The key thing about this passage from Peter's sermon to Cornelius and his companions is his assertion that Jesus' first disciples were witnesses to all that he did. It is their testimony which is the bedrock of the Christian faith and especially of the Easter story and Peter senses immediately that the message of Jesus' resurrection and vindication by God is so extraordinary that people will struggle to believe it unless they can be convinced of the utter integrity and honesty of the testimony they are hearing.
The first part of his proclamation, that Jesus went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed before being put to death by hanging, is a matter of public record. Everyone listening to the sermon knows it is true. But the second part of Peter's message, that God chose this happy band of followers to witness Jesus' resurrection appearances and to eat and drink with the risen Jesus, is something which has to be taken on trust. The only alternative is to assume that the evidence is either misconceived, and the disciples have been deluded by some sort of mass hysteria into believing that they have seen the risen Jesus, or else Peter's sermon is a reckless and dishonest attempt to gain influence and turn the tables on Jesus' opponents by inventing a bold and incredible lie.
For a time, of course, the jury was out. No one knew whether the disciples had simply made up or imagined their accounts of Jesus' resurrection, or whether they were true. And still, of course, there are those who would argue that the Easter story is either a delusion or a fairytale made up to raise the spirits of Jesus' followers. However, even opponents of mainstream Christianity, such as the Jewish scholar Professor Geza Vermes, are impressed by the spiritual energy and determination of the early Christians. He has no doubt that they were motivated by a genuine experience of Jesus' presence and power. In his view, nothing else can explain the dynamism and success of the early Christian mission. The disciples believed that it was the risen Jesus himself who had commanded them to preach and testify about him.
Paul takes the concept of resurrection a stage further. For him the Easter story is not just about what happened to Jesus after his death, it is also about personal transformation. The same spiritual power that gave Jesus victory over death enables all Christians to be remade in his image. This change can be described in one of two ways, either as a rebirth experience or as a new kind of life. Paul speaks of dying to our previous existence and rising to new life with Jesus.
When we recall Paul's own conversion experience, it's easy to understand how he was able to make this connection between our personal experience and the Easter story. His life changed so dramatically after he met the risen Jesus that it could only be described as a complete transformation. Before that encounter he had been one of the leading persecutors of Jewish Christians, but afterwards he became one of the leading proponents of the new faith. Before his Damascus Road experience he had been a thoroughly orthodox Pharisee. Afterwards he was to become a radical thinker even by Christian standards, passionately arguing that salvation was now available to Gentiles on equal terms with Jewish people. He lost all his former friends and networks, and had to make new ones. All his reference points in life where utterly changed. No doubt it must have seemed to those who had known him in his former life that he was indeed dead to them, and they must have grieved his loss. And as far as his new friends were concerned, his life had indeed only just begun and he had to learn a whole new way of being.
Of course, Paul's experience is one that we, too, are invited to share. the Easter story can become real for us in exactly the same way.
But, although it is valid to spiritualise the resurrection story in the way that Paul and Geza Vermes do, in the end it rests on an historical claim that someone who was put to death has also been brought to life again in a startling, new and dramatically powerful way. And that's why the Gospel writers find it necessary to talk about the empty tomb.
Matthew tells the story of the guards posted at the tomb to make sure that Jesus' body was not stolen either by his sympathisers or by opponents determined to prevent it from becoming a place of pilgrimage. He has already recounted that an earthquake shook Jerusalem at the moment when Jesus died; now its after shocks continue and signal Jesus' resurrection. Both the guards and the women who had come to anoint Jesus' body see an angelic vision and then, as the women flee from the empty tomb filled with a mixture of fear and great joy, Jesus meets them and they worship him.
This is resurrection recounted as history, just as demonstrably true as the death of Jesus because - like his death - it is witnessed by many different people. Has Matthew made up the details of the story, because he wants it to be true and because he feels the need to ground the resurrection in some verifiable facts? Or has he encountered genuine witnesses of the facts which he tells us about and, if so, why don't Peter and Paul mention them in their earlier accounts?
For some reason the first Christians - Peter, Paul and their contemporaries - did not see the empty tomb as important. To them it proved nothing. What counted for them was knowing for sure that Jesus is alive and that is a personal, spiritual experience, not a piece of history. But later Christians needed to know that the resurrection is also a verifiable fact of history and they not only told the story of the empty tomb but found what they believed was its site and made it a shrine that is still a place of worship to this day.
It is clear that Matthew and the other Gospel writers believed passionately that the resurrection of Jesus had involved an empty tomb. What they do not deny, however, is that - even though the tomb was empty - some of Jesus' closest friends continued to doubt that he was really alive again. Every Gospel writers mention this. In the end I think this is their way of acknowledging that all of us have to discover for ourselves that Jesus is alive and what his resurrection means for our own lives. So may we each discover in our hearts that the Lord is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!