I gave a version of the following in my Easter Sunday Sacrament meeting, April 24, 2011.
The evening of the Friday Jesus of Nazareth was tortured, beaten, crucified, and hung to die next to two political rebels, the influential leaders among the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Judean branch of the Roman Empire were all probably able to have a peaceful night’s sleep.
According to their own different ideologies, by participating in the death of this perceived cult leader and would-be revolutionary, they had each played an important part in averting national, social, religious, and political disaster. They would agree with the words attributed to the current High Priest, which remarked that “it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” (John 11:50)
And perhaps they would have continued to sleep well with their minds settled and at peace on the whole Jesus matter … if it hadn’t for the Empty Tomb on Sunday.
The empty tomb of Jesus was highly inconvenient. For many people.
Although it was well known that Jesus had said he would rise again after three days, nobody really took it seriously, and viewed pretty much all interpretations of this saying as a theological and philosophical impossibility.
For the Pharisees, such a miraculous event would had to have been empowered by God, and God simply wouldn’t have raised a man from the dead who disregarded their Sacred Traditional Oral Law which providentially served to authoritatively interpret the easily misinterpreted written scriptures.
Explanations were given for the empty tomb. “The disciples must have stolen the body,” was a popular and logically attractive one. It was a very useful apologetic, and most who heard the story of the empty tomb were able to write it off , and not let it substantially affect their lives because of this explanation.
Saul, a dedicated and faithful Pharisee, was one of them.
This new cult of Jesus Followers – who were also known as followers of “The Way” – were extremely offensive to Saul. Their proclamation that Jesus is the Lord – a title reserved for the One God of Israel – was blasphemous.
Their assertion that Jesus was the Messiah – the Christ – the anointed King of Israel – contradicted the scriptures, of which he was very well versed.
Their affirmation that Jesus miraculously was risen from the dead and had therefore initiated the Kingdom of God was patently ridiculous.
What these Jesus followers were doing was ruining and desecrating the True Religion in the eyes of the masses – and they needed to be stopped at all costs. Roman law didn’t allow the Judeans to carry out the death penalty – which is why Rome had needed to be called in to take care of Jesus. But that couldn’t practically be done for every one of these radical followers of this dead prophet.
Sometimes, many of the Pharisees decided, the Law of God needed to be carried out even when the Law of the Land prohibited it.
When Stephen, a prominent follower of Jesus who was actively trying to convert faithful Pharisees to his cult, went into the public square and professed before everyone that Jesus was the Lord, and that he could see him, in vision, at the right hand of the Most High God, it was too much for the Pharisees to bear. They took the Law into their own hands, and stoned him to death.
To Saul, divine justice was accomplished.
If he didn’t actually throw any stones, he probably wished that he had. In his mind, it was not just the mob that had killed Stephen, it was the One True God working through them.
He would have had a righteous desire to be an instrument in the hand of His God in accomplishing this work.
The crowd would have been loud. It’s possible Saul heard Stephen ask for God to forgive the crowd who was stoning him (Acts 7:60 ). He probably would have thought such a dying plea was strange, and ironic. God wouldn’t need to forgive a crowd that was carrying out His divine will.
Eventually, and probably inspired by the empowerment he witnessed and felt with Stephen, Saul wanted to do more for His God. He approached the High Priest, and asked for specific permission and authorization to go find Jesus’ followers abroad, to bind them, and to bring them back to Jerusalem to be dealt with. He received approval, and left, possibly singing psalms to the Lord either aloud, or at least in His heart.
He was sent forth – the literal meaning of the word apostle – from the High Priest to do accomplish the will of the Lord.
And then there was a light, above the brightness of the sun, which blinded him. He heard a voice – a divine voice – calling him by name.
Perhaps in this brief moment, Saul believed he was having a visitation by a holy angel giving approval for and even blessing his mission, confirming that he was, in fact, doing the Lord’s work.
But then the message continued.
“Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Disorientation. Confusion. Who was speaking? What divine being was he persecuting?
