Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Why Easter Really Matters

I want you to try to remember an event…a event that left a strong emotional impact on your life: perhaps it was the day you moved into your first home, the day a close family member died, a reunion or special birthday, a graduation from high school or college. I remember my wedding day very clearly. For one thing...it was hot, I mean really hot (a record 105 degrees for July 16 in the Bay Area)…and the sanctuary air conditioning was definitely not up to the challenge. Lisa, my bride, definitely had the worst of it...sweat was pouring from her face. I recall in particular that moment after we exchanged our vows and lit the "unity candle." As my brother sang a special song for us...we looked deep into each other's eyes, as all our friends and family looked on, and Lisa quietly but earnestly whispered to me...“Is my mascara running?!" All I could do was assure her that she looked great, and dabbed her face with my handkerchief. We still laugh about it today. Now that's a 15 year old memory, but I’m confident that memory will be just as clear when it turns "20" or "30" or even "40". Why? Because we remember the things that matter to us.

Writing between AD 51-54, the Apostle Paul speaks of a 20 year old event that mattered deeply to him and to hundreds of people who witnessed it, a powerful event they had no trouble remembering. The emotions they felt, what they saw and experienced were still very clear in their minds. In his letter, he gives four reasons why this event -- the resurrection of Jesus Christ -- should deeply matter to us as well. Hear Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11 --

1 Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters* at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Paul implies here that the resurrection of Jesus should matter to us because it has historical credibility (1a, 3-7): It was “received” (1a) as an objective fact for good reason. Paul may not have seen Jesus crucified…but his disciples certainly did (all of them, with the exception of John, from a safe distance), and what everyone of them agreed upon was this: Jesus died. Crucifixion was a brutal form of execution. In all of Roman imperial history, there is not a single example of anyone surviving crucifixion. Jesus did not swoon and revive later, as some have claimed, Jesus died.

Paul goes on to say that Jesus’ followers saw him risen from the dead, a claim that on the surface of it seems absurd, until you begin to look at the evidence. There was Cephas (Peter) and the Twelve (disciples). The transformation of Jesus’ disciples from demoralized and defeated men on Good Friday to confident witnesses of his resurrection in the face of death is difficult to explain apart from some extraordinary event. Theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne calls it one of the strong lines of evidence for the truth of the resurrection (John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in the Age of Science, New Haven: Yale University Press., 1997, p. 33). Something happened.

Then Paul mentions the appearance to James, one of Jesus’ brothers. Now Cephas (Peter) and the others may have denied the Lord… but James and his brothers were skeptics from the beginning according to Mark 3:21; John 7:5. It was not until Jesus appeared to James alive that his mind and heart were changed. So transformed was James that he later became the spiritual leader of the Jerusalem church.

In addition, Paul mentions the testimony of “more than five hundred” brothers and sisters at one time, "most of whom are still alive": This statement sounds truly farfetched but for the fact that Paul wrote this letter between AD 51-54, only 20 years after Jesus’ death. We can confidently date Paul's letter to this time because of an historical reference made in Acts 18:12 to Gallio, who was made proconsul of Achaia when Paul was in Corinth. We know from the famous Delphi Inscription in which Emperor Claudius references Gallio's rule that he was made proconsul in AD 51 [http://www.kchanson.com/ANCDOCS/greek/gallio.html] thus Paul's work in Corinth and the letter he wrote shortly thereafter must have come within a very few years of this date. The upshot of all this is that Paul is writing within two decades of Jesus' death and resurrection appearances -- which means the claim that these witnesses are still alive is extremely credible. If you don’t believe me, Paul is saying, question them yourself! Listen to the words of Pinchas Lapide, an Orthodox Jewish scholar, who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah who but nevertheless believed that Jesus rose from the dead: “The resurrection belongs to the category of the truly real and effective occurrences, for without a fact of history there is no act of true faith" (Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus, 1984, cited in John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996, p. 118).

Second, the resurrection of Jesus should matter to us because it has immediate relevance (1b, 8-11): It is a message upon which one can truly “stand” (1b) and build a life. Paul’s "Exhibit A" that Jesus changes lives today and gives us staying power through the toughest situations--is himself. He says that “last of all, as to one untimely born, [Jesus] appeared also to me” even though “I persecuted the church of God.” A zealous religious leader, educated in the best schools, Paul’s life was changed on the road to Damascus where he met the Risen Christ. He was transformed from a terrorizer of the church into a testifier to Jesus. Despite his sufferings, he said that anything he achieved in the past meant nothing, compared with the joy of knowing Y’shua his Lord and Messiah. Paul became a new man…in the present. The resurrection was not just a nice story to him but a present and personal reality (see Acts 9). Just as surely as Jesus was raised from death, so it was true that a new life had begun for Paul in Christ.

