March Madness is upon us. Top-ranked teams vying for the national championship of NCAA Division 1 basketball are tuning their games and psyching up to take it all the way. Selection Sunday is March 13, and the first round of the playoffs between the best collegiate teams in the nation starts March 15-16. The narrowing down continues until April 4 when the two final teams face off in the championship game. Ardent basketball fans often go a little nuts during this period of time, possibly regaining a modicum of sanity on April 5. March Madness!
Followers of Jesus don’t have to wait for April 5 to recover their sanity this year, however. On Sunday, March 27, all around the world Christians will celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. This historical fact-claim is the very heart of the Christian message. As the Apostle Paul described the Christian Gospel, in one of the earliest statements of the Good News on record: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, … he was buried, … he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and … he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:3b-5, NIV). Paul also claimed that the post-resurrection Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers [fellow-Christians] at the same time,” and that “last of all he appeared” to Paul himself (1 Corinthians 15:6-8, NIV). He claimed that most of that large crowd were still alive and could be consulted, and he claimed that he was giving eye-witness testimony to this amazing event.
Remember that this story in Scripture is not the same as a “survival after death” tale, on the order of a ghost story. Doubtless, there were those who could barely believe their own eyes among the followers of Jesus. His death had been too public, too horrible and too final. Yet, he offered physical and tangible proof of his power to overcome death. One of the twelve closest followers of Jesus wasn’t present when Jesus appeared to them the first time. Not surprisingly, he was skeptical of the claim that they had “seen the Lord.” In fact, he was so resistant to the whole idea that he got a little obstinate about it: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side [where a Roman spear had been thrust], I will not believe it!” (see John 20:25, NIV). No wonder that guy is sometimes called Doubting Thomas. I call him Modern Thomas. He wanted some proof before he believed.
As I see it, this is just what we are given in the Christian Scriptures, in the New Testament of the Bible. We are given a reason to believe. The text faithfully reports how hard it was even for the devoted followers to actually believe in Jesus’ return to life after his gruesome crucifixion. No one lived through that ordeal, and everyone knew it. Yet, the early Christians proclaimed that Jesus had been brought back to life by God, and they declared this even at the cost of their lives. And this is just what keeps the followers of Jesus sane in a world that seems pretty warped sometimes. In Jesus, God conquered our final and ultimate enemy, death itself. This life is not the whole story. Jesus claimed to offer eternal life to all who trust in him (see that rather famous summary in John 3:16). Now that is a pretty bold claim to make, and it would be ridiculous if it were simply the vain promises of a now dead man. But, if it comes from a Man who has triumphed over death—well, we would be crazy not to listen to it, wouldn’t we?