Of all the stories out there, my favorite is one that involves a reversal of fortunes at the end. All seems lost, but at the very last minute something unexpected happens, and the day is saved, and everything bad that happened is undone.
So near the end of The Lord of the Rings – the book, not the movie – Sam realizes that he and Frodo have survived, and that Gandalf has returned from the dead. Sam says, "It wasn't a dream?" When he realizes it isn't, he lays back with both joy and bewilderment and asks, "Is everything sad going to come untrue?" A great question. Is everything sad going to come untrue?
Out of all of the stories of reversal, the one that we just read beats them all. And what's more, it claims to be true. This morning I want to do three things, nothing more. I want to look at why it's hard to believe, how we can believe it, and what difference it makes when we do believe it.
First, why it's hard to believe.
One of the hardest things to believe about Christianity is the resurrection. There are lots of people who believe a lot of things about Jesus – that he was a good man, a great teacher, even a prophet. They will even believe that he died on the cross. But believing that he physically rose from the dead and left an empty tomb is a whole different matter.
You may be someone who finds it hard to believe, in which case I say: You're in very good company. As we look at this passage, we find skepticism as the prevailing reaction. We read about a group of women coming to embalm Jesus' body, and when they find the tomb empty, verse 4 says that they wonder what happened. That's putting it mildly. The Greek is much stronger. It says they were bewildered, perplexed. The picture is of women who are confused and anxious, just like we'd be if we showed up at the tomb of one of our friends and found a big hole, an empty casket, and the clothes that they were buried lying on the ground.
You imagine telling your friends about that, especially if you add some details about angels. In those days, the testimony of women was inadmissible in court. The historian Josephus wrote, "From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex." They didn't exactly have progressive views of women. So when these women show up in a room full of Jesus' followers, we read, "But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense" (Luke 24:11). Even Peter, who at least goes to investigate, doesn't automatically buy in. He finds the grave just as the women had described it, but walks away wondering what it all means. Nobody can figure it out.
You find this all throughout the chapter. Two disciples are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, about seven miles away. They're both dejected by what's happened. Neither one has any hope of any resurrection. Later on we see the disciples again, and they as they try to make sense of what happened on Easter morning, they're ready to believe in almost anything other than a physical resurrection.
N.T. Wright has done an exhaustive study of the thinking in Jesus' day, and concludes that nobody even had a category for this to happen. Greeks and Romans thought that the body is corrupt, and that a soul is liberated from the body. Resurrection was not only impossible, but it was undesirable. The Jewish people, on the other hand, believed in resurrection, but at some future point when God will renew the entire cosmos. It was a future event, not something that happens here and now. "The idea of an individual being resurrected, in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on burdened by sickness, decay, and death, was inconceivable" (Tim Keller, The Reason for God).
I know we have this belief that we're sophisticated today, that we doubt things like miracles and resurrections, but people back then were ready to believe anything. C.S. Lewis calls this "chronological snobbery" – thinking that we modern people take claims of a bodily resurrection with skepticism, while thinking that the ancients would have immediately accepted it. But that's not at all the case. A dead person was a dead person. They wouldn't have any easier a time than we would in believing that someone who was dead is alive again. Nobody would have even thought of resurrection as a possibility. Everybody understood that Jesus was dead. Jesus' death wasn't a setback for them; it was game over. Jesus joined the scrap-heap of history along with all the other messiah figures who were killed. Game over.
Wright says again:
Jewish revolutionaries whose leader had been executed by the authorities, and who managed to escape arrest themselves, had two options: give up the revolution, or find another leader. Claiming that the original leader was alive again was simply not an option. Unless, of course, he was. (Who Was Jesus?)
This is good news for those of us here who are skeptical about the resurrection. Join the club. You should be skeptical; everyone else was. Jesus' closest followers, his dearest friends, couldn't believe it either. In fact, if you're feeling skeptical this morning, you shouldn't feel too bad about it. There would be a problem if you didn't approach the subject of Easter with skepticism. The disciples and friends of Jesus were just as skeptical as you are.
How We Can Believe It
The reality is, though, that something happened to change their minds. They started out skeptical. They didn't even have a category for a physical resurrection here and now. Yet within a short time, all of that changed. It not only changed for them, but it also changed the course of human history. How can we experience the same thing today, assuming we'd even want to?
I'll tell you what's important, but not enough. Many of the people who experienced that Easter morning examined the evidence. Some went and investigated the empty tomb themselves. They looked at the grave clothes lying on the ground, at the stone that had been rolled away. When Jesus appeared to them in verses 39-43, they looked at him. Jesus offered that they could touch him to verify that he wasn't a spirit; it was really him in his body. They watched him eat a fish. Spirits don't eat fish.
