It is alleged that the Christians just borrowed the myths of the Babylonian Marduk, the Egyptian Horus or the Greek legend of Perseus and came up with the virgin birth of Christ. To the uneducated and those who have a desperate need to debunk Christianity this seems so obvious that it must be true. It just makes so much sense – after all virgin births don’t happen and Christianity is just made up anyway.
But on closer examination the whole case just falls apart.
I preached on this last Sunday. See what you think.
Here are four practical reasons I think churches should celebrate Advent and Christmas:
1. Advent helps keep people on-track spiritually through the holidays. It isn’t OK for us to lament people’s “greed” and/or materialism at the holidays if we aren’t willing to lift up Christ in special ways during a season of temptation for people. It’s a great time to help reestablish a Kingdom perspective about money and possessions and call people to generosity—and to do so with great intentionality. We also have a special opportunity to help people understand the importance of incarnating the Gospel as they deal with personal and family difficulties throughout the season. I could go on here—but the point is the holidays are spiritually poignant and Advent provides a unique opportunity to pastor.
2. Advent focuses us on theological themes that should be central to who we are: incarnation and the Second Coming of Christ. Most Christians understand the importance of these two themes. However, one is “in” and one is “out” in theological circles these days. In particular, the Second Coming is something that needs much more emphasis—and Advent provides a fantastic opportunity to focus on our Great Hope.
From Christian Today. See what you think.
We are radicals, not conservatives. I am not a conservative Christian. The terminology is all wrong. We are biblical Christians and therefore the far more appropriate term to use is radical. I don’t want to ‘conserve’ our corrupt society – I want to turn it upside down (Acts 17:6)! The irony is that it is those who call themselves ‘progressives’ who are in fact the conservatives. They go along with the culture and shibboleths of our day. Why do you think the secular media love and laud Steve Chalke, Vicky Beeching, Richard Coles and Richard Holloway? Because they are basically of the same mind. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).
I hated that home run too, but for drastically different reasons. A wonderful personal story about the power of the risen Christ that is worth your read.
The day after my mom died, I told a neighbor I was glad, so that she wouldn’t have to suffer anymore. While sincere, I didn’t know what I was saying. When someone you love dies, Mark Twain said, it’s like your house has burnt down; it isn’t for years that you realize the extent of your loss. I’m not sure if I have realized it fully even yet.
Soon I grew accustomed to coming home to an empty house. My two oldest brothers were in college, and my other brother stayed away from home as much as possible. We never talked about my mother and soon stopped talking altogether. In our house, there was always noise but little communication. My last year in high school, my dad and my sister and I often would eat dinner in silence.
Some psychologists hypothesize on the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I flirted with denial at times. For years, I’d dream that my mother wasn’t dead. She had been at some type of medical clinic for years, and one day she unexpectedly and unannounced returned home. It wasn’t denial so much as avoidance. I skipped the bargaining stage and camped out in the anger and depression stages. I never came close to reaching the acceptance stage. My anger wasn’t directed at anyone in particular, even God, if I even believed there was a God. It was directed at death itself, as if death were some person. Like the hooded chess player in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, death deliberately and maliciously killed my mother. Had I the ability to kill death, I would have done it.
Even when I was having a good time, at my core I was defined by mourning. My hope for healing was captured by Abraham Lincoln in a letter to Fanny McCullough upon the Civil War death of her father. Lincoln observed that “in this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares.” Fanny’s hope was that “perfect relief is not possible, except with time.” My hope too was with the passage of time, the wound would heal. But time did not heal my wound; it made it worse. An untreated physical wound can result in infection or nerve damage, causing numbness, pain, or loss of feeling. Slowly over time, my heart became numbed, unable to feel anything except pain.
The Western calendar is divided between B.C. and A.D, with the birth of Christ marking the transition from one era to the other. My life could be divided between pre-October 1975 and post-October 1975. Carlton Fisk’s homerun became a permanent marker of the transition from one period to the other, from carefree childhood to adult loss, disappointment, and pain.
A good piece from the Archbishop of Canterbury. See what you think.
Evangelism is such a word. For Christians, it’s the name for an activity that some love and others hate – it’s a passion for some and an embarrassment for others. For non-Christians, it’s a word that can send them running to the hills, feeling they are in danger of having something ‘done’ to them. (I wonder which of these descriptions fits you – and what you’ve experienced in the name of evangelism to make you feel this way?)
Given all this controversy around the word, it was no surprise that when, on taking office last year, I declared evangelism as one of the three priorities for my ministry. Some people thought I was profoundly misguided, while others jumped for joy.
However, it’s my belief that if only we truly ‘got’ evangelism, we, the Church would live to show what it meant. And to ‘get’ it means to receive it, and to give it. Continually. And if we lived what we spoke of, and spoke of what we lived, no-one would have to point at the Church and wonder what it was for.
This Pentecost the Archbishop of York and myself are calling everyone who counts themselves as a follower of Jesus, to join us in asking the Holy Spirit to work across the country in our parishes and communities, our friends and our neighbours, and in his Church that the Good News of Jesus Christ can be proclaimed, heard, lived and trusted. We are doing this for three reasons.
Sermon delivered on Sunday, Easter 6A, May 25, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you would prefer to hear the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Acts 17.22-31; Psalm 66.8-20; 1 Peter 3.13-22; John 14.15-21.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As Christians, at our very core we are resurrection people. As we have emphasized throughout this Easter season, when God raised Jesus from the dead, he not only destroyed the last enemy, death itself, so that those of us who are in Christ know that our destiny is resurrection and life, God also ushered in his promised new creation in which he will ultimately put all that is wrong and hurtful to rights and banish evil forever in his righteous judgment. In other words, God’s good creation matters to God. We matter to God as his image-bearing creatures and this is both Good News and our hope. This should be a game-changer for us! As we have also seen, if God didn’t really raise Jesus from the dead, we have nothing and are without a hope and a future (cf. Jeremiah 29.11), and all our work in Jesus’ name is in vain.
