What evidence do we really have that God raised Christ from the dead? Did it really happen or is it an old wives’ tale?
Let me begin my answer by telling you about my experience of this year’s Easter Vigil. If you have ever been to an Easter Vigil, you know that the service begins in total darkness with the lighting of a fire. From this fire, the Paschal Candle is lit and every person at the service then lights an individual candle from the Paschal Candle. What follows is a series of readings from the Old Testament about God’s saving acts in history; all read in the darkness. After the last reading from the Hebrew Bible, there is then the renewal of our baptismal vows and the baptism of new members. After the baptisms and the lighting of the altar candles, the celebrant stands up an announces three times “Christ is Risen!”—the congregation responding three times “He is risen, indeed!”—and then the lights are finally turned on and a hymn sung.
Although I have been to many Easter vigils before, I had my eyes opened to something profound at the Vigil: We begin the celebration of Christ being raised from the dead—Easter—even before we hear about it in the Gospel reading. At the vigil, it is the baptism—being buried into Christ’s death and being raised to walk in newness of life—that is the testimony to the resurrection. The evidence that God raised Jesus from the dead is a transformed life that wouldn’t have been possible without an encounter with the risen one.
New Testament scholar, E.P. Sanders, makes this same point. Sanders is not a Christian and therefore has no vested interested in whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead. However, having studied the evidence in the New Testament, he comes to the following conclusion: “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact.” The gist of Sanders argument is that the only way you can explain how Jesus followers went from being fearful failures to living with fearless, undaunted freedom is an encounter with the Risen Christ.
People who have been changed by the Risen Lord are the best witness to the truth of Easter. Yes, our sacred texts tell us the tomb was empty. Yes, those same texts tell us that Christ appeared to the first disciples and many others. But what those same texts tell us is that the community of disciples that “died” on Good Friday was raised to a whole new life. They shared their resources, bore witness to the life-giving power that had encountered them, and were not afraid of the power of the authorities. In fact, whereas they all deserted Jesus and fled at the end of his earthly life. The power of the Risen Christ made them fearless, even unto death. The tradition tells us that all the original disciples suffered martyrdom.
Our lives too are the best witness we have to Christ’s risen presence in our midst. As we love as Jesus loved, as we welcome the excluded, as we welcome the excluded, as we stand up against injustice, we reveal that our lives have been encounter by a power not our own.