“Who are you, Lord?” he asked, very respectfully. Very cautiously.
He would have been completely unprepared for the unmistakable, undeniable answer he received:
“I am Jesus,” said the divine voice, “whom you are persecuting.”
What could possibly have gone through Saul’s mind at that moment? His entire worldview would be massively shifting . A paradigm shift of colossal proportions.
If the divine voice is Jesus, then Jesus is alive. And a divine being. That would mean the disciples didn’t steal the body. That would mean the disciples of Jesus were not fraudulent heretical cultists, but were truly followers of the Lord.
That would mean that the Kingdom of God which he so desired, loved, and prayed daily for has indeed come, and instead of defending it, he is fighting against it.
The story of Saul’s life as he understood it needed to be completely redefined. His understanding of the scriptures was completely wrong. He wasn’t a scriptural hero defending the prophets – he was the one stoning them.
Saul, at that moment, blinded very literally by the revelation of a New Paradigm, had a choice to make. He could reinterpret the Empty Tomb and listen to the instruction he was now receiving – instruction that, while very real and powerful in the moment, contradicted everything he had known before – or he could go back to where he had been, his path of increasing prominence, choosing to silently explain away this new and unusual experience.
No matter which path he would choose, he would start the journey blind, needing to very literally walk by faith rather than by sight.
In Victor Hugo’s 19th Century masterpiece Les Miserables, Inspector Javert is ideologically driven by the conviction that wicked men who dishonor the Law cannot change their natures, and will always be morally destitute, a drain on society, and subject and deserving of the full and harsh penalties of the Law for the rest of their lives.
He dedicates his life to hunting down Jean Valjean, who as a young man was convicted of theft, became bitter, and, following his release into limited parole, stole again out of habit.
Through the course of Valjean’s life, as a direct result of coming to terms with and accepting an act of grace and Mercy granted to him by someone he had deeply wronged, Valjean’s life and nature completely changes. He becomes a completely new creature, and dedicates his life to serving others, at great expense to himself.
Javert refuses to believe that such a change is possible. Following years of this relentless hunt, a circumstance arises in which Valjean chooses to extend mercy, and save Javert’s life – knowing that in doing so, Javert will most likely continue to hunt him.
His life saved, and the opportunity to finally recapture Valjean now in view, this new circumstance of creates a major dilemma of cognitive dissonance in Javert’s mind.
He was just shown mercy by a Lawbreaker.
This wasn’t supposed to be possible.
His paradigm is shifting, his world is changing, and he doesn’t know how to handle it. He could continue to go back to how things have always been, but he would always know that he was living in conflict with what he now knew was possible. He could live acknowledging the life changing principle of Grace and Mercy – but then his entire life would have been in vain – and worse than vain. Instead of his life being a pursuit of Divine Justice, the personification of a Divine Attribute, it would have been blindly following a falsehood, and in direct and seething opposition to a principle of Good. His life, instead of being in the imitation of God, would have been in the image of Evil.
Javert refuses to accept any of these options, finds no way to reconcile them, and throws himself into the river, choosing suicide over adjusting to a new paradigm.
The third option that Javert rejected is the option that Saul chose – to embrace the New meaning of the Empty Tomb, to allow his former life and sins that had been based on his old worldview to be forgiven, to move on, and allow himself to be changed into a New Creation, embracing his New Purpose, and New Potential.
The power of the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus the Christ, when accepted and made a part of Saul’s life, was that it began to transform everything about him.
His understandings which may have been faulty were transformed into enlightenment. That which was already good was readjusted and reallocated to be more efficient, and to cause greater good to flow more consistently than it had before.
Saul saw in this transformative event a new Hope he hadn’t even dreamed of. New possibilities that had not been allowed by his former traditions and worldview were now not only available, but a living reality.
In a very real way, he willingly allowed a huge part of his old life to Die, and to be recreated, or Resurrected into a new life.
Saul the Apostle of Christian Persecution died, and he became Paul, Special Witness and Apostle of the Risen Jesus Christ.
