"This is also the message of Easter. That lives are continually being changed and empowered through the retelling of the Gospel story."
Firstly that journey to Jerusalem with palm branches strewn in the path of Jesus and his disciples by an expectant crowd, then the very visible tension in the air at the Last Supper as Jesus reveals that one of those sat by him would betray him. The betrayal by one of those whom Jesus had trusted and loved and the trial, which had only one certain outcome because that was the politically correct one to make.
The accusations; the beating and whipping at the hands of the soldiers; the crucifixion as chief priests, teachers of the law and elders looked on; and now the climax as Jesus is revealed alive and risen from the dead.
It's quite an amazing few days in the life not just of Jesus, who knew exactly what was happening, but also for those around him who really do show themselves up to be absolutely human in their confusion and lack of understanding. And it's some of the people closest to all that was going on that I want us to look at - their reactions to what happened on that first Easter Day and how it affected them. And to do so I want to read you two versions of the Easter story found in Luke 24:1-11
'The Sabbath was over, and it was almost daybreak on Sunday when the eleven disciples together with the women and all of Jesus' followers, scarcely able to contain their excitement, made their triumphant way to the tomb singing songs and hymns of thanksgiving. The inhabitants of Jerusalem were much affected by this outpouring of joy and many believed that day.
'When the disciples arrived at the tomb they didn't find Jesus there, but rather two men stood there in dazzling clothes. Peter asked the angels 'O holy angels of God, we know that Jesus has risen from the dead, but thought he would be here to greet us.'
'The angels said to them 'You have done well to remember all that Jesus taught you concerning the Son of man being delivered into the hands of sinful men to be crucified, and on the third day rise. But why do you seek him in a musty tomb?'
'And realising their mistake, they went to meet Jesus in a more suitable place.'
(taken from Ken Collins and his Revised Fractured Version)
It sounds quite plausible, doesn't it? The climax of the disciples' relationship with Jesus. He'd spent a considerable time explaining to them what would happen to him, and how his forthcoming and inevitable death was not to be thought of as a failure, but rather a triumph.
Now, with the crucifixion over, the crowds dispersed and the dust settled the disciples would be actively seeking their Lord, having seen the fulfillment of Jesus' prophesy. This would be the spark that set the followers alight.
Trouble is, a story like this is perhaps just too plausible and tidy to be true. This has all the hallmarks of a scriptwriter trying to make sure there are no inconsistencies and the main players are seen in their best light.
This is a story that tries and brings all the strands together too neatly, and assumes too much of the disciples who were just as human and lacking in faith as we can be in times of crisis. Listen to the version that appears in the New Testament and see how it varies. Listen especially to the description of the disciples, and their part in the story.
"Very early on Sunday morning the women went to the tomb, carrying the spices that they had prepared. When they found the stone rolled away from the entrance, they went in. But they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus, and they did not know what to think. Suddenly two men in shining white clothes stood beside them. The women were afraid and bowed to the ground. But the men said, "Why are you looking in the place of the dead for someone who is alive? Jesus isnt here! He has been raised from death. Remember that while he was still in Galilee, he told you, The Son of Man will be handed over to sinners who will nail him to a cross. But three days later he will rise to life. " Then they remembered what Jesus had said. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women were the ones who had gone to the tomb. When they returned, they told the eleven apostles and the others what had happened. The apostles thought it was all nonsense, and they would not believe."
Luke 24:1-11 CEV
Why is this version more believable?
- Possibly because it shows the followers of Jesus to be just what they were, frightened and confused and forgetful when it came to remembering Jesus' teaching to them.
- These were Jesus' closest friends and yet the men didn't even bother to check out the tomb to see if he'd risen from the dead. It was almost as if they thought the whole story was finished.
- The women went to the tomb, but they went expecting to find a corpse because they took spices.
- When the women saw the stone rolled away, the body missing and the angels standing guard they were terrified. It was only when the angels reminded them of Jesus' teaching that they remembered.
- When the women told the disciples, they were dismissed out of hand as mad.
Is this a tidy ending to the Easter story?
It certainly doesn't seem that way. In many ways the first version would seem to fit the bill much better, give a much tidier conclusion to the Gospel message.
But this is real life, and in real life people don't always react in a predictable way.
Put yourself in the shoes of those early followers and see how you would have reacted. You've followed this charismatic carpenter around, watched as he performed miracle after miracle. You've listened as he opened your mind to the exciting possibilities of a new kingdom of God. You've been enthralled as he told stories that illustrated what life in this new kingdom would be like, watched as the number of people who flocked around Jesus gradually increased as word spread. You've even been commissioned by Jesus himself to go out and spread the word, heal the sick and cast out demons.
