Today we are talking about what it means to be a witness to the resurrection. We want to know what it meant to the disciples and what it now means to us.
According to St. Luke, on Good Friday, after the crucifixion and death of Jesus, the women followed those who carried the dead body of their Master to the garden tomb where it was laid. Then early in the morning of the first day of the week, they returned to the tomb bearing spices to prepare his body for the long sleep of death. To their surprise, they found the stone rolled away. Now the stones used to seal tombs were massive. The heavy stone that was rolled away from the tomb of Jesus has rightly been called “the Philosopher’s stone,” because from that day to this, philosophers have wondered “Who moved the stone?” Was it the work of God? Was it the work of a band of clever pranksters? Or was it a mistake on the part of the women?
Skeptics have long suggested that in their grief, hampered by the darkness of the early morning, the women just went to the wrong tomb. That would have been an easy mistake. Yet the women never doubted their sense of direction and place. How could they for when they entered the tomb, they saw two men dressed in dazzling apparel? And these two men, later identified as angels, confronted them saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead. He is not here. He has risen.” The messengers then reminded the women that Jesus had predicted his crucifixion at the hands of sinful men and his resurrection long before, even when he was still in Galilee.
Now, in Scripture, as in life, the fact that something was announced in advance makes it even more memorable than it already is. Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, but the one everybody remembers is the one Ruth called in Chicago during the 3rd game of the 1932 World Series against the Cubs. Compared to what the women had just seen and heard Ruth’s home run was pretty tame.
Following their experience at the empty tomb, the women quickly reported back to “the eleven” and “all the rest” and told their story. At first, their words were regarded as an idle tale. Nevertheless, Peter and several others besides, went out to investigate. When they arrived at the tomb, Peter looked in and he was puzzled by what he saw. Unlike the women, he did not see any strangers, men, or angels, but he did see the linen cloths that had been so recently wrapped around the dead body of Jesus discarded and lying by themselves. In other words, he saw the wrap-er but not the wrap-ie! The corpse was missing. According to our text Peter then “went home amazed at what had happened.” Please note that Peter did not go home amazed by what he had seen, but “amazed at what had happened.” Something akin to hope was already stirring within him.
Based on texts like this one, some skeptics say that it was the Empty Tomb that produced the resurrection faith in the disciples. Most reputable scholars disagree. All four gospels mention the discovery of the empty tomb by the women but not one of them declares beyond a shadow of a doubt that the empty tomb produced the resurrection faith in even a single person. Likewise, in 1st Corinthians 15, when St. Paul lays out his evidence for the resurrection, he does not mention the empty tomb or the women who found it. Scholars say that Paul omits the women because in those days they were not permitted to bear legal witnesses. Scholars say that Paul omits the empty tomb because it was not the empty tomb that produced faith in the Risen Christ, but the appearances. An empty tomb is too easily explained away, the appearances of the risen Christ are not so easy to explain away. This is so for several reasons.
First, Jesus appeared not to one of his followers but to many. Paul’s list is not meant to be exclusive. Yet Paul says that the Risen Jesus appeared to Peter, to the twelve, to 500 brethren at one time, to James, to all the apostles, and, last of all, to Paul himself. Each appearance adds credibility to the last. In establishing a critical bit of evidence, multiple attestations are important, and there are multiple attestations to the Resurrection of Jesus.
Second, Jesus appeared not just to one witness at a time, but to multiple witnesses. According to Paul, he appeared to the twelve, to the 500, and to all the apostles. This is important. Psychologists tell us that when a unique phenomenon occurs, and there is only a single witness, it is often easy to write the phenomenon off as a psychic event that occurred only in the mind of the individual. However, when a unique phenomenon occurs and there are multiple witnesses, one cannot easily dismiss it as a psychic event, for each human mind works on a different circuit, and multiple minds seldom work on the same circuit. When a unique phenomenon occurs and there are multiple witnesses, the likelihood is that the event occurred “out there,” in the real world, and not in the minds of the witnesses.
Third, Jesus appeared not just to his friends, but to a least one sworn enemy. Jesus appeared to the apostles he appointed to be with him, especially to Peter, and to his brother, James, and in John’s gospel, he appeared to Mary Magdalene, who was loyal to the end. Jesus also appeared to Paul, a sworn enemy who was actively persecuting the church when it pleased God to reveal his son to him. To use a simple example, no one is more anti-smoking that a former smoker. No one was more pro-Jesus than one who formerly persecuted the church. As Paul says in 1st Corinthians 15, “I worked harder than any (of the other apostles), though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.” The witness of Paul is a key factor in establishing the Resurrection!
