April 24, 2011

The First Reason

This is the day that the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.  Jesus is risen!  We celebrate this best news with great jubilation on this, the day at which everything else we do is aimed.  Nothing else comes even close to mattering apart from this day.  But not everyone celebrates this day.  In fact, not too long ago in the grand scheme of things, no one did.  Jesus’ disciples certainly weren’t early on the morning it happened.  They were hiding.  They were locked in an upstairs room somewhere in Jerusalem in hopes that the folks who had killed their Lord only three days prior wouldn’t find and subject them to the same fate.  But we don’t often think about this.  You see, because of the pedestals on which we often place them, we don’t think very often about what the disciples were doing just after Jesus was crucified.  Only one of them even garnered up the courage to be present at the crucifixion and that perhaps only because he was known to the high priest who overlooked his accompanying Jesus’ mother and female followers (who, by the way, bested the other disciples in courage that day).  In fact, it was several hours before the crucifixion that Jesus’ disciples had fled.  They all ran out on Him precisely at His moment of greatest need.  Doesn’t that sound like the bunch of guys you’d want to use to start the institution you are primarily counting on to be the vehicle of your message to the world?  We generally fix our minds on the images of the disciples as noble and brave church planters.  These were the guys who worked miracles after Jesus left.  They have lots and lots of churches named after them.  Surely they are the faith superheroes if there ever were any.

And yet, on the day of the crucifixion, they were all hiding.  Not a single one of them believed that Jesus was coming back from the dead.  They hadn’t ever really understood Him on that point.  They decided that Jesus really was just another Messiah-pretender like so many others had proved to be.  He attracted followers just like the others.  He denied political aspirations as had some of the others.  He was ruthlessly and violently squelched by the Romans like the others.  Sure His message was a bit different from theirs, but it’s hard to argue the finer points of a man’s main message when He’s starting to rot on the other side of a several ton stone.  Jesus had been the most promising Messiah-figure yet, but if He was the Messiah, then what was He doing lying in Joseph’s grave?  The Messiah wasn’t supposed to be crucified by the Romans, He was supposed to conquer the Romans!  Also, for the others, all of their followers were crucified as well. No wonder they were hiding scared!

And then it happened.  Something happened which resulted in this ragtag group of nobodies walking boldly out into the streets proclaiming a message that garnered them the same treatment their master had faced.  They gave powerful sermons that resulted in thousands of people coming to sign up to be a part of this new movement.  Indeed, their work resulted in the formation of a new religious movement that swept the Roman Empire in spite of the fierce persecution it faced.  All but one gladly endured death for their devotion to this message.  Eventually their message spread and attracted more and more followers such that there were millions, and then nearly two billion people around the world who counted themselves among its adherents.  So what happened?  What changed in the circumstances of these frightened and defeated men to spark all of this?  I’ll tell you what happened: they learned that not all dead men stay dead.  They were confronted with the single greatest reason to believe.  They stood face-to-face with the resurrected Christ.  Of all the reasons why we believe we have talked about over the last month, in the final analysis, the resurrection is the reason why we believe.

It has been quite a journey getting here.  We started this journey nearly two months ago by spending a few weeks talking about some of the whats of our faith.  We talked about the Bible and each member of the Trinity in turn.  We talked about sin and the need for each one of us to embrace the salvation Jesus made possible by what we celebrate this morning.  Then we shifted gears outward a bit and spent the last two weeks plus Good Friday talking about some of the reasons why we believe.  We took some time two weeks ago to demonstrate the reasonableness and the rationality of the faith.  What we found is that when we examine the world around us and ask the hard questions, we have a faith that makes sense.  Last Sunday we took a close look at the relationship between science and Christian theology.  We found that the two work best when they collaborate.  Then this past Friday, from a bit unorthodox a perspective, we took a look at the issue of miracles.  What we came to see is that in spite of the wonders of modern science, this is not nearly so difficult an issue to get around if we have a big enough picture of God.  Indeed, with a big enough God anything can happen.  All of these conversations were set in the context of offering reasons why our belief makes sense.  My goal through all of this has been to display from at least one angle the validity of the Christian worldview.  This morning, I want to strip away everything else and focus in on what matters most.  In the final analysis, what is the absolute strongest reason to believe?  What is most fundamental?  What was the first reason people believed?  Why would someone leave the comforts of paganism in the Roman Empire to embrace a way of life that guaranteed suffering in the short term?  The answer to this is as simple as it could be: the resurrection is the reason why we believe.  For the rest of our time together this morning I want to offer you two reasons why this is so.

