The Catholic Liturgy for the 3rd Sunday of Easter. Acts 2:2-33 & John 20:1-9. Theme: The Tomb Was Empty…and It’s a Game-Changer!
In today's first reading the apostle Peter gives a bold defense for the Empty Tomb of Jesus to a large questioning crowd gathered in Jerusalem . He goes through significant prophecies of the Jewish Scripures and shows how they support the proclamation of a crucified Messiah who has risen from the grave. And we see the same dynamic happening in the Gospel reading where two dejected disciples are on their way to the village of Emmaus. They are puzzled by the Empty Tomb and bewildered by strange stories they have heard about Jesus having risen from the dead. Then along comes a stranger who accompanies them and who seems well-educated in Scripture. Like Peter in the first reading, he also points out how the Jewish prophecies support the proclamation of a crucified Messiah risen from the grave.
But you know, we can’t really fault the crowd in Jerusalem for demanding answers nor can we blame the Emmaus travelers for being doubtful and downcast. Because it ‘s a strange thing, indeed, to believe that a man who was tortured, killed and buried has returned from the dead and been resurrected to eternal life. And the implication of this for the Risen One’s disciples is equally incredible: that they, too, because of their relationship of trust in this Risen Man to free them from the power of sin, will also rise from the grave and live eternally!.
And yet this is exactly what Peter and the Gospels and the Church have been preaching, teaching and celebrating for over 2,000 years. The Empty Tomb is a powerful silent witness to the Resurrection that screams loudly down through the centuries. And what is it sceaming out ot us? That the Resurrection of Jesus is a total game-changer in human life because if it’s true, then it means that He was indeed who He said He was: God-in-the-flesh come to live among us as one of us. And if that is true, then His words are Truth and so much more than the merely human teachings of such figures as the Buddha or Mohammed; and so much more inspirational than those from positive motivators such as Joel Olsteen or Oprah Whinphrey.
But precisely because claims of an Incarnate God and a Resurrected Lord seems ridiculous; and precisely because Christianity is demanding and requires a conversion of life, there are those who try very hard to discredit it. They know that Christianity rises or falls upon the truth of the Resurrection and so they seek to twist the Gospel story that has come to us from eye-witnesses. They know that they cannot deny the Empty Tomb because it is historical fact. So they try to refute the Resurrection itself and usually come up with some version of the following four possibilities: that the body of Jesus was stolen and then the thieves claimed a Resurrection; that the body of Jesus was swallowed up by the earthquake mentioned in Matthew's Gospel; that Jesus didn't really die, but was simply unconscious when placed in the tomb; or that the hundreds of disciples who say they saw the Risen Jesus were hallucinating.
Let’s tale a quick look at each one and I think we will see how easily it is to refute them.
Stolen Body. One reaction to the Empty Tomb says that the corpse of Jesus was stolen and then a fake Resurrection was announced. Ok, so who would have stolen Him? The Romans? No reason. They killed him to put an end to his influence and possible rebellion. Plus Roman guards were fiercely loyal to their duty, and the guards at the tomb would have guarded it for the sake of their own lives. The Jewish Leaders? It makes no sense at al. They could have then easily displayed the corpse and put an end to Christianity which they saw as a blasphemy and threat to Judaism. Lastly, the Discples? No way. First of all they were cowards locked away in hiding out of fear for their lives. Second, how in the world could they overcome the Roman guards?
Swallowed Up by the Earthquake. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that there was a great earthquake at the time of the Resurrection. So some scetpics say that the corpse of Jesus was swallowed up into a fissure caused by the quake. Then how is it that the earthquake didn’t take the shroud, the burial cloths as well? Besides, the disciples found these cloths neatly folded and laid aside on the tomb. Was this the work of an extremely polite and neat earthquake? As one historian pointed out, belief in this reason for the Empty Tomb take more mental gymnastics than actually belieiving in the real Resurrection!
Jesus was unconscious, not dead. Jesus was crucified by professionals. Then his side was pierced by a spear. Physicians who read this account say that the blood and water flowing out from his side tell us that the heart itself was punctured. But let's say he wasn't dead, simply unconscious and revived in the tomb. How could a man who had food and water withheld for 24 hours, was beaten, tortured, crucified and had his heart speared find the strength to move a huge stone covering the cave and evade the Roman guards? Besides, the eye-witnesses tell us they encountered a glorious, powerful risen Lord, not a weak, wounded stumbling man.
Finally, there is the accusation of hallucinating witnesses. One of the most astounding historical testimonies we have about the Resurrection is that over 500 Christians were all gathered together and saw the Risen Lord among them. There have been some people have claimed these disciples were so torn apart emotionally and stressed out physically by what they had gone through that they hallucinated the appearances of the Risen Christ. Now that could be true of some of them for sure - but psychologists as well as our human intelligence – tell us that it is impossible for 500 people to all have the exact same hallucination at the very same time and in the very same place! They were indeed seeing Someone who was truly appearing in fromt of them. Also, the account of this event was written while many of those witnesses were still alve and if it was untrue or inaccurate they could have easily pointed this out. But not a one contradicted what St. Paul had writtenabout them.
But, you know, as important as historical facts are, the most convincing proof of the Resurrection is found in the witness of transformed lives. This transformation first began with the Apostles who were changed from frightened cowards hiding behind locked doors into bold couragoues preachers of the Gospel and martyrs for Christ. They underwent cruel tortures and horrible deaths rather than deny the real meaning of the Empty Tomb. They declared with their words and their blood that they had truly seen and heard and touched and even eaten with the Risen Lord Jesus.
In every era of human history faith in the Risen Christ has been attacked and Christians persecuted, just as Jesus had foretold. But this life-changing Resurrection-faith has not been able to be stopped and has been touching hearts, converting lives, producing saints and yielding martyrs throughout the world for over 2,000 years! Even in our own times we see the unjust mistreatment and brutal killing of people simply because they follow Christ. Yet they do not stop following. Their faith in the Risen Lord is deep and their love for him even deeper.
And so I think we each need to truly pray, seriously ponder, and honestly ask ourselves: Where do I most need the grace of the life-giving Cross and Resurrection of Jesus in my life? How can I open my heart more fully to the Risen Lord’s abundant love and tender mercy which can transform me from the inside out? What in my attitude, behavior and interactions with others need conversion so that I can become a witness to the Risen Lord among those with whom I live, work and socialize?