Sermon – “Easter in the Epistles”

Mailed out for: Sunday, April 12th, 2020 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

As this is a rare (for me) topical sermon, there is no particular sermon text. But on the theme of the resurrection I have chosen Old Testament, New Testament, and Gospels readings for today.

Old Testament:

[Psalm 71:19-24 ESV] 19 Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you? 20 You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. 21 You will increase my greatness and comfort me again. 22 I will also praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praises to you with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel. 23 My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed. 24 And my tongue will talk of your righteous help all the day long, for they have been put to shame and disappointed who sought to do me hurt.

New Testament:

[1Corinthians 15:1-11 ESV] 1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you–unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

Gospel:

[Matthew 28:1-20 ESV] 1 Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” 8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” 11 While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. 16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

INTRODUCTION

Each of the four gospels contain an account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the event indeed celebrated every Sunday in the church and later observed yearly as “Easter.” (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20) The Gospels of Matthew and Mark have only short accounts of the resurrection. Luke’s account is much longer. And then John, as he tends to do, fills in new details with the assumption that the reader already knows the other Gospels.

I. ELEMENTS OF EASTER IN THE GOSPELS

Looking at these Easter accounts from the four Gospel, we find a number of elements in common.

1. It is the first day of the week. (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1, John 20:1)

2. The stone rolled to the entrance of the tomb is found rolled away. (Matthew 28:2, Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2, John 20:1)

3. There are angels at the tomb declaring to the women followers of Jesus that he has risen. (Matthew 28:6, Mark 16:5, Luke 24:4)

4. The tomb is empty. (Matthew 28:6, Mark 16:6, Luke 24:3, John 20:6-7)

5. The women tell the disciples (but are not immediately believed.) (Matthew 28:8, Mark 16:12-13, Luke 24:9-11, John 20:2)

6. Jesus appears to his disciples in multiple occurrences. (Matthew 28:9, 16-20, Mark 16:9-19, Luke 24:13-49, John 20:19-29, 21:1-25)

Some other elements of the Easter account are mentioned only in a single one of the Gospels. For example, only Matthew (28:2) speaks of a great earthquake and later (28:11-15) and only Matthew gives an account of the chief priests bribing the soldiers who guarded the tomb; bribing them to say that the disciples stole the body of Jesus. (Matthew 28:11-15)

But what of the epistles? “Which, if any, of these elements of Easter from the Gospel accounts are mentioned in the epistles (the letters) of Paul, Peter, James, Jude or the author of Hebrews?” That is, what can we learn of “Easter in the Epistles”?

II. ELEMENTS OF EASTER IN THE EPISTLES

A. The fact of Jesus’s resurrection is noted in the letter of both Paul and Peter.

Romans 1:4 – “and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,”

1 Corinthians 15:12 – “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”

2 Timothy 2:8 – “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead”

1 Peter 1:3 – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

B. The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ are noted most prominently in 1 Corinthians 15.

1 Corinthians 15:5-8 – “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

C. Other Easter details are sparse in the Epistles.

In the New Testament epistles, the historical details of the Easter account, like that that it was the first day of the week or that the stone was rolled way, the tomb empty—these things are not often emphasized. What is emphasized is not the historical details, but the fact of resurrection itself and its meaning.

The relative silence of many of the Epistles regarding the historical elements of Easter may be owing to an assumption of the authors (Paul, Peter, Jude, John, and the author of Hebrews) that the readers already know the historical details. Possibly, the churches would have already had the written Gospels when they received the letters. And you simply don’t need to tell someone something that they have already hard, especially when it was something that occurred 30 years prior. Consider how ridiculous it would be if I relayed to you the details of September 11, 2001 as if you had never heard them. And that was less than twenty years ago. Rather, a person is more likely to tell you what it meant and what its global implications were. This is the same in the Epistles. The focus is not on the historical details but on the meaning and implications.

While non-believing Biblical commentators generally place the writing of Gospels nearing the end of the first century (or later), the Gospels are probably all written before about 66 AD. And while some of Paul’s letters almost certainly pre-date the written Gospels, many of the other New Testament epistles very well could have been written after the Gospels.

So, the scarcity of references to Easter in the Epistles is (1) not entirely an absence of reference for there are comments on the post-resurrection appearances and wee see that Christians start meeting on the “first day of the week” because of the resurrection, (2) owing to an assumed knowledge of the historical details either by oral or written transmission, and (3) the fact that the Epistles have another purpose.

That purpose—the purpose of the epistles—in regards to Easter is to emphasize not the historical facts but the theological meaning of the resurrection.

III. THE MEANING OF EASTER IN THE EPISTLES

The epistle writers do not proclaim “The stone was rolled away” or “the tomb was empty” or “the women told the disciples.” Rather, the epistle writers proclaim “He is risen.”

The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that those who are united with him will also be resurrected! It means there is hope—assured hope based on the promises of God—for life eternal following the death of our flesh.

It Paul’s epistle to the Romans we read (6:5) “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

This is the theological meaning of Easter. While Jesus’ death on the cross atoned for the sins of His people, the resurrection is a stamp of approval authenticating Jesus. It shows that Jesus is who he said he is, and it gives us hope in the resurrection of our bodies.

The resurrection is central to the thought of the epistles.

For Paul, the resurrection was a non-negotiable. It is at the core of his theology. He writes, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” All that he does and all that he writes is because “He is risen.”

So there are the Gospels with their historical details and the Epistles with much theological understanding of the resurrection. But also there is the book of Acts, a bit more difficult to categories. Since Acts is written by Luke, one might call it “Luke 2.” And this book is of great importance in tying the history of the early church. The book of Acts, like the Epistles, provides mention of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances. Acts 2:32 – “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” Acts 3:15 – “and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” And finally Acts 10:40 – “but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear.”

And we see mention of other historical details of Easter in acts. In Peter’s speech at Pentecost (in Acts 2) we see the “empty tomb” idea when Peter notes that Jesus’ flesh did not see corruption. It did not see corruption because the tomb was empty; the body no longer on Earth to decompose. Paul says much the same in Acts 13:37.

So we find the authors of the New Testament—whether writing the Gospels, the Epistles, or the history of Acts—we find them all on the same page. The holy spirit guides their writing in all truth, both of historical and theological matters. The Epistles of the New Testament never contradict the Gospels and indeed provide additional support of their truth.

CONCLUSION: EASTER TODAY

The churches (and our church in particular) being closed on Easter Sunday is something that has rarely if ever happened in Church history. This is a day, in fact, when churches see far more attendance than usual. And so, it is particularly grief-causing for many of us in these times not be together.

I’ve seen a mention of our current stay-at-home quarantines reminding us of the Passover when the Jews stayed in their houses so that “no plague would befall” them. And I’ve even seen a mention of empty churches reminding us on this day of the empty tomb of Jesus. ut the message we need today is not about quarantines and emptiness, but about union. It is the doctrine of the Union with Christ—we who believe in him being united as his church, his body—that needs to be propounded. Our Union with Christ brings forth that promise of God that we who are united with him in death will be united with him in life. He who was resurrected from the dead on this day promises us resurrection in our Union with him.

And so while the members of the church are in separate places today, we all remain in union with Christ, and therefore with each other as members of the same body of Christ.

We are united in Jesus, the Christ who was risen today, alleluia. Amen.

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