There are plenty of reasonable things to say in any given conversation. Telling your nephew he’ll have to work hard to make the starting lineup-that’s reasonable. Instructing your friend to buy tomato seeds if she wants to grow tomatoes-that’s reasonable, too. Convincing your brother not to get too excited about the Brewers in April-that’s definitely a reasonable thing to say. Reason makes conversations run smoothly. We talk about accepted things that both parties understand. That’s how we communicate.
But then comes Easter. Jesus’ crucified, pulse-less, dead body came back to life and left the tomb empty. Does that seem reasonable to you?
Maybe not. After all, I’ve never seen a resurrection. I have never visited my brother’s grave and seen Joe Thompson come bursting out of his a few plots down! I’ve never even seen a resurrection on the news. It doesn’t seem so reasonable to say something like that actually happened. Sounds more like a myth or a Michael Jackson video minus the dancing.
Perhaps that’s why talking about the resurrection is such a dangerous thing. Listen to what happened to a Christian named Paul in our lesson. Paul said, “’I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— 23that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.’ 24At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense. ‘You are out of your mind, Paul!’ he shouted. ‘Your great learning is driving you insane.’”
Festus was a governor in the Holy Land in the first century who thought the idea of an empty tomb was insane. When Paul told him Jesus rose from the dead, he jumped in with a shout, “That’s nuts, Paul! How many books have you been reading? That’s just not reasonable.”
I wonder if you haven’t faced the same reaction. Tell people you had a good Easter and they might smile. Tell them you celebrated with good food and good family and they’ll be happy for you. But tell a crowded room you got to hear about Jesus rising from the dead and you’ll understand what the phrase “awkward silence” means. Some might shake their heads. Others might mutter under their breath. Maybe someone will interrupt like Festus and tell you how unreasonable that idea is.
Our culture certainly does think the idea of a resurrection is crazy. Thomas doubted the idea in our Gospel lesson and many, both inside and outside of the church, have followed in his footsteps. In an interview with a Christian author, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner said, “The God of Christianity is a little too childlike for me.” Muslims follow the words of the Koran, which claims that Jesus never really died and therefore was never raised from death. The Passover Plot, a best-selling book, has this intriguing trailer on its cover, “Given a drug that would render him unconscious and make him appear dead, Jesus would then be cut down from the cross in a deathlike trance, removed by his accomplices to the tomb where he would be nursed back to health and then ‘resurrected.’” And then there’s the ELCA. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest Lutheran denomination, has denied an actual physical resurrection of Jesus in its seminaries and increasingly from its pulpits. Their website says, “All of this has led some scholars to write that the risen Jesus and apparitions of the risen Jesus are a supernatural reality which does not belong to this world and cannot be the object of historic investigation.” In other words, Jesus rose spiritually, but not physically. Therefore, we can’t investigate the matter historically. That would seem a bit unreasonable.
So are they right? Is the resurrection unreasonable? Is Easter a pie-in-the-sky theory from religious extremists who have no proof to back up their claims? Well, let’s examine the evidence and see…
But we need to begin by saying two quick things. First, the question of the resurrection is really a question of your worldview. If you believe in an all-powerful God, then the resurrection is easy and reasonable. If you believe God created the universe out of nothing, raising Jesus from the dead is no big deal. However, if you believe no god exists, then the resurrection is bound to be unreasonable. Without a divine force to work a supernatural miracle, then the resurrection would raise a skeptical eyebrow. It’s a question of worldview. Second, I have to tell you the proofs we’re about to discuss didn’t create my faith; they simply confirmed it. Faith comes from hearing the message and the Holy Spirit created faith in my heart through the message. I rejoice in the reasonable proofs from that historic event, but I had faith long before I knew every detail.
That being said, we can present a reasonable response to those who doubt the resurrection. Listen to the Apostle Paul, “24At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense. ‘You are out of your mind, Paul!’ he shouted. ‘Your great learning is driving you insane.’ 25’I am not insane, most excellent Festus,’ Paul replied. ‘What I am saying is true and reasonable. 26The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.’” Paul wasn’t shaken by the accusation of insanity. He didn’t resort to name-calling (“No, you’re insane, Festus! No, you are!”). No, Paul knew the evidence was behind him. So with great respect he presented his reasonable case.
To grasp the full effect of Paul’s argument, you need to understand the king he was addressing. Julius Marcus Agrippa, also know as King Agrippa II, ruled over parts of the Holy Land from 44 A.D. when his father died until his own death around 100 A.D. What’s fascinating is how often his own family’s story intersected with the story of Jesus. Agrippa’s great grandfather knew Jesus. His name was Herod the Great. When he heard that Jesus was born as the king of Israel, he tried to have him killed. He ordered the slaughter of every baby boy under two in Bethlehem in a twisted attempt to secure his throne. Agrippa’s great uncle knew Jesus, too. His name was Herod Antipas. He was the ruler who had Jesus’ cousin John beheaded. He was also the man who appeared at Jesus’ trial, hoping to see a miraculous trick or two. He mocked and ridiculed Jesus and sent him to his death. Even Agrippa’s father knew about Jesus. He was the king who murdered James, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, and arrested Peter with plans to do the same. However, God intervened and stuck him dead. Agrippa II was 17 years old when daddy died, plenty old to realize this Jesus was no ordinary man. So when Paul speaks of Jesus doing something incredible like rising from the dead, it was a reasonable thing to say and Agrippa knew it.
What’s more is that King Agrippa was Jewish. He knew the Old Testament and what it said about the Messiah. He was familiar with Isaiah 53, the prophecy of the suffering servant, and with Psalm 110, the prediction that the Messiah would not decay in the grave. What Paul was saying about a resurrected Messiah was not unreasonable to a Jew.
There were good reasons for Agrippa to listen to the claims of Paul. And even though we have not seen the risen Lord in the same way Paul did, we still have good reasons to believe it’s true. I’ll mention two of the many proofs that exist. First, the apostles died. Besides John, they all died in R-rated ways. Nails were hammered through their hands. Swords were put to their throats. Crosses were set up to make them suffer. Why? Because they said the tomb was empty. They died brutally for that claim.
But, you object, people die for false things all the time. On 9/11, Muslim extremists died for a lie that they would end up in paradise. True, people do die for false causes. But the apostles’ situation was different. The apostles knew whether Jesus was alive or not. The 9/11 terrorist were going on a tradition passed down for over 1,000 years, hoping it was true. But not Peter. He was there. He knew if Jesus was a cold corpse or a living, breathing, risen Lord. Why in the world would he die for the message if he knew the message wasn’t true? Please tell me. I can’t think of one reason that is not completely unreasonable.
A second reasonable proof is the embarrassing account of the resurrection itself. Embarrassing details strengthen our trust in someone’s testimony, don’t they? We are skeptical about the applicant who paints himself as the too-good-to-be-true employee. There’s something fishy about his story. But the woman who admits her weaknesses and mistakes up front is different. She paints an honest picture that convinces us she’s not making this up.
The same is true for the resurrection. You see, women weren’t seen in the best light in the first century. Jewish men could have used a good Bible study like we just had where we saw that women are equally valued and gifted in the sight of God. Sadly, the Jewish law books said things like, “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women.” The Jewish historian Josephus agreed, “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” While those are sad statements, they remind us that no one brought women to court in those days. If you wanted to make a strong case in the 1st century, you didn’t bring your sister, your mother, and your cousin Mary. Their testimony as women would be viewed as worthless in their culture.
And yet the Bible says the first testimonies about the resurrection came from women. How embarrassing for Jesus! (Not really.) If the apostles wanted to get rich or powerful or prestigious by inventing a story, I guarantee you that they would have edited that part out. To make women the first witnesses of the biggest event of the story would be absolutely unreasonable. Unless it were true…
More evidence to confirm what many of us already know—He is risen! Risen indeed! The profound message of Easter is reasonable and its implications are astounding. The empty tomb means Jesus was telling the truth—He is the Son of God who came from the Father. The empty tomb means his mission was accomplished—He saved us from our sins and declared us “not guilty.” The empty tomb means one day his promise will be fulfilled—We will hear his voice and rise from our own graves to live eternally, body and soul. The empty tomb means we don’t have to be embarrassed about our faith, even though some might think it’s ridiculous. We can tell of Jesus’ love on Easter and the other 364 days of the year. We can calmly and passionately discuss the message that creates faith and the proofs that back it up.
Some might find those claims unreasonable. Some might mock like Festus and resort to the name calling Paul endured. Yet some, like Agrippa, might listen to the reasons and the proofs and consider the claim. Let’s let Mr. Hefner close with his startling admission, “If one had any real evidence that, indeed, Jesus did return from the dead, then that is the beginning of a dropping of a series of dominoes that takes us to all kinds of wonderful things. It assures us of an afterlife and all kinds of things that we would all hope are true.” Real evidence? I think I just heard the first domino drop. Amen.