RPM, Volume 17, Number 14, March 29 to April 4, 2015

No Bones About It!

Matthew 28:1-10

By D. Marion Clark


There is no greater celebration than that of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. . There is no more joyous event. The resurrection proclaims to us that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the Messiah, the Son of God; that he indeed is the divine God who took on the nature of man; that his crucifixion was an atoning sacrifice made for the sins of the world; and that he carried out his mission to bring salvation.

Let's rehearse the story again. We remember how it was a handful of women who went to the tomb early in the morning, just as we have gathered in the early morning. They went to the tomb not to confirm a resurrection, but to complete the anointing of the dead body. Remember how they worried about how they were going to move the stone? They probably did not even know about the guards. Where were the men to help, the disciples?

We know the conversation the angels had with them when they arrived at the tomb and found the stone rolled away. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples. Matthew says they were afraid yet filled with joy. We can easily imagine their feelings and picture their reaction. We have to smile, maybe chuckle over the scene, especially when, while they are hurrying away, Jesus appears before them.

Surely we've imagined what it would be like for us. We go to the tomb in grief paying our last respects. The tomb, which is a carved out cave, looks like it has been broken into probably by grave robbers. Filled with anger and perhaps fearful as well, we look in and find the body missing! Now we are angry and dismayed by the thought of our Lord's body being desecrated. Then we are scared out of our wits' end by the appearance of angels, who tell us news beyond our imagination — he has risen! Then we are ordered to quickly go and tell the news. We would be in a daze by all the extreme emotions hitting us — from grief to anger to shock to fear to joy. Goodness, why did the women not simply faint and fall to the ground? I dare say I would have, especially when I ran into the risen Lord standing in front of me. The women fall to the ground to worship him; I would have fallen unconscious.

It is a great story to recall, and so Christians have recalled it year after year. We have preached it, re-enacted it, and celebrated it through special services. Indeed, millions upon millions of believers celebrate it as has been done throughout the centuries.

Yes, it is a wonderful story, but let us confirm again, we celebrate the story because the story is true. Make no bones about it, no bones were left on that day.

I recall as a seminary student a conversation around a cafeteria table. As theological students are wont to do, we were sitting around discussing issues that most people would have recognized as an academic way of wasting time. One student asked what would be our response if, hypothetically, it was proven that Jesus really did not rise from the dead. Somehow the bones were found, which all believers had to admit really belonged to Jesus. Would we still become ministers? After all, there are many ministers and theologians and even biblical scholars who devote themselves to New Testament studies, who quite frankly believe that a literal resurrection is nonsense.

I can still remember listening to a radio message by a minister on Easter morning, who was taking the time to carefully demonstrate the errors in the Bible in recording the story of the resurrection and so to prove that the resurrection was not factual. This was the minister of a church, not a skeptic and opponent of the faith. As time has gone on, he has proved not to be an exception to the rule, but increasingly the norm.

There was a resurrection, to be sure, but not a literal resurrection, some say. There was a spiritual resurrection in the hearts of Christ's followers. Their faith lived on and they gave expression to that faith through the resurrection myth. Or maybe Christ did rise, but just as we all rise from the dead and live on in our spirits, or live on in the hearts of those who love us and remember us.

Yes, it is a lovely story to tell to give us hope that good ideas can carry on and be given new life in those who believe in the ideas. Yes, recalling the story of Jesus' resurrection is a wonderful way to recall to life his message of brotherly love. Isn't that what's really important? To see that Jesus' teachings live on in our lives? Isn't his message the greater truth?

Well, back to the seminary cafeteria - my answer was that I would drop out of seminary immediately and have nothing to do with the church or with Christianity. I was not interested in representing a myth. If the resurrection were false, then I had nothing to believe.

Why? I can believe in good ideas without resorting to myths. There are plenty of moral atheists and agnostics for me to fellowship with, plenty of stimulating books to read without bothering with religious materials. I would have nothing to do with religion. Why bother?

