Six Angles for Preaching on the Resurrection of Christ
These six angles will help keep your Easter preaching fresh.
The Gospels do not present the precise moment of the Resurrection. That would be to stare straight into the sun itself. The Gospels do present the immediate aftermath of the Resurrection. They agree on seven significant aspects of Christ's resurrection: it was early in the morning, the first day of the week, the tomb was open, it was empty, angelic messenger(s) were present, it was discovered by the women, and there was a commission related to his appearance. Each of these promises a rich and textured opportunity to preach Christ's resurrection.
This generation of preachers is likely to overlook strong classics from an earlier time. Frank Morison's Who Moved the Stone? and Ray Summers's The Life Beyond have often been imitated, but not exceeded. For a more recent defense of the historical accuracy of the empty tomb, consult N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God.
These and other works present apologetic evidence. For example, how was it that the earliest Christians began to meet on the first day of the week? For the Jews, the Sabbath was from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. How can one account for a change in this most sacred of institutions, distinct in Judaism for centuries? Something had to happen of such a shattering reality that it changed a fundamental institution. As a comparison, what could possibly make America change Independence Day from July 4 to July 5? Only a stupendous discovery that shattered all previous understanding of the event could cause such a change. So also was the Resurrection in its impact on the Christian day of worship.
Many evangelicals have lost any sense of the reality of bodily resurrection. A sermon on the very word anastasis, literally "standing up again," would benefit congregants. The idea of a somatic, bodily resurrection has been lost in some gauzy, gaseous, ghost-like ambiguity. Both the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the believer are bodily resurrections. The New Testament view of the Resurrection is the exact opposite of the then-prevailing Platonic view of soma/sema dualism. Those two words in Greek mean "the body is a tomb." The Platonic Greek view was for a good soul to get out of and be rid of a bad body. Please consult the magisterial work of the late Oscar Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul; or, Resurrection of the Dead. This book presents the clear difference between the Greek view and biblical view. His contrast between the death of Plato and death of Jesus Christ is stunning. Although you may not agree with all of his conclusions, his historic emphasis is arresting.
Appearances of Christ
The New Testament records 11 appearances of the risen Christ. There may have been more, but the record attests to 11 at least. He appeared indoors and outdoors, in the day and at night, to individuals and to groups, and in Judea as well as Galilee. The appearances were so ordered as to involve all kinds of circumstances to demonstrate the reality of his resurrection. The most moving of all of these is the detailed and realistic Emmaus Road encounter (Luke 24:13-35). This passage is the most robust of all Easter preaching possibilities. One may approach it as "The Incognito Christ." The existential reality that he may be right beside us and we do not recognize him moves the text from then to now. Jesus' treatment of the Old Testament witness to himself warrants a sermon itself. An alternative title could be a play on Eugene O'Neil's play: "A Long Night's Journey into Day." Even though they are walking into a dark dusk, they are in reality walking into the light of a new day.
Alongside the Emmaus Road appearance is that of Jesus to the seven AWOL disciples at the Sea of Galilee (John 21). One should not miss the significance of the Greek words of permanent departure: this group had decided to make a permanent departure to go back to Galilee and keep on fishing. What drama could present the presence of the risen Christ in a fish camp, cooking breakfast for deserting disciples? The frost of the morning, the acrid smell of olive smoke in the air, the sizzle of broiling fish and the fish oil and breadcrumbs on Christ's hands as he yet once again puts bread and fish into the hands of Peter. How much does he wish to restore the big fisherman? That much!
One should not miss the cameo appearance of Christ to James, his younger half-brother. His brothers did not believe his messianic claims (John 7). How can you believe someone to be the Son of God when you grew up wearing his hand-me-down clothes in Nazareth? The preacher should remember that Jesus had at least seven half-siblings, the four boys named and two girls anonymous. Most of the time while Jesus was growing in wisdom and stature, Mary was expecting the next one! Consider the possibility of a dramatic monologue with James remembering his boyhood in the carpenter shop, the sameness and difference of his older half-brother. How could you describe the meeting of a risen Christ with his sibling James? What if your elder sibling came back from the grave and greeted you with joy and triumph?
Non-coercive nature of the evidence
One might consider the non-coercive nature of the evidence for the Resurrection. There is enough to convince, but there is not enough to coerce. Matthew 28:17 indicates that many worshipped him, but some doubted. The Resurrection evidences itself in such a way that there is sufficient warrant to believe it happened in history as reported. Yet the Resurrection is sufficiently veiled that it is not coercive evidence.
Lordly logic, divine deductions, and sacred syllogisms
Another approach to preaching Easter is to consider Paul's wrestling with the Corinthian misunderstanding of Christ's resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul confronted a church that believed in the resurrection of Christ as the exception in history. That is, the Corinthians admitted his resurrection, but not their own. Paul developed a sequence of lordly logic, divine deductions, and sacred syllogisms to demonstrate the significance of both Christ's resurrection and their own at his coming. This provides a rich vein for Easter preaching. Paul gives the sad implications if individual Corinthian Christians are not raised. His logic is easy to follow. If individual Christians are not raised, then Christ himself was not raised. He is not the great exception, but the great assurance of the resurrection of every believer. Paul uses deductive logic to trace the effect back to the cause. If Christ is not raised, Christian preaching is empty and Christian faith is vacuous. Indeed, Paul himself is a false witness of God. He should go back to the synagogue if Christ is not raised. Every Christian martyr has died for nothing if Christ is not raised.
Paul's argument from the effect back to the cause builds such tension that one finds great resolution in the trumpet blast, "But now Christ is risen from the dead." The preacher could depict every church closed, every piece of Christian art disappeared, every statue of Christ and the saints demolished, every cemetery a cruel joke to the Christians buried therein, and every Bible a treacherous deception if Christ be not raised. Your imagination can run in many directions of the unacceptable consequences if Christ has not been raised. The purest streams in history have flowed from the foulest source if Christ be not raised.
Finally, what about a sermon from the last surviving eyewitness? The aged John, perhaps a centenarian, wrote 1 John 1 to fight incipient Gnostics. Some 60 years after the Resurrection, John assures the second generation of Christians that he heard Jesus, he saw Jesus, and his hands handled Jesus. Pay attention to the great word studies in the passage. There are two words for seeing: one means to look at with careful examination, and the other means to look with wonder. Note the perfect tenses of the verbs: John heard his risen voice and that voice still rings in his 100-year-old ears. John saw the risen one, and that sight still burns in his eyes as if he had seen the sun and could still see it with his eyes closed. Indeed, he had seen the Son.
Dr. Joel C. Gregory is Director of the Kyle Lake Center for Effective Preaching, holder of the George W. Truett Endowed Chair of Preaching and Evangelism at Baylor's Truett Seminary, and the founder of Joel Gregory Ministries.