One of the things people notice when they read the Gospels is that every Gospel writer is adding new information about the events that Easter Sunday morning. You don’t know the whole story until you have put them all together, sort of like the different accounts you get of a traffic accident depending on where and how far away the person was standing and how observant he was. You get different accounts, they are all accurate and true but they add a great deal to one another. Only when you have them all do you have a complete account of what transpired.
v.8 I want you women especially to notice the presence of women and the importance of their testimony in this account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ as it is given in all the gospels and here in Luke. In those days women were usually not allowed to testify in court, they had many fewer legal rights than men, and their intellectual powers were not given much respect as a rule. The presence of women in the accounts of the resurrection have long been understood to provide powerful evidence of the truthfulness of the accounts because no one making up a story and wanting it to be believed in those days would have made the testimony of women so important to the narrative. In the second century a Greek philosopher named Celsus mocked the Christian claim that Jesus had risen from the dead as the testimony of “a hysterical female.” As late as the 19th century, the French scholar Renan sneered that it was the emotion of a woman having a hallucination that gave to the world the idea of a resurrected savior. But the fact is, as much modern scholarship has been forced to accept, the prominent position of women in these narratives of the resurrection is an important verification of their historicity. In the first century made-up stories would not feature women as these do.
v.11 Here too is another eyewitness touch. It doesn’t reflect well on the disciples that they took so long in believing that Jesus had risen from the dead, as often as he had told them that he would in the months before. But here we have the honest admission that these men were thick and even when the evidence was presented to them it took a long time to sink in.
v.12 Peter is baffled, not yet sure of what has happened, but perhaps beginning to realize that something very remarkable has occurred.
I hope that you will have the opportunity to read perhaps later today the remainder of Luke 24 and its wonderful account of how the fact of Christ’s resurrection was made known to his disciples.
Those of you who may not be in the habit of going to church on Sunday may well find the experience quite strange. Oh you’ve seen church services on TV I suppose, but it is different in person. The building itself is not like any building that you find yourself in ordinarily. Christian churches come in many shapes and sizes but they are almost invariably immediately recognizable for what they are. They are sanctuaries, buildings designed for the purpose of divine worship. They feature a front where a pulpit and a table are found, because the preaching of the Word of God and the partaking of the Lord’s Supper are invariable parts of Christian worship. Whether you are sitting here or in a Christian church built a thousand years ago, you find an immediately recognizable resemblance.
The songs that are sung are not like any songs you are likely to hear whether listening to the radio or to your own I-pod. These musical numbers are so different from what is commonly heard that they have a special name. They are called hymns. One of them we sang earlier is quite new, having been written in 2001. But you heard an anthem at the beginning of the service by G.F. Handel written in the 18th century, the 1700s, we sung a hymn written in 1739 and will sing another written in 1862. If you look through our hymnal you will find hymns from the earliest centuries after Christ and from all the centuries since. When Christians say that they sing “oldies,” they mean oldies! And that is because we Christians are not the people of a day. We are connected to the long, splendid line and tradition of Christian faith and life in the history of the world, going back not only to the first century, when Christ was in the world and when he rose from the dead, but even long before, to the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who had the same faith that we do today and sang of the same salvation of which we sing. When we use such hymns we are joining our voices together, not only with everyone gathered here, but with the saints of ages past. Christians have a past, a family history and it shapes their behavior in the present.
And look at me. I’m wearing a robe which you are unlikely to see nowadays unless you find yourself for some reason in court, before a judge. The reason for the robe is not that I’m personally more important than other folk here this morning. Believe me; you wouldn’t have to talk to too many people in this congregation to learn that! It is because I have an office, a particular function, a particular role, and from time immemorial it has been understood that certain offices – judge, policeman, minister, it used to be thought teacher as well – require a special dress to indicate both their function and the importance of it. People don’t listen to me to find out what my opinions are on the issues of the day. They listen to me to find out what God has said to them in his Word, this book we call the Bible or, better, Holy Scripture.
So, we appreciate that, if you are not a regular church-goer, you have entered a somewhat strange world this morning. Many of us in this room once found a Christian church as strange as you may find it this morning. But it is a question worth asking: why are this place and this service so different from other things you are used to? Why are the things that are done and the songs that are sung and the building itself so different? Well the answer is that the truth, the message that has created the Christian church and shaped its worship and its life is itself so different, so unusual, so unexpected. In fact, there is something deeply amazing at the bottom of everything; so amazing that it creates a completely different life, a completely different world, and a completely different understanding of reality. There is something fantastic, revolutionary at the bottom of all this. And that is often the one thing that is not understood by people.
