Easter: the Foundation of Christianity

Published in the Island Newspaper ON Easter Sunday 1999

 By Dr. Ajith Fernando

National Director, Youth for Christ

While Christmas is the most popular festival in the Christian calendar in Sri Lanka, historically Easter has been its most important festival. I suspect that the popularity of Christmas has had more to do with the desire of business people to profit from this festival than with the desire of devout people to practice Christianity! No one really knows on what day Jesus was born, so that we can safely say that what we call Christmas day is not the day of the birth of Christ. But we can say with certainty that Jesus rose from the dead on the day we now call Easter—the Sunday immediately after the popular Jewish festival called the Passover. And it is this event we celebrate each year in the festival we call Easter. Why is it the most important festival of Christianity?

 

The Proof of the Message

The importance of Easter is evidenced by the fact that, in the preaching of the first Christians in the Bible, the affirmation that Christ rose from the dead was presented as the proof of the validity of the Christian religion. My advisor for my post-graduate studies, Dr. Daniel Fuller, had written his doctoral dissertation at the University of Basel in Switzerland on the resurrection of Jesus. You can imagine my surprise when he said one day in class that if someone produced the bones of Jesus he would give up Christianity. To him Christianity stands or falls on the fact that Jesus rose from the dead.

Jesus made some amazing claims about himself—claims that his Jewish contemporaries regarded as blasphemy. He claimed to do things which, according to Jewish belief, only God could do—like forgive sins and give people eternal life. In several different ways he claimed to be equal with God. To the Jewish mind these were terrible things for a human being to say. They believed that people who spoke like this deserved to die. So they tried to stone him when he made these claims and they finally succeeded in having him killed.

It is interesting that, though the Jewish critics of Jesus understood the serious implications of the claims he was making, his disciples did not grasp them. I suppose, because they knew that he was a good person, they could not accept that he would say such outrageous blasphemies. So they must have interpreted these statements to mean something less offensive. Towards the end of his life Jesus expressed surprise that his disciples had been with him for so long and still did not understand who he really was. But the resurrection of Jesus changed all of this. After his death his disciples were so afraid that they went into hiding. But after they saw him risen from the dead they were irrepressible, proclaiming his message wherever they went despite severe opposition. In fact, most of them were killed for preaching this message, but their conviction about Jesus was so strong that they were willing to make the supreme sacrifice for it.

It is actually quite amazing that these Jews accepted Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. He had just been killed in the most ignoble way possible. Jesus had told his disciples several times that he came to this world to give his life to save the human race. When he told them that he was going to be killed in this shameful manner, they had protested strongly about it. The Jews at that time were expecting a redeemer (also known as Christ or Messiah). But they wanted this redeemer to come as a powerful king who would free them from the hated Roman rule. This is why the disciples were so discouraged and went into hiding after he died. It seemed such a huge defeat.

Only after he rose from the dead did these disciples realise the meaning of what Jesus had been telling them all along: that the primary reason for his coming to the world was to die for the human race. The resurrection was proof to them that, as he had told them, his death was going to redeem people from the affects of their wrong deeds. I’m sure the disciples knew that humans, given their natural weakness, could never adequately do things to cancel off all the guilt they had accumulated for their wrong deeds. But they could not accept that Jesus had to die in such a terrible way in order to help humans out of this mess.

After Jesus rose from the dead and they realised the reason why he had to die, their discouragement was turned to amazement over the great love of God for the human race. The apostle Paul described it like this: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us”. Now the death was no longer a problem, it was the proof that God loved us humans. And it was the fact that he rose from the dead that made them change their minds about this puzzle about why this person who was supposed to be God’s answer to the problems of the human race had to die. Speaking to the intellectuals in the city of Athens, the apostle Paul, after explaining the Christian approach to life, said that the proof of all this was the fact that Jesus rose from the dead.

The resurrection also convinced the first Jewish converts to Christianity in Jerusalem. When the disciples started proclaiming the message of Christ, they started in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus had been put to death. It was only a few days after his death and they had many enemies there. They had many friends and followers of Jesus in the northern district of Galilee, and that would have seemed a better place to commence their mission. In the first public talk given in Jerusalem the apostle Peter was very forthright in telling his audience, “You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” After making this serious accusation he quickly passed on to the fact that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Three thousand people accepted Jesus as their Saviour and Lord that day. And the number of men alone swelled to five thousand in a few days. The evidence was just too great for these citizens of Jerusalem to reject.

 

The Rationale for Living

The resurrection also gives the rationale for the basic principle of Christian living that we call “the principle of the cross.” According to this principle death (or the cross) is the gateway to life. That is, if we are willing to suffer because of our convictions we will finally succeed just as Jesus succeeded through his death.

Martin Niemoeller was a courageous German pastor who spent several years in prison because he spoke out against the unhealthy influence Adolf Hitler’s regime was having on the church in Germany. He knew that in that bleak period of their history, the resurrection of Christ would be an encouragement to his people. On Easter morning, 28th March 1937, three months before he was arrested and imprisoned, he preached a sermon of encouragement to his people.

In his sermon Niemoeller spoke of the way in which evil had been manifested in those days and how people ridiculed the Christians. He said, “We may feel frightened about this newly wakened enmity of a whole world: and people do not forget to tell us how few visible guarantees we have for our belief that God will create the new world—or how few guarantees we have for the truth of our faith…. Does the Easter message… still hold good, they wonder?”

Niemoeller faced squarely the temptation to compromise under this pressure. He asked, “Is it not more honest, is it not more fitting to make peace with the old world [that is, Hitler’s regime], the pre-Easter world, which is after all showing itself very much stronger and more enduring than we thought or suspected?” Then he spoke of the folly of such thinking. “It is better for us not to trust what our eyes see, for that will pass away! And [Jesus] tells us, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed’”. And why is that so? Niemoeller says,

Throughout the centuries, the risen Christ has gone before his community, and today too he goes before us. His victory will be our victory also. And just as our fathers in the faith believed in him with that assurance which the risen Christ gave to his first disciples, so we too are sure and will continue to proclaim… what makes us glad deep down in our hearts, in the ups and downs amidst which we live…. I think what makes us glad with a great joy is this: “The Lord is risen; he is really and truly risen!”

Hitler, of course, who was reigning supreme at that time died in disgrace, and his name is associated with some of the most terrible depths of human degradation. Niemoeller, on the other hand, suffered pain and humiliation because of his principles. But today is regarded a great hero.

It is my hope that the message of Easter will give followers of Jesus the courage to pay the price required to be faithful to their principles. We know that our sacrifices will ultimately yield a great victory like it did for our Master Jesus. This is a powerful incentive to resist the tide of corruption, violence, revenge and prejudice that seems to have engulfed our country at this time. Many when tempted to bribe or lie say that they cannot avoid doing it if they are to survive in society. The message of Easter tells them that this is a very short-sighted approach. Evil does hold sway for a time, but justice will finally triumph.