First, did the resurrection actually happen?  Considering that most of the folks in this room are either Christians or have spent nearly all of their life in a quasi-Christian environment, most of us take this for granted.  Of course Jesus rose from the dead.  Moses gave the Law, Mohammed gave the Koran, Jesus rose from the dead.  But it shouldn’t take too much thought to see that this could potentially be a stumbling block for really just about anyone.  How do we know that Jesus rose from the dead?  I mean, in my experience, dead people tend to stay dead.  Is this just something we have to take on faith (as opposed to objective, historical fact)?  No one alive today was around to see it happen and frankly, if you read the Gospels very closely, no one alive back then actually saw it happen.  If as Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 15 (which we will look at in more detail in a few minutes) the entirety of our faith hangs on the resurrection, how shall we make the case that it actually happened?

This is a case worth making too because ours is not the only explanation for how things have gone the way they have since the crucifixion.  Some folks argued that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross but was slipped a Mickey and later woke up.  Other folks have argued that Jesus never really came back from the dead, but that the disciples were so caught up in missing Jesus and feeling like He was with them “in spirit,” that they actually started believing He was with them in body as well.  Now, our first instinct might be to dismiss these out of hand, but they have been convincing to many so how shall we respond?  Well, first and foremost, on Sunday morning Jesus’ tomb was empty.  All four of the Gospels document that the tomb was empty.  Matthew even includes this humorous episode where the Jewish leaders went to Pilate to request a guard unit to make sure the disciples didn’t steal the body out of the tomb.  Then the guard unit reported that an angel had come and rolled the stone away, the Jews paid them off to say that had fallen asleep which would have brought them a death sentence for dereliction of duty apart from the protection of the Jews.  As a point of fact, the Jewish leaders really didn’t want Jesus coming out of that tomb.  Had he still been there when the disciples starting claiming He wasn’t they would have just marched back to the tomb, opened it, and dismissed the disciples with the physical evidence.  In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul includes an early church creed proclaiming the reality of the resurrection that probably dates within five years of the event, far too early for people to start making stuff up without critics quickly correcting them.  In the same passage, Paul lists some specific people as well as a group of 500 to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared.  If He was only reported as appearing to the disciples we might be able to write it off.  But a group of 500 isn’t all going to experience the same hallucination.  Furthermore, shifting back to the Gospels, all four of them report that women were the first eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ.  We treat something like that fairly casually, but in a culture where women barely counted as people and were uniformly not seen as credible witnesses, this would have been a major hurdle for Gospel contemporaries to clear.  If the Gospel authors were trying to write the story in such a way that it would convince the masses, including women as the chief eyewitnesses was not the way to do it.  The only plausible explanation is that they were telling the truth.  The tomb was empty.  Jesus had risen.  This is the reason why we believe.

Now, all of these are good reasons, but let’s go just a bit deeper.  Think about this beyond just the immediate physical facts of the resurrection.  In John 20:19, the apostle reports that the disciples were in a room with the doors locked for fear of the Jews when Jesus came and stood among them.  The image of the disciples before the resurrection is not a complementary one.  So how did these scared and depressed men go from that to only a few weeks later Peter proclaiming in the streets of Jerusalem: “[People] of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.  God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”?  It was the resurrection.  They saw the resurrected Lord and believed.  Let’s be clear: apart from the resurrection there was absolutely no motivation for them to start proclaiming things like this.  It simply doesn’t make sense.  The Jews then believed that there would be a resurrection, but not until the end of time.  Jesus was really the first person to indicate that might not be the case and then demonstrated the truth of His words.  Let’s keep going on this.  Not only did the disciples have this change of heart, but a lot of other people did as well.  In fact, in Acts 15 which I read from a little bit at our sunrise service this morning, there are some folks described as “believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees.”  Those were the guys who had Jesus killed in the first place.  And now some of them were believers?!?  How could this possibly be explained apart from the resurrection?  It can’t be.  The resurrection is the reason why we believe.

