This morning we are to think about that very first Easter morning as recorded for us in John's Gospel and the passage we read as our New Testament lesson - John 20.1-18. And I want us to consider it under three headings: first, THE EVENTS ON THAT FIRST DAY; secondly, THE EVIDENCE FOR THAT FIRST DAY; and, thirdly, THE IMPORTANCE OF THAT FIRST DAY.
First, THE EVENTS ON THAT FIRST DAY.
So what was happening on that first day of the week (our Sunday) after Jesus Crucifixion and burial the previous Friday? We can identify three things.
First, there is what Mary, Peter and John did. The day started with Mary Magdalene, while it was still dark, arriving at Jesus' tomb. There she found the stone (covering the entrance) rolled away, with the tomb clearly empty. Mary then ran back to alert Peter and John (the disciple whom Jesus loved) and said to them, verse 2:
"They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we [notice the plural – she had originally, we know, other women with her – and we … ] do not know where they have laid him."
Also notice that seeing the tomb empty with the body of Jesus gone, Mary doesn't assume a Resurrection. She assumes the body, for some reason, has been intentionally removed. Peter and John then raced to the tomb, while she returned to the tomb at a slower pace. By the time she had arrived, however, they had gone. But what happened with Peter and John?
This - John running faster arrived first at the Tomb and, from outside, a quick look showed, as Mary saw, the body had gone. "Then," (verse 6, we read)
" … Simon Peter came, following him, and went into [right into] the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself."
It was "then," (verse 8) John, also "went in, and he saw and believed." The penny dropped for John, so to speak. But why? Not because he or any of the disciples were expecting Jesus' Resurrection. Verse 9 makes that clear:
"as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead."
Yes, later with hindsight they saw how Jesus had been teaching about his Resurrection. But they had not understood. Now all seemed to have gone horribly wrong. Jesus, the one whom they thought was the great Messiah to usher in a glorious new age, had been executed and so failed, as they thought. They were, therefore, dejected and depressed. They had lost hope, with certainly no thoughts of a Resurrection. So what made John believe that Christ was risen - that Christ's body had not been taken, as Mary assumed, either by other disciples for a different burial or by the Jewish authorities?
The answer seems to be the position of the grave clothes. John saw them lying just as though Jesus' body had amazingly passed through them. John realized there had been no removal of the body. Rather something truly extraordinary had happened. Jesus had risen from the dead, not at the end of time, but in the middle of world history.
So all that is what first happened, on that first Easter day very early in the morning. The tomb of Jesus was discovered empty, but with John realizing that Jesus had not been removed but had risen from the dead (as was confirmed later by angelic messages and Jesus' appearances).
However, secondly, something else was happening, but on a personal level. God was dealing graciously with Mary Magdalene. You see, God knows all about you, whoever you are, and he knew all about these early disciples, including Mary. Jesus said from a divine perspective "even the very hairs on your head are all numbered" (Matt 10.30). And Jesus knew all about Mary and how mixed up she had been, although, it seems, a wealthy woman. He knew Satan had had a field day in her life, as Luke tells us. But Jesus had freed her to be a great servant in his kingdom. Our passage shows her being used to discover, and then tell others, about the Resurrection of Christ.
So who this morning has had, or is having, like Mary, a very mixed up life? Do you think you are too bad to be forgiven and restored by Christ and that God can never use you to work for him? Well, Mary Magdalene proves you wrong. For the Resurrection proves that Christ's death did atone for our sins on that first Good Friday. So you can be forgiven and restored as you repent and trust Christ.
But not only were things happening at this personal level on that first day, thirdly, something was happening at the macro level – namely "God's pilot project", as it has been called. God was doing in Jesus Christ what ultimately he will do for all his people and for the whole of the created order. For Christ, a new order of existence had begun. But he was, to use the biblical metaphor, "the first fruits". Jesus' Resurrection was the start of God's rescue and recreation plan for all God's people and the entire universe one day at Christ's second coming, when this world's history will end. And in this interval between Christ's first and second comings, we are now to be living in the light of Christ's Resurrection and return and telling others that they, too, need to live in the light of his Resurrection and return. But this interval period will not last forever. And that is serious.