A real measure of responsibility has been given to you in anticipation of this new kingdom.
Your hopes are running high that here is the one who is Messiah, who will lead God's people back to God and in doing so perhaps even fulfil the historical idea of Messiah and overthrow the Roman rulers.
Yes, Jesus talked about death, but you didn't really cotton on to what he was talking about. How could someone who called himself Son of God be put to death?
Then it happens, the betrayal, the trial and the crucifixion.
If you'd seen Jesus die on the cross would you really have expected to see him alive again? If you'd visited the tomb what would you have expected to see? Would you have been any different to those women who looked for Jesus' body? What would your reaction have been at the stone rolled away? The empty tomb? Angels?
I can't see our reactions being anything other than shock, confusion and fear.
And if we'd been among the group of disciples who stayed at home while the women went up to the tomb. What would our reaction be to the hysterical cries of the women as they returned and told of a resurrection?
It's the loose ends, the very human qualities of the story in the New Testament that make that Easter story so believable. It's not the way we'd have written the last chapter, but it was the way that it really was. This was real life, and real life is like that.
And why do we have confidence in this story? Because we have the word of witnesses. In Acts Chapter 10 we find what is probably the first Gospel sermon preached and written down - in the sense that it tries and explains in a few simple words what Jesus did. Preached by Peter who was there when Jesus showed himself to his disciples and followers.
To Peter, Jesus was no character in a book, or someone who was known to his cousin's sister's best friend. To Peter, Jesus was a very real person who had met, touched and spoken to, and this adds something special to his personal testimony about Jesus as he talks to Cornelius and his friends.
It wasn't Peter who walked to the tomb to meet with his risen Lord. Peter no doubt was no different to the rest of the disciples on that first Easter, confused and not sure what to believe. He might well have been one of the men who called the women stupid for suggesting that the resurrection had taken place.
The proof for him was the appearance of Jesus, and that was the moment when it all fell into place. And the effect that this had on his life was profound. You've only got to look at the opening chapter of Acts and see how it's Peter who assumes a leadership role within the group of believers before the Day of Pentecost and the Church was to be born.
In Peter's words in our reading it's obvious that he's come to terms with his own misunderstandings, and the penny has finally dropped. Perhaps he's remembered Jesus' words that Peter would be the rock upon which Jesus would build his Church. The message that comes across here is that God's love encompasses all people. And through that love Jesus came into the world to bring God's love, peace and healing. Peter and the others can testify to this because they were there when it happened.
Then the contrast between God's love shown through Jesus and the sin of mankind who could put Jesus to such a horrifying death followed by a big 'But'.
But three days later, God raised him to life and let him be seen. Not everyone saw him. He was seen only by us, who ate and drank with him after he was raised from death. We were the ones God chose to tell others about him.
Not only that, says Peter but because of who Jesus was and is, and because of all that he achieved through his life, death and resurrection a new relationship is established between God and mankind with Jesus as the cornerstone of this new relationship.
God told us to announce clearly to the people that Jesus is the one he has chosen to judge the living and the dead. Every one of the prophets has said that all who have faith in Jesus will have their sins forgiven in his name
Through Jesus' resurrection on that first Easter Day the relationship that once existed and should always have been there between Mankind and its creator but was interrupted by sin, can now be re-established.
It doesn't end there of course. We've seen how the Easter story affected various people and brought them from confusion and fear into a confident and empowered faith. But the Church didn't grow because of Peter's experience, it grew because of the effect that Easter had on all those who heard it.
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit took control of everyone who was listening. Some Jewish followers of the Lord had come with Peter, and they were surprised that the Holy Spirit had been given to Gentiles. Now they were hearing Gentiles speaking unknown languages and praising God.
Peter said, "These Gentiles have been given the Holy Spirit, just as we have! I am certain that no one would dare stop us from baptizing them." Peter ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
This is also the message of Easter. That lives are continually being changed and empowered through the retelling of the Gospel story. A story that didn't end with a closed tomb and a dead body but with an empty tomb and a resurrection. A story that shouldn't leave us unmoved. It should encourage us, as we realise that any struggles we might have with our faith are no different to those experienced by the early believers.
Sometimes we might wonder if it's all worth it. And then, into our moments of doubt walks Jesus and shows us his wounds and touches our hearts. If at that moment we will open our hearts to him then our lives will be empowered, as were those who listened to Peter's words. If we remain unmoved, if all this is a story and nothing else then how will the world outside understand the Good News of Easter - of release from fear and sin through the cross and resurrection, of empowerment, of the possibility of a new and real relationship with God?