Many people in Britain believing in the Resurrection of Jesus seem only to half believe in it, while half our population does not believe in the Resurrection at all. And in the North East the situation is worst of all, for here 61% do not believe. We were told this last week. The BBC commissioned the polling organization, ComRes, to do a survey of British adults on their belief in the Resurrection. The headline result was that 44% claim to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus; 50% don't; and 6% don't know what they believe. But of those 44% saying they believe, 17 believe, I quote, "the resurrection of Jesus from the dead happened word-for-word as described in the Bible". However, 26 out of the 44% believe "in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but the story of the Bible contains some content which should not be taken literally."
Of course, that covers all sorts. But what is so serious for us in the North East is that of all the regions of Britain, the North East has the greatest number of unbelievers with 61% not believing compared to that national average of 50%. And not surprisingly in the North East it has the least number of people believing the biblical account with only 12% compared to that national average of 17%. Another important statistics relates to the feminization of the Churches. For nationally 51% of women believe, somehow, in the Resurrection, but it is only 36% of men. And while 22% of women believe in the biblical account, it is only 13% of men. All this is so serious because what you believe about the Resurrection of Jesus, and then do about it, is fundamental to human existence and human wellbeing, not only in this life but also in the next.
So this evening I want us to think about why that is so, as we look at Matthew 28 and conclude this short series of studies in Matthew's Gospel. And my headings this evening are first, The First Day; secondly, The Fake News and, thirdly, The Final Challenge.
1. The First Day
Look at verses 1-10:
"Now after the Sabbath, towards the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women,
'Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.'
So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, 'Greetings!' And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them,
'Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.'"
Now, what is clear from that narrative is this: Matthew has just been detailing the facts of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. He is now detailing the Resurrection of Christ in the same sense, and verified by the same kind of evidence that allows him to say, "Jesus was crucified and buried".
But for many people, while the crucifixion and burial were facts, the Resurrection comes half-way between fact and fiction. These were no doubt reflected in that BBC ComRes survey among those who think there is "content which should not be taken literally". For them the Resurrection is not a falsehood, but it is not quite true like the crucifixion and the burial. Those were hard facts and real truths. For, they say, we are not talking about historical truth but spiritual truth. No! We are talking about historical truth 'plus' – no less than historical but more than historical. For the Resurrection partakes of history and eternity at one and the same time. Every Sunday that we meet we remind ourselves that the Resurrection occurred in history. For it was dated. It was on the First Day of the week. And as Article IV of the Church of England's Thirty-nine Articles bluntly puts it:
"Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man's nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day."
But you say, "you can't really believe that in the 21st century." Why not, if the evidence is that it happened? Remember St Paul said in Romans 1.3-4 that Jesus Christ was God's Son…
"…who was descended from David according to the flesh [humanly] and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord"
So if that is true, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is utterly unique in world history and universal history and quite believable. Its unfathomable nature is what to expect, if we are dealing with almighty God, the maker of this amazing universe, come down in the person of Jesus Christ into this wonderful but sinful world.
But you say, 'it is not utterly unique because the Jews had an idea of Resurrection.' Yes, but that was a single event for all, at the end of all things. The Christians were saying because of Jesus' Resurrection, the Resurrection was and is a two staged event, with the first Resurrection occurring in history with Jesus – hence all this mind-blowing phenomena which only can be described as has been described in the Gospels. Yes, Jesus had spoken about his Resurrection but the disciples did not understand what he meant and were certainly not expecting it. So they had no motive for creating such a belief and certainly a belief in Christ as the Risen saviour for whom they were willing to die. No! Something happened in history that made them believe.
And we have four accounts of that happening – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Remember, 21st century people are not the only people who know the difference between fact and fiction. There were doubters in those days, like doubting Thomas in John's Gospel, who wanted hard evidence for Jesus being risen, if anyone did. And the Jews had courts of law where they could sift fact from fiction. They had a rule, more than once referred to in the Bible, that you needed "two or [preferably] three witnesses" to establish the truth. But with the Gospels we have not three but four witnesses. Yes, the Resurrection narratives are different in the four Gospels. But the basic difference is in the accounts of the appearances of Jesus to the disciples, not in the accounts of how women (and others) found the tomb of Jesus empty. The different accounts of the appearances are probably because different apostles were reporting different experiences on different occasions. As the famous and not particularly conservative Oxford New Testament scholar, George Caird, once said:
"Sober criticism cannot get behind the gospel record to a plain, commonplace tale, devoid of the miraculous and the supernatural. The early Christians believed that, in Christ, God had been at work in new and astonishing ways and they had the evidence of their own eyes to support their faith."
Of course, the risen Jesus had a transformed body. The risen Jesus was not limited by space and distance as we are; but he shared a measure of physicality with us. When Peter was preaching in the gentile convert Cornelius' house, as reported in Acts 10.40-41, he said this (and in what scholars think is almost a credal utterance that highlights the physicality of the risen Jesus):
"God raised him [Jesus] on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead."
