It is Resurrection Sunday. The pivot point of hope for the world. On Friday the hopes of all of those who had listened to Jesus, followed Jesus, and were convinced that He had to be the One–their hopes were crushed as He hung lifeless and bloody on the cross. Then came Sunday and an early morning visit to Jesus’ tomb by the women changed everything. Mary Magdalene and the women were weeping at the empty tomb thinking someone had stolen His body, when Jesus spoke Mary’s name. He told her to go and tell the disciples and 2000 years later His followers are still telling others that Jesus has risen! He is alive! Everything changed on a Sunday morning. Hope blossomed on a Sunday morning.
The resurrection of Jesus is not only the pivot point of hope for the world, but it is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Every year, in the build up to Resurrection Sunday, we hear news that the number of Jesus’ followers who believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus is on the decline. George Barna wrote about the findings in a poll conducted about the meaning of Easter: He wrote, “The results indicated that most Americans consider Easter to be a religious holiday, but fewer identify the resurrection of Jesus as the underlying meaning.” More and more Christians are believing that it is important to understand Jesus’ resurrection in more of a metaphorical way, full of symbolism for all people, instead of believing in the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus.
This past week I was reading an interview that took place in 2009 with the late Christopher Hitchens, the well known atheist who wrote, God is Not Great. He was interviewed by a pastor in Portland, Oregon named Marilyn Sewell. During the interview, Pastor Sewell let Hitchens know that she didn’t believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus or that Jesus made atonement for our sins. She said,
The way I believe in the resurrection is I believe that one can go from a death in this life, in the sense of being dead to the world and dead to other people, and can be resurrected to new life. When I preach about Easter and the resurrection, it’s in a metaphorical sense. (Rev. Marilyn Sewell)
Now, for those of you who don’t know anything about Christopher Hitchens, you need to know that before he died in December of 2011, he was THE leader of the atheist’s ambition to turn everyone away from the God he didn’t believe in and to discredit the One he called, “the so-called Jesus of Nazareth.” Yet, when Hitchens heard the pastor say she didn’t believe in Jesus’ atonement for our sins and that she believed Jesus’ resurrection was symbolic, but not literal, he said,
I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian. (Christopher Hitchens, Portland Monthly. December 17, 2009)
You know we are living in an upside down world when God has to use an atheist to remind people of what it means to truly be a follower of Jesus. There are things about being a follower of Jesus that we can talk about, even agree to disagree on, but there is no discussion about the importance of Jesus’ resurrection. In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, he went so far as to say that his preaching and the faith of all who believed was useless if Jesus had not been raised from the dead. Turn to 1 Corinthians 15 with me and let me show you what Paul wrote.
14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. 20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:14-22 NIVO)
If Jesus has not been raised from the dead then Paul’s preaching and every sermon that has ever been shared throughout history is utter nonsense, utter foolishness. If Jesus has not been raised from the dead then Christopher Hitchens and every atheist is absolutely right–this life is all there is, there is no hope beyond the here and now, we die and we are forgotten in time. Worst of all, if Jesus has not been raised from the dead then we are still in our sins. We are still separated from God with no hope of forgiveness and no hope of reconciliation with the One who made us.
Paul says, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead…” And because God raised Jesus from the dead there is purpose in the here and now. Because God raised Jesus from the dead there is forgiveness made available for all who will believe because Jesus has paid the price for our sins. Because God has raised Jesus from the dead there is hope for all of eternity, there is reconciliation with the God who made us, and there is a glorious future beyond our last breath in this life in that place where there is no suffering, no sorrow, and where God wipes every tear from every eye.
Somebody is thinking, “I really would like to believe that, but it’s just too much…Dead people don’t come back to life.” I want you to know that I understand your skepticism, I’ve been there myself. What was it that helped me turn the corner and become a believer, a follower of the Risen Jesus? Well, I’m so glad you asked.