Today, it's important – but not enough – for you to examine the evidence for yourself. Books like Mere Christianity are excellent. A more recent one is The Reason for God, which is on the New York Times Bestseller list. These are important, especially if you are trying to make sense of what happened that morning. It only makes sense to investigate the evidence. For instance, why would Luke have recorded the testimony of women when women weren't considered reliable witnesses? He must have been under tremendous pressure to change the story. Why didn't he, unless it really happened that way? What transformed a group of cowards into people who turned the world upside down? How do you explain their willingness to die? Pascal said, "I [believe] those witnesses that get their throats cut." There are all kinds of things that can't be explained unless the resurrection really happened, and it's important – but not enough – to look at all the evidence.
Something more is needed.
I'll tell you what happened. Their eyes were opened. When they started out, they saw all of the evidence but they didn't really see it. Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, was on a streetcar one day in Basel, Switzerland. A tourist sat next to him, and they started chatting. Barth asked them if there was anything they were hoping to see while they visited the city. "Yes," the man said, "I'd love to meet the famous theologian Karl Barth. Do you know him?" Barth replied, "As a matter of fact, I do. In fact, I give him a shave every morning." The tourist was pretty excited. He went back to the hotel thinking, "I met Karl Barth's barber today." He saw Karl Barth but he didn't really understand what he was seeing. The people in this chapter were the same. They could look at Jesus and all of the evidence, and walk away not really being aware of what they'd seen.
But three times in this chapter, they had an epiphanies. Do you know what an epiphany is? It's a moment of revelation and insight that all of a sudden makes sense on everything that's happened up until that point. Three times in this chapter, all of a sudden their eyes were opened, and they were able to not only see the evidence but also make sense of everything that had happened up until that point – in fact, everything in their lives, in the world.
While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 'The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.' " Then they remembered his words. (Luke 24:4-8)
Then the two disciples who had been traveling to Emmaus, after spending quite a bit of time with Jesus:
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:30-32)
Then the disciples:
He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms."
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45)
The evidence is important, but it's never enough. At some point you need that moment in which not only do you see, but you really see and you believe.
Even if you're a Christian, you can have this experience. I mentioned Tim Keller's book The Reason for God. When Keller was being treated for thyroid cancer, he actually had time on his hands for the first time in his life. He picked up N.T. Wright's book The Resurrection of the Son of God, which is 740 pages. He even read the indices. He says that the book reenforced something for him:
There's no historically viable alternative explanation for the birth of the Christian Church than the fact that the early Christians thought they saw Jesus Christ and touched him and that he was raised from the dead. As I was reading it, I realized I was coming to greater certainty, and that when I closed the book, I said, at a time when it was very important to me to feel this way, I said, "He really really really did rise from the dead." And I said, "Well, didn't I believe that before?" Of course I believed it before—I defended it, and I think before I certainly would have died for that belief. But actually, there were still doubts in there, and the doubts were taken down 50 percent or something. I didn't even know they were there. And it was a wonderful experience It was both an intellectual and emotional experience: You're facing death, you're not sure you're going to get over the cancer. And the rigorous intellectual process of going through all the alternative explanations for how the Christian Church started, except the resurrection—none of them are even tenable. It was quite an experience.
You see that? Keller already believed, but his eyes were opened and he believed it even more. It became more real to him, more relevant to his life and to his cancer. Easter is hard to believe, but if you look at the evidence that will be a good start. But if you ask God to open your eyes, then God is in the business of doing so, and just like the people in this chapter, it will change everything.
Which leads me to the last thing I want to say:
What difference does it make if we believe it?
Simply, it makes all the difference in the world. Luke ends with the disciples finally getting it, finally seeing for the first time. Luke is part one of a two-part series of books. When Luke ends they get it; when Acts starts they turn the whole world upside down. Their lives were never the same. It changed everything from that point on.
Easter gives us hope. N.T. Wright says:
The message of the resurrection is that this world matters!…If Easter means that Jesus Christ is only raised in a spiritual sense – [then] it is only about me, and finding a new dimension in my personal spiritual life. But if Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, Christianity becomes good news for the whole world – news which warms our hearts precisely because it isn't just about warming hearts.
Easter is good news for the whole world.
Even if you don't believe in Easter, you should want to, because it teaches us that everything sad will come untrue. Everything. As Dostoevsky says in The Brothers Karamazov:
I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, of the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they've shed; and it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify what has happened.
Easter is hard to believe, but if you believe – when you believe – it changes everything.
Father, we read a story like the story of Easter, and we find it hard to believe. But we're in good company. Those who experienced these events found it hard to believe as well.
But Easter is the great reversal. When our eyes are opened, we see it as the climax of history, the event through which all of history, all of Scripture, all of life, makes sense. So I pray that you would open our eyes, that we would believe. I pray that even those of us who've believed before would have our eyes opened to see it again. And seeing it again, may it turn our worlds upside down and draw us to you. We pray in the name of our risen Lord, Amen.