Sermon: Resurrection: Fact or Fairy Tale?

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Sermon: "Resurrection: Fact or Fairy Tale?"

Delivered April 8, 2012 (Easter Sunday) by Ian McFadden.
10:45am contemporary service
Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 15:3-8,19-22

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Abstract: It is strange to believe in a dead man coming back to life. But the objective, historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus seems to be the best explanation for the data. Digging into 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 and 19-22, we ask: Why can we believe in the resurrection? Why should that even matter for the future? And how does the future impact our present?

I read an article the other day, actually a few months back, about a British municipal government that had a town hall meeting about emergency preparedness, invited people in, and were discussing their preparation for various contingencies. And a guy raised his hand, and he said, "The zombie apocalypse... are we ready for it?" And everybody chuckled.

And then one of the officers said, "No. No, we're not actually preparing for the zombie apocalypse, and we're not going to appropriate any funds for that." And that was kind of the end of it. And the guy goes home, jumps on Facebook, rounds up like 300 of his buddies to put on their zombie costumes, splatter some fake blood on their tee shirts, rip their clothes a little bit, put like a fake nail in their head, and come back into town at a set time and like moan and stroll through town and pound on shop windows and shake cars. Just awesome!

And they just had like this day where they just celebrated this. And I read that, and I started thinking, because that's what you have to do when you're a preacher. You read about zombies, and then you have to think. And I thought a bunch of things.

A. I thought, "This guy believed in zombies, and he had 300 friends? I mean, really? What am I doing wrong?" And then I thought:

B. "That's just awesome that these people stopped life for a little bit and just had a party about this kind of totally bizarre, out-there belief in undead people walking around. And then they went back and got on with their lives." And then I thought:

C. "Hold on. Millions of people for a couple of thousand years, and even now, scattered across the world, including me, believe that a dead guy came back to life. That is weird! That's not normal."

I think if you're like me and you've spent a lot of time around church, been a Christian for a while, we forget that is abnormal. I don't think other people do. I think maybe they think once we've sung "Kum-ba-yah" for like twelve-and-a-half hours, we'll believe anything. Maybe we check our brains at the door when we come in. Once you have a herd of fish on the back of your car, you can just believe whatever. Believe, hon.

I don't know, but I think it's important that we address that question this morning. This is a weird thing to believe. Is there a reason to believe it? That's where we're starting. That's going to be our first question. Our second question is, if this is believable... Surprise! I'm going to think it is. If this is believable, why? What does that mean? What does that past event mean for the future? And then our last question is going to be, okay, so what? What does the future have to do with the present? Okay?

That's where we're going to be. We're going to be in 1 Corinthians 15. It's on page 1,050 in your Bibles there under the seat in front of you. I'm going to pray right now. That's one of the implications of me believing that Jesus came back to life. I think he is alive now and here with us by his Spirit. So I'm going to ask him to help us out. If you don't believe that, that's fine. I'm not asking you to turn your brain off now. That's fine. You can just sit there quietly, and I'll be done in a moment, and then we'll get back to singing. So here we go.

Father, I pray that by the Spirit of the risen Christ, you would guide us towards truth this morning. That's what we want. That's what we're after. Would you lead our hearts and our minds and our trust towards truth? And if that means me changing my beliefs, give me the humility to do that. In Jesus' name, Amen.

I think sometimes we're a little bit chronologically arrogant. We're like it was easy for people in the first century to believe that this Guy was dead and then came back to life because, come on, they were superstitious. They believed in everything or anything, right? I mean, they weren't as intelligent as we are. They didn't know what "LOL" means. I mean, I don't care if they built the Coliseum. All right?

But it's not true. We have to be humble enough to give these people credit for actually being intelligent. And most of the kind of Greek people, the non-Jewish people at the time, did not believe that dead people came back to life. That was not normal. In fact, they were very similar to today. They had a bunch of different beliefs about what happens to you once you die. Some people thought you just kind of went to nothingness. Some people thought there was this weird separation between your soul and your body.

A bunch of different things, but it was not at all mainstream for Romans and Greeks to believe that dead bodies came back to life. In fact, we have this letter from Paul (1 Corinthians). Paul was a big dude in the early church. He was writing to a church that's a bunch of mainly non-Jewish people who are now starting to believe in Jesus. And he has to make a case that Jesus came back to life, because they don't believe it because it's not normal.

