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THE STRANGE STORY OF EASTER

One Friday in the spring of, I think, 29 AD, a man was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem. Nothing strange in that. Crucifixion was a common form of punishment in the Roman Empire. It was barbaric of course. So barbaric that it was not thought suitable for Citizens of Rome. Cicero, the great Roman orator, had said, some 80 years before, "Let the very name of the cross be banished from the body and life of Roman Citizens". But for slaves and subject peoples it was still a common form of punishment, especially for those convicted of sedition: of acting or plotting to overthrow Roman rule.

This man was called Jesus of Nazareth. He came from an insignificant town in the North, in Galilee. Earlier in Jesus' lifetime his family could recall the roads of Galilee being lined with 2000 crosses: those who had taken part in an uprising against the Romans. Jesus himself had been convicted of leading a movement that seemed to threaten the authority of both the Jewish leaders and their Roman masters. Alongside him were crucified two other men, who had been involved in some other insurrection.

As the sun began to set in the evening, the soldiers had to make sure that the victims were dead before they could go back to the barracks. The two on either side of Jesus were still alive, so the soldiers broke their legs. Nothing strange in that. It was a common practice: the victims could no longer support their weight on their feet; so their chests and lungs collapsed and they died. Jesus had appeared to be dead for some time, but to make sure one of the soldiers thrust a spear up into his side. Nothing strange in that. That also was a common practice. From Jesus' side flowed blood and water. His circulation had stopped long ago, and the clot and serum in his blood had separated. He was dead.

Friends took the body of Jesus down, washed and anointed it, and wrapped it in a linen shroud. Nothing strange in that. These were common burial customs. They then took the body to a tomb hewn out of the rock, laid it there, rolled a large stone over the mouth to seal it, and went away. Nothing strange in that. Jerusalem lies high up in the hills of Judea. There is little topsoil on top of the rock. Digging graves is impractical, so people bored narrow caves or tunnels in the rock to bury their dead. In that warm, dry climate the flesh rapidly turned to dust, and after two or three years the tomb was opened, the bones were removed and place in an ossuary box, to be kept in some safe place, while the tomb was reused.

The next day was the Sabbath. The friends and followers of Jesus rested, grieved, and hid. Nothing strange in that. The Sabbath commanded rest, and of course they grieved. And Jesus had been crucified as an enemy of the State: would his followers be hunted down too?

On the first day of the week, some women rose early and went to visit the tomb. Nothing strange in that. People often go back to visit the grave of a loved one a few days after the death.

But what happened next is strange. As they approached the grave, they saw that the stone had been rolled away, and the tomb was empty. The shroud was still there, and the cloth that had been used to support his chin, was rolled up in a place by itself; but the body was gone!

What would you have thought? 'Someone has taken it away. But who and why? ' The women were mystified. Very strange indeed.

But then the story gets stranger still. During that and the following days the friends and followers of Jesus began to have mysterious experiences: Mary Magdalene, Peter, a couple walking home to Emmaus, then all eleven of the disciples, and then, even 500 people at once. They all saw Jesus; they talked to him; they ate with him; they even touched him. He was alive, not dead; alive but changed. He appeared from nowhere, and then disappeared to nowhere. But he was alive, never to die again.

These friends and disciples of Jesus were changed by these experiences. They were no longer afraid, hiding out of sight. They were standing up in public places, in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus had been crucified, and telling everyone this Strange Story. At the beginning some people believed it and joined the friends of Jesus as his followers. Some did not believe it, or did not want to believe it: the Jewish rulers and their Roman masters. But yet they could never produce the body!

Of those first disciples many went on to die for the truth of the story they told; to die in the hope that they too would be raised from the dead and live for ever with Jesus. Would they have died for a story that they knew to be untrue?

In the course of time, this Strange Story has spread throughout the world, and I am telling it to you again today. I believe it: the Strange Story of Easter.Do you?

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