As we celebrate the victory of Jesus over death and the grave today, we read of the responses of those closest to Him.
The women who were with Him at his crucifixion, sitting grieving across from the tomb when he was buried, were there again at daybreak on the first day of the week to anoint his body. They were so grieved that they forgot about the stone, but discovered that it was already moved away. John records that Mary was weeping so much that she assumed that Jesus’ body was stolen in spite of being told that He had risen by angels. Only when Jesus called her name, did she realise He was no longer dead but alive, and fell at his feet in wonder.
Peter and John did not believe the tomb was empty, and went to see for themselves. The other disciples likewise were sceptical and were not convinced. They remained secured behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. Jesus appeared to them and some still doubted, thinking He was a ghost. It was all too good to be true.
Two men walking to Emmaus were so disillusioned and disappointed that they did not realise Jesus journeyed with them. They told Him of the testimony of the women and of the empty tomb, but were still wondering about the status of Israel as a nation. He explained why He had to suffer and die, and how it fulfilled what was written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and Psalms. Jesus only revealed himself to them when broke bread together.
The obvious question seems to be why were they so hesitant to believe such good news when Jesus told them it would happen? The Scribes and Pharisees were so afraid that they requested permission of Pilate to secure the tomb with a seal and soldiers to guard it. They quote to him that “we remember while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise’.” (Matt 27:63).
The disciples were confused and disoriented, but why did they not anticipate his resurrection? Was it the gruesome punishment and death by crucifixion that traumatised them? Fear that they may be next? Perhaps they interpreted Jesus’ predictions as being sometime far in the future, or only figurative? I think that these may all have played a part, but the biggest factor was that they already had the outcome in their minds, where Jesus came to power and overthrew the Romans, restoring the glorious Israel of King David’s era. Things were going so well with miracles, healings, the triumphal entry in to Jerusalem, sorting out crooks in the Temple, until suddenly they went horribly wrong and now all hope seemed lost.
While it is easy to judge them, how often don’t we also focus on the past or the present at the expense of God’s future? They looked back to God’s blessing as His chosen people, and to their current situation of oppression and assumed what God would do next. In doing so they missed the bigger picture. Israel had always been ‘blessed to be a blessing’. Throughout the Old Testament God revealed this as His plan for them, but being blessed was so much easier than being a blessing.
Jesus’ death and resurrection was not just for Israel. It was for the nations. He states this as the disciples’ mission; “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to each creature” (Mk 16:15), “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem” (Lk 24:47), “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”, (Matt 28:19), “and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).
Their preconceptions of what Jesus came to do were far too narrow. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is 55:8-9).
If we are honest, most of our prayers are for our health, our safety, our success in projects, our financial obligations, and those of our families, friends and associates. We also pray for God to grow our church, our ministry and our denomination. Such prayers are not wrong, but too narrow, they need to be balanced with an outward focus as well.
When we ask God what is on His heart we find it is the nations and the lost. Remember the 99 sheep in the fold who were safe and the shepherd’s passion for the lost one?
During this season where we are all in our houses and the churches are empty, it can feel strange to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. We don’t have church services, mass rallies, family gatherings, choirs, and the traditions that we usually associate with Easter weekend.
It can help us to refocus on the ‘Why’ of the cross rather than on ourselves. To look beyond our programs; who has the best kids ministry, most dynamic youth group, enlightening preaching, inspiring worship, impressive miracles, highest attendance, biggest buildings. To look beyond the local church altogether and see a struggling world; the anxiety of our neighbours, the grief of our co-workers, the sacrifices of so many people who are serving in medical facilities, governance, shops, food production and policing.
Sometimes it takes shaking to get the salt out of the shaker to where it can have even greater impact.
When this pandemic wanes, we will have more sensitivity and deeper connections with those around us. Having rediscovered our homes, we can use hospitality to build the Kingdom.
Perhaps church as we’ve known it will never be the same.
Photo credit: New York Public Library