For when Christ returns on that final Day, it will be for judgment as we have just reminded ourselves in the Apostles Creed. And the Bible teaches that the Resurrection proves that that coming judgment is not fiction but reality. So the Easter challenge is this: "are you prepared for that final day by trusting and obeying Christ, living for him now, in the power of his Resurrection?"
That brings us secondly, to THE EVIDENCE FOR THAT FIRST DAY ..
… and the question, "how can you believe all this really happened?" Well, look now at verses 11-12:
"But Mary stood [back at the tomb after Peter and John had left] weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet."
Perhaps you immediately say, "I can't believe in angels." But if the Resurrection of Jesus is true, why should angels be "mere pious fancy and old-world superstition." True, you should "carefully distinguish the angels of the Bible from the far from convincing 'angels' of most Christian art!" And more can be said. But, here, at the interface of time and eternity, they supernaturally are witnessing to the fact that Jesus' Resurrection is a real Resurrection. It was not a miraculous resuscitation like Lazarus' coming back to life, but then to die again of old age or illness. No! Jesus' body was transformed and now part of that majestic and unimaginable divine eternal order the New Testament says is
"… 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).
So back to our question about evidence for belief. We have only time for three strands of evidence and, first, of huge significance are the appearances of the risen Jesus. Look at verses 13-17 where the Angels say to Mary …
… "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." Having said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned and said to him in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to me."
Clearly Jesus had a bodily form in which he appeared to Mary. For she was able to "cling to" Jesus. And note, Mary's was no hysterical reaction. She didn't see the gardener in this early morning half-light and think she saw Jesus. She saw Jesus and thought she saw the gardener. And there were many such appearances of Jesus to other disciples at different times and different places and in different ways that you can read about in the New Testament. Along with the empty tomb, they certainly formed powerful evidence that convinced the disciples Jesus had truly risen.
But someone still says, "that is how the disciples came to believe but what about us today?" Well, the second very significant piece of evidence is the reliability of the New Testament reports of the empty tomb and these appearances. There is an assumption that people in the ancient world believed anything they were told. That is nonsense. The Jews in particular were capable of examining matters of alleged fact. They had courts of law. They could weigh evidence. They had a rule that is referred to in both the Old and New Testaments. Evidence is to be accepted only if there are two or three witnesses. And this was applied in all sorts of areas.
For example, on the 29th of every month the Jewish calendar committee meet and sat waiting for two witnesses to have seen the first thin crescent of the new moon. If they arrived before 6 o'clock, then the next day was the first of the new month. If there was only one, the next day was the 30th of the old month.
We have, of course, four Gospels and so four accounts of the Resurrection, one or two more than necessary. And these Gospel accounts have the ringing endorsements by some of the great writers of our modern age. With regard to John's Gospel, Dorothy Sayers, the famous novelist, wrote this:
It must be remembered that, of the four [Gospels], St John's is the only one that claims to be the direct report of an eyewitness. And to anyone accustomed to the imaginative handling of documents, the internal evidence bears out this claim.
In a similar vein Tolkien says that the Resurrection story …
… has pre-eminently the "inner consistency of reality". There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.
There have been famous sceptics who on careful study have been convinced of the truth of the Resurrection. But you then say, "why are the accounts in the four Gospels different?" The answer to that is this. The basic difference lies in the accounts of the appearances of Jesus to the disciples, not in the accounts of how women (and then others) found the tomb of Jesus empty that first Easter day. Nor is it odd that the Gospel writers clearly have different accounts of the appearances in their sources. Different apostles reported different appearances on different occasions. But all the accounts agree on the empty tomb. If all the accounts were identical you would suspect the authors of collusion, and not genuine historical reporting. Yes, the records are quite remarkable as ancient historical records.