But there must be more to our resurrection hope than making it all about us and our needs and anxieties. The Good News that is in the death and resurrection of Jesus is available to all people, even those who are our enemies, and as God’s people in Jesus we are called to speak the truth of God’s righteous salvation and judgment to a world that is fundamentally hostile to God’s truth but which paradoxically wants desperately to hear it. How else are we to explain the plethora of false, manmade gods? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning. Specifically, I want us to look at how and why our resurrection hope must lead us to be bearers of God’s Good News in Jesus, with its twin messages of salvation and judgment.
Before we look at this more closely, let us acknowledge that proclaiming the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection is going to be an increasingly difficult thing for us to do because our society is increasingly rejecting the gospel and God’s authority over our lives. Like Paul in Athens, we are confronted with voices who oppose the Good News of Jesus in favor of their own gods or version of religion. We are told, for example, that there are many paths to God, that all religions are essentially equal. We live in an age where folks increasingly reject the idea that there is one standard of truth. Instead, we are told that truth is in the eye of the beholder and it is up to us to establish our own truths. Furthermore, we are told that if there really is a God, he is more like a distant landlord who only occasionally peeks in on his tenants, and then only to harass them for their behavior. Do you hear the echoes of this in Paul’s speech to the Athenians? Increasingly, we as Christians can expect to have our worldview marginalized in favor of something else that is fundamentally hostile to God and his truth contained in Scripture (see examples here, here, and here). And if current trends remain unchecked, we can expect to be actively persecuted for our beliefs because many are increasingly unwilling to tolerate hearing God’s truth. They only want to hear their own and we need to engage in this work with eyes wide open to the very real dangers that exist.
Despite all this, however, we are called to proclaim God’s great love for his stubborn and rebellious human creatures and as both Peter and Paul remind us in their own ways (I’m not sure what Mary’s views are), we should always be prepared to give a defense for the basis of our hope. But we are to do it gently and graciously, and we have a magnificent example of this kind of defense in Paul’s sermon to the Athenians, which we will look at shortly.
Our hope, of course, is in the cross. There God dealt decisively with our sin and the dark powers of evil. As Peter puts it, Jesus suffered for sins once and for all so that he might bring us to God, i.e., so that we might be reconciled to God and finally begin to enjoy real life in ways God originally intended for us. Peter also reminds us that because Jesus is now raised from the dead and ascended into heaven (God’s space) as Lord and ruler of the cosmos, the powers and current rulers have been made subject to him (cf. Col. 2.15). In this dense little passage, Peter reminds us that if the resurrection did not happen, nothing has changed. Jesus is just another failed Messiah and we are lost, alienated, and separated from God forever, cut off from our very Source of life because only in God can there be life. But because the resurrection did happen, we are assured that God’s goodness and life-changing love for us have won the war. The bad guys, while winning some battles, have won only a temporary victory and are ultimately defeated. And our archenemy, death, has finally been conquered forever, thanks be to God!
But there is more. Because Jesus has ascended into heaven and is no longer available to us in his bodily presence, he has promised that even this will not separate his followers from him because he has promised to be with us in the power and person of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us individually and collectively as Jesus’ body, the Church. And because we have been given the gift of the Spirit, we never have to fear being left alone or abandoned by Jesus. Ever. This latter point is massively important to help us speak the truth in love to a hostile world because we need to be convinced that the Spirit will give us wisdom and insight when speaking to the enemies of the cross and to help bolster our faith when we (and it) come under attack.
In sum, we believe that God the Father has come to us as God the Son to suffer and die for us so that we could be healed and reconciled to God and to finally defeat the powers of evil that plague us, especially death. We further believe Jesus is always available to us in the per-son of God the Spirit and that God does this because of his great love for his creation and his desire to rescue us from evil, sin, and death. It’s all about God’s faithfulness to his creation and this emphasis on the game-changing impact of Jesus’ resurrection is woven throughout the NT. Take away the resurrection and we lose the entire NT. It’s that important!!
And we must be very clear on this point. If we do not believe our own story, the story of God’s rescue plan for his fallen and disordered creation through Abraham and his family Israel (Genesis 12.1-3) and ultimately through Jesus the Messiah, there is no way we can be faithful witnesses to Jesus. If we have bought the enemy’s line that Jesus is really no different from other religious leaders or that he is somehow just a great teacher and nothing else, we might as well stay at home on Sundays because that is the surest indication that we really are not resurrection people, i.e., we really don’t believe the hope and promise of resurrection as it is manifested in Jesus. This kind of thinking is also decidedly unbiblical. Notice, for example, how Peter assumes we have a resurrection hope in us for which we must always be ready to give an account!
But if we really are resurrection people and we really do take God’s command to us seriously that we are to love God with our whole being and others as ourselves, why would we want to keep quiet about the Good News that is ours in Jesus? If Jesus really is the only way to the Father and the way, the truth, and the life, how could we possibly keep quiet and claim to love others? Does not compute. But we have generally let our enemies cow-tow us into silence. Why is that?