Let’s push this even a little further.  If you need to know anything about the Jewish people in the first century A.D., they were a people who lived and died by the Law of Moses.  Everything they did was according to the Law.  The Law was proclaimed and believed to be the only chance for salvation.  If you kept all of the Law, you were set.  If not, you’d better come offer a sacrifice and then get back to it.  But then—and this is historically documented—a group of Jews in the mid-first century began not following the Law.  They stopped worrying so much about kosher laws.  They stopped offering sacrifices in the Temple.  They ceased to cordon themselves off from the non-Jews in their communities.  They started worshiping on not the Sabbath, worshiping instead on Sunday.  This radically monotheistic people began worshiping Jesus as God.  Before the resurrection Jesus was recognized as a miracle-worker.  No one back then doubted that.  Not a single person.  But this wasn’t enough to get people to believe He was the Messiah.  As a point of fact: they still killed Him.  His powerful teachings weren’t enough.  He had those before the crucifixion.  The resurrection is the only plausible explanation for all of this.  The resurrection is the reason why we believe.  As a final point here: how many people in this room can say positively that you have had an experience with the risen Christ and this led you to faith?  That Jesus has risen from the grave can be attested to by people who still today have experiences with Him.  The resurrection of Jesus is one of the best attested historical events ever.  Of course people of faith acknowledge this, but so do fair-minded skeptics who have honestly examined the evidence.  The resurrection is the reason why we believe.

Second, if all of this is the case, what does it mean?  Why should the resurrection be so important?  To answer this question, I want to turn with you to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15.  Find that chapter in your Bibles if you would.  In this chapter, Paul unpacks and defends the reality and importance of the resurrection.  He does this because in the church in Corinth, there were a number of people out of a pagan context who did not believe in any kind of a resurrection from the dead.  They came out of the world of Plato who taught that matter is evil while spirit is good.  For these folks, the idea of a resurrection didn’t make since because that would mean stepping from good spirit after death back into evil flesh.  Paul was writing to correct this thought and along the way gives us some pretty powerful reasons why the resurrection matters.  Starting in v. 12 he writes: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.  And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.  We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raised if it is true that the dead are not raised.  For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised.  And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in yours sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Apart from the resurrection, everything we are doing here this morning is a sham.  None of it matters.  Worse than that, it is a lying offense to God.  We are proclaiming something about God in our worship that is simply not true about Him.  I have said many times myself that if we do not have the right beliefs about God then we are not worshiping the right God.  If God is one way and we claim Him to be another we are idolatrous liars.  Thus if there is in actuality no resurrection—meaning Jesus never rose from the dead—then our claims to the contrary render us little more than heretics and false teachers.  But things are still worse than that.  If there is no resurrection, there is no forgiveness of sins.  The writer of the book of Hebrews made very clear that the sacrifices offered day-in and day-out by the Jews never really paid the price for sin.  They created a covering by God’s grace, but the penalty was not paid.  The resurrection was God’s plan for dealing with sin once and for all.  Without it we are all dead people.  All the faith in the world will not get us there because there is nothing in which to have faith.  Jesus wasn’t raised.  Paul is right that we are to be pitied above all others in this case.  We have given our lives and our time and our resources to something which is a giant hoax.  We have faced persecution and hardships for something that isn’t real.  We have found great hope and peace and joy and life in something which contains none of those things.   Some might try and argue that it isn’t so bad because at least we found something to believe in, but this misses the point entirely.  If what we believe in proves false, it has not ultimately done anything for us but medicate us from the harshness of the world for a season.  If I have a whole in my chest I don’t want you to put a band-aid on it, pat me on the back, and tell me (falsely) that everything is going to be okay.  Without the resurrection, that’s the whole to which our faith amounts.  The resurrection is the reason why we believe.  Apart from its reality, we have committed our lives to nothing.  There is nothing.  When we die one day we will be nothing.  This world is all there is.  All that remains is to embrace hedonism and enjoy the carnal pleasures of this life to their fullest because nothing else matters.  Yet in your heart—and I don’t care if you’re a follower of Jesus or not—you know this isn’t the case.  You know this world is not all there is.  You don’t know how, but in your most honest moments you know without much doubt.   The resurrection is the reason why we believe.