They hadn't seen dead people come back. I have not seen dead people come back to life. I'm just going to be straight up about that. In fact, nobody I've seen die has come back to life. In fact, I don't even think I know anybody personally who has seen that happen. And these people didn't either. It was strange. So Paul writes to them, and this is what he says. We'll dive in at verse 3 of 1 Corinthians 15.

"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance." Basically, "Listen up. This is what I've been talking about all along. This is important." "... that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures." I'm just going to pause here for a moment. This is not the main theme, but this is important. He is saying, "All of the Hebrew Scriptures, the whole Old Testament, the main point there is that there's this disjuncture between God and humanity."

I mean, first of all, he is God, and we're not God. But it's more than that. He is God, and we are anti-God. You're like, "No, we're not." Well, I mean, if we had time, and if I was belligerent, we could like list a bunch of sins and make all of us feel guilty, but I don't think that's really necessary, even in a day in age when consciences are not that fashionable. I think if you were to sneak up on yourself in an honest moment, you would realize that sometimes you want to do it your way, not God's way. Right?

And by "it," I just mean life. Do life your way, not God's way. Or do happiness your way, not God's way. Or do planning for your future comfort and security your way, not God's way. Sometimes we're like that, right? Yes! It doesn't mean we hate God. It doesn't mean we don't believe in God, necessarily. It just means a lot of the time we are against... We are anti-God, and that is a problem, the Old Testament says.

It's caused this dislocation between God and humanity. It's like a divorce. And so they come to divorce court, and the weird thing is there is only one party that's actually at fault here, and it's humans. And God says, "I'm going to pay whatever price is necessary to make this right so that we can be together again." We just spent seven weeks talking about this sin and this problem and the fact that Jesus (then God as a human) came and died a traitor's death, paying that price so that God and humanity could be back together. That's huge!

We're going to move on. Next verse, it says that this God, Jesus, "... was buried." Like actually dead, stuffed in a tomb, sealed up, Roman guards put outside. And then "... he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." Now listen to this. "And he appeared then to Cephas," another name for Peter, one of Jesus' buddies. "... then to the Twelve." That's kind of Jesus' inner circle of close friends who later went on to become very important people in the early church.

And then verse 6. "After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep." That just means "dead," like actually dead, still dead. "Then he appeared to James." That was Jesus' half-brother who did not believe in Jesus during all of Jesus' like public career. He thought Jesus was wacko. And Jesus shows up to him once he was alive again.

And "... then to the apostles." That's all of this whole group of other people who have seen Jesus after he has come back to life. And "... last of all [verse 8] he appeared to me [Paul], as to one abnormally born." This is his point. "This is a weird thing! I know! I understand it's weird, but there are hundreds, literally hundreds, of people that you can go and talk to who have seen Jesus alive again." That's what he is saying to this audience.

Some of them (a few of them) have died, but there are hundreds who knew Jesus before he died, who saw him again after he died, who ate fish tacos with him. You can go check this out. Bible scholars of all stripes, not just troglodytic, kind of head-in-the-sand, fundamentalists people like you think I am, believe the kind of consensus that at least three of the four Gospels, the bios of Jesus, were written within the living memory of people who were there when Jesus died and came back to life. Okay?

So that's scholars at reputable institutions, a few of whom believe and follow Jesus, a lot of whom don't. The consensus is that these bios of Jesus were written while there were still a bunch of people around who were there when Jesus was ministering, were there when Jesus was crucified, stuck in a tomb, and were there when these stories of him being back alive again came out.

That's important. That's what Paul is talking about. He is like, "You can check this out. Go talk to some people. Important people like the Twelve, the inner circle, a bunch of other randoms who got to see Jesus, well, go talk to them. They're still alive. They will verify this because it's strange stuff. You need an eyewitness." But you're thinking, "Okay. There are other explanations, a lot of other explanations surely."