So how do we proclaim the Good News in the midst of a hostile society? Here we can take our cue from Paul in today’s NT lesson. Notice that Paul did not come to Athens and immediately start to denounce it. While he certainly would have been justified in doing so, he didn’t because he surely knew that people do not generally respond well to denunciation when that is the first thing out of our mouth. And besides, how can we as Christians proclaim God’s love for people if we immediately tell them they are evil, wicked, mean, and nasty, and going to hell if they don’t get with the program? Of course there will be a time for us to talk honestly with people about God’s righteous and holy judgment on his sinful and rebellious creatures. But that time is not when we are first trying to get people to hear us about God’s great love for them and his plan to rescue them in and through Jesus the Messiah. So when we begin to talk to others about God’s love for the world as manifested in Jesus, we must be prepared to meet folks where they are, just like Paul did with the Athenians.
So, for example, if we hear folks advancing the idea that all religions are equal, we should be prepared to challenge that notion by reminding them that no other religion makes the claims the Christian faith makes, that God is indeed the creator of the world and has revealed his plan to rescue it and us from evil, sin, and death by raising Jesus from the dead. We should be prepared to tell others why Jesus’ resurrection is the first-fruits of God’s promised new heavens and earth and why that is the basis for our hope as individuals. No other religion comes close to making such a claim and if the resurrection is an historical fact (here we can be prepared to offer reasons why we think it is), it is decisive proof that our claim to truth is complete and valid.
Or we might hear folks expressing a deist view of God, in which they talk about a distant or uncaring God. We can point out to them, gently of course, that this is not the God of the Bible and we do not worship that god either because that god is a false god of human making! We should be prepared to talk about God’s intimate involvement in the lives of his people, e.g., Ruth, David, Abraham, Noah, Esther, et al., including our own, and about how we know Jesus’ promise to send us the Holy Spirit is true because we see the fruit of the Spirit and signs and wonders in our lives. Think, for example, of the many times you have had prayers answered or how God’s people have helped you when your prayers seemingly went answered. Tell folks about how God has helped and been with you as you have walked through the darkest valley or how you have walked with others in theirs. Remind the person that God usually works in and through his people (and occasionally even through those who are his enemies). This is no deist god and it is certainly not the God of the Bible. This is exactly what Paul told the Athenians!
There are literally hundreds of examples I could cite, but I hope you get the idea. Notice that in these examples, we are meeting folks where they are and we are not beating them down (or up) over their beliefs. We are trying to share the truth, God’s truth, with them and we should always understand there is real power in sharing the gospel with others. We are Spirit-filled people, remember? So that when we share God’s word and truth with others we can expect God to produce some positive results. Our NT lesson ended before we heard the outcome of Paul’s preaching in Athens. Luke reports that when they heard Paul talk about the resurrection, some of the Athenians scoffed. It was too incredible for them to believe. But some wanted to hear more and some decided to become believers like Paul. At that point, Luke tells us, Paul moved on. His work was done. There were more people to reach. The point here is that Paul understood about witnessing for Jesus. It is not our job to get people to believe. That is God’s job. Our job is to invite them into a life-giving and saving relationship with Jesus and if it is going to be any kind of real relationship, people must enter into it freely and without coercion.
And what about those who scoff at us, who try to make us feel like we are out-of-touch, or lunatics, or hate-mongers, etc.? What do we do with those folks and their attempts to demonize us (and sadly we will encounter more of them than we might care to)? We leave them with a blessing. We might politely tell them that we are saddened at their attempts to demonize us and the hard-heartedness and closed-mindedness that is always reflected in such attempts. We might say that we were simply offering real life and real truth so that they too could benefit from a relationship with the living Lord as we have and that is our heart’s desire, not to impose our will or some arbitrary rules on them. This response may further infuriate some and if it does, we need to move on and ask God to bless them and open their mind to his great love for them as manifested in Jesus. This is probably best done silently, but the point is this. Christ came to offer everyone life and healing and forgiveness, not just those who treat us nicely. As Peter reminds us, Christ the righteous died for us the unrighteous. As his baptized image-bearers, we are called to take up our cross and proclaim our Lord, rejoicing in our suffering because we know that like him, God will also vindicate us in our suffering for the Name. Of course we cannot do any of this on our own power. We do it in the power of the Spirit and we do this work together so that we can support and encourage each other when we encounter opposition. When we are able to act thusly toward our enemies, we have further proof that the Lord’s promises are true.
And of course the effectiveness of our witness to Jesus will be ultimately influenced by our lifestyle. If others see us preaching one thing and practicing another, we are telling them in a very powerful way that we don’t really believe our story, that like the world, we are simply trying to fabricate a god of our own making to justify our chosen lifestyle and that we are still hostile to the Spirit who dwells in us to heal and transform us. We don’t try to obey God’s ethical commands to get our ticket punched because it already has been punched in the cross of Christ. We choose to live like Christ because we know that only in him can there be real life as well as a real hope and a future. We believe this because we believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection marked the turning point of history, and for our good. And that of course means we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon delivered on Sunday, Easter 4A, May 11, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you would like to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Acts 2.42-47; Psalm 23.1-6; 1 Peter 2.19-25; John 10.1-10.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week we began to answer the question, how do we explain the rise of early Christianity? We saw that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not only the turning point in history, it is the absolute foundation on which our Christian faith stands. We also defined resurrection and saw that when Jesus’ contemporaries and the NT writers used the term, they always referred to some kind of new bodily existence. As Tom Wright describes it, resurrection is about life after life after death and it is our ultimate hope as Christians. We then looked at some common objections raised about the resurrection and answered each in turn. I don’t have time to review each of these objections but if you did not hear last week’s sermon, I would encourage you to go to my blog and either read or listen to the sermon.
This week, I want us to focus on the positive evidence that the resurrection was an actual historical event. I want this evidence to help reinforce our resurrection faith so that we have no doubt that God really did raise Jesus from the dead in the midst of human history. This knowledge should also help us to further graciously answer our critics when they challenge our belief in the resurrection, e.g., by asking them what they propose to do with our answers to their objections or to the evidence we provide that God really did raise Jesus from the dead.
Of course, no one witnessed the resurrection directly (although if the Shroud of Turin, the purported burial shroud of our Lord, ever proves to be authentic, it will shed some fascinating scientific insight into the very nature of the resurrection, but that is a different conversation for a different day). So we have to look at historical patterns that developed in the early Christian movement that indicate the first Christians were convinced that Jesus had been raised from the dead and was indeed God’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord. To help us think these issues through, in Surprised by Hope, Bishop Tom Wright has noted seven significant modifications to the Jewish hope of resurrection (recall from last week that resurrection was a distinctive Jewish belief and teaching) and argues these modifications demand an answer as to why these changes occurred. I will briefly summarize these modifications and then as we did last week, I will address any questions or concerns you have at sermon’s end.
The virtually unanimous Christian thinking about life after death. The first significant change to the Jewish belief in resurrection is seen in the fact that the earliest Christians (at least for the first 150 years or so) were virtually united in their thinking about life after death. This contrasts to a wide variety of thinking about resurrection among first-century Jews (some, like the Sadducees, didn’t even believe in resurrection; that’s why they were sad, you see) and the fact that pagans didn’t believe in resurrection at all. Yet the early church was made up of both converted Jews and pagans, who ditched their previously held beliefs about life after death and embraced resurrection and the new creation patterned after Jesus’ resurrection. What possibly could have caused this change other than the early Christians were convinced that Jesus had been raised from the dead and that believers would share in his glory (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.12-26).
The vital importance of the resurrection to early Christians. This contrasts with the thinking about the subject on the part of first-century Judaism. Resurrection was important to first-century Jews, but not that important. But for the early Christians (as well as for us), it is the central and essential feature of the faith. This difference can only be realistically explained by accepting the fact that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead and it was a game-changer for the early Christians.
The early Christian teaching about the resurrected body. In contrast to first-century Judaism, which was rather vague about what the resurrected body would look like (even though it taught that the body would be raised), from the very beginning Christians based their teaching about the resurrected body on Jesus’ resurrected body. Paul was the first to offer a massive treatise on this subject (1 Corinthians 15.1-58). He wrote that the resurrected body would be a body in some sense, but it would be a transformed body like Jesus’ that was created out of the old material from his mortal body and had new properties. Unless Paul and Jesus’ disciples had first-hand experience with Jesus’ resurrected body in which to write and teach about our future resurrected bodies, there is no other credible explanation for this new teaching.
The new Christian teaching about a two-stage resurrection. Ancient Judaism taught that the resurrection of the dead would come at the end time when God would finally return and judge the world. In other words, there would be only one resurrection and it would happen to everybody at the same time. But this was not what the first Christians taught. They taught that the resurrection of Jesus actually signaled the beginning of God’s promised new creation and it had occurred surprisingly in the midst of human history! As Paul wrote and we recite in our Easter anthems each week during the Easter season, Jesus is the first-fruits of those who have died and we who are his followers will be raised on the last day. Once again, had Jesus not been raised from the dead, there would be no credible basis for this teaching.
The early Christian teaching about participating in the end times. Based on this belief in a two-stage resurrection and the launching of God’s new creation here on earth in the middle of human history, the early Christians believed and taught that they would be empowered by the Holy Spirit to work with the risen Lord to implement his achievement of new life, healing, and the forgiveness of sins that were to be part and parcel of the new creation. In working with the risen Christ in the power of the Spirit, the early Christians believed that they would embody and demonstrate their resurrection hope as they eagerly awaited the final consummation of the new creation, a belief we still share today since we too are living in the end times. They believed and acted this way because Jesus’ resurrection made them understand that creation matters to God and therefore it should matter to them!
Moreover, to declare that Jesus is Lord and to work on his behalf in defiant opposition to the worldly powers was to risk their very lives for Jesus. This makes little sense if he had not been raised from the dead. Why would they risk their lives for a lie or fabrication? As we saw last week, delusional people sometimes act on their delusions but the apostles were emphatic-ally not psychotic. The only reasonable explanation, then, is that Jesus Christ arose from the dead and interacted with the disciples in ways that convinced them beyond doubt that he was really alive, fantastic and unbelievable as that was for them to believe, and that this interaction had a radically profound impact on their teaching and the way they patterned their lives after Jesus.
The different metaphorical use of resurrection by the early Christians. Ancient Judaism used resurrection as a metaphor to speak about their hope in God’s returning to the Temple to end their exile as a nation and to defeat their pagan oppressors (cf. Ezekiel 37.1-14). When Jesus’ contemporaries used resurrection as a metaphor, it was always in this sense. They had in mind God’s restoration of the nation of Israel. Not so with the first Christians. Think especially how Paul used resurrection as a metaphor in Romans 6.5-11 and Colossians 2.11-13. This wasn’t about God restoring the nation of Israel. It was about baptism and dying and rising with Christ. Again, how else can we explain this radically different use of the term unless Jesus actually rose from the dead?
The Christian belief that Jesus was Messiah based on the resurrection. As we saw last week, none of Jesus followers expected him to be raised from the dead. And after the crucifixion, they surely would not have thought he was the Messiah because crucified Messiahs were failed Messiahs. As we saw on Palm Sunday, most Jews expected the Messiah to cleanse the Temple, drive out the pagan oppressors, and establish God’s righteous rule. Jesus had cleansed the Temple but he had not driven out the Romans. In fact, he was crucified by them. So what changed their mind about Jesus? The only possible explanation is the resurrection. Certainly there is widespread evidence that the NT writers thought Jesus had been vindicated by God when God raised him from the dead (see, e.g., Ephesians 1.20; 1 Peter 1.21) and there is no other reasonable explanation for this change in their thinking about him being the Messiah or Christ.
