The most important words ever spoken are, ‘He is risen. He is risen indeed’. There, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we encounter the pivotal point of all history.
Jesus, God incarnate, suffered and died on the cross, was buried - and rose again. He was not taken down from the cross still alive as Muslims maintain. A centurion, a man well acquainted with dead bodies, pronounced Him dead. His corpse was taken by friends and entombed. When they returned the tomb was empty; He had risen.
A bodily resurrection. Not a ‘spiritual’ resurrection, or ‘myth’ as theological liberals maintain, but a genuine resurrection of the body. Deny this and our faith is useless (I Corinthians 15:4). Nevertheless it is denied. The Rev Dr Lorraine Cavanagh, acting general secretary of Modern Church, a champion of ‘liberal Christian theology’, said recently: ‘An adult faith requires that it be constantly questioned, constantly reinterpreted. To ask an adult to believe in the Resurrection the way they did at Sunday school simply won’t do and that’s true of much of the key elements of the Christian faith’. And thus Christianity, and all that goes with it dies.
We forget the power of words when they become familiar. We refer to Jesus as ‘Lord’ without thinking of its impact or implications. On the day of Pentecost, Peter went into Jerusalem and, filled with the Holy Spirit, preached the first Christian sermon. He told the crowds the startling news that Jesus, whom they had crucified, had been raised from the dead and is the Lord of all.
Peter’s great assertion—and that of the entire Christian faith—that ‘Jesus is Lord’ seems commonplace today, but it was treason in ancient Rome, as it has been to all totalitarian power. ‘Jesus is Lord’ was a direct denial of the common Roman slogan ‘Caesar is Lord’. By proclaiming a Lord greater than Caesar Augustus, Christians were earning the enmity of a totalitarian regime, and knew it.
Early Christians did not stumble into this conflict of worldviews blindly, they knew what impact words had. Even the term ‘gospel’ carried political freight. The Greek euangelion (good news or gospel) was used to announce the ‘good news’ of the ascension of a new emperor. When the early Christians began to speak and write of the ‘good news’ of Jesus they were proclaiming a new and different regime, a new way of living responsibly before God.
Like the Christians, the Romans took Peter’s proclamation that ‘Jesus is Lord’ seriously. Peter was crucified in Rome under the regime of Nero. Most of the original disciples died for refusing to renounce their faith in the risen Lord. Peter didn’t die defending a faith of mythic or abstract claims. He died proclaiming a faith based on the concrete reality of the resurrection and for proclaiming that faith’s implications for ordinary people.
The radical message of Easter is that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead, the tomb is empty. The empty tomb proclaims to the Roman Empire and all totalitarians that they have an expiry date. There is another kingdom where there is freedom. It is not coincidental that Easter happened at the time of the Passover, the great Jewish celebration of the freeing of God’s people from totalitarian enslaving power.
It is in light of the reality of God’s sovereignty in the resurrection of Jesus that we have freedom. Freedom, as we stand unmasked before God as individuals responsible for our choices and actions, is fundamental because all other freedoms come from that. The ultimate freedom we have is to stand before the empty tomb and accept or reject the Lordship of Christ.
The events of this week 2,000 years ago, which we remember and celebrate, teaches us among other things that freedom is the essential means to discover and join ourselves to the truth, knowing that ‘truth will set you free’ John 8:12. The perfect manifestation of truth is God the Son who proclaimed, ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life’ (John 14:6).
God has given us the responsibility of choosing. Freedom is the ability of every individual to exercise personal choice, rather than be subject to the choices of others. It is this fundamental freedom through Christ that has caused Christians to be persecuted by totalitarian regimes throughout history. Totalitarian ideologies, secular or religious, cannot stand competition.
It is said that the 20th century produced more Christian martyrs than the previous 19 combined. The 21st century looks to be well on the way to breaking that record. Muslims take the Christian claim to the resurrection and Lordship of Christ more seriously than many Christians appear to. Why else would they discriminate and persecute us in every Muslim majority country for proclaiming that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’.
The attacks on Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday this year were not just an attack on Christians, appalling as that was, leaving at least 44 dead. The bombs were a direct assault on Christianity itself. It is not Christians who are feared or persecuted by militant Muslims; it is the beliefs of Christians that are violently rejected.
In Western Europe, we do not have persecution of Christians. Yet Christianity is forced on the defensive in the areas of public morality and civic interaction. In the name of individualism, the freedom of the individual is rejected by those who would wish to put their stamp on civilisation by enforcing conformity to their rules regarding identity, language, association and free speech.
Faced with the greatest of all miracles, that God should die for us and then rise again, what do we choose? When Christians recover the confidence and certainty of Peter’s proclamation of the Lordship of Christ on that first Pentecost Sunday, only then will Christians return to making an impact on the world.