Because a lot of us, if we really love somebody and then we lose them, we're torn up about it, and our mind kind of plays tricks on us. And we have like daydreams or déjàvu, or whatever. And if you turn around in the kitchen, maybe you'll see quickly a spouse that you lost, or you'll have a dream about them. This stuff happens to people a lot now, and it's in the movies. And a lot of you have probably experienced very vivid recollections of somebody who is now departed.

Maybe that's what was going on. After all, a lot of these people loved Jesus and were his friends and family. They missed him terribly. Maybe these are daydreams. That's a decent argument, except for the problem that those sorts of visions and daydreams were commonplace then just like they are now. And people talked about it, and they had vocabulary for talking about visions and "day-mares" about people who were dead and are still dead.

There were ways of talking about that that people used all the time. It's all over the ancient literature. And these people are not saying that. They're saying something categorically different. They're saying, "A body was dead and is now actually alive again and here with us. You can touch it. It was eating fish. It's different." That's not what they're talking about.

Okay, so most of Jesus' friends and followers and family are these Jews, and they had expectations for the Messiah. And the Messiah was supposed to deliver them and then be raised. And so they're terribly disappointed and downhearted when he is executed. And so they kind of generate this story, because that's what they wanted to happen. Again, that's a reasonable explanation, except there was no precursor to that. There was no belief in the Judaism of the day that the Messiah would die and come back to life.

The Messiah was supposed to throw out the Roman Empire and free them. Jesus died. The Romans were still occupying Jerusalem. It's like, disappointing. There was no belief that he was then going to rise from the dead. In fact, if there had been, all these other would-be messiahs of the day, you would have their disciples claiming that they were resurrected when the state killed them. But you don't see that.

There is all sorts of documentation of these other people claiming to be Messiah. The state executes them, and people are like, "Dang!" Nobody is saying, "Oh! He is raised from the dead," because they weren't expecting that. That wasn't part of the package. This was a surprise. So it's still a matter of "he said/she said," right? Some people claim that Jesus was back alive again, and a lot of others who lived there at the time claimed that, "No, surely he is still dead."

It's just "he said/she said." It's like UFOs and Sasquatch sort of, except there's a difference, and I think it's an important difference: it's potential dis-provability. Those of you who work in science have these null-hypotheses, right? If you're going to make any forward progress, you have to be able to disprove something at least. Okay, so if I get together with my Sasquatch club and go out to the Northwest, and we're... You guys believe that I have one.

We go out to the Northwest, and we're like walking in the woods. And they're like, "There's one!" I'm like, "What?" "There's one!" And I'm like, "I didn't see it. Where?" And they're like, "You just missed it, Ian." There's no way for me ever to prove that they're wrong. I'm just going to have to go on believing I'm always in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don't see them.

It's not the same way with claiming that a dead guy is alive again. Why not? There's an easy way to disprove that. Hold your nose, come with me into the tomb, and I'm going to show you this rotting corpse. Everybody knew where the tomb was. He was in the tomb of this famous guy, a wealthy guy, a guy of standing that the state governments, or the Roman government, had executed him. They had placed guards outside it. People knew where this tomb was.

And there are a lot of people, influential people, who would want to produce a dead body if they could have. Roman government, they're the ones who executed Jesus, most powerful government the ancient world had seen. And then you have the local government, the religious leaders, who were the most powerful people in their area. Both of those parties wanted Jesus dead.

They would have done anything they could to put down these rumors that he was alive again and causing trouble for them once more. It would be easy. Go in there. Open the tomb. Pull out the rotting corpse. "Here he is!" Take photos. Put it out on WikiLeaks. Rumor is crushed. They would have wanted to do that.

And, in fact, around the time that all of these sightings of Jesus were happening, it would have been normal for the family members to go in there (into the tomb), because the tomb would usually have a lot of people in it. You'd stick a body in there. You'd let it rot a little bit. Tidy the bones up, fold them, and put them on another shelf so that there's space for the next body.

Okay, so they would have been entering this tomb at around this time to tidy up the bones and make space for the next body anyway. People would have been going in and out of this tomb, and they would have been like, "Hold on. I know we wanted... We'd love to have him with us, but he is dead." That is a problem. (People actually seeing Jesus alive and testifying to it and this empty tomb and the inability to produce a body to prove otherwise.) That's a problem.

