Easter Day that we celebrate this Sunday is a gala day as we remember Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. His resurrection underscores the validity of the Christian faith. Without it, we are lost.
That said, our joy with Jesus’ resurrection raises interesting questions: Why isn’t an empty tomb the symbol of Christianity? Why is the symbol a cross? In today’s age when feelings and political correctness trump facts it would surely make much more sense if we focused on the themes of the new life and hope that the resurrection symbolizes.
Yet despite the fact that Jesus’ crucifixion was a bloody and brutal affair, the cross remains the symbol of the Christian faith.
In the opening scene of Luke’s ‘resurrection chapter’ we read: But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body (Luke 24:1-3).
Despair. There was no joy in the hearts of those women that morning. They had watched Jesus die and now were grief-stricken and despairing. They had believed that he was God’s Messiah and were looking forward to a new age of justice and peace, of laughter, love and joy. Now, their only thought was to give his body a proper burial.
We can picture them trudging to the tomb in the grey light of the dawn, burdened by their own thoughts and laden with heavy jars of oils and spices for the burial.
But that was not all. When they arrived at the grave, they saw that the huge stone closing the tomb had been rolled away. Was this some underhand action on the part of the authorities?
While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them… (24:4). They had despaired at Jesus’ death and now were terrified: they could only bow their faces to the ground at the dazzling appearance of two angels. And when the angels spoke, the women were even more confused: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” ‘You’ve come to the wrong place.’
Remember! “Remember how he told you while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise again…’” (Luke 24:6b-7a).
The angels could have explained the empty tomb. Instead, they told the women to remember what Jesus had said to them. The focus of Jesus’ words they quoted is important: ‘The Son of Man, the Messiah, had to suffer and die and then rise again’. Suffering and death were essential to the first coming of God’s king.
Which brings us back to the subject of the cross. Richard Dawkins and others reckon that to say, ‘Jesus died for our sins’ is vicious and disgusting. ‘Why couldn’t God simply forgive sins if he so chose?’ Dawkins asks.
In every age Jesus’ death has been an enigma – even for his first followers. Yet during the course of his ministry, he had foreshadowed both his death and his resurrection. Indeed, in his public ministry he revealed that he had not come as a political Messiah to bring in God’s kingdom through force.
Rather, he came as a savior to address our greatest need – our broken relationship with God. Only Jesus Christ, the man from heaven, could deliver us from God’s just judgement and open the doors of hope for the future.
This theme infuses Luke’s gospel. At Jesus’ birth the angel announced that God’s savior had been born. And when he met with Zacchaeus, Jesus summed up his ministry saying, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).
Furthermore, his words at the Last Supper are key to the meaning of his death: “This is my body given for you…” “This is my blood shed for you…” These words are amongst the oldest statements of the New Testament. We find them in First Corinthians, chapter 11, written around 50AD, as well as in Matthew, Mark and Luke, which were written no later than the 60s.
In fact when we read Luke as a whole we come to see that Jesus’ death is about God’s love and justice – central aspects of His character. Some say that Jesus’ crucifixion was a form of child abuse – a father punishing a son for someone else’s wrongs. But we need to remember Jesus’ words in John chapter 10 verse 11, where he said he would lay down his life voluntarily.
The movement of the Bible tells us that without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins (Levitcus 17:11; Hebrews 9:22). God, the wronged party, in his extraordinary love, came amongst us in person and bore the punishment we deserve. God as the judge, paid in full, once and for all time, the penalty owed by us, the accused who have been found guilty of dishonoring the name of God.
When we understand this, Jesus’ words at his Last Supper: “My body given for you,” and “My blood shed for you”, we begin to see why the cross, once an instrument of Roman brutality, became, and remains today, the symbol of God’s extraordinary love for the world.
The cross is not a charm, but yesterday’s barbaric execution tool. Yet this was the price for our forgiveness required by the holy and just God. We surely tremble at the cost God was willing to pay for our restoration.
Prayers – for Good Friday and Easter Day.
Almighty Father, look graciously upon this your people, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed and given up into the hands of wicked men, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Almighty God, you have conquered death through your dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ and have opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant us by your grace to set our mind on things above, so that by your continual help our whole life may be transformed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit in everlasting glory. Amen.