Many people have two struggles with Easter.
They struggle to believe it happened. As a Christian story, part of the legend, it’s fine. But dead people don’t come back to life. It just doesn’t happen. Which means that the idea that this is more than a legend, that it actually happened – that’s just too hard to believe. Struggle to believe it happened.
Not only that, but they also struggle to believe it matters. Quite frankly: So what? This is two thousand years ago. There are many pressing issues today: Famine and war in other parts of the world, redundancy and sickness in our own. To spend too much time trying to work out whether Easter really happened would just be a diversion from the issues that do matter.
We struggle to believe it happened. We struggle to believe it matters. Which means we don’t bother with the struggle to work out whether it happened or not.
I love that Easter reading that we had tonight. It comes alive when we hear it in one sitting like that, in a dramatized form. It’s a great story, because we get to watch those who knew Jesus best. The eyewitnesses. His closest friends. We get to watch them struggle to believe that it really happened. And then we see them discover why it all matters. Yes, they’ve just got their best friend back. But they discover that what’s just happened is much, much bigger than that.
Did it happen?
First, we watch them struggling with the strange things that started happening. Sunday morning started unfolding. It was not at all what you’d expect the third day following a burial. And strange rumours began to circulate about what had happened.
Some women went to the tomb. Jesus had been buried in a hurry, so they took the burial spices to finish the burial rituals. The tomb was empty. The stone seal was rolled back, so that the door was wide open. And inside were two men in clothes too bright to look at.
As they looked back on it, the women concluded they must have been angels. Those men explained that Jesus was not here because he had risen from the dead. They then reminded them that Jesus had predicted this. The angels’ words rang a bell, but it all still made no sense.
So they ran off and told this to the eleven disciples. Nobody believed a word they said. It all sounded like gibberish. But Peter went to have a look, and saw the grave clothes, and went away wondering.
Meanwhile, two of Jesus’ followers were on a 7 mile walk to a place named Emmaus. They were desperately sad. They were still reeling from the shock of losing Jesus. Still trying to make sense of things. A stranger started to talk to them, and bizarrely he didn’t seem to have heard of Jesus. They told him all about him, and how the women had met an angel who said he was alive. In reply, the stranger gave them a Bible study, referring to every part of the Old Testament, but none of it made much sense.
It was getting dark when they got to Emmaus, so they invited him in for some food. As the stranger took the bread to break and pass around, they suddenly recognised that it was Jesus. But before they could ask him about anything, he just vanished. How they kicked themselves. Something on the road had set their pulse racing, and only now did they realise what. Now when it was too late.
Never mind the dusk. Back on the road, 7 miles back to Jerusalem. They found the others, expecting to have ground-breaking news. To their astonishment they found the others already knew. Simon, one of the 11, had himself met Jesus.
And then it happened. Jesus appeared in the room.
Even at this point they were struggling to believe this was real. A far more likely explanation is that this was a ghost. Or perhaps they were hallucinating. So Jesus invited them to touch him. Ghosts don’t have flesh and bones.
Hallucinations might though. Not that they had much experience of this, but presumably you could so convince yourself someone is there that you believe you’re touching them. But not watching them eat. They gave him some freshly grilled fish, and he ate it. Where did it go? It’s gone! He must have eaten it. Nope – he’s real. He’s back. He really is alive! It’s true!
And once again, he taught them from the Bible, opening up the whole Old Testament. This time, just as their eyes had been opened to see that it was really him, so their minds were opened. As he read to them from the Old Testament, they could see him there too, on every page – it really is him.
Jesus really was back. He really was alive. It was the last thing they expected. As they tried to make sense of the evidence, the missing body, the detached grave clothes, the angels, the women’s story, the man on the road, the man standing there in the room with them, it seemed so unlikely Jesus was actually risen from the dead. So unlikely that they considered every other way to explain things but that. Until, one by one, they were forced to admit that it really had happened.
Jesus really was back. He really was alive. Risen from the dead.
Maybe you know the feeling of something wonderful, but totally unlikely, happening. Someone wins the lottery. They keep checking their numbers. They can’t believe they really match. You apply for a job, or a place at university. Thousands of people chasing just 4 places. And you hold the letter that says you have an interview – just one of 20 to get one. Is the letter fake? You’re checking the ink on the signature, googling the logo on the letterhead.
That’s what it was like for those first witnesses. This was so wonderful, and yet so unlikely. And as they check they discover – it’s real.
Does it matter?
And once they’ve realised that it happened, they can discover why it matters.
Yes, they got their best friend back.
Yes, the tragic events of Good Friday that brought them so many tears seem a distant memory.
But, oh, it matters so much more than that.
Jesus explains the same thing to both groups – the two on the road, and the 12 in the room. In both cases, he opens up the Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms are the three main sections of the Old Testament. Whichever page you open, it tells the story: “The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.”
What’s just happened has brought to fulfilment everything that God had planned. Wherever you open the Old Testament, from Genesis to Zechariah, the things it looks forward to came true when Jesus died and rose again. Every plan God has to bless his people, ever promise God has ever made – they all came true when Jesus died and rose again.
I’m sure you’ve had the experience of looking forward to something. The birth of a child or grandchild. A wedding. A holiday. The end of term. A new car or gadget going on sale. The completion of your house purchase. A planned day off work. Whatever it is. Now imagine that everything you’ve ever hoped for in life was to come true on the same day, in the same event. All your hopes, all your longings, all your ambitions, coming true over a single weekend.
That’s what happened when Jesus died, and then rose again. Everything God had ever promised, purposed, planned – it all came true over a single weekend.
Oh, it matters alright. It’s wonderful. So wonderful that the good news must spread. Jesus said this: “Repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Everyone must hear the best news in the world. And Jesus’ summary of that news is that it’s a message of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Repentance. We’re all running away from God. Some of us do it in big, public ways that make the headlines. Most of us do it more quietly. We want to be independent, free to live how we choose, with nobody to tell us what to do. Including God. We don’t want him to tell us what to do, so we’re running away.
Repentance means turning around. We can turn around and come back to God. To stop running away, and to run to him again.
The reason why Jesus’ death and resurrection is good news is that repentance now brings about forgiveness. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid for all the wrong that would ever be done by every one of his people. And now he lives, so he’s alive for us to come back to him, and to find the forgiveness he purchased on the cross.
Jesus died. Jesus rose again. So it’s now possible for anyone to return to God, and to find full and free forgiveness for everything.
And that is such good news that it simply must be spread.
I don’t know whether you struggle to believe whether Easter really happened. Or whether you struggle to see whether it matters.
There were eyewitnesses. Wonderfully, they were people just like us, people who struggled to make sense of what happened. They came to see that Jesus really was risen from the dead. Literally to see, even to touch.
Everything they’d ever hoped for had come true. Good news for people everywhere. Good news for people like us. If we turn back to God, we will find forgiveness.
No wonder Luke 24 ends with them praising God.