Easter Sunday - Matthew 28

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 23rd March 2008.

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Well it’s becoming a tradition in our nation at Easter for the media to find some senior cleric who’ll go on record denying some central fact about the resurrection of something. So, bang on cue, last Sunday The Dean of Women's Ministry in London, Rosemary Lain-Priestly, said on the radio that J’s physical resurrection wasn’t that important. Asked if it would it matter if a tomb was discovered with J’s bones in, she replied: ‘No’: "I don’t think it would". Because for this senior cleric, J's resurrection was just a spiritual resurrection; it doesn’t matter if Jesus literally rose from the dead or not, because he lives on as people remember him and His teaching; it’s the spiritual resurrection that matters. And so Jesus is in the same boat as Buddha, Elvis, Jesus F Kennedy and John Lennon. They all live on in their spiritual resurrections.

But of course that kind vague wishful thinking isn’t what the NT actually says is it? The Apostle Paul tells us that if Jesus wasn’t raised physically from the dead, then our faith is a waste of time. No physical resurrection, no Christianity. I used to be a convinced atheist. But it was the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead that persuaded me to change my mind. Because genuine Christians have always claimed that Jesus was physically raised from the dead. And that claim is based on the NT documents.

Now we haven’t got time this morning to examine the evidence for the reliability of the NT. Suffice to say that the NT isn’t a giant Chinese Whisper. On the contrary, academics are agreed that the NT is the most well-attested and reliable piece of ancient literature the world has even known. And if you want to chase up some of that evidence, then pl take one of these leaflets from the Information Stand after the service.

  • The Fact of the resurrection (v1-10)
  • So what does the NT say about the resurrection. Well in the first 10 verses of that passage we read from Mt 28, we see the fact of the resurrection. The fact of the resurrection.

    Early on that first Easter Sunday morning, the 2 Marys went to the tomb. The tomb where they’d seen Jesus buried on Good Friday.

    But as the women are on the way to the tomb, we get a flash back. A few weeks ago, we had an earthquake in the middle of the night didn’t we? Now our 2 children slept through it, but we woke up as the mirror was swinging on the wall and the bed shaking and all that. Some people had pictures falling of the walls and furniture or even roofs collapsing. And that was only a 5.2 Richter scale earthquake. Here in Jerusalem on the first Easter Sunday morning, there was a violent earthquake we’re told. And it appears that the Lord used this earthquake to help the angel roll the stone away from the entrance to J's tomb. And as is often the case, the angel’s appearance was like lightening - his clothes were white as snow.

    So it’s not surprising that the guards who’d been posted at J's tomb were scared stiff. I was a little bit scared when we had a minor earthquake and the house stated shaking. But at least I didn’t have a shining paranormal visitor turn up in my bedroom. Because that’s what these guards had just experienced. A violent earthquake and then a one-to-one with a scary paranormal visitor. When we think of angels, we usually think of smiling fluffy white creatures in top of a Christmas tree or something don’t we? But every time an angel appears in the Bible, those who see them are scared stiff. So why’s that then? Because the word angel means messenger: and when God’s messenger turns up, he comes with God’s authority. And when God’s messenger turns up, we’ve got an in-ya-face reminder that there’s more to life than meets the eye in this world. There really is a spiritual world out there; and there really is a God who’s got power and authority. A powerful God who’s got something to say to us.

    Now I wonder how long it’s been since any of you went to nightclub, or even a trendy pub like the Hayworth Arms on the corner of Beverley Road and Cottingham Road. Well even if you haven’t been for a while, you may still have noticed the bouncers on the door; the big beefy blokes looking all mean and mussely – you know a bit like [Bruce/ Richard] but with more padding. Well that’s what these guards were like at J’ tomb. The bouncers of the day, except these bouncers had AK47s as well. They were hard. But when these hard men were faced with God’s messenger, God’s angel that is, they were so afraid that they shook and became like dead men. Because that the only response possible when we come face to face with God or one of His representatives. One day, every knee will bow before the Lord Jesus Christ; every knee whether people like it or not. Because in the face of Almighty God, human strength evaporates.

    And so when the 2 Marys reach the tomb and find an angel sitting on the stone, they’re scared stiff too. Which is why the angel says: Don’t be afraid".

    Don’t be scared of me. God has sent me with a message for you. I know you’re confused. I know you’re looking at the open tomb; I know you’re starting to worry about whether someone’s desecrated J’s grave or nicked His body. But don’t be afraid; I know you’re looking for Jesus, who was crucified. But he’s not here. But he has risen, just as he told you. Come into the tomb and see the place where he was laid. Look, the grave clothes are still here, but the body’s gone. He’s not here, he has risen. Don’t you remember how he kept on predicting this would happen. Don’t you remember when he told you that "he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life." [Mt 16:21].

    Didn’t you get it when Jesus kept explaining that he was not only the Christ but God himself visiting His people? And if Jesus was God then every word he said must be true. Because God can’t lie can He? And so if Jesus said he’d be killed and 3 days later be raised from the dead, then that’s what was going to happen. And so it has. Look: see the place where he was laid.

    So go now and tell His disciples. Go and tell them that Jesus has risen and is going ahead of you into Galilee. And there in Galilee you will all see him. Now, I’ve told you. Off you go.

    And so the women hurried away from the tomb still afraid and yet filled with joy. And you can relate to that can’t you? Imagine attending the funeral of a best friend and 3 days later visiting their grave. But when you get there, the grave’s been dug up and you meet a paranormal being who tells you that your friend is no longer dead and that he wants to meet you for a coffee in Leeds; but not just you, but all the friends and family who came to the funeral. Off you go then and tell them. Come on, get a move on.

    It doesn’t happen every day does it? Not then or now. And so you can imagine the rollercoaster of emotions these 2 Marys were feeling. Jesus is alive. But is this really happening. Maybe I’m just having a lazy Sunday morning dream. And so the 2 women hurried off, afraid, but full of joy. Their hearts and mind racing.

    But on the way to tell the disciples, they bump into Jesus himself. "Greetings" he says. And then the fog clears. Jesus is standing right in front of them. The tomb was empty. He has risen. Just as he said. And He’s right here in front of us. He really must be God if he did that. Come back from the dead just as he said that is. And so they fell down at his feet and worshipped Him as their God.

    And just in case they’ve been overcome by the emption of it all, Jesus repeats the angel’s command: go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee: there they will see me in the flesh too. Notice Jesus is talking about his bothers; not just the 11 disciples but the brothers; the spiritual brothers; J’s followers of both genders that is.

    So v1-10, we looked at the fact of the resurrection.

  • The fiction of the alternatives v11-15)
  • And so next in v11-15, we see the fiction of the alternatives. Because while the women were on the way, some of the guards went into the City and told the chief priests everything that had happened. Well they might have missed out the bit about being so scared they became like dead men. But, in a sense they were like dead men walking; because under Roman law, soldiers who fell asleep on the job or lost a prisoner were routinely executed themselves. What they needed was a bit of religious protection from the Roman authorities.

    So who can remember what plan the religious authorities cooked up to protect the guards? [engage]

    That’s right: they told them: "you’re to say His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep".

    Which is ridiculous isn’t it? If I go in and tidy up my children’s bedroom when they’re asleep, in the morning how do they whether it was me, Kate or maybe even the Easter Bunny? They don’t, because they were asleep and so they couldn’t have witnessed it could they? Which is why it’s incredible that such a theory has indeed circulated ever since, even to this day. But let’s step back and think about the claim for a moment.

    1. The disciples were later to go and tell the whole world that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And within a couple of hundred years, this news, the fact of J’s resurrection, had turned the Roman Empire upside down. Even the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian. All but one of the 11 disciples died for their faith. A faith that also taught people about J’s teaching; about the importance of truth and putting other people first. Would you die for a lie? Can you imagine the disciples starting a new religion about truth which they knew was based on a lie? On persuading people to base their lives on a lie; a lie which led to many of them to their deaths. No it’s inconceivable isn’t it. If the disciples had nicked the body, then at least one of them would have cracked. No lie that big can stand the test of time.