And also understand, I would abandon Christianity with bitterness. My life, not simply my job, centers around what the biblical writers proclaim to be true — that Jesus is the Son of God who took on human nature, lived among us in the flesh, died as a sacrifice to atone our sins, rose bodily from the grave in victory over death, ascended into heaven, and will return in the body again. I believe these things, because the biblical writers attest that they believe as well.

Skeptics can make a case that the resurrection is not possible. They can even, as the radio minister tried to do, demonstrate how some biblical passages seem to contradict others. But there is one thing in which they have only made themselves appear ridiculous, and that is to assert that the biblical writers were making up stories they did not believe.

Let me read one example from a popular scholar who has devoted his life studying Jesus.

Maybe resurrection is simply a word-picture of Jesus' continuing presence among his followers…Those missionaries…sent out by Jesus to offer free healing and share open meals in the homes and hamlets of Galilee — do you really think they just dropped everything the day he died? Just immediately all lost their faith? No. I think that they found themselves just as empowered as they had been before. And that meant that somehow Jesus was still with them. So they struggled to find a way to express that powerful and empowering presence of Jesus. That way was the Easter Story.

I want to say, "Are you mad?" These missionaries proclaimed the resurrection, proclaiming themselves to be eyewitnesses. They suffered for their message and were even killed for it. The overwhelming theme of the NT writings to the churches is the salvation made by Jesus' atonement and resurrection. The book of Acts is about nothing except how this message spread throughout the world. All of the apostles, including Paul, staked their lives and anything of value that they had to say, on their own testimony that Jesus Christ had risen bodily from the dead.

To say that the followers were amazed by their own faith and then created stories to explain their faith is absolutely ludicrous. Far more realistic is to believe that these skeptical scholars are compelled by their own lack of faith to recreate what was going on in the followers' minds. My greater respect is for skeptics who reject Christianity altogether. It is one thing to discount the Christian gospel; it is simply silly to make the gospel say what it doesn't so you can have a make-believe religion.

"Christian skeptics," if there is such a term, want to get a factual resurrection out of the way so that they can embrace the more important ideas of Christianity. The resurrection, besides being an embarrassment, just isn't that important.

Why does it matter that there were no bones in the tomb? For one, what can we believe about Scripture if not this? The writers were liars who intentionally manipulated the faith of believers. Why should we believe them about anything? If they lied about what they claimed to be the central evidence for the gospel, how can we trust anything that they wrote?

What can we believe about the cross if the resurrection is not true? Nothing. If Christ did not rise, it makes the idea of Jesus atoning for our sins silly. He is just one good man who got beat. Without the resurrection, we certainly cannot entertain the idea that Jesus died to show us God's love. What's love got to do with a father letting his son die? God lost his Son and only ends up with people who still sin against him. If Jesus did not rise, God lost.

And we lost. What hope do we have of anything? There is no resurrection of the saints. Is there life after death? Maybe. Who knows? The point is we know nothing. Can we have a meaningful life? Maybe. There are non-Christians who seem to be pretty happy and content. Can we have hope that we shall live on for eternity in happiness? Not if we are rational. There is nothing to hope in. There is nothing to give assurance.

But, brothers and sisters, Jesus did rise from the dead. Why should it be so shocking to believe it? Why should it be so hard to believe that the God of the universe can raise his own Son from the dead? Why should it be considered incredulous that God the Son who created human life can himself rise to life? Why should it be so hard to believe that the biblical writers could mean what they say, and that the Word of God could actually be true?

Can Christianity be a false religion? From a human standpoint, it is possible. We do, after all, believe by faith. But why should the Christian gospel be incredulous? You don't have to suspend belief in the laws of nature. You don't have to throw away reason. If anything, reason is what you need to believe. We do, after all, base our faith on bones. Our faith is not based on the visions of religious men. It is based on what ordinary men and women could see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and touch with their hands.

We believe because the women saw no bones in the tomb. Instead, they saw the flesh and blood risen Lord. We don't throw away reason because we believe witnesses. But we do confess that we have thrown away the skepticism and cynicism that so many in this world embrace. We have thrown away our pride and our self-created idols.

We have thrown them all away that we may worship and celebrate the risen Lord.

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