St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 12th April 2009
A few weeks ago there was a burglary at our holiday home in Seaton. We first heard about it from the holidaymakers on the Monday who were surprised there was no television in the property, as indeed we were, when they phoned. So in order to try and find out exactly when this happened, I rang the chap who had organised the booking for the weekend before. “Ah yes”, he said, “I noticed the TV was missing. But I thought you had taken it away to be repaired. I did notice the drawers had been left open, but I thought you had opened them to be aired. And oh yes, there was some mess on the floor, but I hoovered it up.” For some reason when I suggested there might have been a burglary and he really should have got in touch with me, he got quite shirty. How much evidence did he need of a crime being committed? No TV, open drawers, mess on the floor – at least, it sounds pretty compelling to me.
Well, today is Easter, and I want to think for the next few minutes about the whole question of evidence. I expect many of you have been following the whole debate in the Evening Herald about God, and the usual people have been hurling arguments backwards and forwards for and against the existence of a higher being. Of course, you’re never really going to change anyone’s mind by getting your letter published, and at the end of the day I don’t believe there can ever be a winner in this sort of debate. But then again, our faith doesn’t depend on this or that clever argument, or the latest idea about God. It depends quite simply on one thing – the fact that Jesus has risen from the dead. And as I hope to show the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is absolutely overwhelming. Or at least, the clues are as convincing as those at our bungalow which showed a crime had been committed.
After all, just think about it for a moment. It was in the best interests of the Roman and Jewish authorities to know exactly where Jesus’ body had been laid. They didn’t want crowds visiting the tomb, or indeed anyone attempting to steal the body. Whether they believed Jesus or not, they certainly knew He had talked about rising from the dead, and when His followers started to claim this is what He had done, they would without doubt produced a body if they could. But you can search the history books, you can dig up all the archaeology you want. There is not a single shred of evidence to suggest this is what they did. And that is really, really strange. They did all they could to put down this movement of Christ followers. They expelled them from cities, they threw them into prison, they had them killed. But they never produced a body to silence them once and for all. They quite simply couldn’t.
And what about the women who we heard about in our reading? Well, one thing is clear: they were certainly weren’t expecting Jesus to rise from the dead. Verse 1, When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices … why? … so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. As far as they were concerned, Jesus had been crucified, had died, and was buried. And that was it. No hope, no future, just a memory of a good man. So the idea that the resurrection was simply wishful thinking on their part is again ruled out. It was the last thing anyone on that first Easter morning expected.
So what about this vision of a young man who according to Mark was dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side of the tomb. Wasn’t that simply the imagination of some overwrought, hysterical women? Well, if it was, it is remarkable that so many people over the following forty days had so many identical experiences of Jesus being alive and risen. In fact, the apostle Paul tells us clearly in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that at one point He appeared to 500 of the brothers all at once, and psychologists tell us it is impossible for so many people to have such a uniform mass hallucination all at once.
Besides which, a hallucination is not something that lasts for a lifetime, or makes you willing to be persecuted, to be executed, to lose everything that you own. So how is it that within a few years of Jesus’ death the Christian faith was spreading throughout the Roman empire in the face of opposition and hostility and official repression? The only answer can be that something really happened which permanently and totally revo-lutionised people’s lives, and that this something was the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And what is fascinating is that whenever over the centuries people have set out to show that the resurrection really couldn’t have taken place, they have so often ended up as believers instead. Some of you may have heard of the classic book, “Who moved the stone?” by Frank Morison. It’s a great argument in favour of Jesus rising from the dead…but the reason he started writing it was to disprove Christianity at source. Lawyers, philosophers, historians have all looked at the evidence and come to the same conclusion – Jesus really did rise from the dead.
So what about you? Have you ever looked at the events of Easter and thought whether they are true? I think one of the dangers in telling a story that is so well-known, so familiar is that we simply treat it as, well, a story. Something very nice to listen to, something we can enjoy once a year, but something that doesn’t make a real difference to our lives. And I guess this is the reason why so many people don’t want to accept that Jesus really did rise from the dead.
It’s nothing to do with the evidence, or the facts of the case. It’s to do with the fact that if Jesus did indeed rise, then this has massive implications for our lives. It means that Jesus has done something no-one has ever done or ever will do again. He has defeated death, He has paid the price for sin, He has conquered the forces of evil and so He has the right to be Lord of our lives, demanding our total obedience and trust in Him.
And many people can’t handle that inconvenient truth. They want the Jesus of the story book who is there when they want Him to be, who can be put in a box marked “for Sundays only”, who can, yes, provide comfort when we are in need, but certainly must never be allowed to disturb our comfortable lives. So which Jesus are you following: the pretend Jesus of the story book, or the real Jesus of history who has risen from the dead? That is the choice we all face this morning. It is the difference between building our house on the sand or on the rock, between putting our faith simply in a warm and cosy idea, or having a living relationship with Jesus as your Lord and Saviour. And if you’ve never thought about Jesus as being alive and risen and having authority over your life, then there is something you need to do this morning, if you want a faith that is real and solid and will last all your life through. And that’s quite simply ask Him to be real to you, to ask Him into your life and make His home with you. He is waiting and willing to hear your prayer even now.
Now I know there are many here who have already put their faith and trust in Jesus, and have long known Him as their Lord and Saviour. So I guess I don’t really need to persuade you of the evidence for the Christian faith. But the question I have to ask you is this: as you leave church this morning, as you return home, or maybe go out for the day with family or friends, what evidence will there be in your life to show that Jesus is alive? After all, although the evidence for Jesus risen from the dead is overwhelming, most people have either never considered it, or have never realised how important it is to make a decision. To put it simply, they just aren’t interested. To them the Christian faith is boring, irrelevant, out-of-date, something they left long ago in the Sunday school or the classroom. And the thing is, they assume we are still following the same story book Jesus they rejected many years ago.
So our task, our mission as a church is very simple: to prove by our words, our actions, our attitudes that Jesus is alive and that He makes a positive difference. How do we do this? Well, this is where I want very briefly to look at our reading from Romans. It’s quite a complicated reading, but Paul’s argument is in essence summed up in verse 9, You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. You see, believing and trusting in Jesus is not simply agreeing that 2000 years ago Jesus of Nazareth died and rose again. Believing and trusting in Jesus is about letting His Spirit come and take control of our lives, so that we do not merely follow Jesus as an example or an inspirational figure, but actually allow Jesus to come into our lives and little by little make us more like Him. In other words, the way we are going to show the world that Jesus is real and that He is alive is not by shouting on street corners, or by writing angry letters to the Herald, but by living lives that are so full of the Holy Spirit that people see something of Jesus in us and want to know Him for themselves.
Because it was in this way that the early church grew from a few frightened people who suddenly realised Jesus was risen from the dead. It wasn’t that they formed grand plans, or set up mission committees, or even started building lots of churches. It was that when people saw the change in their lives, when they saw the hope, the love, the peace that this extraordinary group of people had, they began to ask questions. And as those outside the church asked questions, so people in the church didn’t give an embarrassed cough, or pass them off to the vicar, but they talked naturally about Jesus and explained how important it is to believe and trust in Him, and to receive His Holy Spirit.
At the end of the day, the most compelling evidence for or against Easter is not the historical facts, or the message the vicar preaches – it’s us. It’s you, it’s me. Not only saying that we believe in Jesus, but allowing Him to continually fill us with His Holy Spirit so we make Him Lord of all. So, to finish, some questions all of us need to think about: how filled are you with the Holy Spirit this morning? Have you really welcomed Jesus into your life? How much does your life provide the evidence that Jesus really is alive?