Fourth, Jesus appeared to trustworthy men and women. According to Matthew 27, even before the Resurrection, the chief priests and the Pharisees accused the disciples themselves of plotting to steal the body of Jesus from the tomb so that they could claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. Today, some skeptics say that this is exactly what happened. Personally, I think that the integrity of the apostles is beyond reproach. In the case of those whom Jesus appointed to be with him, they were plain, honest men and devout Jews, totally devoted to the Lord God of Israel, whom they came to regard as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. These devout men and women would never have dared bring God into a plot designed to fool God’s people. And in the case of Paul, he was much too proud of his righteousness under the law, which he considered, “blameless”, to sully it by preaching what he knew to be a lie. In 1st Corinthians 15:15, he says exactly that.
Fifth, Jesus appeared not as a ghost or a disembodied spirit but with a wonderfully transformed and glorious new body. Like a spirit, the Risen Jesus could pass through locked doors, and appear and disappear at will. Even so, he preserved his humanity in his glorified body. In Luke 24 he invited his disciples to handle him to see that he was not just a spirit. Then he asked them for something to eat, and they gave him a piece of boiled fish, and he ate it before them. Some critics say that Paul never suggested that the appearances of Jesus were so corporeal—but they forget we know from internal evidence that St. Luke, whoever he was, was a companion of Paul on a missionary journey, and according to Galatians, Paul spoke with Peter, James the brother of the Lord, and John the Son of Zebedee on multiple occasions. I have friends who believe that the Resurrection appearances were “objective visions,” visions actually given to the disciples by God. I have no problem with that, though I would object to “subjective visions,” meaning visions that grew out of the disciples themselves. However, I accept the gospel accounts as factual, and indicative of the kind of human body “lifted into heaven,” when he ascended to the Right Hand of the Majesty on Hight. Perhaps you will remember how St. John says: “2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
Finally, Jesus appeared to his disciples not in some far-off corner of the world but in Galilee and especially in Jerusalem, the very city where he was handed over to sinful men and crucified. Perhaps the single best evidence for the resurrection is the fact that it transformed a small group of frightened men and grief-stricken women into a mighty salvation army that soon began to turn the whole civilized world upside down. The spreading flame of the gospel, once lit, has never died out!
So much for the disciples. Now, what about us? What shall we believe today?
There are people who call themselves Christian who regard Jesus as “a deluded apocalyptic who threw himself on the wheel of human history only to be crushed by it.” They think the cross was the bad end of a good man. This was the opinion of no less a saint than Albert Schweitzer. At the age of 35 Schweitzer as he began the second half of his life, Schweitzer turned his back on Europe, and a promising career as a musician, theologian, and physician to go to the Belgium Congo where he served the indigenous population as a doctor. When people asked why Schweitzer would make such a sacrifice, he answered “Because Jesus sent me.” I will gladly take all the Schweitzers God will give us!
There are people who call themselves Christians who think that Jesus was nothing more than a great teacher who preached the love of God and the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of all humanity. Our 3d President, Thomas Jefferson, was a Deist but he regarded himself as a follower of Jesus. Perhaps you know that Jefferson published his own version of the New Testament. In so doing, he simply took a standard New Testament and a pair of scissors and cut out all the parts he did not like, including the miracles and resurrection of Jesus. Even so, perhaps influenced by men like Socrates, Jefferson opined that we had a least a fifty-fifty chance of surviving death. Our 2nd President, John Adams, once wrote to our 3rd President, Jefferson, saying that their common belief in life after death had done then no harm, and if they were wrong, they would never know it, for in death there is no knowledge and no disappointment. By the way, do you know that both men died on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after the signing of The Declaration of Independence?
As much as I admire men like Schweitzer, Socrates, Jefferson, and Adams, I am much more inclined to agree with St. Paul when he writes, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Think about it: If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then we are still in our sins. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then all those we have loved and lost are lost forever. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then our own lives are just a tiny isthmus of life, flanked on either side by two great oceans of eternity from which we are absent. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then all the questions we have about the mysteries of existence, whether cosmic or personal, will never be answered. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then much of what we have aspired to and hoped for in this life will never come to pass. In Christ has not been raised from the dead then the righteous who suffered unjustly and died too soon will never receive a reward, and the unrighteous who lived, and prospered despite their wicked actions against their fellow human beings will never be brought to the bar of justice. How sad!
Personally, I am thankful that I can say with St. Paul, “But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. But each in their own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming (all) those who belong to Christ.”
We belong to Christ! Because he lives we will live also! His present is our future! Yet Paul says, “Last of all as to one untimely born, he appeared also unto me.” “Last of all?” How then can we be witnesses? We are witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus when we attend choir practice, serve on the Board, cook in the kitchen, usher, or contribute to the relief of refugees from Ukraine. We are witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, when we turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies, and love our neighbors even as we love ourselves. We are witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus when we attend Church almost every night for a week, get up at 4:00 a.m. to make an Easter Sunrise Service, and then come back at 11:00 a.m. for a second helping of worship. Some say the number of witnesses is declining. They say that those of us who are left are old, and tired, and our line is coming to an end. I will say only that God has never left Himself without witnesses, and God never will. I will say, too, that your witness and mine is important. The Lord is Risen! “The Lord is Risen Indeed!”
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.