That’s all the negative case for the importance of the resurrection.  Let’s talk about some of the positives for a bit.  If the resurrection is a reality, if Jesus did not stay in the grave, if our faith is not totally in vain, then Paul’s words at the end of the chapter have more power than we could possibly imagine.  Look at these with me starting in v. 50: “I tell you this, brothers [and sisters]: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.  [In other words, in our pre-grace sinful state, we can have nothing to do with the eternal and holy things of God.]  Behold!  I tell you a mystery.  We shall not all sleep [die], but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.  [What Paul is saying is that when the Lord returns we are going to receive a resurrection body like He now has.]  When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.  O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?’  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore, my beloved brothers [and sisters], be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

Because of the resurrection we have hope.  We have hope that this world is not all there is.  We have hope that we will one day be as Jesus is.  We have hope that we will receive new, permanent, imperishable bodies which will be free from the effects of sin in this life.  We have hope that death is not the end.  Death has been conquered.  This is a reason for rejoicing.  People have always feared death because it brings with it the great unknown.  Because of the resurrection, though, the power of death has been broken.  Again, death is a conquered foe.   Think about that for a minute.  If God really conquered death and we no longer needed to fear it, what would that look like?  How would that change how you are living your life?  What kind of a shift in your priorities would that bring?  Maybe not very much would change, but maybe everything would.  I’m not saying we start looking for opportunities to die, but rather just the opposite.  Because we no longer need to fear death, we are freed to look for opportunities to really live.  We can pursue the radical generosity Jesus commends to use because we need not fear what will happen if we don’t have enough left for ourselves.  We can show love to people who are particularly hard to love—like our enemies—because they can’t do anything that will have any real lasting effect on us.  We can quit taking radical, self-centered steps to preserve and extend our own lives because this life is not all there is.  We can throw off all fear in this life because the only thing really worth fearing, death, is no more.  There are many in this world who fear rejection of various kinds.  The message of the resurrection, however, is that the only One whose rejection or acceptance matters has pronounced us accepted if we accept the work of His Son on our behalf.  In a season when the economy is down, we don’t have to tremble at the thought of running out because the One who holds the keys to this life is the Lord of all creation and He has plenty.  My friends, the resurrection is the reason why we believe.

Furthermore, because not only is this life is not all there is, but there is continuity between this one and the next, the things we do in this life matter.  They matter a great deal.  Everything we do in this life impacts who we will be in the next.  There are no neutral thoughts or actions or words.  There is eternal weight in every smile, every sidelong glance, every hand extended in help.  The other day I looked out the window and my neighbor had gotten his lawnmower stuck in the ditch.  Before I could get across the street to help, a total stranger stopped his truck on the side of the road and hopped out to help in any way he could.  That man made a kingdom deposit that day.  When he put his foot on the brake, he was treading on the path of eternity.  We know this is true because of the resurrection.  The resurrection is the reason why we believe.

There is a choice to be made here, though.  You don’t have to embrace this meaning, this purpose, this life, this hope, this joy.  Many don’t.  Now, you might be asking yourself: why on earth would anyone want to give up on all these things in favor of meaninglessness or hopelessness?  Well rest assured that no one consciously thinks along those lines when they are choosing other than life.  But the reason is simple.  They’re easier.  They seem safer.  Not living is always easier than living.  Living naturally brings with it dangers.  It requires us to go outside of our comfort zones and interact with people and environments that might seek to do us harm in some way.  Add to this the threat from this world towards all those who rebel against its dictates in favor of the kingdom of God and you have the makings of a tough journey.  But living is for those who are alive.  Living is not for the dead.  So I ask this morning: are you living or are you dead?  The message of the resurrection is that living is a viable possibility.  The power of the resurrection is that what was once dead can live again.  The disciples were dead after the crucifixion.  And then by the power of the resurrection they became alive in ways about which they had only previously dreamed.  Such life is available to us.  The truth of the resurrection guarantees it.  The resurrection is the reason why we believe.  So my friends, do not be content to merely float through this life like a walking corpse.  The fact of the resurrection—which we have verified this morning—calls you to more.  It calls you to life.  Embrace this life and start living.  Start living the life of Christ.  Believe on Him and come alive.  And know this as you do: the resurrection is the reason why we believe.