty tomb they were initially as sceptical as we might be.
It was only when confronted with the whole weight of evidence for the Resurrection that Jesus friends had no option but to believe. It was then that a time of sadness became one of celebration.
For the women at the empty tomb, the clinching evidence was the words of two angels who confronted them there. They appeared as two men wearing clothes that “gleamed like lightening” (v.4). The angels put an end to the women’s doubts by saying: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he has risen!” (v.6).
The angels also reminded the women of the words of Jesus himself. On several occasions during his ministry Jesus had predicted his death and resurrection. Referring to himself, Jesus had said “The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and rise again” (v.7).
From a human perspective, these events were sad and unforeseen. But from a divine perspective, they were purposeful and planned. They were absolutely necessary for the forgiveness of sin and the defeat of death.
Over the next forty days, Peter, the apostles and five hundred others were also able to meet the risen Jesus in person. They were able to see his pierced hands and his feet, and hear him speak fresh words to them. They no longer doubted his resurrection. They could celebrate and rejoice, knowing that the Risen Jesus had secured their salvation.
So, before I finish, what contemporary relevance has the first Easter for us today?
Firstly, as we recall the resurrection of Jesus, we should be reminded that the real world matters to God. The resurrection shows that God has great plans for this material, physical world in which we live. At the end of history, God will renew and resurrect the whole of creation, just as he renewed and resurrected Jesus’ body on the first Easter morning. It was the ‘firstfruits’, a foretaste, of what is yet to come.
Like Mary, Peter and the other disciples we also still live in a world of sadness. A world characterised by much sin, suffering and injustice. Yet the great news of Christ’s death and resurrection is that such tragedies can and will be overcome. At the Cross Jesus did everything necessary for us to be forgiven our sin. And by raising Jesus from the dead, God declared him to be the just and righteous Lord of the universe. So we can be confident that one day every human will be held to account before the Risen Christ, and that one day he will right every wrong.
A final implication of the resurrection is that, like Jesus’ first followers, we too can experience an everlasting celebration. Because Jesus has conquered the grave, death has lost its sting. Resurrection can become part of our story as well as his. Like Jesus, every Christian can look beyond the grave to a glorious life in the world to come. If we are ‘in Christ’ our lives here will have the happiest ending imaginable – a warm welcome into God’s everlasting kingdom, a place where the celebration of his salvation will never end.
So this morning I hope we can all share the same joy that the women experienced when they met the angels in the tomb. And like the women, let’s not keep this great news to ourselves, but go out and tell others what a wonderful thing God has done!
Copyright © 2015-2018 St John the Evangelist, Ashton Hayes. All rights reserved.