Easter Sunday Celebration
Today, we celebrate Easter! It seems to me like a very welcome celebration; it’s a holiday that is literally bursting with color, light, joy, and hope. And it coincides with the arrival of spring: longer days, warmer weather, and the return of grass, trees, and flowers. Our joy certainly doesn’t depend on sunshine or holiday traditions, but at the same time it’s a wonderful gift when God does allow us to enjoy those things in the midst of a season that’s otherwise uncertain, bleak, lonely, or just downright sad for some people.
This time of year has, in fact, marked a season of hope and renewal for many cultures for thousands of years! For the Jews, it was Passover week: a celebration of God’s redemption of Israel and the ushering in of a new year. It was a reminder of how God rescued them from Egypt and brought them to the promised land. And even if you look at pagan cultures, you’ll find the spring season in general associated with hope and renewal, and with symbols of fertility and abundance.
And that makes sense…particularly in regions of the world like this one, where you truly experience the changing of seasons in the weather, and spring brings a short break from the cold and the snow! Being able to experience all 4 seasons is one of the things I truly love about living in upstate New York!
But anyway, we, as Christians have more to celebrate than just the weather, don’t we? Easter is more than an excuse to eat chocolate and do fun things as a family. We also refer to this day as “Resurrection Sunday” because we get to celebrate the most incredible, wonderful, hope-filled news that there is in the world: the resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth from the dead! He is risen. And that is the reason for the hope and the joy we have, regardless of our circumstances.
Over the last few weeks, we have talked about God’s mission of restoration, in our relationships, between us and him, as well as between each other. He wants us to join in that mission, and we’ve used that as a lens to see how a missional, kingdom mindset should impact our prayer lives (our “upward” connection) as well as our social (or socially distanced) lives, showing Christ-like, sacrificial love in the “outward” connections we have with other people in our lives. We talked last week about the importance of being able to explain the hope that we have, and of sharing the story of God’s grace in our lives. Later today we’ll get to hear another person share their story with the family here.
It’s important to be able to give testimony, to bear witness to what God has done in your life. But even more important than that is understanding why it was possible in the first place for your sin, yesterday today and tomorrow, to be forgiven by God, for you to be justified, redeemed and sanctified, to be reborn into eternal life, both spiritually and physically.
Jesus made this possible by dying in our place…and proved that it worked by coming back to life three days later. And that’s what we get to celebrate on Easter.
Now, even as Christians, Easter is still associated closely with the Jewish celebration of Passover. Even the name in other languages means “Passover” like “Pascua” in Spanish. Before Jesus was arrested and killed, he celebrated Passover with his disciples one last time. We call it “The Last Supper” and we get our practice of communion from that. We see the sacrificial lamb of the Passover, along with the bread and the wine, all as metaphors for Christ himself: the ultimate sacrificial lamb who allowed his body to broken and blood spilled out for us. And because Jesus died on a Friday and rose three days later, we celebrate that on Sunday; every year on Easter, but also every week when we come together to worship as a family.
I bring all this up simply to point out that all these events: the Passover meal, the crucifixion, and the resurrection, are all very key, pivotal events which shape the Christian faith. But the single most important factor by far is that last part. All the other traditions, teachings, the claims that Jesus made, none of that matters unless he really is who he said he is. And the one thing that proved it was his resurrection. Without the resurrection Christianity just falls apart; it’s a sham and not worth your time or attention! If you don’t believe in the resurrection of Christ, don’t bother with Christianity.
That might sound a little harsh, but hey, don’t take it from me! Those are basically Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:17:
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. (CSB)
In fact, this whole chapter of 1 Corinthians is basically a whole explanation of how important the resurrection is, how essential it is. So, go ahead and open up to 1 Corinthians chapter 15, and let’s look at it together. Now, there is a TON of stuff packed into this chapter, in typical Paul fashion, so we’re only going to read through part of it together, but I encourage you to bookmark it or write it down and come back to it if you’d like to spend some time pondering the resurrection from Paul’s perspective. For now, I’m just going to read roughly a third of this chapter, starting from the beginning, and I encourage you to read along:
1Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel I preached to you, which you received, on which you have taken your stand 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold to the message I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. 6 Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one born at the wrong time,,q he also appeared to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, so we proclaim and so you have believed. 12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say, “There is no resurrection of the dead”? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is in vain, and so is your faith. 15 Moreover, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified wrongly about God that he raised up Christ—whom he did not raise up, if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Those, then, who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. 19 If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone. 20 But as it is, Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. 22 For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at his coming, those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he abolishes all rule and all authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be abolished is death. 27 For God has put everything under his feet.,am Now when it says “everything” is put under him, it is obvious that he who puts everything under him is the exception. 28 When everything is subject to Christ, then the Son himself will also be subject to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.
Again, just in that first section there is a lot to unpack, but just to summarize the big picture of what I think Paul is trying to get across: he’s saying that the resurrection is absolutely essential, starting with the gospel itself, and it’s essential to our faith, and to the hope we have of being raised to eternal life with Jesus, in an uncorrupted and sinless world. And he goes on to expound on that idea throughout the rest of the chapter, which is very cool very dense and impossible to summarize.
The point is this: the resurrection is important.
