Today is Easter Sunday. We greet the day with joyful songs - "Christ the Lord is risen today - Hallelujah!" It is a day of celebration that needs to be reflected in every day of our lives. The Lord is risen - he is risen indeed!
On Good Friday we were trying to reflect on what happened through the mind of the High Priest, Caiaphas. Unlike Jesus' disciples, he saw Friday as a very satisfactory day - a day for celebration. How might he have viewed the events of Easter Sunday?
I don't know what to make of it yet, but something's gone wrong - very wrong!
Friday seemed a very satisfactory day. We managed to have Jesus condemned to death. And the Romans did their unpleasant work efficiently. They are brutal, really, but for once we didn't mind.
A crucifixion is meant to be a lesson to everyone else. The flogging weakens the victims. It bruises and lacerates their backs. Then they are expected to carry the heavy crossbar to Golgotha - the Place of the Skull. (Jesus was too weakened - he had given up his heavy labouring work three years ago. Someone from the crowd had to carry it for him.) There they nail the victims to the crossbars and hoist them up on the scaffolding. The rough wood against their bare lacerated backs often makes them scream with pain.
It is never a pretty sight to watch, but most of Jerusalem seems to come. A strange fascination draws us all, and we look on in stunned deathly silence. Well... usually! This time we were so glad to be rid of Jesus that we called out to him, "Come down from the cross and we will believe in you! You trust in God and claim to be God's Son. Well, then, let God rescue you now, if he wants you!" And of course, he didn't come down - he couldn't! We had him where we wanted him. And he died - no question about it. The Roman soldiers made sure of that - even thrust a spear into his side to make sure! I can't say I like what they do, but they do it efficiently.
He was dead, gone - to trouble us no more. We were ready to settle down and forget there ever was a Jesus!
That is, until this morning! I don't know what to make of it yet, but something's gone wrong - very wrong!
There were two members of the Council who hadn't favoured direct action against Jesus - Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. They asked Pilate's permission to bury Jesus' body in a new tomb Joseph had made (Jn 19.38-32).
We were a bit irritated that the request came through Council members, but could raise no objection. What we did, however, was to ask Pilate to post a guard. Jesus had said he would "rise again after three days later" and we wanted to make sure there was no nonsense. "Take a guard," Pilate told us. "Go and make the tomb as secure as you know how" (Mt. 27.62-66).
"As secure as you know how..." Odd words. Secure from what? Jesus' disciples put up no resistance on Thursday night. We knew they were too shocked and grief-stricken to do anything. And after all they had just seen Jesus go through, I doubt any of them would dare put around a lie that Jesus had been raised to life! I'm not really sure what we were hoping to achieve - except to prove that the dead stayed dead.
Yet in the early hours of this morning all of us were awakened by an act of God - an earthquake.
Not this morning, I thought. I'm still trying to catch up on some sleep - Thursday night was an all-night job. Half an hour later I was still deciding whether to stay in bed a bit longer or get up - when there was a loud knock on the door. It was the guards. "The body's gone!" they announced.
Of course, I wanted Jesus done and gone for good, but the missing body raised other possibilities Are you sure? I asked. "Sure as we're here!" they said. I probed them, Not sleeping on duty, I hope? I knew they faced a death penalty if caught sleeping on duty. I wanted to frighten the truth out of them - we could cover up with Pilate later if we had to.
No, they had been awake. In the early light they saw some women coming to the tomb - friends of Jesus bringing embalming spices. The guards had muttered to one another, "Don't know how they hope move that stone. It's over half a ton. Even with our help they won't budge it." That was the moment the earthquake struck. They said, "We saw a flash of light and what must have been an angel of the Lord. He rolled the stone back and talked to the women." (Angel!? That's Pharisee stuff. Many of us priests don't believe in angels. Better go along with them now.) What did this angel say? I asked them. Something like, "Jesus isn't here. He has risen, just as he said." But the tomb? Did you check the tomb? "Empty! Clean empty! The body's gone! We checked it very carefully, searching for any clues about what happened." And did you see anything at all? There must have been something, surely. "Nothing! Nothing unusual. The seal hasn't been tampered with on the outside. No unusual marks on the inside. Just one odd thing - the grave-clothes are still there, looking as if... as if the body had just evaporated out of them!"
So that was it. We paid them well, of course, and got them to say the disciples stole the body while they were asleep. An unlikely story, but many people will be gullible enough to believe it. And if Pilate hears their story and wants to make trouble for them being "asleep on duty", we'll find a way of fixing it with him.
As I said before, I don't know what to make of it yet, but something's gone wrong - very wrong! Jesus didn't come down from the cross, but did he somehow escape from the tomb? I told the Council it would be good if one man died for the people (Jn 18.14). Right now I wonder what it all means.
There is no evidence that Caiaphas ever came to faith in Jesus Christ as Messiah and Lord. Yet of all Jesus' opponents, he had all the evidence most clearly before him -
2. The body of Jesus was missing, but the grave-clothes were still there. Any potential grave-robbers (and the disciples were the most unlikely) would have had difficulty enough rolling back the large stone without attracting the guards' attention. From time and other considerations, the grave-clothes would not have been removed from the body. What's more, there is no evidence at all of a massive Jewish and Roman search for the body. Officialdom took no actions to support the report that the disciples stole the body.
3. Over a period of seven weeks the disciples became so convinced that Jesus was alive that, from Pentecost on, they were prepared to risk their lives to tell the world about it. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, their actions were based on what actually happened and on their experience of the risen Lord.
Caiaphas didn't see the risen Jesus, but he knew all the evidence and chose to reject it, to cover it all up.
And today, nearly two thousand years later, the evidence is still before us. The question is how we respond to the risen Jesus. It's not simply a matter of getting the facts of history straight. Trust him as your Saviour and Lord!