And lest we wonder if the gospel accounts are fabrications or stories made up by the later church to propagate its false teaching about Jesus and the resurrection, consider the following. First, consider that none of the gospel accounts use OT references in explaining the resurrection. This is almost unbelievable considering that all the gospels, especially Matthew’s, are laced with OT references throughout that interpret their various narratives about Jesus and his ministry (see, e.g., Matthew 1.22-23). Considering how central the resurrection is to the Christian faith, we have to wonder why there are no biblical references to interpret it. The most obvious answer is that the resurrection was so unexpected and so categorically different that the gospel writers and their oral traditions simply did not have any previous biblical events with which to compare it! This would also help explain the apparently confusing initial accounts of the first eyewitnesses. Their accounts express the bewilderment Jesus’ followers must have experienced that first Easter Sunday. If the later church had invented these stories rather than received them from the eyewitnesses (see below), they did a frankly lousy job in telling the stories because the four gospel accounts raise as many questions as to what happened on that first Sunday as they answer, and this is certainly no way to do apologetics!
Second, consider the fact that all the gospel writers tell us that women were the first eyewitnesses to the aftermath of the resurrection (Matthew 28.1-10; Mark 16.1-8; Luke 24.1-10; John 20.1-18). This is absolutely remarkable considering that the testimony of women was not valued at all in Jesus’ world and if the church wanted outsiders to believe an utterly fantastic story, they likely wouldn’t have identified women as their first apostles. In fact, we see the role of women quietly expunged in Paul’s recounting of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.3-8. Paul’s letters would have preceded the gospels by several years and already by this time the women were dropped from the list of the first eyewitnesses. Yet there they are in all the gospel accounts. The only way to explain their presence is to acknowledge that the gospel writers’ sources were from the earliest eyewitnesses, which included the women’s testimonies. There is simply no way the early church would have reinserted the role of women in the gospel narratives in light of the later tradition that expunged their testimonies. The women’s testimonies were there because as Richard Bauckham masterfully demonstrated in his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, eyewitness accounts were the gold standard for ancient historians, which would have included the evangelists. Moreover, in an oral culture folks were trained specifically to preserve the accuracy of those accounts (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.3, Greek paralambano). This premium placed on eyewitness testimony would also help explain the initial confusing accounts at the tomb because these stories represented the testimony and perspective of various individuals with all their bewilderment and wonder over a literally unbelievable event.
Third, consider the gospel writers’ descriptions of Jesus himself. Since they had nothing on which to base their accounts, with the exception of Daniel 12.3, which states that the wise (God’s people) will shine like the stars, it is remarkable that the Easter accounts do not describe Jesus’ risen body this way. We see a description like this for Jesus at his Transfiguration but not in the resurrection accounts (Matthew 17.1-2; Mark 9.2-3; Luke 9.28-29; cf. Luke 24.36-43; John 20.1-29; Matthew 28.9-10). This rules out the possibility that we looked at last week, that the gospel stories developed later from people becoming aware of the risen Jesus in some spiritual sense. But this is not what the gospel writers report. They report an empty tomb and Jesus’ risen, reconstituted body. All this suggests that the accounts we have come from our earliest sources and reflect eyewitness testimony.
Last, consider the fact that there is no connection between Jesus’ resurrection and the final hope that is ours as his followers in the resurrection narratives. The gospel writers focus on the event of resurrection and nothing else, and this is because as we have seen, it was so dramatic, unexpected, and one-of-a-kind. Had these stories been made up by the later church, we would surely expect to see our resurrection hope tied into these stories in the manner Paul did in his various epistles (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.12-26; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18). But we don’t see any of this, clear evidence that the stories come from the eyewitnesses, not later fabrications.
All this leaves us with compelling evidence that the resurrection indeed occurred as advertised and that it transformed and energized Jesus’ first followers and beyond. I hope your faith has also been energized and reinforced after hearing these two sermons on the resurrection. As we saw last week, Jesus is no longer available to us in his bodily presence because he has ascended into heaven. But as our gospel lesson reminds us, he remains our Good Shepherd in the power and presence of the Spirit to lead and guide us. So my question to you is this. If you believe that the bodily resurrection of Jesus actually occurred in history to signal the launch of God’s new creation with its healing and transformation and forgiveness of sins, along with its breathtaking promise that we will one day get to live in God’s direct presence when the new heavens and earth are formed, are you living like the resurrection is a daily reality? In other words, are you living like Jesus is really alive and Lord of your life so that you are living out your resurrection hope right now in word and deed as the first Christians did? How (and how honestly) you answer this is the truest indication of your resurrection faith and hope (or lack thereof). It is my hope and prayer that each one of us has the kind of robust and energizing faith, or at least the beginning of this kind of faith, so that we all really will know we have Good News, now and for all eternity. Let us be still for a moment and pray.
Gracious God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we believe you have raised your Son from the dead and that he is present to us in the power of your Spirit to be our Good Shepherd to lead and guide us. We thank you for this.
Lord Jesus Christ, come to us in the power of your Spirit, we pray. Enlighten our minds with the knowledge of your love for us and enliven our faith so that we may be equipped to be glad and joyful kingdom workers on your behalf so that you might use us to help bring your kingdom on earth as in heaven until you return one day in great power and glory to consummate the work you started in your death and resurrection.
