One of the great themes we discover on that first Easter is the theme of disbelief. I am not talking about the honest skepticism of Thomas, but about the general disbelief of everybody who was told that Jesus had risen from the dead. The Book of proverbs tells us not to sing songs to a heavy heart, because people who are in the deep valley of bitter disappointment will tend to resent the sound of cheer as hollow and meaningless.
Today’s Gospel reading from John corrects a common misstatement of the facts. It is commonly stated that the women were quick to believe, and the hard-hearted men weren’t; but, contrary to popular imagination, when we compare the various accounts, we learn from Matthew and Luke that the first witnesses of the resurrection were “Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them.” They saw the Lord as they went back to tell the Apostles what the angel had said.
Comparing John’s account to these other accounts, we learn that Mary Magdalene somehow became separated from the other women, and did not see the risen Lord along with them. After Peter and John went to see the empty tomb, at Mary Magdalene’s urging and with her accompanying them, they left, but Mary stayed behind-to weep. Did Mary believe? Listen to her words, as we look a little further at this 20th chapter of John’s Gospel. When two angels asked “Woman, why weepest thou?” She answered: “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.”
No, she did not believe either. No one believed on the basis of an empty tomb, and no one even believed the word of angels. It was not enough; it was little better than songs sung to a heavy heart. In fact, the empty tomb proved nothing. How could it? Mary easily explained away the empty tomb: “Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou?’ She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, ‘Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away (v.15).’”
There you have it. If the Apostles had preached merely an empty tomb (and they would not have bothered-but if they had) we would not be here. History would have been completely different. If people in such a world knew of the Apostles at all, they would take time from the worship of their gods, perhaps from human sacrifices, to laugh about some silly ancient Jewish fishermen who got nowhere, doing nothing. There is no gospel of an empty tomb. That is not our message. The gardener, the gardener, of course! That gardener did it! He took the body somewhere else.
“Jesus saith unto her, ‘Mary.’ She turned herself, and saith unto him, ‘Rabboni;’ which is to say, ‘Master (v.16).’” Now we’re getting somewhere.
It is part of the Gospel, indeed an absolutely necessary part of the Gospel, that the Risen Lord Jesus Christ appeared to witnesses. If evangelists do not preach that the Risen Lord was seen, and identified, they fail to preach the Gospel accurately and fully. If the eyewitness accounts of His post resurrection appearances are omitted, the message is not compelling, not convincing, and ultimately just plain boring. An empty tomb-so what? A Risen Christ? Now that is compelling.
“Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he showed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.” (vs. 19, 20)
We need to know that they saw Him. He bid them to look closely and to touch His wounds. “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” (Luke 24:39)
“Then saith he to Thomas, ‘reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.’ And Thomas answered and said unto him, ‘My Lord and my God.’” (John 20:27,28)
“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the
We see four essential points: 1.Christ died for our sins, and 2, was buried. 3. He rose the third day and 4. appeared to witnesses. Paul said that this was “according to the Scriptures,” that same phrase we ourselves have said in the Creed. It means that these things were foretold by the Prophets, and written in the Scriptures centuries before the actual events happened.
What has been handed down to us from the ancient Church is that eyewitnesses told their story, their good news, that is their Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Apostles did not preach just religious ideals, a pattern of secret Gnosis, an impressive and considered philosophy, a collection of clichés or even the Golden Rule. They told the world that Christ had risen from the dead; they had seen Him alive again. Had they not seen Him, there would be no such thing as Christianity. The Church would never have existed. The world might have remained mostly in the darkness of the violent and cruel pagan religions that we know of from ancient history and archaeology. All history would have been different, for the worse; for it is the message of Christ that has made compassion and justice possible, to what degree these ideals have prevailed among the various nations on earth.
Sadly, today the word “martyr” has been corrupted by radical Islamists. For Christians, however, the word “martyr” is a good word. A true martyr does not kill himself or others. One cannot do violence in the Name of Christ, inasmuch as the whole idea of taking up the sword for Christ, whose kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), is utterly blasphemous. A martyr is not an Islamist suicide bomber. A real martyr is a witness of Jesus Christ. A true martyr, a Christian martyr, is motivated by love.
The word “martyr” was not about death, and a martyr was not someone who died for a cause; that is, not until long after the Church was spreading through the various peoples of the ancient
No one would give his life for an empty tomb, so easily explained away as the efforts of a gardener. But, for our sakes and for the sake of everyone who might hear the Gospel, eyewitnesses bravely laid down their lives rather than saving their lives by recanting their testimony, that they had seen the Lord alive, raised from the dead.
We need to recognize their initial unbelief at first, when confronted with nothing more than the mystery of an empty tomb. We need to realize that they were as realistic, skeptical and disappointed as any of us would have been. Indeed, it was necessary, for our sake, that they were just like you or I would have been, skeptical and unbelieving. Even though they had seen miracles at the hands of Christ, their skepticism prevailed at first. Efforts to explain away their testimony always end up looking pathetic and weak. That is because the attempts to explain away the eyewitness testimony end up being impossible to believe, far more hard to believe than the truth of His resurrection. The whole idea of a group hallucination is the silliest. One may as well try to convince us that several people could all wake up and discover they had had the same dream.
The simple fact is this: The Apostles and other disciples were not ready to believe in the resurrection. They were certainly not preconditioned to believe it. All of them, not just Thomas, refused at first to believe. Thomas was simply not there when the others had their doubts removed, and their skepticism satisfied. That includes Mary Magdalene who warded off even the word of angels, weeping still in her unbelief until she saw Him. They were not susceptible or gullible. In fact, they were bitterly disappointed and of heavy heart, not ready for empty promises or cheerful songs. “As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, and as vinegar upon nitre, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart.” (Prov. 25:20) But, these skeptics became convinced. "Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord. (v.20)." They believed because they were eyewitnesses.
The Gospel comes to us as history. God has invaded the sinful and sorrowful world, and has left His mark, His footprint. All of His promises have been confirmed, and with them all of His claims. Christ’s great I AM statements, identifying Himself as God, have been vindicated and proved true. “For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us.” (II Cor. 1:20) The Gospel preached by the Church is still that eyewitness testimony of Apostles and other early disciples who saw the risen Lord. We do not preach the mystery of an empty tomb, but rather the certain testimony, confirmed in the blood of martyrs, that explains that empty tomb. We preach Christ crucified as the risen Lord of glory.
You may hear my Easter Fugue at this link.