There is an account in the New Testament of St Peter’s instruction on the Christian faith to a man called Cornelius and his household (Acts 10). Who was Cornelius? He was a Roman soldier stationed in Caesarea. He was in charge of about one hundred men in the army of occupation. We are told he was a devout and God fearing man who gave generously to Jewish causes, so he was obviously a friend of the local Jewish community, we are told that he prayed constantly to God. He was not a Christian at that point, but was clearly looking for something, a man whose religious instinct had been awakened, no longer just dormant. But he had never heard of Jesus, or at least only indirectly.
However, he received a special message from God and was told to seek out Peter. Peter was not all that keen on seeing Cornelius simply because he was not a Jew, but then he too received a special message and was told to receive Cornelius. So they met. Peter instructed Cornelius in the Christian faith and eventually the Roman and his family all became Christians, followers of Christ. Peter had to explain that Jesus had been killed ‘by hanging him on a tree’, yet – and here was the important and difficult part -‘ three days later, God raised him to life’.
I wonder what went through Cornelius’ head at that moment. Was he unconvinced? Sceptical? Why, people don’t die and then come back to life, certainly not in an advanced and sophisticated society such as that of the Roman Empire at that time. But Peter went on: yes God raise Jesus to life, and what is more – Peter hammered the point home – god allowed him to be seen, not by everybody but by certain witnesses chosen beforehand. It strikes me that Peter was being a little modest in his claim about the number of people who saw Jesus risen and alive. St Paul, writing to the Corinthians said that on one occasion the risen Christ was seen by 500 people at the same time, and added: ‘If you doubt it, you can verify the fact because most of those who saw Christ on that occasion are still alive.’ St Paul was writing very early on and knew what he was saying.
But to return to Cornelius, Peter is at pains to point out, ‘now we are witnesses – we have eaten and drunk with him after his resurrection from the dead.’ He could have gone further – perhaps he did – and told Cornelius about the empty tomb, how he had run there with St John. John could not refrain from saying he got there first! They both ran and saw the empty tomb. Moreover, they saw the linen cloth which had been wrapped around the dead body of Jesus, and they saw that the cloth which had covered his face was in a different place.
They had not expected to find the tomb empty. They had failed to understand the teaching of the scripture that ‘Christ must rise from the dead’. St John is at pains to point that out. He and Peter had gone to the burial site only because Mary of Magdala had rushed to tell them what she had seen – an empty tomb.
Where was the body? Who had stolen it? I can see these questions playing in Cornelius’ mind. What had happened? Obviously someone had taken it, someone had stolen it. That was the rumour. This had unnerved the people responsible for killing Jesus. So they had bribed the soldiers who were guarding the tomb to say they had fallen asleep, and while they were asleep someone came and rolled the stone away and took the body. They took the money and spread the story – a very far-fetched story. But the tomb was empty and something very important had happened, because the disciples remembered what Jesus had said: ‘Yes, on the third day I will rise again.’
Where, Cornelius insisted was the body? Where was Jesus? He was told by St Peter that many had seen him alive, but his appearance was often very strange. Mary of Magdala thought he was the gardener. The two disciples walking on the way to Emmaus failed to recognise him, they saw him, but all seemed different now. Jesus had changed, acting after the resurrection quite differently from the way he acted before he died. But he was still the real Jesus, risen from the dead.
Now the apostles’ lives were beginning to change also. Once the Holy Spirit had come down upon them they were transformed and went on saying again and again ‘Jesus has risen from the dead’. The truth of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is what they preached and it is to that they gave witness. Cornelius was received into the Christian community and he too, and his household, became witnesses to the fact that the tomb was empty and Jesus Christ was alive, risen from the dead.
Indeed, many people joined together in community simply because Jesus Christ, true God and true man had risen from the dead. A community grew up out of an acknowledgement of the fact. Even more than that, there were people prepared to be witnesses, even to the extent of losing their lives – becoming martyrs for Jesus. I think of Cornelius going back to his family and reminding them of what they have learned – that they must be witnesses by the way they live, and that Jesus, who had risen from the dead, was to be their leader. They were to learn about the Gospel, follow the things Jesus said and do as he bid.
Everything was different – and so it as to be for us. As we come together at Easter in the great act of worship, we listen to the word of God proclaimed. Then we must go back to our households and tell them that we, too, should be witnesses to Christ, to the Gospel, to the Church. We must be witnesses because out there are thousands and thousands of people who do not know Christ, yet are searching, wanting. The religious instinct in every person, perhaps, in our time is beginning to awaken. Who can tell them where to find the truth but those who belong to the Christian Community which believes in Christ who died and rose from the dead? That is the task for all of us to be witnesses to that fact and to all that follows from it for Christ is Risen, He is Risen indeed and for that we all shout Alleluia.