If you ask the average American – for that matter, ask the average human being anywhere in the world – what religion is about and he or she would be very likely to say something like this: there is a God; he cares about how we live; he wants us to be kind to others, honest in our dealings, and faithful in our relationships. He wants us to revere and love him too, of course, and, depending upon the particular religion, perform acts of worship, but, interestingly, most people would not think to mention that last part, at least not at first. How we treat others, that is the main thing. Religions are all about that. They teach their adherents and encourage them to live a good life.
Honestly, even thoughtful, very well educated people, think this way about religion. The late Neil Postman, one of our most insightful and helpful social critics, whose books contained an extraordinarily perceptive analysis of modern American life, was very interested in the relationship between religion and society. He was not a Christian, he was a Jew, but he knew a lot about Christianity. And here is his summary of the religion taught in the Bible.
“There is one God, who created the universe and all that is in it. Although humans can never fully understand God, He has revealed Himself and His will to us throughout history, particularly through His commandments and the testament of the prophets as recorded in the Bible. The greatest of these commandments tells us that humans are to love God and express their love for him through love, mercy, and justice to our fellow humans. At the end of time, all nations and humans will appear before God to be judged, and those who have followed his commandments will find favor in his sight.” [Technopoly, 78]
Pretty predictable stuff, isn’t it? So predictable in fact that there is nothing distinctively Christian about this summary of the Bible’s teaching. You could say, with a few alternations, that this was the teaching of Islam, of Hinduism, even of Buddhism in its own way. Actually, you could even say that this was the teaching of atheism, for most atheists believe, for whatever reason, that we ought to be kind to one another and that there is some reward for those who are, even if not in the world to come.
Such sentiments about the meaning of religion are, as I say, very common and predictable. I think one could fairly say that if human beings were to invent a religion, it would have basically this message: be good and God will bless you for it; he will approve you if you behave yourself.
Indeed, I would say, that is a fair summary of the teachings of all the religions of the world except one. And that one exception is biblical Christianity. There is nothing commonplace, nothing predictable, nothing ordinary about the Bible’s message. It is a message that is alternately terrifying, electrifying, devastating, exhilarating, confusing, and consoling.
Take this account of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Take any of the four accounts that we are given, one at the end of each of the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In each case the fact that Jesus, crucified on Friday, is alive again on Sunday breaks upon the minds of these people in an alternatively devastating and exhilarating way. There was nothing predictable about this. Nobody was expecting it! We are as Christians the furthest from imagining that dead people rise to life again from time to time. We know very well how difficult it is to believe that a dead man woke up and lived again. I worked for three years in a mortuary when I was in school years ago. I know the finality of death. Not once did anyone wake up and walk out of the mortuary while I was working there. And yet Jesus Christ rose from the dead! This was an utterly unique event. And its implications are nothing short of stupendous!
The resurrection means that Jesus Christ really is the Son of God as he claimed to be, that he really is the savior of the world as he claimed to be, and that there really is such a thing as eternal life through faith in him as he claimed there is. No one can read the Bible and think that its message is little more than “be nice to people.” No, the message of the Bible is that God has done an extraordinary and unprecedented thing to save human beings from sin and death. He sent his Son to suffer in their stead the punishment due them for their sins and after he endured that punishment for us, he rose to life again, not only assuring us that his sacrifice on our behalf was accepted by God but that he lives on to love and care for those who trust in him. His resurrection from the dead is the vindication of everything he said about himself, about life, about salvation and about the future. And what did he say?
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
“For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.”
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
“He who has the Son has life and he who does not have the Son does not have life.”
“Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into him and eat with him, and he with me.” And on and on.
There is nothing predictable about this! If Jesus had said nothing more than “be kind to others,” they wouldn’t have crucified him! And there would be no Christian churches, no hymns to sing, and no ministers in robes! The word used in the Bible itself and by all Christians for what the Bible teaches and what Christians believe is “gospel.” It is an old English word that means “Good News!” The sort of news that is to be carried from place to place with the conviction that this is something everyone needs to know, a message everyone needs to hear.