So first appearances, secondly the records and, then, thirdly, the work of God's Holy Spirit. After Jesus Resurrection and Ascension and his giving the Holy Spirit, the Apostles went around Palestine and the world, changed men, preaching Jesus and the Resurrection. When arrested on one occasion, as evidence for the truth of their message about Jesus and the Resurrection, they said:
"We are witnesses to these things and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him'" (Acts 5.32)
You see, being convinced of the truth of something like the Resurrection is not just a matter of logic. Dr Armand Nicholi, the Harvard Psychiatrist, perceptively says:
"We like to think that our beliefs are based on a careful consideration of the evidence. This, of course, is seldom the case. What we currently know about the functioning of the mind indicates that our belief as well as our behaviour is influenced more by how we feel than by what we think."
And that fits in with what the Bible teaches – the human problem is in the heart as well as the mind. I wonder who here this morning needs to ask God by his Holy Spirit to change their heart as well as to open their mind? I once asked a student if he believed in Jesus Christ. "Oh, No!" he said, "but I believe he rose from the dead. He was the first one that got away." Some people will believe anything not to believe in Jesus. But as you trust and obey Christ, it is amazing how the Holy Spirit opens your mind. So that brings us to …
… our third heading and THE IMPORTANCE OF THAT FIRST DAY.
Look now at the last two verses of our passage, verses 17 and 18:
Jesus said to her [Mary], "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"—and that he had said these things to her.
The message that Jesus wants Mary to tell his disciples is not just that he is risen. It is also that he is ascending. And that is the first of three important truths of the Resurrection seen in our passage.
The Resurrection was for the Ascension of which it was part. The Ascension meant that the short period of Resurrection appearances to the early disciples would soon end in a dramatic event. This would symbolize Christ truly being the risen King of kings and Lord of lords and reigning at the Father's right hand. That is of number one importance for all of us - to know that truth and to live by it.
At this time of the General Election it would be wonderful if incorporated into the set of every TV political debate or discussion were some words from our Queen's Coronation service. They were spoken by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the presentation of the Orb, and after he says, "Receive this Orb set under the Cross". The words are these:
"remember that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our redeemer."
That is the number one vital truth of Christ's Resurrection and Ascension.
The second is that the Resurrection proves there is a radical difference between Christ and ourselves. Notice that Jesus in verse 17 does not say "I am ascending to our Father", but "to my Father and your Father". For he is divine and we are not. Christ is the divine Son of the Father, by nature, being of the Trinity of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But you and I are only sons of our divine Father by God's grace and adoption, through faith. So the Resurrection marked Jesus out as the divine Son of God. As Paul said, he
"was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead" (Rom 1.3).
In this multi-faith world, how important that is. For the Resurrection proves Christ's uniqueness (he has no competitors) and it proves his finality (he has no successors).
And, thirdly, the importance of the Resurrection is that it brings hope to a hopeless world. In verse 11 we are told, "Mary stood weeping". But in verse 18, we are told she is exultantly saying, "I have seen the Lord." So Peter can say in his first epistle, that God …
" … has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1.3).
And that hope is for now and for eternity. It gives meaning and purpose in an otherwise meaningless world. It assures the world that sins can be forgiven through the Cross of Christ where he died to bear the punishment you and I deserve. And to a world that has to mourn the wicked and senseless killings (within the last two weeks) of 149 people in the French Alps and 148 people in a Kenyan College, it gives hope through faith in Christ for a glorious future beyond death. For Christ's Resurrection broke the power of death as well as sin.
I must conclude
The events on that first Easter day clearly meant Jesus Christ truly had risen from the dead. The evidence for the truth about what happened is good. But the importance of that first day calls not only for knowledge of the events; and assent to the evidence that it is good; but also, and vitally, commitment to Christ as Lord and Saviour. Paul says in Roman 10.9:
"If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
I wonder who needs to make that commitment or recommitment this morning? So if you can, whatever stage you are at, will you pray meaningfully, as we now sing our final hymn, in the last verse …
No more we doubt thee
Glorious Prince of life;
Life is naught without thee:
Aid us in our strife;
Make us more than conquerors
Through thy deathless love;
Bring us safe through Jordan
To thy home above.
Thine be the glory
Risen, conquering Son,
Endless is the victory
Thou o'er death hast won!