Last Sunday we were shocked by graphic still photographs and video images from two Coptic churches as explosive devices interrupted Palm Sunday services in Tanta and Alexandria, Egypt. The British newspaper, The Guardian, reported that ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombings that killed 47 and injured hundreds. The report stated: “Video from the moment the blast struck the Mar Girgis church in Tanta just before 10am on Sunday showed the sounds of a choir gathered to sing hymns celebrating the Christian holy day, rapidly turning to screams of anguish and panic. Egypt’s state television later reported that a bomb planted under one of the pews ripped through the church.”
“The twin attacks, timed for a day of Christian worship, come following months of attacks on Egypt’s Coptic minority. St Peter and St Paul’s church in the St Marks Cathedral compound in Cairo witnessed a similar attack in December 2016, in which a suicide bomber was able to enter the church, killing 29 people as they worshiped there by placing a bomb under a pew. When claiming responsibility for the attack in February this year, Isis vowed to “liberate” Cairo and threatened Christians across Egypt.”
Death leaves us struggling for perspective and it is no doubt that the ugly face of terror has made us long for the Messianic age spoken of in Micah 4:3: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Against the backdrop of mass murder in Egypt it is easy to understand how the disciples and the friends of Jesus must have felt as they recalled their helplessness and the brutality of the crucifixion. They felt they had watched the final act of the life of Jesus and it had ended in tragedy.
Strangely enough, for us to get a proper perspective on death we have to turn to death, but not just any death. Today is Eastern Sunday, the day that we reflect on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We estimate with spiritual sensitivity the cosmic price of sin and the Father’s compassion for His fallen, broken children. John 20 was written as a reflection on the aftermath of the cross and the burial of Jesus by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea. Sorrow quickly turns into wonder: 1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)
When we leave the disciples in John 19, the gruesome scene at the cross is over, Jesus is dead and two secret disciples have emerged to pay what they consider one final act of homage. It was the Law that a person be buried before the Sabbath Day. They had received permission from Pilate to take the body and they laid him in a tomb that Joseph had provided probably for himself. They provided 200 pounds of spices to anoint the body.
The Feast of the Passover had been marked by violence and injustice as an insurgent, Barabbas, had been released and a man declared innocent three times by Pilate himself, was executed. The time of the year set aside to rejoice in the triumphant departure of Israel from Egypt was marred by the cruel act of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. People who should have been praising God for his mercy instead shouted for the death sentence for a man who had gone about doing good. It was a sad task to bury Jesus and reflect on the tragedy of the past few days. How soon the disciples forgot Jesus' words to them in Jerusalem very early in his ministry: “Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19 KJV).
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is God's vindication of the acceptance of Jesus' sacrifice as being able to take away our sins. Paul makes it clear, as he wrote to the Corinthians, that if Jesus is not risen than our faith is in vain and we are still in our sins. If there is no resurrection than we have no hope beyond this life. Praise God that the resurrection did occur and that today we can have faith in God that we shall rise one day just as Jesus rose.
Mary Magdalene witnessed most of the events leading up to the death of her Master. She was present at the mock trial of Jesus; she heard Pontius Pilate pronounce the death sentence; and she saw Jesus beaten and humiliated by the crowd. She was one of the women who stood near Jesus during the crucifixion to try to comfort Him. Although this is the last mention of her in the Bible, she was probably among the women who gathered with the apostles to await the promised coming of the Holy Spirit.
Mary became the earliest witness to the resurrection of Jesus as she came early in the morning, before daylight in fact, to add her loving respect to the Lord and anoint his body. But when she approached the tomb she noticed the stone had been rolled away. The tomb was empty. She immediately went back to where Peter and John were and told them the news. John outran Peter to the tomb, but stayed outside. Peter ran right into the tomb like you'd expect him to do and Mary's report was confirmed: Jesus was not there.
The disciples looked around, saw nothing but the evidence that a corpse had been there and was gone so they left as well. Only Mary stayed to mourn and here’s how John’s Gospel describes it: 20:10 Then the disciples went back to their homes, 11 but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don't know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, `I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' “ 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
Mary went into the tomb only to find two angels there. She questioned them as to where the body of her Lord had been taken. She did not get her answer, but turned away from the tomb. When she did she saw someone standing there that she automatically mistook for the gardener. What follows next is one of the most touching scenes in all of Scripture. Blinded by her grief and her tears Mary doesn't perceive with whom she speaks. He spoke to her and asked her why she wept and who she was looking for. She thought he might have some information so she asked him where they had taken Jesus. She wanted to find him and care for his permanent burial herself.
Jesus said only one word, but it cut through the confusion of what she had seen him suffer and through his death. It cut through the pain of death and sent an arrow of inexpressible comfort directly to her soul. She had heard the tone before. She had heard the name spoken that way before. Nobody else spoke her name like this. He simply said, “Mary!” She responded, “Rabboni!” a word meaning “my master.” But this also has to be personal! Has Jesus spoken your name? Have you felt the power of his presence penetrate the brokenness of your life? It may not be something that’s audible like my voice, but a sure knowledge in your own soul that your Savior is alive! The power of the resurrection has to be personal!
We have all witnessed the bitterness of death and we need to realize it does not have the final word. Death can claim the body, but it does not own the soul. The breath of God gives us life. We may mourn and suffer the agony of separation, but Jesus arose from the tomb; He alone has mastery over death. The hymn states:
Death could not keep its prey: Jesus my Savior.
He tore the bars away: Jesus my Lord.
Up from the grave he arose…”
The resurrection has no power and no appeal if it only acquaints us with a doctrine that is believed by Christians. It has to bring us into the presence of the risen Lord. It has to stop us cold on our roads to wherever and challenge everything that we are. A dead Christ has no authority any more than a dead king can command his subjects. But we have to deal with a Savior who has the power of life and death.
I may have related this to some of you before. In one of his lighter moments, Benjamin Franklin, the great inventor and thinker, penned his own epitaph. He didn’t profess to be a born-again Christian and evangelist George Whitefield couldn’t convert him, but it seems he must have been influenced by Paul’s teaching of the resurrection of the body. Here’s what he wrote:
The Body of B. Franklin, Printer
Like the Cover of an old Book
Its contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms,
But the Work shall not be wholly lost:
For it will, as he believ’d,
Appear once more
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and amended by the Author.
Jesus knew what the end of the story would be for him. On the same occasion when he promised he would send the Comforter, the blessed Holy Spirit, he offered these words of comfort to his disciples in John 14:19 “In a little while, the world sees me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also.”
Peter Marshall said, “The resurrection never becomes a fact of experience until the risen Lord lives in the heart of the believer.” Paul wrote, “If in this life only we have hope, we are of all men most miserable.” The only hope I see for this world today and for every person who is ever born is for them to find Christ. The goal of God in sending his Son to die was that every man, woman and child come to know His divine Son who is able to save. Paul told the Romans (8:11): “But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwells in you,”
Warren Webster tells of Dr. Seamands who related how a Muslim came to be a Christian in Africa. “Some of his friends asked him, ‘Why have you become a Christian?’ He answered, ‘Well, it’s like this. Suppose you were going down the road and suddenly the road forked in two directions, and you didn’t know which way to go, and there at the fork in the road were two men, one dead and one alive—which one would you ask which way to go?’”
I think that question ought to be easy to answer. I’ll take the road to life. To invite Jesus inside is to invite the resurrection power of Christ to fill you with new life now and open the glory of eternal life. Mary wept for dead Messiah until she was washed with the joy of the living Christ. Because He lives we can face tomorrow!