Submitted by Pastor Dave Wynn, First Christian Church, Tarkio, Mo.
The scripture account of that first glorious Easter morning is a familiar one from John, as we see Mary Magdalene, who has come to Jesus’ tomb, and found it empty. Jesus has risen from the dead, and in the weeks to come will make himself known to His Disciples and followers, directing them as they begin the early Christian Church, a journey they undertook so successfully that it is still going strong today. What does this tell us? It proclaims that Easter is the glory and joy of a great miracle, the greatest of wonders.
Let’s skip forward just a few years from that first Easter morning: The year is 312 A.D. Constantine the Great is the leader of the Roman Empire. Over the course of these 300 years since the resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter morning, the first Christian Jews were persecuted, crucified, fed to the lions. The Romans just didn’t like them. But now, in 312, Constantine the Great sat on the Roman throne. And according to tradition, he had a heavenly vision of Christianity, which led him to remove and abolish all the sanctions and prejudice that had been in place for these 312 years. This may or may not be true, but we do know that the Jewish Christian population had now grown to almost half of all the people living in the Roman empire, and would likely continue to grow. Accounting for their strength in numbers, much had changed, and Constantine knew it.
It was now time to join the winning side in order to keep the peace.
If you were an historian on the outside looking in, you might ask . . . How could this happen? How could “what was just a small group of Jews who called themselves Christians” become such a dominant force in two and a half centuries?
Theology professor and historian Rodney Stark of Baylor University believes that Christianity modeled a nobler way of life than what existed elsewhere in that rather brutal society of Rome in those days.
In Christianity, he says, women were respected as never before in the old culture and played a critical role in bringing men to the faith and attracting converts. In an age of plagues, for example, the readiness of Christians to care for all the sick, not just their own, was a factor, as was the impressive witness to the faith of Jesus’ Disciples and many other countless martyrs.
Christianity also grew from within because Christians had larger families, a byproduct of their faith’s prohibition of contraception, abortion and infanticide, the killing of newborn babies for whatever reason. In asking, therefore, how did this new way of life, this hope and caring, love and forgiveness, get started, we now roll back the clock to that first Easter morning, and what happened in the days to follow.
We look upon this accounting of Mary and Peter from John, and the accounts to follow of Jesus greeting His Disciples in the Upper Room where they were hiding, the meeting of Jesus with the two grief-stricken travelers on the road to Emmaus, Jesus eating with His Disciples on the beach, and many other accounts, and we begin to realize what has now happened to the first Jewish Christians, and how the world will change over the next 300 years unto to the present day. Indeed, all those years till now and in all the years to come.
What happened to them, and continues to happen, is what has been defined as the “Easter Effect.”
The rise of Christianity starts now with these accounts of what happens after “the Resurrection.” These first encounters with the one whom they embraced as the Risen Lord, whom they first knew as a Jewish rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, and who they watched in fear as he suffered an agonizing and shameful death on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem, makes clear the answer as to why those first generations had made such great strides in Rome. They answered the question of why they were Christians with a straightforward answer: Because Jesus, their Savior, was raised from the dead.
The way they thought about time and history has now changed forever. During Jesus’ public ministry, many of his followers shared in the Jewish expectations of the coming Messiah:
God would soon work something grand for his people in Israel, liberating them from their oppressors and bringing about a new age in which, as Isaiah had prophesied, “the nations would stream to the mountain of the Lord and history would end.” The early Christians came to understand that this world-redeeming act, not just for them but for all of God’s creation, all that God had promised, had taken place on that first Easter morning.
God’s Kingdom had come not at the end of time but within time, and that event had changed the texture of both time and history.
History continued, but those shaped by the Easter Effect became the people who knew how history was going to turn out. Because of that, they could live differently. The Easter Effect impelled them to bring a new standard of equality into the world and to embrace death as martyrs if necessary, because they knew, now, that death did not have the final word in the human story.
You know, we are truly blessed today because the generation at that time preserved what happened in the four Gospel accounts. Preserved the first Christians’ confusion, skepticism and fears about what had happened to their former teacher and what was happening to them.
These remarkable and deliberate writers have given and continue to give us two things:
First, they tell us that the early Christians were so confident about what they called the “Resurrection,” they were prepared to say something like, “I know this sounds unbelievable, but it’s what happened.” And the second thing they tell us is that it took time for the first Christians to figure out what the events of Easter meant, not only for Jesus but for themselves as well.
As they worked that out, their thinking about a lot of things changed profoundly, and as we share these stories, we will see how these events have made such a profound effect on our lives as well.
See you in one of our area churches this Sunday as the story continues . . .