"He is Risen"
Easter Sunday 1999
Today we are going to talk about heaven and we are going to talk about eternal life because it is Easter, and because those are the important things to talk about when we come to the resurrection. In the March 29th edition of "Newsweek," we read in an article by Cal Thomas: "..the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought the most of the next. ...all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one." In the same issue, (p.60) Kenneth Woodward writes, "To a world ruled by fate and the whims of capricious gods, Christianity brought the promise of everlasting life." So far so good, I can only imagine how difficult it is for writers like Mr. Woodward to come up with something significant to say about Jesus Christ, year after year, especially with the closure of 2,000 years of Christian influence being so near at hand! I suppose that I should cut him some slack, but I cannot let slide the inference that everlasting life became available for everyone. Itís just not true. The promise of everlasting life only comes to those who believe on, put their trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ. He continues, "..by submitting to death, Jesus destroyed its power." True enough, but Jesus destroyed deathís power because of who He was, because His death was an atoning sacrifice, and because His execution was unjustified. The crucifixion of Jesus was a death outside the general warrant for death as the due recompense for all sinners. "Remember, "the wages of sin are death." Jesusí being sinless makes his execution by Gentiles illegitimate, unjust and unwarranted. Therefore the power of death was broken as the spiritual power of the one entitled to pass such a sentence was canceled. Satan, by putting Jesus to death, transgressed the bounds of heaven and compromised death as a just penalty for sin. He could no longer rule as the accuser of the brethren, or as the adversary of our souls; his reign was over. It is this expanded sense that we can proclaim that the power of death was destroyed.
To say that the power of death is destroyed is a bold thing. Why? Because the world that we inhabit is filled with people who still view death as an end game. People are born, they live, and die. Thatís it. Fineto, there isnít any more. Christians, who have their sights on heaven, do not buy into death as an end game. Instead, they view death as an act of entry. Death is merely a doorway, a port of entry into the life to come. They anticipate eternal life. Now this belief has practical consequences. Woodward cites Rodney Starkís finding of high survival rates for Christians during the Black Death, the plagues that swept the Roman Empire with deadly devastation. The Romans simply threw people out into the streets at the first sign of disease because they knew it was contagious and they feared death. Mr. Stark writes, "But the Christians stayed and nursed the sick. You could only do that if you thought, "So what if I die? I have life eternal." (p.55) Well, one can disagree with the conclusion as being only partial and not disagree with what it asserts: belief in eternal life fortified Christians in a compassionate response to the plague. Belief in life after death fostered courage in the face of risk and danger. . .the same faith led to the establishment of hospices and hospitals. The same faith has enabled many churches to take the lead in caring for the casualties of the AIDS epidemic in our own day.
Christians also believe that we are here to serve a higher purpose than mere personal survival. They do not believe that we are here to sustain a level of comfort, or a conspicuous lifestyle of consumption. Life is more than what we eat, and what we wear. Life is having a love relationship with Jesus Christ, the One who rose from the dead and whose resurrection makes all the difference in who we are, how we live, and what decisions we make! Biological survival is not the only game in town so historically Christians have played for higher stakes than the fading glory of present worldly power, pomp, empire and fame. If faith requires it, they hold such things in contempt. They are impervious to the bribery of the flesh and the intimidation of those who would oppress them with their godlessness. We believe that our lives serve a higher purpose also because we believe that Jesusí death had meaning, spiritual significance. From the greatest to the least of us, we believe that our deaths can have significance, too. Everyone, who lives a faithful life, and dies, as we all must, has achieved a sort of martyrdom. These persons live and die for Jesus, even if they do not die prematurely or violently, under the press of a disbelieving world to renounce the faith that same world finds nettlesome, disruptive and troubling.
Why wonít Christians just go along? Because they know that to renounce this faith of ours is the supreme betrayal of mankind. It plays into the worldís self-deception that this is all there is, that we are merely animals and not very nice ones at that! The world desperately wants to prove that Christians are no different. