Sunday, April 8, 2012

EASTER SERMON: The Logic of the Empty Tomb


THE LOGIC OF THE EMPTY TOMB

Sermon Preached at Uganda Christian University
Easter Sunday 8 April 2012

Today marks the end of the 40-day Lenten season and the beginning of the Easter Season, which runs for another 40 days up until Ascension Day. The Easter season marks the period of time that the Risen Lord appeared to his disciples on earth before he was taken into heaven. But today is Easter Day or Easter Sunday, and it testifies to one thing: the Tomb was empty!

Some people think of Easter in terms of new clothes, or good food or flowers or eggs or bunny rabbits. But I don’t think of it in such sentimental terms. For me Easter Day is the most logical of days. How can this be since what can be less logical than the total violation of the laws of physics required for the body of Jesus Christ to be transformed into the figure Mary encountered in the Garden that Easter morning. Yet that reversal of the normal laws of nature is what the Church claims. The poet John Updike put it this way:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
            reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

You see, the fact is there is no natural way for cells to undissolve, for molecules to reknit or amino acids rekindle. It can’t be done. Last week a long-time friend lost her husband to a sudden heart attack. “What can we do to help?” her friends asked her. “Bring him back” was her reply. But that is the one thing they cannot do, because it is impossible.

The logic of the Resurrection is the logic of miracle, the miracle of miracles. Never before in the history of the cosmos has the law of entropy reversed, the law of death been utterly overcome.

So why do I insist that Easter Day is the most logical of days? Well, here goes.

The Empty Tomb stands as the key that unlocks the mystery of creation and salvation. Let’s begin with a simple question of fact: Was the Tomb Empty, or was it not? It is either Yes or No once we agree that we have the right tomb at the right time. This question is answered in the New Testament writings with a unanimity and credibility that is quite unusual in determining events in ancient history. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-10, St. Paul piles up multiple attestations to the Resurrection appearances of Jesus – “one of them to more than 500 at one time, many of whom are still alive.” But equally impressive is his statement that he is passing on the tradition that he had received when he first became a believer. He says:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures… (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

Paul became a Christian about three years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Clearly the historical account of Easter Day we read in the four Gospels was already set in place, and this at a time when there were many people alive, friends of foes of Christianity, to dispute it.

And dispute it they did and still do down to the present. But in order to dispute the testimony of the first disciples, they were required to come up with some alternative narratives. These alternative narratives have taken three main forms:

The first is the wrong tomb theory, which says that Jesus was buried in another tomb and the women went to the wrong address. The problems with this theory are multiple if one accepts as true the fact that the women had laid his body in the tomb two days before. Also given the controversy that erupted in Jerusalem at the day of Pentecost about the resurrection, a mere six weeks later, don’t you think someone would have found out where the real tomb and the real body were?

Secondly, we have the stolen body theory, which says that the apostles, embarrassed at Jesus’ death, stole his body out of the tomb, buried it somewhere else and then proclaimed that the tomb was empty and he was risen from the dead. Many of these apostles later died for their testimony, an unlikely thing to do for a patent fraud.

Thirdly, we have the swoon theory, which says that Jesus did not actually die but only passed out on the Cross and later that night recovered enough to roll open the stone, sneak past the Roman guard and escape into the night and was never heard from again.

The problem with all these theories, apart from their internal contradictions, is that there is absolutely no factual or historical basis for any of them. So when weighed against the impressive list of witnesses for the Empty Tomb, I think these theories should be laughed out of court.

I want at this time to introduce one modern piece of evidence as well. This is the so-called Turin Shroud. There is a very old piece of linen stored in Turin Cathedral in Italy with the remarkable image of a crucified man. The Church has claimed that this is the very burial cloth of Jesus. Various tests have been performed in the past fifty years to determine its age and the nature of the image on it. Some scholars think it is a clever forgery, similar to other relics of the Middle Ages, like a splinter of the true Cross or the bones of a saint. Others have seen the image as having resulted from an intense flash of ultraviolet light. Personally, I am not sure what to make of the Turin Shroud. What I can say is this: if the event described on Easter Day is true, was there not such a burial shroud in existence at that time? So the Turin Shroud might be an amazingly accurate depiction by an artist of something that once existed, or, just possibly, by a miracle of Providence, we have a genuine relic of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

What is one to make of the Empty Tomb, if one does not believe? You know, I grew up outside the Church and the faith, and I think I still have a little of the skeptic’s mind in me. Here’s what I would say if I did not believe (I do believe!). “The resurrection of a dead body is scientifically impossible. Given that premise, there must be some other explanation, which has been lost in the mists of time. Even if the weight of evidence cited above were 99.99% likely, it would be necessary to go with the .01% chance that Jesus did not rise from the dead.

Is my skeptic’s argument logical? Well, yes, if you accept a kind of circular reasoning that goes like this: miracles, i.e., events that appear to contradict the laws of science as they are understood today, are impossible. Therefore an improbable .01% solution to the Empty Tomb logically trumps the 99.9% weight of eyewitness testimony. If, on the other hand, one does not accept the laws of scientific materialism as god, i.e., if one believes that the Author of the laws is also the Author of miracles, then one is justified in being skeptical of the skeptics.

For the believer and even for a person willing to be a bit skeptical about claims of scientific certainty, the fact that the Tomb was empty makes sense. It is logical. Since almost all of you here are in these categories, I shall not belabor the point further. Instead I want to turn to another dimension of the logic of the Empty Tomb.

