Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb. And so she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him." Peter therefore went forth, and the other disciple, and they were going to the tomb. And the two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter, and came to the tomb first; and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. Simon Peter therefore also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he beheld the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth, which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb entered then also, and he saw and believed.It’s time to look back on Christ’s Passion, then forward again. Here we see the pinnacle of history, the heart of it all, as God’s case against sinful mankind is opened and shut. From start to finish, Jesus is our substitute, pleading guilty for our crimes, suffering and dying in our stead. Sin, death, and hell have come undone. By his sorrow and death—in a word, His Passion—Jesus has effected the denouement or “unraveling” of the human story. Some say this didn’t really happen, that it’s a folktale that reveals much about the human condition but no more. Others say it may have happened, but it isn’t a message of hope for humanity, just a miscarriage of justice that launched a major religion.
But we have not only two or three witnesses, but four—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—backed up by the testimony of dozens—verifying that this is not fiction, nor is it merely history, but it is the truest thing in the world and it matters for every man, woman, and child who has ever lived or ever will. Everyone needs to know this, because it means eternal life for all who believe. This message is worth all the pains men have taken to proclaim it. It is worth living for; it is worth dying for. Christ crucified is the way, though every other path be a trap; He is the truth, though every other word be a lie; He is the life, though every other cure for man’s problems be deadly poison and spiritual murder. This is why the world goes around. God holds his final judgment in check until this message has been fully preached and all who are being saved are brought in. That’s all, folks. What you have heard over the past week is the true story behind all stories, the real focus of history, the end-all-be-all. Everything else is by-the-way.
On Sunday we saw that Jesus went willingly. He took the cup of suffering and death on purpose, out of love for us, though He had the power and right to do otherwise. On Monday we heard that He spoke openly. Therefore those who have heard his message must know what He said, so that when we proclaim His word, Christ speaks through us. On Tuesday we saw that He stood innocently, yet He bore the guilt of sinful mankind. And so on Wednesday when the tide turned against Him, He remained in control of the events swirling around Him. He saw to it that both Gentiles and Jews had a hand in His death, so He might redeem both Jews and Gentiles. Therefore on Thursday when we saw the sentence carried out, Jesus was crucified to fulfill His own word. This makes His death more than just a historical injustice, but a cosmic battle between good and evil in which Christ, sacrificial bearer of all the world’s sins, came out on top. This victory he scored on Good Friday, when we saw the promise fulfilled to the last detail, complete atonement made for sins, and the judgment of God lifted off mankind when Jesus said, “It is finished,” and bowed his head in death.
And now, after he had rested in the grave three days, on this evening which in biblical time is already part of Easter Sunday, God demonstrates that Jesus has accomplished all He set out to do. Here’s the receipt for the transaction, when Christ bought us for God’s Kingdom with his bleeding and suffering and dying. Here’s the smoking gun, here’s the proof positive that everything has been done for our salvation. On the third day Christ arose, never again to die. Having died in the flesh, he rose in the Spirit; which does not mean his body didn’t rise from the dead. Here “flesh” and “spirit” do not mean “body and soul,” for the soul cannot die. Death is what happens when body and soul are separated. So the only way “being made alive in the Spirit” can make sense, is if the body is raised from the dead—not to die again, but to live forever, an entirely new order of living.
Peter’s statement that Christ was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit, means his crucifixion was the end of the old world order of Law, sin, guilt, and death; and his resurrection begins a new world order of grace, righteousness, and indestructable life. Mortality has put on immortality; corruption has put on incorruptability. Christ is the firstborn from the dead: not that no one before him was revived from the dead, but no one was resurrected before. He cannot die again; He has been glorified forever; He already belongs to the new creation we will live in when we become like Him.
Jesus’ rising puts the tail on His suffering and dying. Only now will his disciples begin to understand what he had to endure. See how baffled they are on finding his tomb empty. Hear the hysterical women blubbering that someone has taken the Lord’s body to Lord knows where. See Peter and John’s relay race to the tomb, where they saw and believed—but what did they believe? John tells us they did not yet understand the Scripture, that He must rise from the dead. Apparently they had to see for themselves to believe the body was missing. The full story didn’t come out till Mary stumbled into Jesus and found him living and breathing. And even when she told that story, the disciples were hesitant to believe. Who can blame them? This is where reason rebels. Here’s the line drawn in the sand; at this point most of the world looks at the Christian story and says, “This is beyond belief.” Yet if it’s true, the fact Jesus rose from the dead would prove that His suffering and death means everything to everybody; it’s a message of salvation and life for the whole world.