There were several things, but I only want to share two with you this morning. First, for me, the eyewitness accounts that are shared with us in God’s Word are so powerful. Before I share them with you let me first turn our attention to a present day example. If there is a traffic accident or a crime reported, the police want to try and get as close to the moment as they can in writing their report. They don’t want second or third hand information, they want to talk to those who were at the scene of the accident. They want to sit down with those who witnessed the crime. Eyewitness accounts are invaluable testimony in a court of law. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all list names of those who saw Jesus after He had been raised from the dead. Paul, in 1 Corinthians, gives us a great list of the witnesses. Turn with me to 1 Corinthians 15:3 and let’s read together.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (1 Corinthians 15:3-9 NIVO)
Peter, Jesus’ other disciples–Thomas, Matthew, John, James, Bartholomew, Andrew and the others all saw Jesus. Paul says more than 500 people at the same time saw Jesus. James, the brother of Jesus, who never believed in Jesus while He was alive, saw his brother after His resurrection. And then Jesus appeared to Paul, on the road to Damascus. There’s another eyewitness that we need to get in our report this morning because his testimony is so valuable. His name is Cleopas.
We learn about Cleopas and his buddy in Luke 24. They were leaving Jerusalem on a Sunday morning and walking to Emmaus, a long walk of about seven miles. They were talking about everything that had happened in Jerusalem during the past couple of days when a stranger joined them on the road. The stranger, who was really Jesus, asked them, “What are you guys talking about?” Luke tells us their heads were hanging down and they both looked like they had lost their last friend. Then Cleopas spoke up. Turn to Luke 24:18 with me.
18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 “What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. (Luke 24:18-21 NIV)
Did you hear that? Cleopas said, “…we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” They had hoped, past tense, but it was the third day since Jesus had died and their hopes were long gone. That’s why they were looking so dejected, why they were so filled with despair.
As they walked and talked Luke tells us Jesus began with Moses, then He shared what was written in the Prophets about Himself and why the things which had happened had to happen. They still didn’t get it. They still didn’t know it was Jesus who was with them.
They stopped for the night. We read that they ate together. Jesus took bread, He blessed it and broke it, and then their eyes were opened and Luke tells us,
31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” 33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” (Luke 24:31-34 NIV)
Cleopas and his buddy had no idea, they couldn’t even conceive of the thought that Jesus might be alive, not until their eyes were opened and then they went and told the disciples, “It’s true! The Lord has risen…”
In a court of law eyewitness accounts are invaluable. Cleopas and his friend saw Jesus! The disciples saw Jesus! Mary Magdalene and the other women who visited Jesus’ tomb early on Sunday were the first people to see Jesus after His resurrection. If you are a skeptic like I was then you have to stop and consider the testimonies of those who said, “It’s true! The Lord has risen!”
I told you there are two things that transformed me from a skeptic who had no interest in Jesus to a follower of Jesus. The clincher for me was the radical transformation of the lives of those who said they had seen Jesus. They had loved Jesus, chosen to follow Jesus, but when Jesus was crucified, every single one of them believed it was over.
John tells that on Sunday evening all of the disciples were “sheltered in place.” They weren’t afraid of a virus, but they were afraid that those who had killed Jesus would now come for them. John tells us,
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” (John 20:19 NIV)
And those who feared for their lives became fearless. Those who had struggled to find meaning and purpose in life on Saturday found a new joy, a new passion, and a new purpose which would overwhelm them for the rest of their days. What was their new purpose? It was to carry the Good News of Jesus to the whole world! Everybody needed to hear the good news about Jesus. There are so many examples I could share with you, but I’ll just share two. I mentioned James, the brother of Jesus, as one of the eyewitnesses. James is such an amazing example of the transformation that took place because of Jesus’ resurrection. James never believed a word his brother said while Jesus was alive, but after the resurrection everything changed for James. James became a follower of Jesus. He became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. James would eventually be killed because of his conviction that Jesus was who He said He was.
James’ love for Jesus and his passion to share the good news of salvation that comes through believing in Jesus was so influential that we are told many of the rulers in Jerusalem became followers of Jesus. James was asked by some of the leaders to stand at the pinnacle of the temple at Passover and persuade people not to believe in Jesus, but James did the opposite. The people down below began to shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” The leaders pushed James off the pinnacle. He was broken, but the fall didn’t kill him. He began to pray out loud, “Lord God, our Father, forgive them! They do not know what they are doing.” The skeptical brother was willing to die instead of denying that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, the Savior of all of those who will believe.