In a bit I want to circle back to what it means for us, but first, having established how important it is, I want to spend a little time reflecting on why we believe. Why did anyone believe it happened, let alone billions of people over thousands of years?
Well, given the fact that without the resurrection Christianity completely unravels, it’s no surprise that it is one of the most debated and denied claims made by Christianity. So, because we are called to explain the hope that is within us, I think it is worth looking at the some of the logic and evidence behind this claim. Of course, I don’t want to discount the necessity of faith, as with literally anything else, but I also do not believe we are called to have blind or uninformed faith.
Now, we’ll only be able to scratch the surface today, this isn’t going to be a masterclass in apologetics, or a PHD-level philosophical argument. IF those things sound interesting to you, please let me know because I can certainly point you in the direction of some good resources. For now, I’m just going to point out a few elements of the story and throw a few facts at you to get you thinking.
First, Jesus of Nazareth did exist. He was a real person who lived during that time period, as the Bible claims. Very few people attempt to deny this, because there is more evidence that Jesus lived than there is for just about any other historical figure.
Now, some people try to deny that he died on the cross, choosing to believe in a conspiracy theory that it was all fake. However, to do this means you have to ignore every eye-witness account, including sources apart from the Bible. The details are very specific about how and when Jesus was killed, plus, it’s a well-known fact that the Romans were experts at killing people. They knew what they were doing, and they made sure he was dead.
Similarly, you’ll find that the burial of Jesus is one of the earliest and best attested to facts about Jesus, with scholars generally agreeing that there’s nothing indicating that it’s a legend or a hoax. Of course, there are people who deny it, but, when you boil it down, it takes more faith to not believe that Jesus died and was buried then to believe he was.
Each of the gospel accounts, from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, describes how he was buried in a rich man’s tomb, Joseph of Arimathea who was a secret follower of Jesus, gave him his own tomb, which would have been like a little cave, in a garden near where the crucifixion took place. I’m going to read Matthew’s account, in Matthew 27:54-66:
57 When it was evening, a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph came, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. 58 He approached Pilate and asked for Jesus’s body. Then Pilate ordered that it be released. 59 So Joseph took the body, wrapped it in clean, fine linen, 60 and placed it in his new tomb, which he had cut into the rock. He left after rolling a great stone against the entrance of the tomb. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were seated there, facing the tomb.
62 The next day, which followed the preparation day, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember that while this deceiver was still alive he said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give orders that the tomb be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come, steal him, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.”
65 “You have a guard of soldiers,” Pilate told them. “Go and make it as secure as you know how.” 66 They went and secured the tomb by setting a seal on the stone and placing the guard.
So, there’s no question that he was dead, and not only was he in a tomb with a big heavy stone against the entrance, but that stone had a Roman seal on it, and guards at the entrance so that no one could steal the body.
The Jewish religious leaders were worried that someone would try to fake a resurrection, and they collaborated with the Romans to do everything possible to prevent that. Think about that! The most powerful and influential people of that time did everything in their power to prevent a deceitful, fake resurrection.
And YET, there is also no denying that his tomb in which he was sealed away was really empty three days later. The linens in which he was wrapped were still there, but the body was gone. Even his enemies, the people who would have really loved to disprove it, could not deny that. The tomb was empty.
Then, as Paul brings up in the passage we read earlier, Jesus appeared not only to his closest disciples, but to over 500 people who testified to seeing the living, resurrected Christ. That’s more than enough to provide a both legal and logical basis for verifying this claim.
And, beyond that, we can see that this marked a dramatic shift in his disciples, from a sort of cautious and skeptical attitude to complete and utter faith, even being willing to be ostracized, beaten, and killed for their belief. Jesus himself was either crazy, or a liar, or he was who he said he was. The first two options really don’t make much sense for just that one person, so it makes even less sense, and takes an incredible amount of faith to believe that all of the people who followed his example were also crazy or liars.
Finally, the very fact that Christianity did not die out, but grew exponentially and lives today is significant. Christianity lives because Christ lives. Even as the apostles were spreading the gospel in the very early days of the church, a Pharisee named Gamaliel understood this, as we find in Acts 5:29-39, where the apostles are confronted by the religious leaders:
29 Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than people. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had murdered by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted this man to his right hand as ruler and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered the men to be taken outside for a little while. 35 He said to them, “Men of Israel, be careful about what you’re about to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, and all his followers were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After this man, Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and attracted a following. He also perished, and all his followers were scattered. 38 So in the present case, I tell you, stay away from these men and leave them alone. For if this plan or this work is of human origin, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even be found fighting against God.”
So, again, we’ve really only scratched the surface, but those are just a few of the main premises for believing in the resurrection:
When we talk about the gospel, or our hope, this is it! This is the good news! That Jesus is God in human form, that he lived a sinless life on earth so that he could be a perfect, unblemished, sacrificial lamb, that he died on a cross to pay for our sins, that he was buried, and three days later raised from the dead. He lives now in heaven and will return to fully consummate his kingdom! His return is a whole other topic, but simply the fact that he will return is part of this hope.
There are 3 ways in which the resurrection gives us hope:
Let us focus our hearts and minds on this hope with gratitude and praise, not just today, but every day! But certainly today, on resurrection Sunday!