What learning of and fully embracing the reality of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection taught Saul was that once a new life is completely embraced and fully entered into, the corruptible part of your past understanding and reason for your behavior dies, and need not be considered who you are now.
Upon his decision to embrace his new understanding of the Empty Tomb, Saul chose to be Baptized by Ananias, a disciple of Jesus Christ that until just days before would have been squarely on Saul’s cult member hit list.
Baptism is a powerful physical symbol of one’s own spiritual death and Resurrection that, interpreted in the light of the Empty Tomb, is now made possible through accepting and identifying oneself with Christ.
Paul used this imagery gained from his own experience in his apostolic letter to the Romans.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 7:3–8, NRSV)
The standard Doctrine of the Resurrection is, plainly, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God voluntarily took upon himself the sins of the world and submitted to and then conquered death and truly rose again in perfection and purity. Because of this, the key was turned that enables all mankind also to be empowered to overcome death, and rise again to physical perfection, with the opportunity to accept spiritual sanctification – all through the work accomplished by Jesus Christ.
Death has been conquered as an enemy, and has been transformed into a glorious and essential passageway to experiencing Eternal Joy. We can know that when our loved ones die, there is divine Hope that our association with them has not come to its end, but is in a very sacred way, only just beginning.
In addition to a simple acknowledgement of one’s belief in this statement of religious faith, when we internalize this teaching, we can find powerful and practical life-changing principles that are being taught by this sacred doctrine.
We are not perfect.
We have made mistakes.
We will continue to make mistakes.
We have been wrong.
We have had incorrect theological, sociological, and/or emotional worldviews that have in one way or another directly affected our thoughts, actions and behaviors towards others – or even ourselves – in less than admirable ways.
What happens when these paradigms have been allowed to shift throughout the course of our lives as new lifechanging knowledge comes to light, and are embraced?
Often, these new understandings can – and have – come to light as a result of a diligent, sincere and introspective study of the scriptures with a humble desire to be taught, coupled with searching and submissive prayer. But they come in other ways as well.
Sometimes embracing a new inspired understanding of life comes as an extended process, like Elder Bednar’s description of a sunrise from this past General Conference1, and at other times it comes like Paul’s blinding light – a brilliant but painful epiphany.
Perhaps some of you are currently in the sunrise process of changing your worldview as it pertains to new light concerning something – or someone – important in your life.
With some of you, the need for some change is recognized, but being resisted.
Change can be very painful. Change can be very inconvenient – your own new knowledge of your own Empty Tombs can be hard to face. You can, and probably will, lose sleep over them.
What do you do about the new knowledge concerning the Empty Tombs when they show up in your lives?
Do you try to explain them away and go on living your old lives as if you never learned about them?
How do you react when you learn that your actions based on past interpretations of your own personal Empty Tombs have been in error, and have actually hurt, rather than helped, the situation of the lives of other of God’s Children?
You cannot erase history. Whatever damage has been done by an old erroneous mindset and point of view has been done.
While you probably don’t have to come to grips with a past of having contributed to literally killing the Lord’s servants, you may have to face a realization of how you may have treated or judged others unfairly based on an incorrect understanding.
You may come to realize that in your own way, you were unknowingly participating in a form of persecution against the very truth you were desiring to defend.
Today, on this day that we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the glorious understanding of the Empty Tomb that we share with the rest of the Christian world, let us also rejoice in the New Life this world changing event has made available for us in every way.
Not only as a singular event in the unknown future when all will be physically Resurrected – indeed a powerful aspect of the Hope we have of the most joyous of all possible blessings – but we can also experience the power and doctrine of Resurrection in the here and now, every time we humbly and honestly acknowledge and repent of our shortcomings and past misunderstandings, and renew our dedication to our Covenant with Christ, who lives to heal us, and to give us New Life, and new understandings of our former life, because of the Life we now have in Him.
Let us make the doctrine of the Resurrection a part of who we are, not just something we know about and happen to believe in.
In the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen.