The first Easter was that wondrous moment in history when the empty tomb was discovered and, in an instant, “everything changed” for the followers of Jesus… and for the world as we know it. But as amazing and wondrous as it was, it took a while for Jesus’ closest friends and followers to figure it out… Why?
Frankly, I think it was because, after the events of Friday and Saturday, resurrection would have probably been the furthest thing from their minds. At that moment, seized by grief and despair, resurrection seemed impossible.
When the women set off for the tomb in the wee hours of Sunday it is clear that they are going to visit a dead body and prepare it for proper burial. When they arrive at the tomb, they are completely shocked to find that the rather large stone in front of the tomb has been rolled away and even more astonished to discover that Jesus’ body is missing. They are seized with fear and amazement as they scurry about trying to figure out who moved the stone, and more importantly, what has become of Jesus’ body. Some of these women had stood and watched Jesus die on the cross; they witnessed the brutality of the Romans firsthand and looked Jesus square in the eye as he breathed his last. They certainly didn’t equate seeing the tomb empty with any notion that Jesus was somehow alive—that would’ve seemed impossible.
Even once the men learn about the empty tomb, they don’t immediately think of resurrection. Peter and John go to the tomb to see what is going on with their own eyes. They are as amazed by the news as the women are, and are trying to figure out what in the world is going on, and what has happened to Jesus’ body. (John’s Gospel suggests that upon entering the empty tomb, John believed, as if to suggest he figured out what had happened in that moment. I personally think that may be a bit of hyperbole on the part of the author—to make him look good.)
For these grieving, distraught disciples, it had to seem like adding insult to injury to have the body of Jesus missing and not know what had happened to it. Somebody might have vaguely remembered Jesus saying something about “rising again”, but then quickly dismissed the thought as impossible. They knew that no one—and I do mean no one—endured the kind of torture Jesus endured at the hands of Rome and lived to tell about it. They knew that crucifixion was permanent!
This might help us understand why, later, when the Risen Lord stood right in front of them, resurrection still seemed impossible for them to believe.
We know that in time, however, this view changed dramatically. Scholars debate the exact nature of the disciple’s experiences when they “saw” Jesus on a number of occasions after the resurrection, but none debate that these encounters with Jesus impacted all of them profoundly and convinced them that he was in fact risen.
We see that profound change on display in the continuation of the Story in Acts— the second volume of Luke’s two-volume account of the story of Jesus and the Early Church. Acts focuses on the birth and spread of the Church. Here we see that:
· a band of confused, scared, and grieving disciples have—in a fairly short amount of time—become focused and fearless advocates of the Kingdom of God thoroughly convinced that though Jesus is no longer present bodily, he is very much alive and active in the world.
· God uses rather ordinary people—very much like you and me—to do amazing things and uses these signs and wonders (and their preaching!) to proclaim the present availability of the Kingdom to the world.
· empowered by the Holy Spirit, these ordinary men and women—some of whom failed Jesus so utterly—are now the means through which the Message of Jesus spreads around the Ancient World.
· these same men and women—once too afraid to stay with Jesus to the end—have now become so utterly convinced of the reality of Jesus and the “truth” of his counter-cultural message of love and justice that they are now willing to die for what they believe.
· Peter—a man who struggled mightily the past three years to understand who Jesus was, even at one point going so far as to deny he was a follower of Jesus to protect his own well-being—now begins to fulfill his own destiny as The Rock on which Jesus will build his church. J
· Paul—a “righteous” Jew who spent his life zealously persecuting the young Church—has his own unique encounter with the Risen Lord and becomes one of the most passionate advocates of the Church—and the one uniquely gifted to bring the message of Jesus to the Gentiles.
If on that Saturday after Jesus died, you had told those disciples huddled in that room fearing for their lives all that lay ahead for them, they would have probably thought you were crazy. But a funny thing happens when Jesus enters our lives: Suddenly the impossible becomes possible.
Resurrection doesn’t seem possible; we can’t explain how it worked. (And not being able to explain it makes some of us seek to discredit it.) And yet, it’s the very thing on which our faith as followers of Christ hinges. If it didn’t happen, as Paul say in 1 Corinthians 15 our faith is futile (v17)… and we are to be pitied more than anyone (v19). But Paul is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that resurrection did happen (v20), and that fact fuels his passion for proclaiming the Message. He has seen his own life profoundly changed and believes that kind of change is possible for all who choose to follow the Way of Jesus.
But what about you? Do you believe what Paul says—and what Jesus says?
One of my favorite lines of Scripture is: “Lord I want to believe help me with my unbelief.” I have been a follower of Christ for years, and I know what I ought to believe about the resurrection: With God, the impossible becomes possible…
But have I actually experienced this reality in my life the way the Apostles did?
The most honest answer I can give to that question is: “yes and no”. I look back over the trajectory of my life and see God making things that at one point seemed impossible, possible.
· There was a point when I seriously doubted that I would finish graduate school… I now have a Masters of Science hanging on my wall.
· There was a point when I seriously doubted that I would find a spouse… In July I will celebrate eight years of marriage to my wonderful wife Laurie.
· There was a point where Laurie and I weren’t sure we could have any biological children… I now have a five-year old son and a three-year old daughter.
But then there are areas of my life where if you looked back over my journals and could eavesdrop on my prayers and conversations with friends, you’d see me wrestling with the same things over and over again. The specific circumstances change over the years, but the “core issues” remain the same. These are the addictions I can’t seem to break, the habits and behaviors I just can’t seem to change no matter what impact it has on others around me—whether it be family, friends, coworkers, etc. These are the things the Enemy uses to hold me back from feeling “fully alive”!
These are the “tombs” in my heart with “stones” in front that seem so large that I sometimes wonder if even God can roll them away.
And to be honest, I’m not always sure I want the “stones” rolled away. Some “stones” I keep around to “protect” me from being exposed to the wiles of the world. They have been around so long that I can’t imagine life without them.
But until I let Jesus into my “tombs”, I fear that so many things I long for in this life—perhaps none greater than the experience of true joy—will continue to elude me. Jesus raised Lazarus to life and he offers me—and all of us—the same gift. He wants us to come out of our “tombs” and experience the fullness of the resurrection in every aspect of life. He calls to me saying: “ Alan, come out!”…
But Jesus will never force me to come out; that choice is mine. Will I come out or will I remain in the safe, familiar, and comfortable “tomb” I have been hiding in for so long? Will I put aside my fears and finally believe that with God the impossible really is possible—yes, even for me.