St Stephen Lewisham

11th May 2003

Easter Evidence Part One

 

In my sermon on Holy Saturday at the first Mass of Easter I quoted the well-known Easter Carol This Joyful Eastertide the chorus at the end of each verse says:

Had Christ that once was slain
Neíer burst his three-day prison
Our faith had been in vain
But now hath Christ arisen
.

These four lines of poetry stress the centrality of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ to our Christian lives.

St Paul says the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus. If that is true then it makes a critical difference as to whether we believe the Resurrection to be true or not.

He then goes on to say If Christ has not been raised you are still in your sins. We are shown up as witnesses who have committed perjury before God, because we swore in evidence before God that he had raised Christ to life. If we are telling a falsehood about the Resurrection then thereís not the slightest reason why anyone should listen to what we say about being truthful, loving one another, bearing one anotherís burdens or fulfilling the law of Christ. If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are the most unfortunate of all people.

This Sunday and next we shall go a stage further by looking at the evidence for believing the Resurrection to be true. Thereís little point in saying that somethingís true if we canít give a sensible reason for believing to be so. We can go on saying "Christ is risen" over and over again; but if all we can say is "well I donít really know" when someone asks why we believe it; or if we can only produce some knee-jerk answer like "because the Bible says so" or "because thatís what the Creed says" or "because I feel that he has", then itís only going to persuade the questioner that the grounds for our belief are slender indeed.

So letís examine the evidence for the Resurrection. Evidence, remember, is the one thing which makes a critical difference to the judgement given in a law court. The judge and jury are there to decide on the basis of the evidence given what someone did or did not do. What they would like to have happened; whether they like the good looks or the pleasant manner of the person in the witness-box are neither here nor there. What does matters is whether heís speaking the truth or not.

Weíll divide our evidence for the Resurrection into two parts. This morning we shall look at the evidence of some non-Christian historians whose interest was to record accurately what Christians claimed had taken place on the first Easter morning, but who were not particularly concerned whether it had happened or not. Next week we shall consider what the Christians themselves said about it.

For instance we know for certain from two non-Christian historians called Josephus and Tacitus that a man called Jesus was publicly executed by crucifixion in AD30 outside Jerusalem. We know for certain that the person ultimately responsible for sentencing him to death was the Roman Governor of Israel at the time called Pontius Pilate. We also know for certain from his previous career that Pilate wasnít a very good governor who often tended to take the easy way out if he could find one, either by ignoring the complaints of the people he was supposed to be governing or else treating them with extreme cruelty for bothering him in the first place. So the manifest injustice of allowing Jesus to be crucified was entirely in keeping with Pontius Pilateís character.

Other historians go on to tell us that within a very short time of that event, a matter of a few days, Jesusís followers were claiming that he had risen from the dead and been seen and touched by them and was truly alive. Over the next few weeks the numbers of those who claimed to have seen him and spoken with him grew dramatically, and thereafter those who were prepared to believe on the basis of the evidence they gave that they were speaking the truth grew to thousands.

We also know that those who were responsible for his death (which included both Pilate himself, the Roman soldiers and the Jewish priests), had every interest in killing the rumour of Jesusís resurrection as stone dead as they had killed Jesus himself Ė and as soon as possible: Pilate, because it would raise yet further doubts about his competence to rule the proverbially troublesome Jewish Province; the soldiers because it would mean theyíd bungled their simple job of executing a criminal; the Chief Priests because it would call into doubt their judgement about the very man theyíd just put to death two days previously.

And they all had one obvious way of doing this. They only had to produce the dead body of Jesus out of the tomb where he had been put and they could stop worrying. But they couldnít and they didnít. Why not? Well, for one very simple reason: the body of Jesus wasnít any longer in the tomb!

So what could they do about it? Well, the simplest thing was to keep as quiet about it as possible, and if anyone asked awkward questions they would accuse the disciples of having stolen the body. We know that they put that rumour around at the time and for many years afterwards.

But their story had three fatal flaws to it: One was the number of people who believed the witnesses to the Resurrection greatly outnumbered those who were prepared to buy their body-stealing rumour; second, the witnesses themselves, to a man, were prepared stake their lives and die for the truth of what they were saying; third, there is no evidence whatever of the tomb itself having become at any time during the next three hundred years an object of curiosity, let alone a place of pilgrimage. It was only when Christianity became officially accepted as the faith of the Roman Empire under Constantine that the exact location of the Holy Sepulchre began to be of interest. If there had been any doubt that the tomb was empty it would soon have become a tourist attraction not only for the devout followers of Jesus, but for casual sightseers who wanted to know what all the fuss had been about.

From Day One onwards, historians tell us, the Resurrection was the focal point of the Apostlesí teaching. From then onwards people who had never met Jesus Christ in the flesh (and that included St Paul, the greatest of all the Churchís missionaries) came to believe that the Person who had been put to death under Pontius Pilate had, in reality, risen, (or been raised) from the dead "to the glory of God the Father".

Long before anyone had formulated a detailed doctrine of the Trinity Jesusí followers were insisting "he is risen, he is risen indeed, Alleluia". Sunday became their chosen day when they came together to meet their Risen Lord in the Breaking of Bread and the Prayers and remained so ever afterwards. If they hadnít really believed from the start that he "rose on the Third Day" then the day for remembering him would have been Friday, the day that he was put to death.

This morning, two thousand years or so afterwards you and I are doing the same thing as they did. In one sense itís easier for us because, unlike them, we have access in the New Testament to the written records of those witnesses, and in particular to the writings of St Paul.

Saint Paul was suddenly converted from the belief of the Chief Priests to that of the Apostles whilst on a journey from Jerusalem to Damascus in order to arrest anyone who should dare to say that Jesus was alive. Next week we shall look at some of that evidence and see how well it all fits together.

Meanwhile, letís now get on with the happy business of meeting with our Lord in the prayers and in the Breaking of Bread in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

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