So on that first Third Day the tomb was found empty and Jesus appeared to his disciples. Both facts are vital. For appearances without an empty tomb could just be psychic experiences, as some disciples first thought. But with the empty tomb – a Resurrection that was reversing the burial – the appearances pointed to the true nature of Jesus' Resurrection. It was a "bodily" Resurrection (but with a transformed and perfected body). And that brings us secondly to:
2. The Fake News
Look now at verses 11-15:
"While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said,
'Tell people, "His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep." And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.'
So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day."
In their rush to counter the teaching of the Apostles, the chief priests didn't realize how foolish they were. For they got their guards to generate the fake news that:
"His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep."
But how could they know that Jesus' disciples stole Jesus' body, if it happened while they were asleep? Had they woken up, as they were armed, they could have stopped them. It is patently obvious how desperate the chief priests were.
So, if the previous verses in chapter 28 point to, and remind us of, the evidence for the truth of the Resurrection, these verses (11-15) point to why the Resurrection is needed. It was needed to counter the sin of the world of which this bribery and corruption is just one example. Here were religious leaders sinning grossly by making people lie and paying them to do so. Sin – living as though God's doesn't exist and ignoring his rules for healthy and enjoyable living – is like a disease. And this disease leads to spiritual death. So the Bible speaks of people being "dead in sin". But the Resurrection means that you can come alive. Paul wrote to the Ephesians in Ephesians 2.1-2:
"You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world."
But by his resurrection Jesus overcoming death gives you spiritual life and ultimately eternal life and heaven. So in such a situation of spiritual deadness, what you need is not moralizing – people telling you to be and do better – but spiritual forgiveness and spiritual life and power. As we were thinking on Good Friday, by his Cross Jesus came to bring spiritual forgiveness for those trespasses and sins. On the Cross he suffered God's holy wrath against sin in our place. So, how we should thank him as we do at this Communion service. But on that first Easter Day, by his resurrection Jesus secures, by his Holy Spirit, new life and power for those who trust in him. So Paul writes in Romans 8.11:
"If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you."
You have God's strength to start living differently for Christ. And that brings us to what it means to live differently with …
3. The Final Challenge
Let's look at verses 16-20.
"Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'"
How should you respond to the truth and fact of the Resurrection and the utter folly and wickedness of denying it? Do you really believe what you said in the Creed just now: "we believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God … Through him all things were made"? That summarizes John chapter 1 and Hebrews 1.2-3, that say:
"…through him [the pre-existent Son] he [God the Father] created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins [that first Good Friday], he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high."
And that is where we are to believe the Risen Christ now is - at the right hand of the Father - the great executive controller of this universe of space and time, and the one who keeps it from suddenly disintegrating. So how should you respond to such a one? Answer: by trusting and obeying him. Those eleven disciples worshipped him, because they trusted him now for who he was. But some still doubted (verse 17). What, then, is trusting in Christ? Another great Cambridge New Testament scholar and former bishop of Durham, Bishop Westcott, put it like this:
"It cannot, as far as I can see, be finally questioned by any student of the Apostolic records that the earliest known description of a Christian is 'one who believes on [or, 'in'] Christ' and not 'one who believes Christ.' Or, in other words, a Christian is essentially one who throws himself [or herself] with absolute trust upon a living Lord, and not simply one who endeavours to obey the commands and follow the example of a dead Teacher. The question at issue is not the observance of a certain number of definite precepts, but a view of the whole Universe, of all being and of all life, of man and of the world, and of God [and so of sin and forgiveness]."
Who needs to trust Christ like that this Easter? What could be a better time to start? But you must then obey Christ. And that is the challenge of verses 18 to 20 and also they tell you the way to obey.
First, they tell you, to be confident. For Jesus has "all authority in heaven and on earth" – he is over all authorities everywhere and anywhere, secular and religious. He is over Trump, May, Xi and Putin – and the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and any other religious leader. So don't be afraid. That was the great word to the women and disciples on that first First Day from Jesus and the Angel.
Yes, life will be hard, and you will face opposition, as you obey the risen Christ. For you are to "Go… and make disciples of all nations" – that won't always be easy. There has to be a 'going' – you have to take the initiative. And the gospel is now for everyone everywhere. And a disciple needs to be someone who goes public about their faith through baptism "in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" – note, not 'names' plural, but "name" singular. We are talking about the Holy Trinity – one God in three Persons. So disciples need to commit themselves to Christ and go public about their commitment.
Also they must then be taught "to observe all [not some, but all] that I [Jesus] have commanded you." So they need to be taught Christian ethics, yes, about public ethics like sex, marriage, politics and medical ethics, as well as about personal ethics such having the Christian graces and virtues. This is, indeed, a challenge.
I must conclude. I do so by saying that in this Reformation anniversary year, how we at this church need to take initiatives for 'Going and making disciples' – not least because we are in the most pagan region of Britain according to the BBC's poll. So watch this space - as they say. But all of us, however humble a part we play in this process of disciple making, can plan and act confident of that great promise of Jesus in verse 20:
"behold, I [the risen Lord of the universe] am with you always, to the end of the age."
And the heavenly reward when he returns or after our own deaths, in addition to all the good achieved in this life, will be glorious.