  • But what about the authorities. Desecrating graves was a capital offence under Roman law. Jesus has been convicted by a kangaroo court remember. If the authorities had the slightest scrap of real evidence that the disciples had desecrated J’s grave and destroyed His body, then the disciples would have been strung up themselves in no time. Religious nutters. Let’s get rid of them. Send them to Guantanamo Bay or something!

    3. And it’s the same with all the other theories that try to explain the empty tomb. It’s a fact of history that J’ body was missing. And if the Christians didn’t nick it, then who did? The Romans or the Jews? And if so, when the Christians started claiming Jesus was raised from the dead, why didn’t they just produce the body? OK, hoax over: here’s J’s body so let’s stop all this nonsense about a resurrection.

    No: the disciples didn’t steal J’s body. Nobody else did either. Because Jesus really was raised from the dead. The fiction of the alternatives then.

    But even if it’s true, so what? Which brings us to the final point in v16-20. The implications of the resurrection.

    Just as the angel and Jesus himself had commanded the women, a whole crowd of J’s followers made the 75 mile journey from Jerusalem back up to Galilee. And just as Jesus had said, there they met him. Indeed, the apostle Paul tells us that on one occasion more than 500 disciples saw the risen Jesus at the same time.

    So we’re not talking about a couple of bereaved and deluded women having a day dream. No, when the disciples met the risen Jesus, just like the women, they bowed down and worshipped Him. They praised and worshipped him as the God He’d been claiming to be for the past 3 years. But some in the crowds still doubted. It was a lot to take in all at once. And it’s the same for us: dead men don’t normally rise do they? So if you’re becoming convinced that Jesus really did rise from the dead, then the implications might only be dawning slowly.

    J had spent the previous 3 years telling people they were in danger; in danger of God’s judgment because none of us are perfect are we? None of us measure up to God’s standards. We don’t even meet our own. And God is a just God; which means he has to punish sin. But the whole point of Easter is that God had a plan to punish sin and yet provide a way for His people to be forgiven and escape that just judgement. And that plan involved Jesus dieing in the place of His people on the first GF. On the cross, Jesus was punished in my place for all the wrong things I had done. And he’s offering that same forgiveness to each and every one of us here this morning.

    And the implication of the resurrection is that it’s all true; yes there is an afterlife; yes we are heading for Judgement day; but yes Jesus is God and he died to save His people from that judgement. And because it’s true, because all those who aren’t Christians are heading for eternal punishment, that’s why Jesus commands his disciples to go and make more disciples of all nations, from all types of people that is. Because it’s only then that people are safe; eternally safe. That’s the implication of the resurrection. If Jesus really was raised form the dead, just as he said he would, then his words are also true. His words about judgment and salvation.

    So if you’re becoming convinced that Jesus really was raised from the dead, that Jesus really might be God himself visiting His people, then let me encourage you to come back after Easter and investigate Him more closely. We’ve got lots of things going on here at [SF’s Riv] church for all ages and stages of Christian experience. And if you want to know more about how we can help you with your journey of discovery, then pl fill in one of these Welcome Cards you’ll find in the Info Stand or come and speak to me after the service.

    But if you’re already like those disciples who bowed down and worshipped the risen Jesus, the let’s go home this Easter Sunday with praise and thanksgiving in our hearts. Your faith rests on the fact of the resurrection. The alternatives are fiction. Your eternal future is secure. Because Jesus C is risen today. He is risen indeed. Alleluia. Let’s pray:

    Closing Prayer

    Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for sending Jesus at the first Christmas. And thank you that at the first Easter he died and rose again to take away the sin of His people. Help each and every one of us to be convinced by the facts of the resurrection, the fiction of the alternatives and the implications if the resurrection, for our eternal security, but your ultimate glory we pray. Amen.

  • The implications of the resurrection (v16-20)
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