Monthly Archives: April 2012
This Easter season, we are currently preaching through 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection. Here is the passage that falls to me today:
We know that line from childhood, even if raw adult experience teaches us that it isn’t always true.
One of the problems we have at Easter is that we think ‘They all happily ever after’ is what the Resurrection means. We see the Resurrection as no more than a happy ending to the story after all the horrible stuff about Jesus dying.
But it isn’t. Do we all live happily ever after now, because Jesus has risen from the dead? No. I know that in one sense the Resurrection does point us towards a ‘happy ever after’ destination at some point in the future, but that isn’t what it means now. And the Resurrection has deep, central meanings for our faith even now, before death.
So much so that even though I initially entitled this week’s sermon ‘The Certainty of the Resurrection’ it might better be entitled ‘The Centrality of the Resurrection’. I want to show from our reading three areas of life and faith where the Resurrection is central, if not the foundation.
Firstly, the Resurrection is central to salvation. We so tie salvation into the death of Christ – ‘Jesus died for our sins’, and so on – that we overlook the place the Resurrection has in salvation. Indeed, this whole chapter has started with what Paul says is the Gospel as passed down to him – not only that Christ died, but that he was buried, raised and appeared to his disciples. The Resurrection is part of the Gospel message of salvation. But in what way?
Here’s what Paul says essentially in verses 12 to 19 of today’s reading. We affirm that Christ died for our sins. His death rescues us and we are forgiven. All well and good. But since the Bible speaks about death as the penalty for sin, death itself must be conquered if we are truly and fully to be saved from our sins. Hence why Paul says that preaching is useless without the Resurrection (verse 14), that we are liars if there is no Resurrection, because death has not been defeated (verse 15), that faith without the Resurrection is futile and leaves us still lost (verses 17-18) and that we are pitiable without that message (verse 19).
Moreover, Paul implies, everything we assume about life and salvation assumes the Resurrection. How can we affirm we are forgiven if the penalty for sin is still in force? If the Queen pardoned the offences of a criminal but he was still sent to prison, what kind of pardon would that be? It would be nonsense. So it is with sin against Almighty God, says the apostle. Say all you like about the Cross being the source of our forgiveness because Jesus died in our place, and that is true, but unless the death sentence is removed from us there is no practical benefit to that forgiveness. Hence the Resurrection is as much a part of our salvation as the Cross is.
But of course we all expect to go through death. The conquest of death for us remains in the future, when we shall be bodily raised, just as Jesus was. And it’s this future hope which is the important thing here, for there is a parallel with forgiveness. The forgiveness we receive through the Cross is an assurance that in the future, at the Last Judgement, we shall be pronounced ‘not guilty’. And our Resurrection to eternal life will be the sign that confirms the Judge’s merciful verdict on us.
One scholar, Kenneth Bailey, puts it like this:
The resurrection affirms that sin and death do not have the last word. At the cross the finest religion of the ancient world (Judaism), and the finest system of justice of the ancient world (Rome), joined to torture this good man to death. These were not evil forces. They were the best institutions the ancient world had to offer, and yet together they produced the cross. But that was not the end. After the cross came the victory of the resurrection. After the cross, no form of evil surprises us, no institutionalized brutality amazes us, because we have been to the cross and we know that beyond it is the resurrection. We have stood at the cross … and have witnessed the empty tomb …!
All this, then, makes the Resurrection much more than a happy ending. It makes it far more than any idea that the Cross was all bad and the Resurrection kissed everything better. When we look at the empty tomb and believe in the Risen Lord, we have the assurance of salvation. Believe in the Easter hope and know the promise of salvation.
Secondly, the Resurrection is central to the kingdom of God. In verses 20 to 28, Paul talks about Christ’s resurrection as being the first fruits of the general resurrection of the dead, leading to everything being put under God’s feet. While we wait for that time, Christ reigns until every enemy has been put under his feet.
In other words, God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit shows that God reigns, because he even conquers death in his Son. However, much opposition to that reign remains. Just as a human authority can be in charge of a country despite there being opposition to that person or government, so Christ reigns over creation, despite opposition to him.
It’s within that framework that Paul uses the image of the ‘first fruits’. Judaism celebrated two harvest festivals: as well as the full ingathering of the crops around the end of the summer or beginning of the autumn which corresponds to what we understand as a harvest festival, they also celebrated the appearance of the first fruits in late spring. We have a name for that ‘first fruits’ festival: we call it Pentecost. The first fruits guarantee what is to come, the full harvest. In kingdom terms, Christ’s resurrection is the first fruits of God’s reign that promise the full victory over death in the ingathering harvest when the general resurrection of the dead happens.
Meanwhile, as we await that complete conquest, Christ reigns. Just as a Roman colony (such as Corinth) anticipated a day when the Emperor (who had the status of a god) would come and visit them, so Christians anticipate the future coming of our triumphant risen King. And just as the Roman emperor rewarded the retired soldiers who fought to win that colony for him, so our coming King will reward those who have served in the cause of his kingdom.
But there are bigger implications. It’s not just that you can draw imperfect parallels between the risen King and earthly empires, it is also a matter of contrast and conflict between the kingdom of our Risen Lord and the kingdoms of this world. Kenneth Bailey again:
When Paul wrote, “We have one Lord, Jesus Christ” (8:6), he was not only confessing his faith, he was also making a political statement. If Jesus is kurios (Lord), then Caesar isn’t. In like manner, here in verse 24, even though Paul was writing about the climactic end of the age, he was at the same time de-absolutizing the rulers, authorities and powers around him. It was dangerous to even think let alone proclaim such things anywhere in the Roman Empire. But to write this kind of subversive literature and send it to the largest Roman city outside Rome was extremely risky. The apostle as much as announces that one of the goals of the resurrected Christ was the setting aside of eternal Rome. Paul was intimidated by no one, and by committing his vision to writing he surrendered control over who would discover these views.
The Resurrection, then, proclaims the kingship of Jesus at the expense of the rulers of this world. Now the latter, of course, won’t like that. They expect our allegiance. The Resurrection puts us on a collision course with them and we may end up suffering, because we retain our allegiance to our Risen Lord ahead of them. We respect the earthly authorities as much as we can, but the time comes when we have to choose between obeying God and obeying human beings. It is the Resurrection that leads us to make that choice in favour of Christ. For it shows that he truly reigns and it promises that his kingdom will come in all its fullness. Furthermore, if we do suffer, then the Resurrection promise that life conquers death fortifies us in our eternal perspective.
Thirdly and finally, the Resurrection is central to our lifestyle. We’re into verses 29 to 34 here. And what on earth is all this stuff about being baptised for the dead? We can perhaps appreciate the idea of Christians such as Paul risking their lives virtually every day, because we can read the accounts of their tremendous courage in service of the Gospel. But baptism for the dead?
It has puzzled readers down the ages. There are something like forty major different explanations lying on the scholars’ table. Fear not, I won’t take you through all of them, but I will just briefly mention one famous interpretation. The Mormons have a particular take on this. Since baptism is connected with salvation, what happens to those who have died without being baptised, they ask? So Mormons volunteer for some kind of proxy baptism on behalf of the dead to assure their salvation, and they use this text to justify that practice.
However, that is almost certainly a wrong approach. Much more likely in the view of scholars I trust is this scenario: in the early years of Christianity, some followers of Jesus died, and their loved ones – who may not have embraced the faith – feared that they might not be reunited in eternity. Therefore the surviving relatives were ‘baptised for the dead’, that is, baptised for the sake of their beloved deceased family members, in the hope that such baptism would see them through to the reunion after death that they desired.
Now that may sound like a bizarre practice, but the point Paul is making is that those who went in for it could only make sense of it if there was the resurrection of the dead. If there were no resurrection, they could not be reunited with their loved ones after death. The game was up.
And similarly, and more seriously, was the courage that Paul and the other church leaders showed in the way they proclaimed the Gospel in the teeth of opposition. Why risk their lives every day? Because they knew that even if they paid with their lives, resurrection would one day be their destiny. Therefore they would not be deterred by the worst the world could throw at them. But without the promise of resurrection, such courage would make no sense. There would be no point to that kind of risk-taking, and you might as well indulge yourself to the fullest extent and be done with worrying about living in a good and godly way.
But if you want to know why Christians see a point in living ethically and in holiness, it’s the Resurrection. If you want to have a reason for Christians to do the right thing even at great cost, it’s the Resurrection. It gives meaning and purpose to right living.
Having lived through nine years of the Lebanese civil war and through the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982, I understand the affirmation “I die every day.” This is the speech of someone who goes out each day wondering if it will be his last. Included in this is the never to be forgotten feeling at a rogue checkpoint when stopped by heavily armed militiamen. On such occasions one is convinced, “I will not be alive five minutes from now.” The fall of 2009 I was privileged to meet Mr. Paul, the senior manager of “Hotel Rwanda” during the massacres that took place in Rwanda in 1994. For the three-month period of the massacres, Mr. Paul “died every day.” It was the look in the eye. We understood each other. Paul the apostle breaks into very strong language, indeed the language of oath taking, as he declares, “I die every day.”
But the Christian can ‘die every day’ when we live in Resurrection hope. The Resurrection is the reason we can and do live differently from the world. The Resurrection is fundamental to our salvation. It points to the coming kingdom of our Risen Lord. It makes sense of life and faith.
Let us live in the light of the Resurrection.
When one of my church members gives up a church job because they are called to be a witness in the world through their work, I am not worried about filling their job, I am delighted. Shane Claiborne explains more:
Well, there’s a headline I never thought I’d type. But hats off to Brand in this exchange with the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee on at least two counts:
1. He advocates abstinence-based programmes for cure and recovery. When the Church calls for abstinence, it is mocked. Brand knows from painful experience its importance.
2. He knows and understands that celebrity is ‘a vapid, vacuous and toxic concept’ and used to distract people from important things that are happening.
So says Rick Warren. OK, you’d expect Warren to use the word ‘purpose’, but the thrust of the article is the benefits of structuring a church around people’s gifts, rather than in trying to fit them into a predetermined structure. Makes sense to me. But it means there are some powerful institutional forces we need to resist in our denominations.
A Baptist friend of mine said to an Anglican friend, “You are off duty today.”
“No,” replied the Anglican, “I am a priest. It is who I am.”
He did not mean that he never took time off. He meant that to be a priest was about who he was.
In that light, it’s interesting to watch this video interview with Eugene Peterson, where he says,
‘Pastor’ is not a job description; it really is a life that is shaped in a certain way
and goes on to say that you should not treat his books (or anybody else’s) as a manual for pastoring, because it is the most context-specific of all jobs.
Watch and enjoy.
Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Verses 25-27)
I was never going to have time for a long sermon today. Hence why the one I posted last night was brief by my standards. I had two opportunities to preach it: once at 8:30 am at Addlestone, then at the 10:00 Knaphill service. The Addlestone service had to be an abbreviated communion so I could make the twenty-minute drive back to Knaphill. It then also had to be brief in the later service, because that included a baptism and we were also keeping the Junior Church in for the whole time.
I wrote the sermon earlier in the week, but I kept it up on screen for days, worrying at it, making the odd minor change but mostly leaving it untouched. I had been uneasy about it all the time. I never could let it settle, even when I printed it out. Was I unhappy with the content? Not really. I can’t explain publicly why I was uncomfortable, because it was more about how it might accidentally be perceived. But it was all I had, so I took it with me.
By the time I got to the 8:30, I had already got through an outdoor ‘sunrise’ service at 7:00 am. Not much sunrise, with complete cloud cover and persistent drizzle, but you know what I mean. As we read John 20 there, and as I listened to my church treasurer give a beautiful reflection, some different ideas formed in my head. I turned some of them into the intercessions that followed the talk Chris gave. When I got to Addlestone, I jotted them down , ditched my prepared sermon and gave an informal, if untidy talk on them. Whether people appreciated it I don’t know, because I had to depart during the final hymn, leaving Richard our deacon to pronounce the blessing.
As I drove to Knaphill, I for once switched off the iPod and prayed about whether I should do the same there. The thought came rapidly that I should.
Ditching a carefully prepared sermon is not usual behaviour for me. I do not subscribe to the view that the Holy Spirit only inspires preachers in the moment of preaching. (And hence I do not hold with the nonsense that only extempore preaching is Spirit-led.) I believe the Spirit is present in the struggle of prayer and study that goes into preparation. I am self-aware enough to know that if I have carefully thought through what I am going to say, it is usually unwise of me to depart from it radically on the day, because the replacement words will not have been carefully considered and may lead into some traps.
So far, so very ‘J’ in Myers Briggs terms. There is a big part of me that likes things planned and mapped out. My wife will tell you of a time when we were on holiday, touring the Isle of Wight on a bus season ticket, when she spontaneously wanted us to catch a different bus from Newport Bus Station to another destination, and I panicked. This all fits.
But I’m actually borderline ‘J’ and ‘P’ in Myers Briggs. There is also a large part of me that can be spontaneous and unplanned. So if the J part of me was fearful, the P part was excited. On this occasion, I’m glad I tore up the script. By way of summary, I said the Resurrection was for four groups of people:
Firstly, it is for those who are looking into tombs. Mary comes to the tomb, yes, to do the last thing she can in honour of the man she followed, but also I believe she comes as a way of coping with her disappointment and shattered dreams. Many of us have broken dreams, or we are staring into tombs. We may be bereaved. A loved one may be dying. We may be terminally ill. Or we are metaphorically staring into a tomb. Easter is for all such people. Beyond the unanswered prayer of Holy Saturday comes the hope of Easter Day.
Secondly, it is for people who are struggling to understand. I kept some of the original sermon here. The disciples don’t expect the Resurrection – as good Jews they either believed it would happen at the end of time or they didn’t believe in it at all. They were not gullible ancient simpletons. They do not immediately understand, but they have an encounter. Easter encourages those who are struggling with faith and questions still to walk the way with Jesus. We do not have to wait until we have everything sorted in our minds.
Thirdly, it is for people who need to hear Jesus speak their name. Jesus says, “Mary.” Chris told a wonderful story at the 7:00 sunrise about a British journalist from the Sunday Telegraph flying to South Africa to interview Desmond Tutu. At the end of the interview, Tutu changed from interviewee to witness. He had surmised that the journalist was a lapsed churchgoer, and reminded him that God loved him just as he was, because God only makes masterpieces. The question of hearing Jesus call you by name was pertinent to a baptism service, as we formally recalled the name given to the baby. Many of us need to know that Jesus addresses us personally. It is his word of love and affirmation, in contrast to the way we are misaddressed and abused in the world. Easter gives us that hope. Jesus is back from the dead to do this.
Fourthly, it is for people who need the challenge to be a movement, not a monument. I find the words of Jesus to Mary, “Do not hold onto me” puzzling, until I see that he is pointing her to the future. He will be returning to the Father, and she has a task to tell the disciples. Easter sends us forward in mission. The trouble many of us have with great spiritual experiences is that we want to build an edifice or an institution instead. We want blue plaques for our spirituality. As Simon Peter garbled at the Transfiguration about building booths for Jesus, Moses and Elijah so we want to have a fixed, static reminder rather than hear the challenge to move forwards and outwards.
And at that point I ended – like I said, there was no neat conclusion, because it was a late rethink.
Was it worth the change? What do you think?
I want to begin with one of my all-time favourite stories for Easter Day.
There once was a man who was convinced he was dead. He told his wife he was dead. He informed his work colleagues he was dead. He said to his friends, “I’m dead, you know.” He told the neighbours he was dead.
Everyone became concerned about him, and his friends and family arranged for him to see a psychiatrist. The man agreed, and at their first session the psychiatrist showed the man all sorts of learned medical literature which proved that dead men don’t bleed.
Eventually, having read book after journal after book, the man agreed. “All right, I believe you,” he said, “Dead men don’t bleed.”
At this point the psychiatrist suddenly took a lancet and jabbed the man in the arm. Watching with horror as blood spurted from him, the man gasped, “Good Lord! Dead men do bleed after all!”
Such is the problem with people who will not let the evidence change their minds. Yet that is one of the charges that many of the militant ‘New Atheists’ level at people of faith. In the case of some Christians, it is sadly true.
But the Christian faith is founded on an incident where people of faith did change their minds due to the evidence. That incident is the Resurrection.
It’s not unusual to hear that it must have just been gullible ancient people who came to believe in the nonsense of Jesus coming back from the dead. They talk about myths of gods coming back to life, and assume that’s what the Christian belief in the Resurrection was – desperate and distraught disciples lifted these myths and applied them to Jesus.
But that couldn’t be more wrong. The first witnesses of the Resurrection were all Jews. There is very little about life after death of any kind in their Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. The only solid text is in Daniel chapter 12, and Daniel is a book that only found its final form in the mid-second century BC. Any kind of belief in resurrection was relatively recent in Judaism, and even then not all Jews believed in it (the Sadducees didn’t) and those who did believe in resurrection only thought it would happen at the end of time, when God judged the world. Not a single one of Jesus’ followers would have been expecting a resurrection in the middle of history.
We get a feeling for this in our reading this morning. Mary Magdalene’s first reaction is to say to Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’ (verse 2) An empty tomb doesn’t mean resurrection to her. When Simon Peter and the other disciple run to the tomb, the other disciple does believe (verse 8) but immediately after that John says, ‘They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead’ (verse 9). When Mary does encounter the risen Jesus, she thinks he is the gardener (verse 15). These people may not think scientifically in the way that many people today do, but they are not gullible idiots who will either fall for any old nonsense or who will invent an account to support a set of lies. Why? Because they don’t believe in resurrection in the middle of history.
