One of my favorite movies is The Princess Bride. For those of you who haven’t seen this movie, it’s a spoof of all of the fairy tales we ever grew up with, and is a fairy tale all on its own. It’s an absolutely marvelous movie with many well-known actors and filled with many memorable quotes. At one point in the movie, the hero, Westley, is killed by one of the bad guys. Two other characters in the story, who need Westley to help them, take him to Miracle Max to see if there is anything he can do for Westley. Miracle Max (played by Billy Crystal) tells the two guys that they are lucky, because their friend Westley is only mostly dead. If someone is all dead, he says, there’s only one thing you can do: go through his clothes and look for loose change.
Well, folks, Jesus was all dead. There was no doubt about that. Numerous witnesses saw Jesus die on the cross. All four Gospels tell us that. Crucifixion was a gruesome and torturous way to die, and the Romans did not let you down from it until they were certain you were dead. The women who went to the tomb at early dawn that first day of the week knew that Jesus was all dead. That’s why they were carrying spices: Jesus’ body had been taken down from the cross and buried so hurriedly, they had been unable to wash his body and anoint it with spices before he was buried. They went to the tomb that morning prepared to honor Jesus in the last way that they were able to, and to mourn him once more. Not only were they going to mourn Jesus, they were going to mourn the loss of all of their hopes that Jesus represented to them. The Messiah was not supposed to be killed on the cross, after all. The Messiah was supposed to rise up and free Israel by overthrowing the Roman Empire. These women were mourning the loss of their hopes and wondering how they would continue their lives from this point onward.
So, imagine what their feelings were when they came to Jesus’ tomb and found the stone rolled away and no body. The Greek word gets translated “perplexed” but it can also mean “to be in doubt” or “to not know which way to turn”. This is the right tomb, Mary, isn’t it? Yes, Joanna, I remember that particular tree with the funny-looking branches. Are you sure, Mary? Maybe we should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque. And then, just as it’s setting in on them that this is the right tomb and Jesus is nowhere to be seen, two men in dazzling clothes appear beside them and tell them that Jesus is not here, he is risen! And here’s the thing: this message doesn’t quite sink in until the angels tell them to remember what Jesus had told them: that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again. They remember and make the connections and only then does the light bulb go on! Click! Oh, THAT’S what Jesus meant. NOW we get it.
And so the women run back to tell the disciples what has happened. And here, this is my favorite part of the story. The men dismissed what the women were saying as “an idle tale”. The Greek word actually means “nonsense”. Next week we’ll deal with Thomas not believing that Jesus has risen, and he always gets a hard time about that, but here in Luke we see *all* of the men not believing just as stubbornly as Thomas did. But that’s okay, women are used to not being believed by men, right? Well, except for Peter. Something that the women said to the disciples sparked something in Peter, and, hoping beyond hope, he ran to the tomb, only to see the same thing the women saw, except for no angels. And he went away amazed. It’s important to note here that Peter still didn’t believe that Jesus had risen, just that the tomb was empty.
And this is what I think is important for us to get today. I don’t understand how the resurrection happened. I have been on this earth for 41 years, and all of my experience tells me that dead is dead, and people don’t come back from being dead. And yet, against all of my experience, I believe that Jesus Christ did physically, bodily, rise from the dead. And that is the promise that we are given: not only that we will be with Jesus in Paradise when we die, as he told the criminal on the cross who believed in him, but that beyond Paradise there will be a resurrection where we will be physically, bodily raised from the dead; where we will be able to be with our loved ones, to touch them, to speak with them, and where all will be well, and there will be no more crying and no more pain. That is what I am here to proclaim, and that is what I believe.
But I also understand that many of you have doubts. Maybe you’re here today to make one of your loved ones happy and you don’t believe any of this. While I was writing today’s sermon, I was also speaking online with a friend in Denmark who told me that there’s a debate in the church there about whether Jesus’ resurrection really happened or it was just an idea, some sort of spiritual thing where Jesus lives on in our hearts only, even though he’s dead. Maybe that’s where some of you are today. And that’s okay: I’m not here to talk you into believing the way I do. And I don’t believe you’re going to hell if you don’t believe Jesus was physically raised from the dead. Because, look, the disciples didn’t believe at first, either. All of their experience told them, too, that dead was dead, and there’s no coming back from being dead. If we continue reading on in Luke, we will find that most of the disciples didn’t believe until after Jesus himself appeared and reminded them of everything that he had taught them. It took many days of repeating and remembering and seeing Jesus appear in the flesh before his first disciples truly believed. And so it may also take us many days, weeks, and even years of hearing Jesus speak to us in many and various ways before we can truly encounter him as risen from the dead.
But I would like to testify to you today why I believe that Jesus physically and historically rose from the dead on that first Easter so long ago. Yes, I am a cradle Lutheran, and yes, I grew up going to church and believing this. I would be dishonest if I didn’t say that all of that teaching and repetition hadn’t taken a hold of me. But part of being a member of the Lutheran branch of Christianity is learning to think about your faith, to study the Scriptures, and to not simply believe just because someone told you that you had to. And I have wrestled with Jesus being physically resurrected at different points in my life. What I keep coming back to, though, is the reasoning that Paul gives us today in his first letter to the Corinthians: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If Jesus had not risen from the dead, then all he would be is just another great moral teacher who was executed by an Empire who didn’t understand what he was trying to say. If Jesus had not risen from the dead, then, as Paul says earlier in 1 Corinthians 15, our “faith is futile” and we are still in our sins. If Jesus had not risen from the dead, then why did so many who believe in him become martyrs? It seems rather pointless to die for just a great moral teacher, after all.
And so this is my testimony to you: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! We have no more reason to fear death, for, again as Paul writes, “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ”. Because Jesus is risen, we know that we, too, will also rise with him and that one day, death will be completely destroyed. This is the faith which the Holy Spirit has given me, and it is the faith and the belief which I proclaim to you. I do not know how it is true, but I believe it to be so, and I believe that this faith is what God has placed the church here on earth to proclaim and to teach. And so I welcome you all to worship this risen Christ, and to experience the love which Jesus has for each and every one of you. You are welcome to worship here, to learn, to question and to express your doubt without fear every day of the year. You are also welcome to express your joys, your sorrows, your pain, and your hope here. That hope that this astounding good news just might be true: that death is not the end; that death will one day be destroyed, and that Jesus Christ has won the victory for us. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.