When we grow timid, weary, or afraid as your people, help us to remember that you are our risen and ascended Lord so that we can take comfort and strength from this knowledge. Hear our prayers, Lord Jesus, to the glory of your Name and for your tender mercy’s sake. To you be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Amen.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon delivered on Sunday, Easter 3A, May 4, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you would like to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Acts 2.14a, 36-41; Psalm 116.1-3, 10-17; 1 Peter 1.17-23; Luke 24.13-35.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As we saw two weeks ago on Easter Sunday, the resurrection of our Lord Jesus marks the decisive turning point in history because it signaled the launch of God’s new creation with its proclamation that God was beginning to take back control of his good world gone bad, and all that that entails. Yet almost from the very beginning, the resurrection has been challenged both within and outside of the Church. And because many have come from mainline Christian denominations or traditions which have frankly dropped the ball in teaching about the resurrection, many of us don’t have a firm understanding about it. We don’t know exactly what resurrection means and why it is important to our Christian faith.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not only the turning point in history. It is the absolute foundation on which our Christian faith stands. Take away the resurrection and we’ve got nothing. Nothing. As Paul tells the Corinthians, if the resurrection of Jesus is not true then we are still dead in our sins and people without hope (1 Corinthians 15.12-19). So it is vital for us as God’s people in Jesus to have a firm understanding of what the resurrection is and why we can have confidence that the resurrection is historically true and not a figment of imagination or wishful thinking on the part of early Christians. If we are ever going to be people of real hope who are changed by the love of Christ in the power of the Spirit so that we are literally new people who are equipped to embody our Lord Jesus and the hope of new creation to God’s broken and hurting world, we must firmly embrace the resurrection. It’s pretty hard to be changed by God to make a difference for God if we what we believe is a lie, don’t you think?
With this in mind, these next two sermons are designed to help us better understand and fully embrace the foundation of our Christian faith. This week I will address briefly some of the common objections that have been leveled at the historical truth of the resurrection. These objections usually come in the form of alternative theories for what happened on that first Easter Sunday. We need to know what the enemy is thinking and how to respond to him.
Then next week I will lay out a case for why we as Christians can be confident that the resurrection of Jesus really did happen in history so that we can be assured that our resurrection faith is based on a rock solid foundation. Because these are complex issues and because I might not necessarily address particular concerns you have, we will have a Q&A after each sermon. By all means, if you have questions or doubts or fears, please don’t be embarrassed to share them so that we can address them to your satisfaction. In preparing these sermons, I am heavily indebted to Bishop Tom Wright and the old Anglican rector and author, J.B. Phillips. If you want more than the Readers’ Digest version I will give you in these sermons, then pick up Wright’s, Surprised by Hope and Phillips’, Your God is too Small. In fact, Wright’s book is so important that if I had my way, anybody who wants to join our congregation would have to demonstrate to me that he or she has read Surprised by Hope and gets it. I want every one of us to have the kind of lively faith, hope, and understanding about the resurrection that is in Wright’s book because it is that vital!
Two additional comments before we start. The organizing question for this sermon series is: How do we explain the rise of early Christianity? Movements like this do not just happen spontaneously and this question demands an historical explanation. The answer these two sermons will provide is the simplest and most direct. The rise of early Christianity happened precisely because Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead, just as the earliest Christians claimed, despite the fact that nobody expected it to happen. More about that in a moment.
Second, we need to make sure we are all on the same page of the playbook about how to define resurrection as first-century Jews would have defined it and as the Church catholic has classically defined it (until the last 200 years or so). When we use the term resurrection we are not talking about life after death in the form of some kind of spiritual existence. Resurrection is not the same as dying and going to heaven (i.e., life after death). Christians believe that when we die our soul will indeed go to heaven (God’s space) to rest with our Lord Jesus and enjoy his protection and care (cf. Philippians 1.23; 2 Corinthians 5.6-8; Luke 23.43), but that is not what we mean by resurrection. If that were the case, then by any definition our created bodies are still dead and death has not been defeated as Paul claimed (1 Corinthians 15.26). When Jesus’ contemporaries used the term resurrection, they meant some kind of new bodily existence that happened after whatever sort of life after death there may be. It is life after life after death, so to speak, and it means new bodily existence, albeit in a changed body like Jesus’ resurrected body. Paul tells us that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom precisely because our current bodies are mortal and when heaven and earth are fused together when the new creation is consummated in full so that God’s kingdom comes on earth as in heaven, we will need bodies that are immortal and are equipped to live in that new environment (1 Corinthians 15.35-58). That is why death cannot be conquered until God has brought about the general resurrection of the dead. And we also need to be clear that resurrection was a distinct Jewish belief. It was not accepted in the broader pagan world of Jesus’ day. Many pagans simply believed in some kind of shadowy, terribly reduced existence after death. There was certainly little or no hope in that.
Turning now to objections to the resurrection, it is clear from our gospel reading this morning (and our last two gospel lessons from John 20.1-29) that even Jesus’ closest disciples were initially skeptical (cf. Mark 16.6-8; Matthew 28.17). Luke tells us earlier in his narrative that Jesus’ disciples considered the women’s story an idle tale and the Greek he uses can mean that they thought the women were out of their minds. Now on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion, probably his wife (cf. John 19.25), tell Jesus that they had hoped he was the Messiah but that the ruling authorities had gotten him as they usually did. We had hoped, but… These are not words of someone who is expecting Jesus to be raised from the dead! Given this fact, it should not surprise us that there have been so many alternative theories (or objections) to the resurrection over the years. Here, I will review only some of the more “popular” ones.