This is what I was, Paul says, but "by the grace of God I am what I am" (10). Paul had a new foundation on which to build his life…and that foundation was God’s grace. Paul now stood firmly on the grace of God! Did you catch that? Not on his striving. Not on his impeccable credentials. Not on his thirst for power and status. There is a powerful force in the universe called gravity. Gravity is pulling on us all the time…and eventually it pulls everyone of us to our knees. In our own lives, we mimic this power…by attracting others to ourselves, by absorbing and seeking to enlarge ourselves. But there is another power, the power of grace. Grace moves in the opposite direction…it is the power of self-giving love, forgiveness, and mercy (See Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil, a French intellectual and a Jewish believer in Jesus during WWII who died at the age of 33). When Jesus decended into our humanity, and when he died on the cross and was buried in the tomb…he humbled himself, submitting to the force of gravity…but when he rose again he proved that God’s grace is more powerful than gravity. Build your life on the grace and mercy of God…it’s the greatest power in the universe!

Third, the resurrection of Jesus should matter to us because it has profound consequences for the future (2a, 12-20): It is a message through which we are “being saved from” and “being saved for." Paul argues that those who live in reliance upon Jesus and his word are being saved from the terrible consequences of sin, evil and death (separation from God and all that is good); and are being saved for a glorious future ("The wages of sin is death...but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord," Romans 6:23). When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was being taken to the gallows, he said to a friend: “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.” Bill Flanagan, a dear friend and colleague of my Dad’s who is close to death wrote this recently, “My faith in Jesus Christ is strong and I rejoice in the Hope that has been a part of my life for so many, many years. I pray that all of you can rest comfortably in the wonderful promises that God has made to all of us who put our trust in Him." I pray that our Lord heals and extends the life of my father's dear friend...knowing that whatever happens he and we are secure in his promise of eternal life. When Mickey Mantle was dying of diseases brought on by a life of heavy drinking he said: “I would have taken better care of myself if I had known how long I was going to live!” Jesus asks us to seriously consider how we are taking care of ourselves in light of an eternal future. Where honestly, is our present life leading us: each day we either moving away from God, or toward Him. Where are you headed?

Finally, because of all of the above, the resurrection of Jesus deserves a firm response (2b, 58): It is news concerning which no one can remain neutral. “Hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you…be steadfast… always excelling in the work of the Lord,” Paul says. I want to conclude by asking you to join me in a thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that you had 3 years to do anything you wanted…and that I was somehow able to provide you with the best education on the planet, unlimited material and human resources, and unrestricted political power. What would you do, what would you try to accomplish in those three years?

Now here is the astonishing thing – Jesus had no formal education, he was raised in a poor family under the occupation of a foreign power, he had no political influence to speak of, he left no writings behind, he was crucified like a common criminal…And yet in three short years, his imprint was so deeply felt upon the consciousness of humankind that he became the dominant figure not just for the next 20 years…but for the next two thousand years of human history.... and counting. H. G. Wells once said, “I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of [and] the most dominant figure in all history.” Konrad Adenauer, former Chancellor of West Germany remarked to Billy Graham, “Outside of the resurrection of Jesus I know of no other hope for this world" (cited in Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God, Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994, pp. 164-165). A man like this surely demands a firm response (to use Paul's word), a decisive “yes” or “no.” We cannot be neutral about Jesus Christ.

But “Does Jesus really matter that much?” you may still be asking. You must decide that for yourself…but know this - that you matter to him, that he loves you, that he is calling you to follow him and to know the gift of his mercy and forgiveness, and the power of his resurrection life.

Lord Jesus, let the truth that you are alive, and risen from the dead reign over me today! For I know that in you I can begin again, turn from the things I know are wrong, and live each new day in the Father’s love. In you I am welcomed into the fellowship of the wholly forgiven, boasting not in my merits but in your mercy. In your risen life, I can have the full wealth of conviction, knowing that death has been conquered, and that I too shall live the life that is beyond death. In you I am blessed to be a blessing; entrusted with the message of God’s saving grace to all nations and peoples. Therefore, by the power of your Holy Spirit, I receive the good news that you are risen from the dead, that you are the solid rock on which I stand, and that you have saved me for all eternity. Amen.

No comments: