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Resurrection strong foundation for area churches

Illustration by Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat
Illustration by Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat

When it comes down to it, Easter is the make-or-break event for Christianity.

In the first century current era, a teacher from a backwater region started traveling the countryside in the ancient near east, teaching a message that the Kingdom of God was at hand and that he and God the Father “were one.”

He gained followers and detractors to the point that religious authorities conspired to kill him. The civil authorities — rather than risk riots by religious zealots and a mob they had whipped up — agreed to execute him, nailing his arms to a cross and raising it up so he would eventually suffocate if he did not bleed to death first.

The man — Jesus of Nazareth — died.

Those are all points on which there is general agreement.

But, three days after the execution, the narratives divide. Jesus’ detractors say he was — and is — still dead, but a group of his followers reported that when they went to the tomb in which he had been placed to make final burial preparations for his body, it was empty. The reports from the biblical gospels say an angel appeared to the group and told them Jesus was not to be found in the tomb, saying, “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.”

The Christian gospels likewise say Jesus later appeared to those disciples and 500 others before ultimately ascending into the heavens; traditional Christian teaching asserts that after that ascension he “sits at the right hand of (God) the Father.”

The claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead became the foundational doctrine of a movement that would form one of the world’s largest religions — Christianity, which currently has 2 billion followers — and arguably influenced most of western history.

Today, most of the Christian world celebrates that claim with Easter, the liturgical commemoration of the resurrection.

The Rev. John Kramer, pastor of Jefferson Street United Methodist Church, said that when he speaks to his congregation this morning, he’ll read from the gospel text, but that he’ll also preach from St. Paul’s first epistle about the Corinthians. That’s because the text that he’ll be using emphasizes just how important the resurrection is to Christian faith not only in the past but in the present, he said.

“In that passage, the Apostle Paul says if (Jesus) is not risen, then we are most to be pitied,” Kramer said.

“I’d rather preach (the resurrection) than anything else — every Sunday is resurrection Sunday, but this is the resurrection Sunday.”

The Rev. Jeff Brewer, senior pastor at Parkway Baptist Church, said that the crucifixion and resurrection as real, historical events testify to the role of Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ, for humanity.

“I think for Christians, and for people who may not be but want to tie some solidity and validity to what Christ did, to know that everything that was done during that period of time was not only to fulfill the will of God the Father but to give proof Jesus was the Christ through fulfilling Old Testament prophecy,” Brewer said. “The prophets Isaiah and Zechariah both spoke of this; the validity is tied to the Old Testament.”

And while prophets who lived hundreds of years before Jesus spoke of what he would do, the Rev. David O’Connor, pastor of St. Mary Basilica, said details included in the gospel passages also indicate that what the early Christian witnesses wrote were inspired by actual experience.

“In the story of the women going to the tomb, they found it empty and told (the apostles) Peter and John, and they raced there and found it as the women told them — they look in the tomb and find the burial cloth, and then they find the cloth that was wrapped around Jesus’ head in a different place,” O’Connor said.

“These are the kinds of details that tell us that these are actually eyewitnesses to how they found the tomb that Easter morning.”

For the early church, those findings were a confirmation of their faith in Jesus and a restoration of hope when hope had been lost with his death, O’Connor said.

“For them, it sort of confirmed all of his teaching and energized them to say, ‘This certainly was the one,’ and the message He has given us is the mission we have now,” he said.

The question, O’Connor said, is while the resurrection energized the early Christian movement, what does the resurrection from the dead mean for us today?

“What do we find in all of that that is extraordinary, and what do we find personal so that we can take the message of old and see how it shows itself in our own life?” he said.

In his paschal homily — which is still read aloud today during the Easter celebrations in eastern Christian churches — the ancient Christian commentator St. John Chrysostom emphasized that the resurrection of Jesus is not just the resurrection of one man, but a paradigm shift in how the world understands death itself.

“Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave,” Chrysostom said. “Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free; He that was taken by death has annihilated it!”

And beyond the grander scope of what the resurrection means, it also provides a daily comfort, Brewer said.

“Christ conquering the grave and defeating death lets me know that is a promise fulfilled, and so I know other promises Christ made to me as a Christian will be kept,” he said.

O’Connor said that those who are suffering loss or who might be simply grasping for some kind of faith — and even those whose life and faith are strong — can hear such a message and find hope.

“We want them to put themselves into the story and see how it touches their life,” he said. “What is it about the resurrection story and the event of the resurrection that gives some hope to their lives, whatever the condition of their lives may be?

“Without the resurrection, all of the teaching of Jesus was in vain; to bring that up to date, we say, ‘What kind of faith do you have in the resurrection?’”