(This is an edited version of the Easter Sunday sermon at the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge.)
The word legend does get applied to some strange people these days – guitar legend Slash, footballing legend (fill in blank), chef legend (one of them).
Most people would accept that Jesus existed in Palestine 2000 years ago in the days of the Roman Empire. But many people today would claim legendary stories grew up around Jesus that got written down in the Gospels. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, which Christians celebrate at Easter, would be one of those legends.
But those people who believe the resurrection is a legend have not looked very carefully at the evidence and this evening we’re going to look at two strands of evidence that point very strongly to the historical accuracy of the New Testament Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Imagine you are living in Jerusalem around the time when Jesus was killed and you are a freelance journalist. A film company based in Jerichowood just outside Jerusalem approaches you and says they are wanting to make a film about this dead preacher Jesus of Nazareth.
Their film is going to be about this dead preacher rising miraculously from the dead and founding a movement that spreads all over the world and changes history. They want you to help out with the pre-film hype. They want you to write a feature article claiming that Jesus really did rise from the dead, an article that would get syndicated in the newspapers and get people to go and watch the film.
No doubt you would refuse the assignment but if I were a shady journalist and were to undertake the task for a suitably large sum of money, I would want two things in my story that are remarkably absent from the Gospel record.
Firstly, I’d want an eye-witness account of the moment Jesus actually rose again from the dead. I’d want that dramatic action moment in my story. The stone was rolled away by an angel and then real people saw him throw off the grave clothes and the spices and stand up gloriously alive. I’d definitely have that in my story if I wanted people to believe it and so watch the film.
But none of four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, has a story about somebody seeing Jesus come alive again the moment it happened. They have people who saw Jesus out of his tomb definitely alive but there is no exciting, action story about the moment it actually happened. If they were making it up, surely they would have put that in.
The second thing I would have in my story – a celebrity or somebody important as the first eye-witness of the resurrection of Jesus. A mover and shaker as the first eye-witness. There is a possible candidate for that mentioned in the Gospels, Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, who had access to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. He asked Pilate for permission to take Jesus’ body and place it in a tomb he owned and permission was granted. He’d be a great candidate as the first eye-witness of Jesus risen from the dead.
But who were the first witnesses of the fact, according to the Gospels? Women – in Mark’s Gospel Mary Madgalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome, female followers of Jesus whose evidence did not count in court in the society of that time.
If you want people in Jerusalem 2000 years ago to believe your story and watch the film, you need to have Joseph of Arimathea or a Roman general or someone like that as the first person to see Jesus risen from the dead.
Why do the Gospels have women as the first people to see Jesus’ empty tomb? Because that’s what happened. They’re telling the truth; they’re not making it up.
Jesus Christ’s resurrection is no legend. It really happened, which means that what he said about himself is true. His resurrection vindicates his claims to be God come down to earth.