Every Easter, we hear the story about how some of Jesus’ women disciples came to that first Easter morning, expecting to prepare Jesus’ body for continued burial. Instead, they found the huge stone moved and the body gone. They encountered heavenly beings who told them that Jesus was risen, and they encountered Jesus himself. All four gospels contain parts of this story. They all agree it was the women disciples who first encountered the empty tomb and the risen Lord.
Our faith is founded on this story, and our Christian year begins anew each Easter as we move from His betrayal and passion to his resurrection. This year, I don’t want to restart the calendar. Because the resurrection of Jesus has blessed us all our lives, and for generations before us. The entire world has been blessed by the resurrection, which reset the calendar and also reestablished the equal standing of all humankind and our potential for communion with God. The world was changed forever that first Easter morning. And if your life isn’t perfect, if you are still struggling with unforgiveness, self-doubt, anger and fear, then I invite you to join me in considering how the power of the resurrection can change our lives as well, if we only believe. It helps to know that in Paul’s day, in that first generation of the church, it wasn’t about accepting it on faith, but about facing the facts. Let’s hear the word of the LORD:
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
— 1 Corinthians 15:17-22 NRSV
Some in the Corinthian church were saying the dead would not be raised. Some of them thought that Jesus would come and receive the believers during their lifetimes, and that those among them who died were just not fortunate enough to hold on for the rapture. Others probably thought eternal life was some kind of metaphor, some philosophical, but not real.
As a Pharisee, Paul had always believed in the resurrection to judgment and eternal life. On that point, he agreed with Christians – but as Saul, he tried to destroy the church because Jesus rejected the relative righteous of one group over another, namely, of Pharisees over everyone else. It isn’t that Saul didn’t have the same evidence as everyone else; but he intentionally refused to see the truth. But when Jesus struck him blind on the road to Damascus, Paul finally decided to stop denying the truth.
Look at how our scripture today is structured. “IF CHRIST HAS NOT BEEN RAISED” – then the rest of the faith is nonsense. If Christ has not been raised, then why should anyone follow his teachings? There were plenty of good, ethical preachers and rabbis who could improve society with good moral teaching. But there was also the message of Christ, a message that was not complete without the resurrection. “IF CHRIST HAS NOT BEEN RAISED, THEN YOUR FAITH IS FUTILE AND YOU ARE STILL IN YOUR SINS.” The forgiveness of sins in Christ had made a huge difference in the lives of Corinthian Christians. Guilt, shame, and fear of condemnation had been rolled away like the stone at the tomb.
Ah, but on the flip side, Paul does NOT say, “BUT IF CHRIST HAS BEEN RAISED … “ This is not just the other side of the coin to Paul. It isn’t even about faith versus doubt. It’s about facing the facts versus ignoring the truth. What does it say? “BUT IN FACT CHRIST HAS BEEN RAISED FROM THE DEAD … “ That’s important wording. Paul is not trying to convince them that Jesus rose from the dead – they already knew that, as did everyone willing to ask questions. What he’s doing is using THE FACT of Jesus’ resurrection as evidence that the dead will rise, including those who have died in Christ.
The difference is lost on us these days, I think. 2,000 years later, we aren’t sure of anything. Languages change and scrolls crumble, and the best we can come up with is relative certainty. Paul had a lot more to go on than we do. Paul had eye-witness reports. Paul had seen the government cover-ups and the turmoil that surrounded those events. If anyone could be certain that this was all a made-up story, it was Paul. It isn’t that Paul became convinced of the resurrection, or chose to believe. He just decided to stop denying the truth and instead see what God was trying to say through these events.
So let’s move past wondering IF. This isn’t about IF. As Paul said, “IN FACT Christ has been raised from the dead … “ Let’s go where Paul went and try to see and hear the message that God was speaking in this Word become Flesh.
If Christ isn’t raised, then it’s probably okay to hold a grudge, to hold others in unforgiveness. Because if you take Christ out of the picture, we don’t have many examples before that of forgiveness. What you have without Christ is the sense that we are supposed to hold a grudge, that vengeance is honorable and just. But IN FACT Christ has been raised from the dead. Christ prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Christ restored Peter to lead the church, even after Peter had denied him three times. Christ reunited the apostles who had been scattered during the turmoil of crucifixion. IF Christ has not been raised, then we don’t have to worry about that forgiveness stuff. But let’s face facts. Christ IN FACT has been raised from the dead, demonstrating the validity of his teachings and demonstrating the kind of forgiveness he would have us practice.
If Christ isn’t raised from the dead, then we are still in our sins. If forgiveness isn’t important, if vengeance is the norm, then there’s nothing to stop God from holding our sins against us. If Christ isn’t raised from the dead, then we might as well stop trying, because we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The flip side isn’t about believing; it’s about accepting facts. Christ IN FACT has been raised from the dead, so we ARE forgiven and CAN live a new life with God. That’s not just another way to believe; that’s facing facts.
If Christ isn’t raised from the dead, then all we can do is move forward and hope for the best. The damage done to us and the damage we’ve done to others is irreversible. It would take divine intervention to redeem the mess we’ve made of our lives, our families, our church, our society, our world, and we dare not hope for divine intervention. Unless, unless we are willing to face facts – because the Christ IN FACT has been raised from the dead. God not only demonstrated divine intervention, but demonstrated a willingness to exercise it on unworthy, unholy, disloyal and cowardly humans. And in that intervention, God makes us better – better friends, better leaders, better messengers of the truth.
Paul was surrounded by evidence of the recent resurrection of Jesus. Paul didn’t have to accept the resurrection on faith, he just had to stop denying the truth.
Every time we give up on relationships, every time we surrender ourselves to anger, vengeance, guilt, doubt, hatred and prejudice, we are denying the truth. We are saying that the resurrection of Christ doesn’t mean so much, or maybe we’re even doubting that it actually happened. Even though Paul was not an original apostle, even though he was not privy to the many miracles that happened during Jesus’ ministry, he had plenty of evidence pointing to the resurrection – and plenty of reasons to deny it. As Saul, he was struggling to protect a way of life that Jesus rendered obsolete – a life of hatred, revenge, and status. When he finally accepted the truth – that Christ in fact has been raised from the dead – he was able to accept the many other blessings that came with that truth – freedom from doubt, guilt, hatred, and shame … the joy of walking with God and being a child of God … the joy of communing with sisters and brothers joined not by blood, language or nationality, but by the common forgiveness in Christ and acceptance of God’s love.
If Christ has not been raised, then it’s all a joke. But Christ in fact has been risen. It is up to us to face that fact and to let it make a difference in our daily lives.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. He Is Risen Indeed!