There’s probably no greater story of transformation than the story of Paul. Paul was a Pharisee, the most violent opponent of Jesus’ followers. He was there, giving his approval, when Stephen was stoned to death because of his love and devotion to Jesus. Then everything changed as Paul was on his way to Damascus to arrest the followers of Jesus. Jesus confronted Paul on the road to Damascus and his life would never be the same again. Paul wrote to Timothy and shared his testimony with the young preacher. Turn with me to 1 Timothy 1:13. Paul wrote,
13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners– of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:13-16 NIV)
He traveled over land and sea to share the Good News of Jesus. He was beaten and left for dead because he would not stop telling others about Jesus. He was imprisoned, but instead of seeing the prison bars as an interruption, he saw the inmates as his new congregation…so he told them about Jesus. Paul said he had been a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man, but God had shown him grace. Why would God do such a thing for a guy like Paul? Paul said God had shown him grace so that you and me, regardless of how bad we’ve been, regardless of what we’ve done or failed to do, we might know that if God loved Paul, He loves us as well. God’s grace is not for those who think they are doing well, God’s grace is not for those who believe they are pretty good, but God’s grace is for those who know they’ve blown it, those who know they don’t deserve it, and could never earn it.
I could fill the rest of your week with stories of the lives of those who’ve been changed by the grace and mercy of Jesus. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Billy Graham, as well as men and women all over the world, in every nation, and in every generation. And here’s the good news…Jesus is still changing lives today. He wants to change your life. He can change your life just like He changed the life of a friend of mine this past week.
This past Wednesday in the middle of a pandemic, while everyone was locked down, sheltered in place, and schools and businesses were closed…Jesus was at work. I got a phone call. There was no name, just a number, and I don’t normally answer those calls because you know how telemarketers are, but I answered the call. The man on the other end of the phone was David Gentile. I had met David twelve years ago and given him my number. He began to tell me his story and we made arrangements to meet at BCC that afternoon.
I learned that David was 73 years old. He’s a Vietnam veteran who saw all but a handful of men in his platoon killed while in Vietnam. David suffers from PTSD to this day. David has lived and worked in the shadows for much of his life. He told me, “God has been after me for years and I’ve been running for years, but it’s time to stop running. I want to give my life to Christ and be baptized.” We read Romans 6 together and talked about what it means to be baptized, to be buried in the watery grave and raised to newness of life in Christ. David was locked in–he couldn’t have made it more clear that he wanted to live his life for Christ. I asked David when he would like to be baptized and he said, “Now.” I told David that if he was baptized today, on Wednesday, it wouldn’t give the heater time to warm up the water, but he didn’t care. He wanted to be baptized.
We walked down into the cold water and I asked David, “Do you believe that Jesus the Christ the Son of the Living God? Do you accept Him as your Lord and Savior?” How about instead of me telling you the story, I just show you the video of what happened.
Video of David’s baptism.
And people wondered if Easter would be cancelled this year? We may be “sheltered in place,” but Jesus is on the move my friend and He is still changing lives today. During the past few weeks we’ve heard so many stories of death on the evening news. We see the pictures of those who’ve died on the evening news. They show us the death totals for the day, each and every day, but David’s story is a story of life, new life in Christ. And you can know what it is like to experience the new life, the abundant life that only Jesus can give this very morning.
I believe there are other David’s who are watching this morning. You’ve been running from God for so long. It’s time. You know in your heart it’s time. It’s time to stop running and fall into His arms of grace and mercy. It’s time to hand the keys of your heart to Jesus and allow His grace and mercy to do what only He can in your life. You might be thinking, “You don’t know what I’ve done.” I don’t, but He does, and He couldn’t love you more. Won’t you pray with me right now and tell Jesus you want Him to take over, to be your Lord and Savior?
Britton Christian Church
April 12, 2020
1 Corinthians 15