The swoon theory. This posits that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, that he was drugged and revived in the tomb. But this cannot stand up to close historical scrutiny. Roman soldiers knew how to crucify people and ensure they were dead. Their very lives depended on it. If soldiers didn’t execute their victim, they would pay for it with their lives. And if you have ever seen Mel Gibson’s, The Passion, you will realize how silly this theory is. Often Roman scourging was enough to kill the victim and it boggles the mind that Jesus would have revived enough so that his disciples would have recognized him for anything other than the drugged and half-dead man he surely would have been. There is nothing here that would account for the very early Christian belief that Jesus was Messiah and Lord or that he had been raised from the dead.
The mistaken identity/wrong tomb theory. These are closely related and both posit that the women and early disciples mistook someone else for Jesus and that Jesus’ empty tomb is explained away by claiming the women went to the wrong tomb on Easter morning. In regard to mistaken identity, if this were true, Jesus’ disciples would have discovered their mistake soon enough (e.g., Oh! You really are the gardener!). In regard to the wrong tomb theory, a careful reading of the gospel accounts would expose this for the farce it is. All the evangelists make a point in telling us that the women went to the tomb to see where Jesus was buried and that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea knew where he was buried (Matthew 27.57-61; Mark 15.42-47; Luke 23.50-56; John 19.38-42). So even if the women did make a mistake in identifying the tomb that Easter morning, that mistake too would have been quickly resolved. The only reasonable conclusion is that the women and disciples actually talked to the risen Jesus and that his tomb was empty for reasons other than hallucinations or body theft (see below).
The stolen body theory. This posits the disciples came and stole the body out of the tomb. Matthew actually addresses this issue in his gospel account of the resurrection (Matthew 28.11-15). But again if we think this through, it falls far short of being an adequate explanation. Given that the disciples didn’t expect Jesus to be raised from the dead in the first place, and given that they acted as cowards in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion, how would stealing Jesus’ body and propagating a lie explain the disciples’ sudden change from being cowards to boldly proclaiming Jesus was alive and being willing to die for him? Only truly delusional people would base their entire existence on a lie, and whatever else they were, the disciples were emphatically not psychotic.
The hallucination/vision theory. The argument goes something like this. Many people have visions (some would say hallucinations) of loved ones who have recently died and this is what happened to the women and disciples after Jesus’ death. But this argument assumes that Jesus’ contemporaries did not know about phenomena like this, which is patently false. So had Jesus’ disciples simply experienced a vision of Jesus, they would have called it that. They would have said they had seen his ghost or spirit or his angel (cf. Luke 24.37; Matthew 14.25-27). This is emphatically what they did not say. They used resurrection language that emphasized they could touch him and eat with him, etc. (cf. Luke 24.36-43; John 20.26-29; Matthew 28.9-10).
Jesus only appeared to those who believed in him. This simply isn’t true. Thomas and Paul didn’t believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead, at least initially (cf. John 20.24-25; Acts 9.1-22). In fact Paul actively persecuted the Church until the risen Lord confronted him on the road to Damascus. And as we have already seen, none of Jesus’ original followers initially believed that Jesus had been raised. So belief in Jesus, while vitally important, was clearly not the essential criterion in determining to whom Jesus would appear.
Jesus was alive spiritually, not physically. This theory gained a lot of traction in the 20th century and is still very popular today. It argues that the early followers of Jesus had some kind of “spiritual” encounter with Jesus. He was still alive, albeit not bodily, and his disciples were still in touch with him, but only on a spiritual level. At first blush this has some plausibility because this is how we must interact with our risen Lord today because he is no longer bodily present to us because he has ascended into heaven. But this is an ascension issue, not a problem with bodily resurrection, and this interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection represents a Platonic view of immortality, not a Jewish one. As we have seen, resurrection was and is the final defeat of death, not simply a nicer description of it, and this theory also denies the clear gospel accounts of Jesus’ followers interacting with him in his new bodily existence: eating and drinking with him, being able to touch him, etc. (see above).
Things like the resurrection do not happen. This objection appeals to our world of experience and observation. Everyone knows that dead bodies don’t come alive again so the resurrection accounts must be fabrications. In response we must ask, “Says who?” Just because we have not personally experienced or witnessed something doesn’t mean it can’t (or didn’t) happen. Using this criterion, we would be forced to say that any unusual historical event must be false. But this is where we must stand up and graciously challenge our critics who use this argument as a reason the resurrection did not occur. What makes their worldview superior to the biblical worldview? Are we going to be so narrow and closed-minded that the only reality we can believe in is that which we can observe and measure? A quick moment’s thought will show us there are other kinds of knowledge besides scientific knowledge. Think, for example, of how two lovers know each other in ways that simply cannot be measured. Does that mean their knowledge of each other is therefore invalid? Please don’t misunderstand. I am not against empirically-based knowledge. I am simply challenging the notion that it is somehow supreme or the only valid kind of knowledge.
Moreover, this criticism also forces us to decide on what kind of God we worship. Do we believe in the God who indeed calls into existence things that are not and raises the dead to life (Romans 4.17) or is our god not big enough to accomplish something as remarkable and mind-blowing as the resurrection of the dead? How we answer this question will give us keen insight into the state and basis of our faith and hope, not to mention our love. We will talk more about this next week, but for now I hope I have demonstrated that typical objections to the resurrection strain our credulity more than accepting that the resurrection actually occurred. To put it another way, the resurrection is not something we choose to believe against all evidence, but rather something we can believe in because of the evidence.
