Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
March 31, 2002
Acts 10:34, 37-43; Col 3:1-4; Jn 20:1-9
1) Today we celebrate with great joy our Christian BELIEF in the most important event in the history of the world, the fact of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Christ died for our sins. By dying for them, he destroyed our death; by rising from the dead, he made eternal life possible. That is why this day is the most important day of the whole year, because on this day we celebrate the greatest event that ever happened. God loved us so much that he traded his own Son’s life for us out of love.
2) We believe in the fact of the Resurrection with the certainty of faith, but nevertheless we believe it and strictly speaking we don’t know it on the basis of having seen it occur. Jesus’ resurrection, after all, far exceeds the normal human capacity for credibility, that a man that was killed in front of all, hammered to a tree, three days later rose from the dead. We’re forced to ask the question whether our belief is merely a matter of a “gift of faith,” that we have and that other’s don’t, or is it something that is “reasonable,” something that is capable of being communicated to others? Is there evidence we can use to make a case to persuade others that this event — Christ’s rising from the dead — really happened?
3) Yes, there is evidence, and a good deal of it, but we have to first admit that this is not just an academic question. The first disciples encountered the same questions as we see in the Gospel. The Jewish authorities bribed the guards to lie and say that the disciples stole Jesus’ body and, as the end of the passage states, “this story is still told among the Jews to this day” — in other words it was still circulating at the time of the writing of St. Matthew’s Gospel, probably about 30-40 years after the Resurrection would have taken place. In succeeding centuries Roman pagans and intellectuals tried to attack the Christian belief in the Resurrection as irrational. How could a God die or a man rise from the dead, they asked? There are still many people today who say they cannot accept the miracle of the Resurrection, including, sadly, many so-called Christian “intellectuals” in universities and many magazine and newspaper columnists. In the past few years, on the front covers of Newsweek and Time around the time of Easter, there were stories on the resurrection, basically trying to say Christians-in-the-know don’t really believe that Jesus rose from the dead. They believe, instead, that Jesus was a good man, but that the first disciples just exaggerated Jesus’ physical resurrection when what they really meant to say was that Jesus was risen from the dead only “in faith” within their hearts. They say that if the tomb were not empty on Easter Sunday morning, it really wouldn’t change our faith at all. They say, like the Jewish authorities of the first century we see in today’s Gospel, that the empty tomb in itself is not proof that Jesus rose from the dead. It just proves that Jesus’ body was not there on Easter Sunday morning; it doesn’t answer the question WHY his body wasn’t there.
4) How do we respond to these claims? It’s very important that we do respond to them, because St. Paul says that if Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead, then our faith would be in vain. All that we do in the faith would simply be a waste of time.
5) There are, fundamentally, two categories of evidence in favor of the Resurrection. They are, essentially, the same categories that would be used in a modern court trial: (1) the inherent coherence and credibility of the evidence or testimony itself; and (2) the credibility of the witnesses giving the testimony. We will take each in turn. This evidence will provide us not only means to respond to those might question us, but also help us to understand our faith better and, even more importantly, to live it.
6) When we look at the evidence, it is clear that the position of the Jewish authorities about the empty tomb is in itself self-contradictory. St. Thomas Aquinas used to say that human reason cannot PROVE or demonstrate the things of the faith, but it can demonstrate the falsity of claims against the faith or at least show that these claims do not prove what they think they prove. We see this in the matter of the empty tomb. The argument of the Jewish authorities was on the basis of the bribed soldiers’ claim that the disciples “came by night and stole Jesus while they were asleep.” Well, as any good lawyer might ask: If they were asleep, how do they know that it was the DISCIPLES who took Jesus? How would the disciples not have awakened them in moving the huge stone from in front of the tomb? If the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body, why would they have left the wrappings for his body and his head inside the empty tomb? Why, in others words, would they have wanted to steal Jesus NAKED and carry him unclothed through the streets of Jerusalem? We can also ask the larger question about why they would have come at all to take the corpse of someone who had just been crucified as a criminal and who, if he didn’t rise from the dead, was a liar who not only got himself killed, but, as we will in the Acts of the Apostles, would get his disciples in a lot of trouble as well. The evidence AGAINST the Christian explanation of the empty tomb is extraordinarily weak indeed.
7) When we turn to the evidence and testimony for the Resurrection, there are two main sources. The first is the empty tomb. Although not in itself PROOF that Jesus rose from the dead, it is evidence that the Christian explanation is plausible: Jesus’ body was simply not found in the tomb and it was never found afterward there or anywhere else. But the main evidence is found the APPEARANCES of the Risen Lord. Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene; the disciples on the road to Emmaus; the ten in the upper room on Easter Sunday; the eleven the following week; Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John and two other disciples fishing in the Sea of Galilee; 500 disciples most of whom, St. Paul tells the Corinthians, were still alive; James, and then ultimately Paul on the road to Damascus. All of these people testified to SEEING the Risen Lord. Either all of them were deceived in one way or another by some false image (which would have been an extraordinary feat in its own right!), or all of them were lying, or they were telling the truth that they had indeed seen Jesus risen from the dead.
8) To determine which of these three seems most likely, we do so on the basis of the resurrection witnesses’ credibility. And when we look at the witnesses in the Gospels and in the letters, we cannot help being overwhelmed by the evidence in favor of their believability. The men who were testifying to Jesus’ being risen from the dead were people who had abandoned the Lord in the Garden when he was alive but merely seized. Why would they speak boldly after his death? If Jesus hadn’t risen, they would be testifying to a liar, someone who deceived them for three years, had gotten them to leave their families, their businesses, and their livelihoods in what would have turned out to have been a grand hoax. They would have more likely HATED Jesus rather than posthumously praised him. The apostles would have had nothing to gain financially from propagating such a falsehood. They traveled, by Jesus’ instructions, with no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, and no extra tunic. They had no real persuasive abilities, all coming from obscure Galilean villages with little education — and, let’s be honest, proclaiming a crucified man as risen from the dead would not have been an easy sell even for famous Roman orators. How would these fishermen and tax collectors have gone to the ends of the earth to plant a made-up story of the resurrection? In proclaiming the Gospel, moreover, they were ostracized from their religion, repeatedly beaten and ultimately killed. Why would they have gone through all of this unless they had truly seen the Lord rise from the dead, just as they testified? St. Paul’s case was slightly different, but in some ways even more powerful an example. He was a Christian KILLER, terrorizing the Christians of the 30s like Nero did in the 60s. Why would he have changed all of a sudden and become a Christian when it would have meant the loss of his position within the Jewish authorities as well as the fact that the Jewish authorities would put a contract on his head for the rest of his days? Yet this extraordinarily intelligent man said in simple, highly believable language, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, Jesus appeared also to me.” Again, either Paul was a liar, completely deceived, or telling the truth. The evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of his telling the truth, as with all of the other witnesses.
9) What do we gain from this? Or, to ask a deeper question, that strikes at the whole heart of life: who cares if Jesus rose from the dead? We learn more than just the evidence for a debate with non-Christians. We learn ultimately three things. The first thing regards our faith. If Jesus rose from the dead, it changes everything. This is the most important event in the history of the world. In the midst of darkness, Christ the Light rose. Imagine the darkness of the first disciples, the tremendous dejection, having thought everything was lost when they saw Jesus killed, laid in the tomb and the tomb sealed and watched by guards. Some in the Church have been going through similar darkness lately, seeing the types of sins some priests have committed, wondering about the future of the Church. But into this darkness shone the brilliant light of the Resurrection, and Christ’s light, Christ’s victory over all will sustain us here.
10) The second thing is that God didn’t call necessarily the smartest, bravest, most capable people to give witness to his resurrection. We, too, might not be the most brilliant or talented proponents of the faith, but he calls us to give witness just as he called them, and just as he called countless others throughout the centuries down to our own day. We do have a role in the new Acts of the Apostles that is being written for the third millennium.
11) The third thing we can grasp is that the persuasiveness of the testimony of the resurrection is on the basis of the credibility of one’s lived faith, on the credibility of the Gospel we preach by our actions. The apostles were credible because they could not possibly have had “mixed motives” in proclaiming the Gospel. Either it was true, or they were deceived, but what was excluded was their proclaiming a falsehood for personal benefit. This is still the case of Christian credibility today. Why was Mother Teresa’s lived Gospel so persuasive to so many people, Christians and non-Christians alike? Her example was so powerful because it was all love. She had nothing to gain financially from spending her nearly 50 years lovingly caring for the maggot-infested dying people in Calcutta. Her vocation, and those of the sisters in her community she founded, could not possibly be understood as a “good career move!” And yet she joyfully proclaimed that they were doing it out of nothing but love for Jesus, which left those who observed her with one of two possible responses: either she was benevolently deluded or she really was inspired by a living relationship with Jesus Christ, just as she said.
11) It’s the same thing with us. We’re called to live the Christian life with such joyful, self-giving heroism that proclaims to everyone that we REALLY BELIEVE the Great News that Jesus lives, that he loves us, and that we love him — and leave them with the choice that either we’re crazy or we’re right! We’re ultimately called to give witness to the world that Jesus is someone worth LIVING for completely and, if need be, worth DYING for. He certainly was for the first apostles. He certainly was as well for Mother Teresa and countless others through the centuries. Through this Holy Eucharist, may we be strengthened to follow their example and be witnesses of this Greatest News Ever Told to others here in this parish, here in this city, and ultimately to anyone and everyone we meet. Jesus has truly risen! And this fact changes everything! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!