Indeed, the three primary words used in the Bible for the communication of the Christian message all have this character. The first, a verb built on the noun gospel or good news, means, “to tell good news.” The second means to proclaim or to announce as a herald some tidings that people need to hear. And the third means to bear witness, that is to tell others who you yourself have discovered, what you have seen, what you have heard, what you have learned.
Christianity, the message of the Bible, alone among all the religions and philosophies of mankind, can be described as good news! Something to shout from the housetops!
If our message is simply, “be nice to people,” no one would have thought to say, “The people sitting in darkness have seen a great light,” which is what the prophet Isaiah said to describe the appearance of the Son of God in the world 700 years before Christ was born to Mary. If that had been Christ’s message no one would have fallen at his feet for the joy of it or have run to tell others that they had found the secret of life. Can we imagine someone running breathlessly to his friend and grabbing hold of his arm and saying while he gasps for air, “I have found the truth, indeed, I have met the truth. And it is this: we ought to be nice to people” or “if we do good things, God will approve of us.” You don’t need a teacher, or a rabbi, or a prophet to tell you that. But to have the Son of God come into the world on your behalf to do for you what you could not do yourself, to satisfy God’s justice on your behalf, to invite you to new and better life lived in communion with him, to find that you can live again and forever after you die, there is nothing banal, nothing ordinary, nothing predictable about that!
Here in Luke 24 we encounter a completely different situation, an event that even after three years of preparation, of constant teaching, these disciples, men and women, couldn’t immediately grasp. It was too amazing, too marvelous, too wonderful. It took time to realize that it was all really true, that it had happened just as Jesus said it would. Their leader, so cruelly murdered on Friday, was alive again on Sunday! And, as everyone would have grasped immediately upon being convinced that Jesus was, in fact, alive again, his resurrection changed more than his own situation. It absolutely, fundamentally, profoundly and forever altered the situation of vast multitudes of human beings who would believe and follow him.
When we think of history making events or amazing discoveries, we tend to think of Christopher Columbus sighting land after his harrowing journey across the Atlantic, or Marie Curie gazing at the radium glowing in the dark, or the world watching Neil Armstrong set his foot on the surface of the moon. But all of these events were, in their own way, predictable. Columbus expected to reach the Indies, Marie Curie had set up her experiment believing it would work. And setting foot on the moon was the fulfillment of an effort that required the work of thousands, the investment of hundreds of millions, in the expectation that it could certainly be done.
But that Sunday morning outside Jerusalem was not like that at all, it was of a different order altogether. Eternity had broken into time and, suddenly, in a flash an utterly new reality had broken upon men and women who began to grasp utterly new possibilities and to thrill to the prospect of everlasting life. They felt it coursing within them. That is good news if ever there was good news! That is a message to share if ever there was a message to share! You can live forever in a world of joy, in the integrity of your human nature if only you have Jesus Christ!
Now let me bring this home, if I can. Another reason why things are different, even strange to outsiders in a Christian church is that here, almost uniquely in our culture and our historic moment, people are made to face the deep questions of life. Here we talk about life at its most serious. No wonder we sing songs that you never otherwise hear and do things people nowadays never otherwise do. We are not willing, as so much of the culture is willing, to ignore the great questions of human existence.
Your life is too precious and too important not to think about and to think about seriously. And, I think, and many people have admitted this, that if you think seriously about your life you will admit that there is more to it than you recognize most of the time. C.S. Lewis, the author of the famous Narnia Chronicles, who became a Christian in the middle of his life, said that before he became a Christian he used to try to feel as if his life, his own existence, his very self, would simply disappear when he died. He tried to think that his life didn’t mean much of anything; here today, gone tomorrow. He thought he should think this way, if that is what he believed as an atheist, but try as he might, he couldn’t. Deep down he could not extinguish the conviction, the recognition of his soul that his craving for life and meaning could only be explained by the continuation of human life after death.
Let me put it this way. Everyone has a life story and so do you. We tell our stories in much the same way: “I was born in such and such a place… My parents were so and so… I went to this school and then got this job. I met my wife or my husband there and since then we have lived here and there and done this and that. I have so many children, so many boys and so many girls.”
Perhaps at one point or another in our story we will tell of some remarkable thing that happened to us or some terrible trial through which we passed: we went to war, we were diagnosed with cancer, or our company prospered and we became rich, or the company we worked for began to struggle and we lost our job.