Something changes them. They have to change their beliefs – and they do so because they become convinced that they have met the risen Jesus. Nobody, friend or foe, doubted that Jesus died. Roman soldiers were expert executioners and knew they would suffer the death penalty if they failed to ensure that the prisoners entrusted to them died. Therefore Jesus could not have merely resuscitated in the tomb. If the tomb was empty and Jesus’ body were elsewhere, an opponent of the Jesus movement could soon have produced the body. The resurrection appearances are not easily explained as hallucinations, since hallucinations are usually solitary and several of the resurrection appearances are to groups. Furthermore, there is a sense of expectation about hallucinations, and as I’ve already said, they weren’t expecting it. And if this were a concocted story, it’s an odd decision to make women major witnesses in a culture where women were not allowed to give evidence.
So in fact here is a group of religious people who find that the evidence does make them change their minds. And that evidence is the Resurrection of Jesus.
The Resurrection makes us change our minds in all sorts of ways. ……
We change our minds about hope, because now we have a sign that death is not the end.
We change our minds about the present, because that hope of God renewing all things makes it worth us working for goodness, love and justice now. Indeed, it’s the best reason. Richard Dawkins says that the universe reflects exactly what you would expect if there is no Creator – he says it reflects a sense of ‘pitiless indifference’. Can you live by pitiless indifference? The Resurrection says no, there is meaning and purpose in this world and it’s worth working to change things for the better.
We change our minds about the way we live, because the Resurrection shows us God’s future. It makes sense to align ourselves with that. We have a word for that particular change of mind. There is a Bible word for a change of mind that leads to us living differently. It’s the word ‘repentance’. The risen Jesus calls us to think again about the way we live our lives.
But – what we have here that leads to our change of mind is this. We have evidence, not proof. We have the best explanation for what happened, and with it the best explanation for life. What we don’t have is watertight proof. Nobody has that, whatever their view of life. We have evidence, rather than proof, because God shows us enough on which we can trust him. If he gave us outright proof, there would be no room for proof and no sense of relationship with God.
This Easter, then, let’s consider the possibility that there is enough evidence to lead to a change of mind in every part of our lives and a relationship of trust with God through Jesus.
The last of the Tenebrae candles is extinguished, as I suffocate its fire with the snuffer. Peter has denied Jesus. The congregation sits in near-perfect darkness, observing the silence they read about in their orders of service before the light of the final candle died. I have a little assistance as I oversee the service: I have brought the reading light I bought for my Kindle and attached it to the lectern. Together, we enter the dark silence of God. Or should that be the silent darkness of God? Perhaps it is both.
I resurrect the candle flame, and we are to continue sitting in silence. However, the presence of light makes that silence more difficult. People shuffle. I become more aware of the cramp in my toes, and wish I could take my shoe off to put my foot on the cold stone floor. “Could you not wait?” said Jesus.
We leave in silence. The clearing-up is done in a quiet not usually experienced.
This morning, we gather at Holy Trinity church to begin our silent walk of witness to St Hugh’s for our united service. On a cool, bright morning we prepare to remember darkness. As we pass by the Chinese takeaway, the children of the owners are sitting in the window, munching prawn crackers and watching us with innocent puzzlement. Our cross is large, and only tall, strong men are able to carry it. We walk in silence, surely in contrast to the crowds who witnessed Jesus carrying his cross beam. It was a public holiday then, and it is today. But not for us the usual jollity. Instead, we are solemn.
The quiet, slow pace cannot continue for me, though, as I have no time to attend the united service in Knaphill. Instead, I walk home, unlock the car and drive to Addlestone for their united service. Before I engage clutch and gear lever, I check my mileage: it may be the holiest day of the year, but it is also the first day of a new tax year and I have to enter in my records how many miles I have driven in the last twelve months. Even on Good Friday, I am not in a bubble that insulates me from the usual world.
As Richard leads the service, we are invited to write on paper crosses those things we would like to bring to the foot of Christ’s Cross. While singing the Taizé chant ‘Jesus, remember me’, we do just that. I name some fears and feel some peace in placing them at the Cross.
Richard asks us to leave the service in silence. If we want to talk, we can do so over hot liquid caffeine in the vestibule. Except the silence is broken by an announcement that the teas and coffees must be brought into the worship area, because outside the staff of the Addlestone Food Bank are preparing to serve those in need. Noise and chatter, yes, and no silence – but it seems like a fitting response to the ministry of the Cross, as does my conversation with a colleague from another church about the hosting of an Alpha course.
The rushing from Knaphill to Addlestone has seemed so inappropriate for reflection. It is only now I have got back that I can home in on the value of the silence and the darkness. Today and tomorrow, as I remember Jesus lying in the tomb, I can prepare for a different kind of rushing on Sunday. In three morning services, I shall be facilitating joy. I have to link the two. Today is not merely about despair, and Easter Day is more than the happy ending. They belong together. The silence and darkness of betrayal and death, with the noise and light of an empty tomb.