The real Easter story

The Easter story is the one we’re about to read is from the gospel of Mark. It’s the earliest version. It’s also the shortest.

This is what Christians in the first generation heard on Easter morning. There were no hymns – no Easter lilies – no traditions.

They had very little to go on. What they had was this story, together with the hope and faith that it was true, because they had experienced the risen Christ in their own hearts.

There was so much that they didn’t know or understand. There was so much that would take them years to discover. But knowing that Jesus is alive, beside them, to bless them, made all the difference.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.

So very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Mark 16:1-8

Easter is not the easiest of events to understand.

It isn’t even easy, for people like us who call ourselves Christians. No matter how many times I listen to the Easter story, it forces me to stop, and think, and wonder.

The heart of it is very simple. A small group of women, who had loved Jesus, went to the garden early on Easter morning.

And instead of finding Jesus’ body – which is what they expected – they found something completely different. They found an empty tomb.

You see, all the way over, on the way to the garden, the women talked to each other. They knew what they were going to find.

Three days earlier, they had seen Jesus executed by Roman soldiers, in a way which was deliberately designed to be a terrifying example to everybody watching. They wanted to hammer home the public fact of Jesus’ death.

What happened on Good Friday was not a mystery. From the Roman point of view, it was an efficient way of dealing with rebels and troublemakers.

From the point of view of Jesus’ enemies, the priests and the scribes and the Pharisees, it was a way of shutting up someone who they felt was a threat to their law and to their tradition.

From the point of view of Jesus’ disciples, it was the ultimate disaster, the end of everything they had dreamed and hoped for.

But from everyone’s point of view, though, it was quite clear: Jesus was dead.

If that point isn’t clear, then you need to go back and read the events of Jesus’ life in the week before Easter again. I don’t want to dwell on the brutality of the events which led up to the Cross. But Jesus was dead. That’s something they knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt. They had seen it all happen, with their own eyes.

So, as the women made their way to the garden, they knew what they were going to find. They were prepared for it – they had gone out, as soon as the Sabbath was over on the previous evening. They had bought spices to embalm Jesus’ body and honor the Teacher they had loved so well.

Their only big question, as they walked slowly up towards the garden, was how on earth they would be able to open the tomb.

Many people in Palestine in those days were buried in holes or caves in the rock, which were sealed shut with a large, heavy stone. How they could move the stone aside, who could move it for them?

So again, there’s no mystery. There’s nothing here which is difficult to believe, or anything which would change the world.

But when they got there, the very last thing they ever expected had taken place. The door was open. The stone which had covered the door was rolled away. The tomb was empty.

From here on, the story gets harder and harder to believe.

In Matthew’s version, it says that an angel of the Lord came down, and caused an earthquake, and shattered the entrance to the tomb, and terrified the guards who had been set to watch by the grave side. The angel’s appearance, Mark says, was like lightning, and the angel’s clothing was white as snow.

In Luke’s version of the story, it says that the women who went to the tomb found it empty. And suddenly, standing right beside them were two messengers, in shining garments.

In Mark’s version of the story, the one we just read, it doesn’t have any special effects. It simply says that when the women entered the tomb, instead of the body of Jesus, they found a young man, dressed in a white robe. And it says that they were amazed. They were speechless. They were terrified.

Easter morning, the way it really took place, doesn’t start with rejoicing, or celebration, with a sense of assurance that everything was all right. Easter morning, the real version, begins with an empty tomb, with fear, and with amazement. It begins with a mystery.

In a way, I think that makes it all more believable. It’s just too much for me to believe, based on what I know of human nature, that people could suddenly accept it, so quickly.

It makes more sense, to believe that they were scared, and confused, and incoherent. That’s the way we’d be, if we were there.

I think that it’s easier for us to believe in Easter, if we start off by admitting to ourselves how unbelievable it all must have been. If we put ourselves in the place of the people who were actually there, that first Easter morning, I don’t think their reactions were all so different from our own.

Whoever or whatever the messenger really was, the message which they were given at the tomb is simple enough.

First, the messenger stated the obvious: “Don’t be frightened. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was killed. . .” Well, they knew that already. They were scared silly. But they knew who they were looking for.

Then the messenger gave them the second part of the message, which falls into three parts:

  1. He is risen
  2. He is not here; you can look and see the place where they laid him
  3. Go and tell the others that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee; you will see him there, just as he told you

“He is not here; he is risen; you will see him. . .” That is the message of Easter.

When you break it down that way, it may not be easy to believe, but it certainly isn’t difficult to understand. And maybe if we look at it for just a couple of minutes, maybe we can even make the Easter message a little bit more believable.