And all I'm saying is I know it's weird to believe in a dead guy coming back to life, but if you don't believe that and you didn't check your brain at the door when you came in here today, then my challenge to you is to come up with a better explanation for the data. How do you go from this little carpenter in Nazareth being executed, which is attested in all sorts of literature, not just the Bible, if you don't believe the Bible, to a few years later, you have thousands of people who are willingly dying because they believe in that?

They're not trying to kill other people with bombs strapped to their chest. They are dying so that people who believe differently might come to believe what they believe so they can have life. You have thousands of people changing the face of the Roman Empire because they believed that this guy came back to life. How do you explain that? That's my challenge. If you don't believe this, you've got to propose a better explanation that actually deals with the data, not something half-baked so that you can just move on and not deal with the challenge of Jesus.

Okay. So does it even matter if this happened? Grant that it happened. Does it matter? I had a religious studies teacher when I was in school in England, about 12 years old, and we talked about Hinduism and Judaism and Sikhism and all these of other religions. We came on to Christianity, and he was talking about the resurrection.

And he said, "Okay, so hypothetically, next year we find the grave that with a high degree of certainty, we can establish was Jesus' tomb. And we go in there, and we find these bones, and we do some sort of DNA testing on then, and somehow we find out that this is Jesus. Is that a problem for Christians?" And I was like, "Uh, I think it is." And he wasn't too leading of a teacher, but the direction he took the discussion was, "It shouldn't really matter because as long as you're believing that the Spirit of Jesus lives on in his teaching and in the hearts of his followers, then maybe that's okay."

And I was like, "Oh. So maybe it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you believe hard enough." Hogwash is what I see now when I'm reading these early Christians. Paul, who saw the risen Jesus, writes this in verse 19. Look with me in your Bibles. He says, "If only for this life we are to hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all others." If Jesus was not raised from the dead, like if his body did not come back to life and if there was not an empty tomb, paint "Chump" on my forehead and pout for me because I am pitiable. That's what he is saying.

This is a big deal! Why? I said a moment ago that Jews were not expecting their Messiah to rise from the dead. There were expectations within sort of mainstream, dominant thread of Judaism that there would be a resurrection of the dead in the future and it would be part of this package when God comes back to put wrongs to rights. They had this belief that God is good, that he created things, and he is just. And that one day in the future, he is going to come back to be with his people in a more immediate sort of sense.

And when he comes back, he is going to do a bunch of things that's going to involve bringing the people who believe in him and have died back to life bodily, but it's also going to mean re-creating things like he created them originally but creating them even better so those old trenches of violence and bloodshed are going to be re-plowed into furrows of peace, so that those who are humble and poor, they're going to be lifted up.

And the haughty and the proud and the bullies are going to be made low. And those who are believing in the one true God are going to be vindicated, and bully governments like the Roman Empire are going to be kicked out. There was this whole constellation of beliefs that went together. This is what it's going to be like when God comes back in the day of the Lord. It's all over the prophets in the Old Testament and also in the extra-biblical literature. Those were the expectations.

Okay, so Jesus dies. Roman government is still there. It's a huge disappointment. And then he comes back to life, and hundreds of people see him, and they eat fish with him, and they're scratching their heads like, "What is this? This is part of what we expected, and the future is now happening now. But Rome is still here. What's going on?" It was like something they expected from the future. A piece of it had come rushing forward into the present, and they used this language of "firstfruits" in verse 20 to talk about it.

He says, "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." Firstfruits are the first part of your harvest that you get each year. I walked by our neighbor's the other day, and there were little crocus leaves pushing up through the grass. And I thought, "It's spring!" I don't know how long or how cold this spring is going to be, but sometime I know now it's going to be warm enough to wear short sleeves again. Spring is coming! It's firstfruits.

It's like the engine on a train. It's coming across the tracks, and you're parked there at the crossroads, the railroad crossing, and you're like, "This engine is pulling a whole train behind it. I don't know how long this train is going to take, but the engine is coupled to everything else, and it's hauling it in behind it." That's what they were wrestling with in the New Testament. Jesus is back to life. That means the day of the Lord is starting, but it's not all here yet.

