A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, April 20, 2014 (Easter)
Mark 16:1-8 ESV
Christianity might have easily died in its infancy; right there on the cross with the crucified Jesus. For some of you, that statement may seem a bit rash, or harsh, and it may even shock you. But, I am convinced, it is true. Immediately the question arises as to why. Why would I say such a thing? some of you may be asking. Well, the reasons are many and varied.
One reason is the small, slow beginning of the Christian movement. There likely were not the thousands of members in the early Christian movement that most of us grew up believing there were. Marcus Borg, in his book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, shares a startling statistic “that there were only about 2,000 Christians in the year 60, by which time Paul’s genuine letters had been written. By the year 100, when most of the New Testament had been written, there were only 7,500 Christians.”1
Many of the early Christian churches were small house churches, more fellowships than congregations—small groups of believers of a dozen or so that met in homes, often in secret.
For a long time Christians were severely persecuted. While existing religions were accepted within the Roman Empire, new religions or cults were often frowned upon and forbidden. And Christianity was looked upon as a new cult. Christians often were accused of “cannibalism” because of the practice of communion, which was seen as eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus. Roman Emperor Nero, who ruled in the 60’s, severely persecuted and killed Christians as scapegoats for the burning of Rome, and often just for sport or entertainment. It was not easy being a first-century Christian. It was much easier to belong to one of the already established and Roman-sanctioned religions of the day. Being a Christian in the first-century Roman Empire was not that attractive to many. The words attributed to Jesus, “anyone who would be my disciple must take up his cross and follow me” carried much more meaning, weight, and threat in the first-century Roman Empire than they do today.
And then, there is the fact that Christianity was not the only new religion in town vying for people’s affections. There were many cults, and movements, and mystery religions of the day, a smorgasbord of religious offerings if you will.
Finally, last Sunday I pointed out that as far as Jesus’ crucifixion goes, it really was nothing out of the ordinary, since the Roman Empire crucified thousands in that day and time. As much as we might want to think that the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves beside him was a unique and isolated affair, history records that it was far from it. Jesus likely grew up witnessing such crucifixions.
So, maybe now you can understand why I said in the beginning that Christianity could have easily died in its infancy. But it didn’t. And the question is, Why didn’t it? I believe a simple three-word answer is “the empty tomb.” That day we call Easter. Marcus Borg, in another work, contends, “Without Easter, we wouldn’t know about Jesus. If his story had ended with his crucifixion, he most likely would have been forgotten—another Jew crucified by the Roman Empire in a bloody century that witnessed thousands of such executions.”2
Another contemporary theologian speaks of “that crucial moment that made Christianity possible. We celebrate it at Easter,” he says. “I can, with absolute honesty and with deep conviction,” this theologian continues, “say that I believe the resurrection of Jesus was real. To support that assertion I can point to data that reveal in very objective ways that something of great and significant power happened following the crucifixion of Jesus, something that had dramatic and life-changing consequences.”3 It might surprise some of you to learn that the man who wrote those words is liberal Christian theologian John Shelby Spong.
Yes, it was what happened “very early on the first day of the week,” as Mark puts it, that made the difference in the Christian message and that set it apart and assured its future in the world. And, by the way, the scripture passage for this morning—Mark 16:1-8—scholars believe is the earliest or oldest gospel account that speaks of that Sunday morning event that came to be called Easter. The Apostle Paul had written of the resurrection earlier than Mark, but Mark was the earliest gospel account of it. The other three canonical gospels—Matthew, Luke and John—likely took Mark’s account and expanded upon it. And all biblical scholars today realize that the original ending of Mark was chapter 16, verse 8, with nothing but an empty tomb and the women running from the tomb in fear and astonishment. So what really gave birth to the Christian faith and assured its survival in those early years was the empty tomb and the belief that Jesus, in some way, continued to live on, even after death.
Wrapped up with the report of the empty tomb, and coupled with the person that Jesus was and the teachings he had shared, was a message of hope that the world was desperately needing; a message of hope that every one of us—every human who ever lives—needs. The hope that there is more to existence than just being born, struggling through life, then dying and fading into nothingness. Whatever happened on that Sunday morning gave those frightened followers of Jesus resolve enough to move beyond their despair and hopelessness to hope and boldness to go forth determined to change the world.
The human soul longs to know that beyond extreme pain there can be comfort and peace. That beyond unjust suffering there can be restitution. That beyond death—especially undeserved death of a righteous person —there can be life again, in some form or fashion.
We see this principle at work in the natural world. John’s gospel quotes Jesus as saying that “unless a grain of wheat falls in the earth and dies, it abides alone” (12:24). Or as poet Walt Whitman put it, “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.” The way of the world is for things to die and then through the processes of Nature be born again; sometimes in a much more beautiful and glorious way than was known before. And so, the human longing has been that such might be true for human beings as well—that after death, there is some form of new life. And it was that Sunday morning—the first day of the week—when the women went to anoint the body of the crucified Jesus and found an empty tomb that gave impetus to the universal hope that there is, indeed, some form of life after death.
After that Sunday morning and the report of the empty tomb and the growing belief in the resurrection of Jesus, it became more imperative for those early followers to remember and eventually write down the teachings of Jesus, as well as make sense of why such a One was crucified to begin with.
All of this is not to say that the message and teachings of Jesus weren’t and aren’t important in and of themselves. They are. All of us believe they are, I am convinced. Jesus’ teachings are of the greatest the world has ever known. But in the first-century Roman Empire, when persecution and the threat of death was prevalent, I think there had to be something more that propelled those early Christians to risk their lives to share the faith and teachings of Jesus. And I believe that something more was the message of hope and the reports of the empty tomb provided for them.
And so, in whatever way Easter speaks to you, and regardless of how literal or symbolic you interpret the story of the empty tomb and the idea of resurrection, it was that “first day of the week” that we call Easter that epitomizes the hope of humanity, but which also assured the survival, world-wide expansion, and importance of the Christian faith. Amen.
1Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. New York: HarperOne, 1989. P. 188.
2Marcus Borg, The Last Week. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. P. 190.
3John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious. New York: HarperOne, 2007. Pp. 117-118.