Here’s the crux of reality, people. Is it real or is it just a metaphor? Is it a figure for something else? Is it a spiritual truth whose meaning must be sought inside you? Or did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead, body and soul? Here’s where faith is really put to the test, since He is not visibly around to show himself, to demonstrate that He is alive and kicking. But Scripture tells us that, after making full atonement for all our sins and rising bodily from the dead, Jesus ascended into heaven to rule at the Father’s right hand. So he can make good his promise to be wherever believers are, wherever the Church is, wherever His Gospel is preached and sinners are baptized and His body and blood are taken by mouth. Jesus went to where we can’t see him, not only so His death and resurrection might be a matter of faith, but also so He could distribute His life-giving Word and Sacrament throughout the world.
If you believe this really happened, that Jesus really died for you and rose again, then you must acknowledge that’s the point of it all, that’s true story beyond everything, that it’s the reality of every human life and it’s crucial for every person to hear about it and, God willing, believe in it. Otherwise Gethsemane and Golgotha and Pilate and Caiaphas are just literature, something that’s nice to hear about, just one tradition that does the job for some people, while for others maybe Mohammed or Buddha or the Baghavad Gita or the Book of Mormon works just as well. But if this is true, those who believe any other story are in grave danger of everlasting damnation. More would be the pity, if indeed Christ died for their sins and rose again for their justification.
Even Jesus’ disciples did not at first see how Jesus’ death and resurrection were necessary. But after He showed Himself alive and whole, they got the point. It has been preached to us so often, maybe the sparkle has worn off. But consider for a moment what an astounding thing the body raised must be, especially for those who saw and touched Christ for themselves. This is an unusual outcome after a dead body has been buried. Even an empty tomb might have other explanations. A body raised was not what the women or the disciples expected. They jumped to other conclusions: that the Jews had taken his body and hidden it somewhere, or that a gardener had moved it for some reason and perhaps mislaid it. But what do you say to the linen cloths in which his body was wrapped lying neatly folded? Who would do that before moving a dead body? And what do you say when a very excited woman comes and says, “I have seen the Lord,” and reports how she met him in the garden and what he said to her?
What do you say, indeed, when the unbelievable turns out to be true? Why then, the world is not what we thought it was. The story we see is not the true story. Compared to the great events of history, Christ’s death and resurrection seem so improbable and even silly, yet of all events of ancient history it is the most firmly and widely attested, with more witnesses better preserved going back farther and spread over a wider area. If Christ’s resurrection is real history, then it is history—I mean, this is what it’s all about, this is the truth of all truths, this is the fundamental thing everything in the world must build on. He is the cornerstone of creation. Were it not so, we Christians were most to be pitied, having put our hope in a Savior who could not deliver, having invested our lives in expectation of eternal life and resurrection where none were to be found. But since it is true, since it did happen, beyond belief and yet a matter of faith, everything depends on Christ—and we can depend on him, because His suffering and death accomplished His goal.
He set out to redeem us and has done it. He bore our sins, suffered our death, reconciled us to God. He swept Satan, hell, and the grave out of our way. He has bought us; we belong to Him eternally. His body raised means your body raised. His imperishable life means your imperishable life. His glorification in the Father’s presence means your glorification, when you behold the face of God. Here is salvation, and it’s real.
That’s why we’ve used the theme of “unraveling.” Pull this thread out of Christianity and it comes apart. Admit that this happened in the real world, and everything you previously thought about the nature and meaning of life and death, the purpose of human endeavors, comes apart. Christ crucified and arisen stands astride history and rules over life and death, as well as in the hearts of all who trust Him. Come now and get a piece of the body sacrificed and raised for you. This is no joke, this is no shadow play. Christ has been raised from the dead, and He means business. So I hope you will make it your business to rely on Him, to receive His gifts, and to see to it that His body raised is declared to the world, both here and abroad.