Sunday, March 27, 2016

the resurrection report

May my words be in the name of the Father, & of the Son, & of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The events we gather here to celebrate, that first Easter morning, literally changed the world. Faith in Christ's resurrection and what it means for every human person changed how people looked at the meaning of their lives and how they should live them. Western civilisation is underpinned by the teachings of Christ and his Church. And why would it not have changed the world? As St Paul tells us, if it is true it is the most important thing that ever happened; and if it is false, we are all sadly deluded.

So what really happened that day? That is a question which no doubt many in Jerusalem at the time were asking themselves. Perhaps no one more than Pontius Pilate, the man who had condemned Jesus to death. We know that he was uneasy about what he had done. Harsh man though he was, he hadn't liked sentencing an innocent man to be crucified. He had tried not to do so – not going so far as taking a stand against pressures being put on him, but he had tried. His wife had told him she had a dream warning him to have nothing to do with this man and the Romans were a superstitious lot and he would have placed great stock in such a warning. And this Jesus' fellows claims to kingship without an earthly kingdom and hints at divinity certainly seem to have made him very uncomfortable.

So stories that he was back from the dead would have been quite worrying for him. He would have wanted to know what was going on. And also, he had yielded to the persuasion and have him killed in order to stop unrest in the city; if he was really back, then trouble might be brewing. So what to do? Well, most likely what politicians always do at all times and all places – commission a report! In this case, an investigation to be conducted by some trustworthy man on his staff who would go out into the streets and try to figure out what was going on and then report back to the governor what he had discovered.

So some stalwart fellow would have been dispatched. Someone on his staff, bright enough not to have the wool pulled over his eyes, but tough enough not be frightened off by anyone who didn't like the questions he was asking. A man with military experience who was now serving in an administrative post – there would have been plenty like those in the empire. So out the old soldier would have gone. And a few days later he would have returned to Pilate with his report. And what would he have said?

Well, he would have covered the basic questions one asks when someone is looking into a case where someone who was thought to be dead is now apparently walking around alive and well. The first was, whether there had been a mistake in identity: perhaps the wrong man had been executed and now the right fellow was walking around claiming to have risen from the dead. But that would have been easily dismissed.. One of his own followers had betrayed him and handed him over to the religious authorities. The trial and execution had been very public; Jesus was so well known in the city that everyone would have know if it was the wrong man. His mother had even wept at the foot of the cross. No, certainly the right man had been executed.

But perhaps he had survived somehow and escaped the tomb? That idea also had to be dismissed. Romans executioners knew their business. No one survived the cross – Jesus most certainly hadn't; he had hung motionless and apparently lifeless for hours after he had breathed his last – long enough for Joseph of Arimathea to go to Pilate and request the body, for Pilate to send for the centurion to ask if he were indeed dead and the centurion to come and affirm this, and for Joseph to return. That would have taken a long time – and once a person stops moving on the cross they are dead within minutes. And, even if the cross somehow hadn't killed him, he had been stabbed through the heart with a spear. It was doubly sure he was dead. But even if he had lived, how could a man who been scourged so badly that he couldn't even carry his own cross, a man who would have been crippled by the nails driven through his hands and feet to pin him to the cross followed by a spear through his chest, how could a man in such a condition break out of a sealed tomb – a tomb closed with a stone so heavy that several men would have been needed to move it?

The next question would be perhaps people had simply made a mistake and gone to the wrong tomb? But that would be the most easily dismissed of all. Too many knew exactly where he was buried; if some had gone to the wrong place, then others would have corrected them; and the religious authorities, who certainly didn't like what they were hearing, would have been quick to point out the mistake.

The last possible explanation was that his followers had stolen the body and were now telling lies. But this was the most ridiculous idea of all. His followers were, frankly, cowards. They had run away when he was arrested; they had made no attempt to rescue him after, even though there were enough of them; and they had hidden themselves away in terror after he was dead. No, these were not the men to attack a tomb guarded by soldiers and steal away a body. True, there were some stories that the soldiers were saying they had fallen asleep and his followers had taken the body then. But this was patent nonsense. How men claim to be both asleep and to have seen what happened? And what kind of soldier admits to falling asleep on duty? He looked into that; and at first the soldiers had tried to give him some guff; but when he pointed out what the penalty was for falling asleep on duty and that he worked for the governor they were quick to admit that they had been bribed by the authorities to say his followers had stolen it. The truth was that there had been some kind of an earthquake, bright lights, and the stone seeming to roll back by itself. Then they fell to the ground as if dead men; and when they came to their senses there was nobody there but themselves and no body in the tomb.

The old soldier would have stopped there. And I imagine there would have been a long silence while Pilate waited for the rest of the report. And finally he would have said:
'Well? Keep going – why have you stopped?'
'There is no more, sir,' the soldier would have replied. 'Those are all facts that I have to report.'
'But that can't be all,' Pilate would have replied. 'On the basis of those facts the man has indeed risen from the dead!'
'It is you that say it,' the old soldier would have said. And after he was gone, as Pilate sat there, alone and wondering at what he had been told, he would have remembered that this Jesus had said something very like that when he had asked if he were a king – it is you who say it. Could he have risen from the dead? The Jewish authorities had said he had claimed he would – and three days after he died, which was when the body went missing. And he had also, according to them, claimed to be the Son of God. And his wife had been warned in a dream that he should not involve himself. What could it all mean? Could he have really risen?

We will never know what Pilate made of the events that took place in the city he ruled in those days. He essentially disappears from history thereafter. But we know what it means for us. A cold , rational examination of the facts show that Christ did indeed rise from the dead. And therefore all his promises are true. He has broken the bonds of sin and death and the promise of eternal life is open to all who believe in his name and will follow him faithfully. As the initial confusion of his disciples dissipated, as they came to understand what had happened, it was replaced with joy – a joy that has been felt by all Christians down through the ages – a joy that we share in today – a joy that I pray you will share in always. Amen. 

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