The first part, “He is not here”, is no problem. People generally accept the evidence of their own eyes pretty easily. People believe what they see.

They saw Jesus put to death on the cross just three days before; now they saw the empty tomb at daybreak.

It may have frightened them. It may have puzzled them. It may have left them trying to figure out what had happened. But they could see that the tomb was empty.

The second part of the Easter message, “He is risen,” is more of a problem.

Jesus had promised, repeatedly, this was going to happen. But when he made those promises, nobody understood what he was talking about. Even right there in the empty tomb, it didn’t occur to them that it was actually real.

In John’s gospel, when Mary went to the tomb and found it empty, her reaction was, “They have taken my Lord out of the tomb, and I don’t know where they have laid him. . .” (John 20:13)

Do you see what I mean? Mary assumed that Jesus’ body had simply been removed, maybe by a gardener.

That’s what most of us would probably think. If we don’t find what we’re looking for, we figure someone’s taken it away.

Or over in Matthew’s gospel, the religious authorities had an equally predictable reaction to the news. They said, “It’s all a conspiracy! It’s fake news! Tell the people that Jesus’ disciples came by night and stole him away while the guards were sleeping. . .” (Matthew 28:13) That was their explanation. People look for, and believe in, the obvious explanation.

And that’s what people probably would have believed, and what they would have gone on believing, except for one thing. Remember, I said that there were three parts to the message of Easter morning.

“He is not here. He is risen. You will see him…”

The whole story of Easter falls apart, it wouldn’t be anything more than a fairy tale, if it weren’t for the last part of that message.

The empty tomb is easy to believe in. The Resurrection is impossible to believe in. Unless – unless – the third part of the message is true.

“Go and tell the disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you. . .” That is what makes everything else ring true.

We aren’t asked to take the Resurrection of Christ simply on faith. We aren’t asked to suspend our disbelief, like people watching a play at the theater, or like children listening to a fairy tale.

The third part of the Easter message is what makes it possible for us to go out into the world and share the good news of Easter.

The promise was that they would meet Jesus. And they did.

In John’s gospel, they met Jesus again on Easter morning, right there in the garden. In Matthew’s gospel, they met Jesus on the way back from the empty tomb, while they were on their way to tell the others.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus first appeared to two of the disciples, as they were going down the road, on their way to the village of Emmaus. And they didn’t recognize Jesus at first, because they were so sure that Jesus was dead. Even though they had heard the story, they knew that things like that don’t happen. It wasn’t until they sat down to supper with him, that they recognized it was Jesus.

We wouldn’t have to believe in Easter, either, if the third part of the message wasn’t true: “You will see him. . .”

All of the gospels state, in plain, everyday language, that people saw Jesus. They met with him, they talked with him, they touched him. He came into the upper room where they were gathered, and he blessed them, and breathed on them. He walked along the beach by the Sea of Galilee, and ate with them.

I’m not asking you to believe anything which you aren’t ready to believe. I just want you to listen with an open mind to the story.

It says in the gospels that after forty days, that Jesus didn’t appear among us in the same way any more.

Jesus didn’t say he was going away forever. On the contrary, he said that he would be back, and he also said that he would be with us, in powerful and discernible ways. Jesus said that he would be with us, whenever we needed him, in trials and in difficulties, in our joy and in our pain.

Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Peter and John felt Jesus’ power with them in the Temple, as they taught and preached and healed. Stephen saw Jesus when he was on trial and as he was being stoned to death.

There is no shortage of witnesses to the power of the risen Christ. Christians for thousands of years now have trusted and lived in that power.

I would ask you, this Easter, to ask yourselves whether you can testify to the truth of the Easter message.

I don’t ask you to pretend to believe, in anything which your heart and your mind don’t honestly tell you is true

I wouldn’t want you to go one step farther than your heart, or your mind, or your courage, will allow you.

But I also wouldn’t want you to go one step less, either.

  • Have you ever lifted up your eyes, and felt new hope?
  • Has your heart ever been on fire, or strangely warm?
  • Have you ever been down in the valley, and found Jesus there beside you?
  • Have you ever done something wrong, and turned back, and known you were making a change, and known that you’re forgiven?
  • Have you ever felt that you are loved unconditionally?
  • Have you ever been given a gift, a moment of grace?
  • Have you ever felt God’s tears, or God’s laughter?
  • Have you every felt God’s goodness and God’s blessing?
  • Have you ever seen the face of Jesus in a neighbor, or a stranger?
  • Have you ever been given unexpected courage and strength, when you needed them?

Jesus said that he would never leave us alone. He said he would be with us everywhere, to the very ends of the world.

“He is not here. He is risen. You will meet him…”

That’s the message of Easter.

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