Two Stories from the Tomb


(Matt. 28:1-20; Acts 10:34-43)

The high priests had thought the story of Jesus was over. The stone was rolled across in front of the tomb, the opening was securely sealed, there were guards posted in front.

But the high priests were wrong: they weren't going to have the last say in what happened to this preacher from Nazareth.

crime scene

Early on the Sunday morning, in spite of all their precautions, the tomb was empty - and they knew it! We read in the gospels of all the different disciples running to and from the tomb - at least three of the women, and Peter and John; but there must also have been all the officials - the guards, other soldiers, representatives of the priests and elders - rushing down in a panic to see what had happened. The garden of the resurrection will have been a busy place that morning: nowadays it would have been cordoned off with tape and treated as a crime scene!

Everyone knew that the tomb was empty: high priests, guards, Christian disciples - they were all agreed on that. Jesus of Nazareth was no longer in the grave where he'd been laid on Friday. But two different stories came back from the tomb: two different accounts to try to explain what was going on.

The disciples spoke of an earthquake, and of an angel rolling the stone away; the angel telling the women that Christ was risen, and then the women meeting the risen Jesus for themselves. Of course, Jesus won't have needed the earthquake and the rolling away of the stone to allow him to come out of the tomb - he will simply have passed through the stone, just as he later passed through locked doors - but the earthquake will have shattered the seal on the entrance and the angel will have rolled the stone away to allow outsiders to see in and witness that the tomb really was empty. But the main thing was that the women were 100% sure Jesus was alive: they had seen him, heard him, touched him and worshipped him.

What about the guards? They will have experienced the earthquake and, seeing the tomb open, they will have no doubt gone inside to check that all was well; whereupon they found it was empty, saw the shining angel and fainted; then, once they had recovered, they will have run to the chief priests to report what had happened. So the guards may well have been the first people to see the empty tomb! But the priests could see what the consequences of all this could be: they were still afraid of what Jesus had said. They knew he had told his followers that he would rise again. Now they didn't believe that, but they had thought his disciples might want to steal his body and pretend he was alive again; and that would lead to a rival cult within the Jewish religion. So, now that they'd clearly lost the body, the priests bribed the guards to say that they, the guards, had nodded off and that Jesus' disciples had broken into the tomb and stolen the body while they were asleep. Yes, of course it was embarrassing to admit that the soldiers were asleep on guard duty, but it was a lot less embarrassing than admitting the unimaginable, that they might, just perhaps, have crucified the Son of the Most High God, and that he had been raised from death. The priests had to make the best of a bad situation; they needed a cover-up to explain the loss of the body.

So Matthew tells us about both stories that come from the empty tomb: the disciples' story, and the priests' story. And we have to decide which of those stories commands our respect, because the resurrection is the central issue which divides Christians from non-Christians. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, if true, is the one thing by which the Christian faith stands or falls. If there was no resurrection, if Christ were not risen from the dead, then Jesus cannot have been divine, he cannot have been God's chosen Messiah, and his teaching must have been false. If Christ were not risen from the dead, there would be no Good News and we'd have no hope or assurance for eternity. Death would mean the end for each of us and for each of our loved ones. Whether the resurrection happened or not is of the highest importance. We need to decide which of those two stories from the tomb ring true - just as the Roman centurion Cornelius we heard about in our first reading and the thousands of other people who heard the Good News from the disciples had to make their minds up too.

So what is the evidence? Firstly, the tomb was empty: all sides agree on that. But St John's gospel also tells us that the graveclothes were left behind in such a way as to show that the risen Jesus had just passed through them; they hadn't been unwound, and they hadn't been discarded by robbers or thieves.

Secondly, we look at the witnesses. If there'd been the slightest doubt about the resurrection, or if the disciples had wanted to strengthen their case, they'd have picked different witnesses. But they didn't - the first witnesses of the resurrection are women, and in the case of Mary Magdalene, a woman who was known to be excitable and emotional. 2000 years ago women were not generally listened to as witnesses - but God chooses women as his witnesses for the greatest act he has performed since he created the world; and the men among Jesus' disciples are happy for that, because they know it's true.

Thirdly, we look at the different resurrection appearances. The gospels tell us of a number of times when the risen Jesus met with his friends. None of them were expecting to see Jesus alive again; all of them were grieving early on the Sunday morning, and some of them were still uncertain forty days later, when Jesus went back into heaven. But he appeared to them at least twice behind locked doors; again on the beach of the Sea of Galilee; another time when over 500 of the disciples were there together; and on the hilltop near Bethany outside Jerusalem, where Jesus finally left their sight. We're told that Jesus appeared to Simon Peter at some time on that first Easter Day, and that he walked along with two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus and explained how all the scriptures pointed towards what had happened. And these weren't hallucinations or dreams: Jesus' friends were speaking to him, listening to him, touching him and eating with him. This was no ghost, but a real living person - even if he could now appear and disappear at will.

Fourthly, we look at the way these disciples had their lives changed. The women coming to the tomb in the early morning were grieving and crying: they leave in a state of awe and great joy as they go and tell the others. Cleopas and his companion are sad, mourning their dead teacher as they're walking back to Emmaus: but once they realise that they've been with the risen Jesus, they're so excited they rush back all seven miles or so to Jerusalem. Simon Peter, weighed down with guilt after having three times disowned his Master, becomes a strong and fearless leader of the disciples; the other ten change from being a frightened rabble cowering behind locked doors to being a courageous mission team. If the stories of the resurrection had been a fraud, none of this would have happened; and few, if any, of them would have been ready to be martyred simply to back up a lie.

Fifthly, the resurrection fulfils predictions. Three times in St Matthew's gospel Jesus had foretold that he would rise on the third day; and even if his disciples hadn't taken that seriously, the high priests thought something would happen that day, which is why they had guards posted. The angel  underlines that Jesus had predicted it:

"He has risen, just as he said" (Matt. 28:6).

There isn't much in the Old Testament predicting that God's Messiah would rise from the dead, but on the day of Pentecost Simon Peter quotes from Psalm 16:

"You will not abandon me to the grave,
nor will you let your Holy One see decay" (Ps. 16:10).

The sixth and final evidence for the resurrection is the mission of the Christian Church in all the world, starting from the day of Pentecost, just seven weeks later. As Peter said to Cornelius in our first reading, the Good News is for all, God's call and God's love are for all, and Jesus is Lord of all. And right down the centuries since then Christians all around the world have discovered that they have been in the living presence of Jesus, and through him they have come to know God's love, God's truth, and God's promises.

The evidence is before us: we have to make up our minds. Jesus' resurrection is unique, it's unprecedented, there's been nothing like it before or since; but for thousands of millions of Christians down the centuries, the evidence is compelling. We have an Easter faith, and the good news of Jesus' resurrection is at its heart.
In 1920, not long after the Russian Revolution, a great atheist rally was arranged in Kiev. The powerful orator Bukharin was sent from Moscow and for over an hour he attacked the Christian faith with argument, abuse and ridicule. At the end there was silence, and questions were invited. A man rose to speak, a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, and he stood next to Bukharin, facing the people. He spoke just three words: "Christ is risen!" and at once the whole crowd stood and gave the joyful response "He is risen indeed! Alleluia!" The atheist politician couldn't say anything to that.

Taken from the sermon at St. Nicholas, Sturry, and All Saints, Westbere, on 16th April 2006 by Revd Peter Cornish, Rector of Sturry United Church.