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“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” — Luke 24:5
Is there any happier story than the one Christians celebrate on Easter Sunday? It is such a familiar account, retold multiple times every spring, and yet it remains fresh and inspiring.
Imagine it, if you can. Feel the cool damp of dawn. Hear the chattering of birds still hidden in the shadows of the trees. Remember how they came, in the misty morning moonlight, to the garden with the rock-cut tomb. Into the flickering dawn they came, trembling with grief, these women who loved Jesus so. Mary Magdalene was there, striding purposefully ahead, and Joanna, and another Mary, and yet others behind them.
Laden with fragrant spices they came, myrrh and aloes and ointments made for the dead. Laden with heavy hearts they came to do this one last thing, to extend this one last kindness, to prepare the Lord’s body for his everlasting rest.
This they did because they knew Jesus was dead, truly dead—not sleeping, not in a coma, but dead. The Gospel writers take great pains to make sure we understand that Jesus was as dead as any man can be. And, so far as the women knew, so far as the men knew, so far as anyone in Jesus’ world knew, death was final. So far as they knew, when the stone tomb itself had been worn away by the ravages of time, death would still be young and strong.
A morning mystery
When the women arrived, Luke tells us, the massive stone that sealed the tomb was no longer propped in place, but had been rolled to the side, and when they went to investigate, the tomb was empty: the body of Jesus was gone (vv. 1-3). Gone!
One would think the women who clambered sorrowfully into the dark and chilly tomb would erupt from it with great rejoicing, but not one of the women said “Hallelujah, he is risen just as he told us!” or “I never doubted that he would rise again!”
The story makes it clear that they had not expected a resurrection: their whole purpose in visiting the tomb was not to see if Jesus was still there, but to prepare his body for permanent residence. In Luke’s story, not one of the women responded with a happy or hopeful thought. Instead, he says “they were perplexed” (v. 4). The Greek word Luke used can mean “to be at a loss,” or “to be bewildered.” Had the tomb been robbed? Had the Romans removed Jesus body? It’s not surprising that confusion reigned.
And then comes the good news. Then comes the angel into the picture: not one angel in Luke’s gospel, but two: grand, shining figures in dazzling clothes who beamed into view before the women, driving them from perplexity to distress. “They were terrified,” Luke says, “and bowed their faces to the ground.”
But that was before the angels spoke, before they heard those scintillating, fascinating, captivating words: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again?” (vv. 5-7).
And as they did remember, they dropped the heavy spices and ran from the garden as quickly as their sandaled feed could carry them. They rushed back to the place where the male disciples were hiding, breathless but bubbling over with the good news. In voices still shaking and quaking, through lips still shivering and quivering, the women told the news: “He’s not there! … He is risen, just as he said! … We saw angels!” (vv. 9-10). Or so we might imagine.
But the men, the pragmatic, sensible men, the chosen apostolic men, did not believe them. Lost in their own grief and bewilderment, they thought the women had lost their minds. “But these words seemed to them an idle tale,” Luke says (v. 11). The word Luke used was in no way complimentary: it describes foolishness or utter nonsense.
Surely the men wanted to believe, but how could they accept the word of women who babbled on about angels and an empty tomb? Surely they were delusional. One of the men, Luke says, wanted to believe so fiercely that he had to see for himself – and so Peter ran from the room and sprinted to the tomb. The same Peter who had promised to die for Jesus and then denied him in a single night, the very Peter whose name meant “Rock,” ran through the awakening streets to see if the stone door was indeed ajar, to see what was in the tomb – or not.
When he found the garden deserted, he stooped and looked into the cool, dark chamber, seeing nothing but empty grave clothes lying in a deflated heap. Peter turned and went back to the others, not running, not victorious, not even convinced that Jesus had risen; but puzzling, wondering, “amazed at what had happened” (v. 12).
“Amazed,” Luke said. The word can mean marveling, wondering, sur- prised, astonished. When Peter left the tomb, he was stunned. Can you imagine how he was feeling, what he was thinking?
A dawning truth
Can you imagine a less triumphant way to tell such a marvelous, victorious story? At first the women witnesses were “perplexed.” Then they were “terrified.” They shared their experience only to hear the men accuse them of spreading nonsense. Peter went to check out their story, and could only shake his head, “amazed.”
Even the earliest witnesses had a hard time believing that Jesus had truly risen from the dead. Modern folk may also have a hard time believing. Rational, enlightened people don’t like being perplexed, or terrified, or befuddled by thoughts of Jesus’ resurrection.
But there are good reasons to believe the resurrection is true. Think about it. Could the early church have arisen from nothing – and in the face of persecution – if there had been no resurrection? Can you imagine that Paul and other early believers would have followed Christ to the point of dying for the sake of a story they had made up?
For another thing, if we were going to invent a story about Jesus’ resurrection, wouldn’t we paint the disciples in a better light? Instead of showing them as perplexed and astonished and doubting, wouldn’t we have them accept the joyous news immediately and celebrate in triumph and sing “Christ the Lord is risen today, a-a-a-lle-lu-u-ia”?
No, if we were making this story up, I suspect we would never portray such forgetful disciples greeting Jesus with such ambivalence. We would portray them as confidently expecting Jesus to rise, then gathering to greet him and to sing hosannas when he walked from the tomb.
But the whole point of the stories as we have them is that even Jesus’ closest friends did not expect him to rise from the dead. They were as shocked as anyone. Jesus had to appear to them over and over just to pound it into their skulls and their spirits that he really had arisen from the dead.
But when Jesus convinced them, they stayed convinced. They came out of hiding and into the light. They changed their speech from shameful denial to courageous confession. The same disciples who were so defeated in Luke 24 became the ones of whom Luke later says “With great power the apostles gave witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33).
I don’t know any way to account for that change except this one thing: that the Gospel writers are telling the truth – that Christ did in fact rise from the dead, that he has conquered death, that his reign is ever-living and everlasting.
The earliest Christians certainly did come to believe it. When Peter preached his first sermon, he proclaimed: “This Jesus has God raised up, whereof we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32).
What the Apostle Paul described as his “first gospel” was an account of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1-8).
When Paul and his companions called for a confession of faith, it was this: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:8-9).
In our own day, we remember that first Easter every time we gather on Sunday to worship God. The Jews worshiped on Friday night and Saturday, the Sabbath, but Jesus was raised on “the first day of the week,” and that had such an impact on the early Christians that they began to speak of it as “the Lord’s day” (1 Cor. 16:1; Rev. 1:10), and that is the day they chose to worship the God whose love was revealed through Jesus Christ.
The tradition has continued through the years, and today every Sunday service is a reminder that Jesus was raised on the first day of the week. Every congregation of believers who gather testifies that the resurrection is real, that Jesus lives on.
Reading the Easter story is more than something we do to remember. The story also demands that we ask ourselves if there is evidence of the Lord’s resurrection in our lives. Christ was not simply raised from death to walk on the earth again: the scriptures insist that Christ, through the Spirit, not only lives, but also lives in us, and the way we live should be an ongoing testimony to the reality of Christ’s life-transforming resurrection.
And that’s a thought worthy of long meditation. NJF
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for March 27, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Luke 24:1-12
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
Each of our students have a story to tell. They tell these stories all the time. Sometimes they will verbally sit around and tell their stories to each other. There are other times when they share their stories in real time with their friends, and the world around them, via social media. This generation of students might be better equipped to tell their story more than any other generation because of the amount of storytelling that they do. But as your students tell their stories, help them to remember that as they tell their story, they are telling the story of Jesus as well.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Finale” from The Black Cauldron via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Luke 24:1-12