Yet despite our arguments so far, the resurrection still requires faith. As we saw earlier, we as Christians believe that Jesus is both raised from the dead and ascended in bodily form into heaven (God’s space) so that he is no longer available to us on a physical basis (cf. John 20.17; Acts 1.6-11). So the real issue for us is how we can experience the risen (but physically absent) Christ right now. We will look more closely at Jesus’ ascension on Ascension Sunday. But for the moment, we can answer this question by turning once again to Luke. The risen Christ is available to his people in the power of the Spirit, in and through prayer, in the careful reading and study of Scripture, and in the Eucharist. If we wish to experience the risen Lord’s life-giving and healing presence in our life, we find out how in Luke’s account of the disciples’ recognition of him. Pay attention so that you too may experience the kind of heartburn Cleopas and his companion experienced!
The resurrection is an incredible thing, thanks be to God, and if we understand what it means and more importantly embrace it with all our heart and mind, we will surely understand why Easter is so critical to our faith and to the world, and that we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I don’t know about you, but I love reading about the practices of the ancient Church, in part, because it reminds me that our Anglican liturgy is in line with how the Church has worshiped since the time we have records of its practices. Justin wrote about the eucharist a little over 100 years after the death of Jesus and would have been a “spiritual grandson or great-grandson” to the apostles. That means there is a high probability that he received what he wrote indirectly from the apostles themselves. And as Richard Bauckham masterfully demonstrated in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, the early Church was very careful in passing down oral tradition to preserve its teachings intact.
It is an awesome thing to be part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Check it out and see how it compares to how your denomination worships.
No one may share the eucharist with us unless they believe that what we teach is true, unless they are washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of sins, and unless they live in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.
We do not consume the eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Savior became a human being of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilate for their nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.
The apostles, in their recollections, which are called gospels, handed down to us what Jesus commanded them to do. They tell us that he took bread, gave thanks and said: “Do this in memory of me. This is my body.” In the same way he took the cup, he gave thanks and said: “This is my blood.” The Lord gave this command to them alone. Ever since then we have constantly reminded one another of these things. The rich among us help the poor and we are always united. For all that we receive we praise the Creator of the universe through his Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members, whether they live in the city or in the outlying districts. The recollections of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as there is time. When the reader has finished, the president of the assembly speaks to us urging everyone to imitate the examples of virtue we have heard in the readings. Then we all stand up together and pray.
On the conclusion of our prayer, bread and wine and water are brought forward. The president offers prayers and gives thanks as well as possible, and the people give their assent by saying: “Amen.” The eucharist is distributed, everyone present communicates, and the deacons take it to those who are absent.
The wealthy, if they wish, may make a contribution, and they themselves decide the amount. The collection is placed in the custody of the president, who uses it to help the orphans and widows and all who for any reason are in distress, whether because they are sick, in prison, or away from home. In a word, the president takes care of all who are in need.
We hold our common assembly on Sunday because it is the first day of the week, the day on which God put darkness and chaos to flight and created the world, and because on that same day our savior Jesus Christ rose from the dead. For he was crucified on Friday and on Sunday he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them the things that we have passed on for your consideration.
—From Justin, Martyr at Rome (ca. 167), First Apology, 66-67
We then lead them [catechumens] to a place where there is water and they are reborn in the same way as we were reborn; that is to say, they are washed in the water in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the whole universe, of our Savior Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit. This is done because Christ said: “Unless you are born again you will not enter the kingdom of heaven,” and it is obviously impossible for anyone, having once been born, to re-enter their mother’s womb.
An explanation of how repentant sinners are to be freed from their sins is given through the prophet Isaiah in the words: “Wash yourselves and be clean. Remove the evil from your souls; learn to do what is right. Be just to the orphan, vindicate the widow. Come, let us reason together, says the Lord. If your sins are like scarlet, I will make them white as wool; if they are like crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if you do not heed me, you shall be devoured by the sword. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Feeling particularly cheeky about your superior intelligence over and against all of us ignorant and gullible Christians? Check out Bird’s story and see what you think.
Some have great confidence in skeptical scholarship, and I once did, perhaps more than anyone else. If anyone thinks they are assured in their unbelief, I was more committed: born of unbelieving parents, never baptized or dedicated; on scholarly credentials, a PhD from a secular university; as to zeal, mocking the church; as to ideological righteousness, totally radicalized. But whatever intellectual superiority I thought I had over Christians, I now count it as sheer ignorance. Indeed, I count everything in my former life as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing the historical Jesus who is also the risen Lord. For his sake, I have given up trying to be a hipster atheist. I consider that old chestnut pure filth, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a CV that will gain me tenure at an Ivy League school, but knowing that I’ve bound myself to Jesus—and where he is, there I shall also be.
Well, it’s Holy Week and Easter’s coming. Time for more sensationalist tripe to appear in the media that purports to disprove Christianity and stuff. Surprise, surprise. Mohler does a thorough job of demolition in his piece, not of this particular scrap of papyrus but of the state of modern scholarship. See what you think.
That’s why Christians can never respond to heresy with indifference. As the late Harold O. J. Brown observed, “the important thing about heresies is the fact that they are not just permissible variations, options, or choices, but by their very nature so undermine Christian faith that they may well render salvation unattainable for the one who makes the mistake of embracing them.”
So much of what is presented as modern biblical and theological scholarship is an effort to destroy the very idea of orthodox Christianity and to erase all distinctions between orthodoxy and heresy. That is why so much attention is devoted to marginal issues of scholarship like this tiny fragment of papyrus. The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” tells us nothing about Jesus and very little, if anything, about early Christianity. It tells us a great deal about modern scholarship, however — and that is the real message of this controversy.