Let’s follow the logic of the Tomb backward in time. The Tomb received the body of Jesus of Nazareth at sunset on Good Friday. This was a real human body, born of his mother Mary when the Holy Spirit came upon her. This was the body that had taught the Sermon on the Mount, healed the sick, walked on water, and called Lazarus out from the grave. This was the body that predicted his own death and resurrection, when “he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mar 8:31) and said that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mar 10:45). This was also the body that declared to the paralyzed man “your sins are forgiven” and said to the thief on the Cross, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” This is the body that said “I and the Father are one.”

This body had been alive for thirty-some years but now a dead body. Jesus had given up his spirit on Calvary and said “it is finished.” Now some Christians in history and Muslims today argue that the true Jesus was a spirit not a body at all and that that his spirit escaped death on the Cross. In other words, Jesus’ body was insignificant, as the true Jesus was an immaterial soul, not a physical body; his body was like a husk to be discarded, no more important than the grave clothes with which he was wrapped.

But the Empty Tomb put the lie to this notion. It was his body that went missing on Easter morning when the women came looking for it. It was his body that appeared as a gardener and that passed through the walls and ate fish and asked Thomas to stick his finger in the nail marks of the Cross. It was his body that after forty days ascended into heaven.

As I said earlier, there have been many miracles of modern science, cures to awful diseases, discoveries of sub-atomic particles and galaxies light years afar. But never has science come up with a cure for death. Never has a human being died and come to life again. Nor is it possible, either by the laws of physics or psychology. The only way a human being could rise to life again would be by overcoming the awesome reality of death and decay. The only way a human being could rise to glory would be by cancelling the power of sin. And this Jesus Christ did on the Cross and manifested it, rising from the grave on Easter Day.

So to conclude this section of our investigation, the Empty Tomb links the “historical” Jesus of Nazareth to the trans-historical Christ whom God “raised from the dead and seated at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph 1:20-21). This Jesus is one and the same person with one and the same Body, albeit transformed to a new dimension of glory.

Now we proceed to the second part of the logic of the Empty Tomb. The logic goes like this:

·         Since the Tomb truly was empty, then Jesus Christ is indeed alive.
·         Since Christ is alive, he is not merely alive for a time like Lazarus but alive eternally, having conquered sin and death.
·         Since Christ is eternally alive, then he is alive today, the 8th of April 2012 and “yesterday, today and forever.”
·         Since he is alive today, seated at the right hand of God, he is Lord of heaven and earth and of every person alive or dead.
·         Since he is Lord of all, then he is our Lord and Judge.
·         Since he is our Lord and judge, he has the exclusive claim to our love, faith and obedience.
·         Since he promised that “whoever believes in me shall have eternal life,” then we can trust his promise.
·         Finally, since he promised that we should share in his resurrection, then we too shall rise in due time with transformed bodies in a new creation.

It is this chain of logic that St. Paul was making to the Corinthians when he said:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. (1Cor 15:12-21)

There were some Christians in Corinth who got the resurrection backward, or rather they understood the Resurrection without the Empty Tomb. They thought the Risen Life was already fulfilled by the coming of the Spirit. This led them to belittle the coming resurrection and even the historical importance of the Easter event. Paul rebukes them, saying that the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, i.e., from the Tomb, comes first and our resurrection follows logically and temporally. (Some will be alive when He comes again, but most will rise from the dead.)

All right, we have now exposed the logic of the Empty Tomb. We have seen that the Tomb is necessary to connect the Jesus of history, of the Gospels, with the Jesus known to believers since through the Holy Spirit. We have seen that our lives, our future, our own bodily resurrection proceeds only from his passing through the gate of death and bursting again into new life.

You may ask, is logic all there is to the matter, professor? I’ll store this information in my mental databank and get on with my life, studying for exams and going home for a break. Yes, you can do this, I suppose, many of you will today. But for those of you who want to stop and think a bit more, let me say this. Some years ago, Josh McDowell wrote a book titled Evidence That Demands a Verdict. The Empty Tomb is precisely this kind of evidence. The verdict is what you will do with the evidence.

Let me ask you this morning this question. Are you alive? Yes, you can pinch yourself to check. Now let me try a second question. Are you going to die? This one is not so pleasant, but I think if you are honest, you will say, Yes, some day – sooner or I hope later – I am going to die and be buried in the ground. These are two facts that we live with every day. We live with them but in the way we breathe the air. They are with us always: we breathe in and we breathe out, and we hardly notice, but they are the foundation of everything else we do. In fact, the day we cease breathing is the day we shall pass from the reality of life to the reality of death.

Now if the evidence of the Resurrection of Jesus is a fact, as I have argued, it is the same sort of fact as living and dying. Except that this fact is about living again, whether to judgement and hell or salvation and heaven. Isn’t that fact worth giving more than a moment’s thought to? Isn’t that fact something to base your life on? Isn’t that truth worth dying for? Many martyrs have done so and still do today.

Finally, let me say a word about the Holy Communion. We preachers do not talk much about it; we just “do this in remembrance of Christ.” But that should not diminish the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ promises to be real to you today as you eat his body and drink his blood. No, the bread and wine are not the physical body and blood of Christ. Christ’s body is in heaven, and we shall not see it until he comes in glory. But Christ gave us the sacrament as his true presence until he returns. Do not take these elements casually. Take them remembering that Jesus Christ is not a myth or a spirit or a nice thought. Take a moment and reflect before you come forward. Are you convinced that He is alive this very moment? Do you know he wants his life to be the foundation of your life? Are you prepared to live your life not just in this world, which leads ultimately to death, but to the world above and for all eternity?

Brothers and sisters, what is your answer to the evidence that demands a verdict? If it is a No or a Maybe, I urge you to think again, think more deeply. If it is a Yes, then I wish you a most joyous Easter Day and season.

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