Sermons That Work

The Arrest, Trial, Torture…, Easter Day (A) – 2008

March 23, 2008

The arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion of Jesus occupy the largest single incident in any one of the four gospels. This incident has been the most widely depicted of everything in Jesus’ life. Every detail of this grisly process seems to have been carefully recorded by the evangelists. The heart-rending details of the final suffering of the Son of God reveal how deep God’s empathy is for the pain and sin of the world and how far the divine love will go to redeem them. Evil in so many forms – political, religious, psychological, and spiritual – poured itself out completely in this event. Yet all these forces exhausted themselves without finally exhausting the faith, hope, and love of God in what happened. In a way, the forces of evil, as powerful as they are, were finally put in their place, exposed as ultimately unreal, and finally overcome in resurrection. The resurrection is the place in human history where evil, injustice, and prejudice are transfigured into justice, goodness, and enlightenment.

However, the details of the resurrection itself are not recorded in Matthew’s account, neither is there an attempt to record them in the other three gospels. What we have are various accounts of the results and fruits of the resurrection, but not any attempt to describe how it happened. This is because no one was present. No one could have anticipated it; the event itself didn’t fit into any of the known categories of knowledge or understanding.

What we have is an event without comparison. You can understand something scientifically today only if you can compare it with something else or with some sort of pattern that already exists. With the resurrection this is not possible: we have an utterly unique, mind-blowing, heart-changing, spirit-restoring mystery of God. The resurrection cannot finally be assessed by human method.

However, various attempts have been made to explain what happened. Here are four of the most common explanations.

It has been suggested that Jesus didn’t really die; instead, he recovered in the tomb, rolled the stone away, and walked out. But this does not square with the known facts we have about the way he died. The Romans knew how to kill people, particularly politically prominent people. A spear was used to impale Christ’s side to make death certain.

Another version of the above explanation is that Christ was offered a highly sedative drug, mixed in the wine that was presented to his lips on a sponge. There were drugs in the Middle East capable of this effect and would have given the impression of death for a time. However, even if this were the case, the use of the spear, preceded by many lashings, would have made him unable to remove the stone or to recover within three days.

It has been suggested that the disciples were lying about the resurrection appearances. This is most unlikely, given that the disciples were not expecting an immediate resurrection in the first place, and they themselves were prepared to meet similar deaths for the Risen Christ in the years that followed. Whatever else the disciples were, they show remarkable courage and integrity. Why spend the whole of your life on something you knew to be untrue? This is how Luke, that careful recorder, summarizes their position in today’s reading from Acts:

“We are witnesses of everything that he did in the land of Israel and in Jerusalem. Then they put him to death by nailing him to a cross. But God raised him from death three days later and caused him to appear, not to everyone, but only to the witnesses that God had already chosen.”

The fourth suggested theory is that the resurrection appearances were grief-induced hallucinations. It is true that some people in deep grief do have a sense of the deceased loved one being present. However, this sense fades over time, whereas experiences of the Risen Christ remain tangible and widespread. Further, hallucinations produced by grief have never resulted in anything like the Christian mission in the world. With the resurrection, there seems to be something much more world-changing and transformative going on.

So what are we left with? None of the above explanations are convincing. In fact, there is no proof either way, in the scientific sense, for or against the resurrection of Christ. In the end, a belief in Easter is a decision of the mind and the heart. It is a choice. You can believe the witnesses who say that something remarkable occurred that has gone on recreating the world ever since by the triumph of life over death, of love over hate, of light over darkness. Or you can believe that the witnesses were mistaken and that life and death, love and hate, light and darkness are evenly matched and that there is no ultimate power for good that is stronger than death.

In the end it is very simple: you either choose to have faith, or you don’t. But the decision you make about Easter will profoundly affect the way you live and other choices you make for the rest of your life. I choose to walk in an Easter light and to live by an Easter faith because I know it brings abundant life and makes intuitive sense even in the middle of death, hatred, and darkness.

The movie “The Body” is a drama about archaeologist who discovers what he believes to be the bones of Jesus in Jerusalem. For much of the story the evidence builds toward a belief that this probably is the body of Jesus and that the idea of resurrection is unreal. At the end of the film, however, it becomes clear that the bones are not those of Jesus. Early in the story, a Jesuit delegate from the Vatican who was sent to investigate the issue says, when thinking about the meaning and reality of the risen Christ:

“I believe that Jesus Christ is God because I spoke to Him this morning in my prayers. And I’ve known that He was God since I was a boy. He has always been my best friend even though I haven’t always been His. In Him, I have peace.”

But how do we speak with the Risen Christ? Through sharing in his banquet where he is present in a communion of bread and wine; by breathing in his Spirit in contemplative prayer; by reading and hearing his thoughts, parables, and visions in the gospels. Christ becomes living bread, life-giving breath, and living word in these ways.

Because the New Testament does not try to explain the mechanics of the Resurrection, neither do we: it cannot be explained. We can only stand under its grace and let it understand us as an unrepeatable miracle of love. Love is its only meaning because love is the only survivor, because God is love all the way through. The only people to whom the Risen Christ appeared were people who loved him – as Luke says, “to the witnesses that God had already chosen.”

The Resurrection, therefore, is made visible and possible for those who experienced it because of the love that was in them, because God is love and because God loved the world so much that he gave Christ to these people in a new and living way. With them, if you believe that love is stronger than death, then you can believe in Easter. We see this in a passage from the book With Roots and Wings by Jay McDaniel, as he describes Thomas Merton’s view of resurrection:

“Christianity may or may not make sense to you, the reader, but perhaps resurrection can make sense. It is a process of being reborn, moment-to-moment, in a freedom that is wise in its sensitivity to the interconnectedness of all things, compassionate in its empathy for all living beings, and centred in the very mystery of God. We understand resurrection when we taste a freedom and freshness that lies in the very depths of our lives. From my perspective as a Christian, this freedom and freshness is the living Christ, the resurrected One. ‘He’ does not have a body that is located in space and time. ‘He’ is more like the wind, or our own breathing, or the sky. The resurrected One is the very freshness of God, the very freedom of Holy Wisdom, as a centre that is within us and beyond us, ever-present yet ever-new. There is a freshness and freedom in the very centre of things. In this freshness and freedom, we find our roots and wings.”

Christ did not raise himself from the death-dealing hatred that killed him; God raised Christ by divine love, in and through the heart love of the disciples, so that the Spirit of God that raised Jesus from death may be divine love alive in us.

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Christopher Sikkema


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