And I know what you're thinking. Two thousand years is a long train. I'm right there with you. Long train. And I think that's what God wants us to be thinking. I think he wants us to look at Jesus' resurrection and go, "Okay. You started it, and clearly you are able to do it because you have overcome death. But this is not the way you want things to be, and this is not the way you're going to have them in the end. So change it!"

That's why Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come." "Make your kingdom come now, soon! Let your will be done now, here, as it is in heaven." That may be a part of that. That's why this past event matters for the future. Jesus' resurrection is the engine towing this entire train of God's promises to re-create creation, to put wrongs to right.

Okay. Okay, why does that future matter for the now at all? Why should we care? It matters for the same reason that you don't paint your house two weeks before it gets bulldozed if you can avoid it. It matters for the same reason that you do put in nice new floors or countertops at your house if it's a house that you're going to have for a long time. It's your dream home, and you are going to be investing in it and living in it and beautifying it for as long as you can see. That's why it matters.

A church like this is willing to put dollars and people towards preaching the good news of Jesus to a random, little tiny, obscure people group in Burma even when we have no idea what the next two decades are going to hold for that people because of the resurrection. Because of the resurrection, we know that God has guaranteed that one day he is going to gather people from every tongue and tribe. Even some of these Waa people are going to be around his throne, singing, "Holy, Holy, Holy" like we just did in their Waa language.

It's going to happen. That's part of the pattern that God has set out that God is re-creating towards, and it's worth being a part of that now, because it's going to happen. Do you see? It's why it's worth us as a community trying to become diverse here, to reflect our neighborhood so that there are people of all colors and people of all socioeconomic statuses and people of all political persuasions here, so that when a stranger walks in, he is like, "What on earth brought all of these people together?"

Only Jesus, because that's the picture of what he is re-creating towards. That's the pattern that he is working towards, a day when people of every tribe and tongue, poor and rich, Republican and Democrat, are going to be gathered around his throne, united by the Jesus who died for them and was raised as the firstfruits of what's coming. It's why it matters that we invest in our kids. It's why it's important for you parents to pass the faith on to the next generation. You don't know what the future is going to hold for those kids.

By the time they're my age, who knows where the economy is going to be? Who knows what wars we're going to be fighting then? It will maybe cost you like nine organs to send them to college by then. But this you do know. Because Jesus walked out the backside of the grave, there will come a day when those who have died in him, those who believe in him and belong to him, will themselves be raised again to be with him. And it's going to be amazing! Paul uses an analogy here later on in the chapter.

Remember analogies from SATs or whatever? "Blank is to blank as blank is to blank." That's a freebie if you're trying to motivate your kids. It's in the Bible. He says, "Your body now is to the resurrection body like a seed is to a tree." Your life is now to the resurrected life like the luminescence of the moon (it was bright the last couple of nights) is to the luminescence of the noonday Arabian sun. They're both shining, but one is bright! The other hardly compares. That's the future I want to invest in for my kids. That's why it matters that we pass the faith on to our kids.

I told you if you don't believe that Jesus rose from the dead, your challenge is come up with a better explanation that actually deals with the data. If you do believe, you have two challenges. Sorry. First one is start practicing the resurrection. Live like it actually matters. Live like what's going to happen in the future, which is guaranteed by the past, actually matters right now. Start practicing it. Think about it. What does it mean for your life? Start living like it matters.

Second thing is party like there is a tomorrow and like tomorrow is better than today. I don't know why we have that weird saying, "Party like there's no tomorrow." Of course that would be like feverish and wild, but it's going to be derelict of hope. Party like those who have hope, who see that there is going to be a tomorrow and it's going to be even better than today.

Celebrate with one eye on what God is doing now and that there are things that are still not done and one eye on the pattern that he has set for the future and guaranteed with the resurrection of Jesus. Party like there is a tomorrow and it's better than today. I'm going to pray. I'm going to give you a moment to reflect in your hearts. Then we're going to get on with celebrating. All right?

Father, thank you for your Son who died for our sins, who rose to bring us new life. Lord, I pray that if that is true, that you would help us to believe it. I pray that if that is true, that you would help us to live as if it matters, and I pray that if that is true, you would help us to celebrate today and tomorrow and to rejoice as if you will fulfill what you began with Jesus. In His name, Amen.

© 2012, Ian McFadden
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145