A longer version of the story adds greater detail. And, to be sure, men and women will not tell the story in just the same way. We are more likely to hear about work from the men and about children from the women, more likely to hear rather inconsequential details from the men – “I got that job in 1995, the year the Mariners first won the American League West” – and from the women we are more likely to hear details about their relationships, precisely how they met their husbands, where they went on their first date, what she wore, the foolish thing he said, and so on. Such are the stories of our lives.
And, of course, for everyone must come at last the end of the story. It must be told, to be sure, by someone else: a husband or wife, a son or a daughter. He died, she died on such and such a date, in such and such a place, from such and such an illness or accident, and perhaps we learn something of how the last years or last months went. We hear such stories all the time. We read them in books, are given short summaries of them in newspaper obituaries, we tell them to one another, and we treasure up such stories about our own relatives and friends. And from time to time we think about our own story. Something prompts us to remember what has occurred so far, how the years have passed, and, for a moment only perhaps, we can’t help but wonder how it will all end.
But here in a Christian church we go over that story every Lord’s Day. We talk about where we came from and where we are going and what we are to do with the lives we are living. And the reason our story is so important and why it is necessary to think about it so carefully and so often is because our story is not complete when it has been told from birth to death. That is not the whole of your story or mine. On any view it is not complete when only that has been told.
There is more, there is, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story. That is the question that is forced upon us by the Easter history and that is the good news, the great news, the surpassingly wonderful news that we have to proclaim to you and to the world. The largest part of your life’s story is yet to be written, by far the largest part.
Imagine how little we would know of Jesus’ own story, what transpired in the thirty-some years between Bethlehem and Calvary, had he not risen from the dead. Probably only historians of the ancient world would even know that such a person as Jesus of Nazareth ever existed and perhaps not even they. As one recent historian of Christianity has put it:
“If that lingering and humiliating death on the Cross had been the end of the story, then the tale of Jesus would have remained embedded in Judaism. Jesus might have made it into the history books, even inspired a new departure in Jewish faith, but there would have been little likelihood of a separated or wider religion.” [D. MacCulloch, Christianity, 93]
But the resurrection makes his life story an utterly different and utterly more important thing. It proves to us that he is all that he said he was: the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the Messiah, the hope of all human beings. He has conquered death and he did it for us that we might live forever. And we will if only we trust in him!
You have within you a craving for life. Death remains to you, as it should, an alien thing, an unnatural thing. That’s why you think about it as little as you do. That’s why the vast majority of American adults don’t have a Will. You were made to live and not die and you know it. You were made to live and love and be good and to enjoy the fellowship of others. You were made to know God! That is why you are what you are, that is the reason for your intellect, your power of speech, your heart that is capable of giving and receiving the greatest and deepest love.
You absolutely know this, but people shy away from thinking about it. They fear to come near it, perhaps because, like the disciples, they find the truth too wonderful; they are afraid of being disappointed. Or, perhaps, we fear to come near this good news because of our dread of our guilt and our sinful and selfish life – and we are all very sinful and very selfish (something else we are forced to admit in church when we often deny it elsewhere) – and we fear God’s judgment and fear that if there is such a thing as eternal life we may fail to obtain it.
The resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, his conquest of death on behalf of his people, puts an end to all of this muddling on with our lives. There is something supremely wonderful, amazing, heart-breaking, and thrilling that is now set before us: the possibility of being at peace with God and living on after death in the heavenly country, and not just living, but living that life we all know we were meant to live, human life in its fullness, what the Bible calls “the life worthy to be called life,” life with a capital “L.”
I can well imagine that someone might struggle to believe that something so wonderful could actually be true. That is precisely what we see here in Luke’s account of the resurrection: men and women struggling to believe that what they hope against hope might be true is actually true: their savior, their leader, alive again. There is nothing predictable here, nothing ordinary here, nothing banal here. Rather, something titanic, stupendous, earth-shattering, and life-changing. And it really did happen! We are here this morning because of this good news, to sing it, to proclaim it and to bear witness to it. It is what we love to do, we who have met the risen Christ and know him to be our living Lord and Savior!
It is our privilege and our pleasure to tell you that the same eternal life that we have found in Jesus you may find as well. He once said to a crowd of folk gathered around him, “whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” [John 6:37] Come to him and prove it so!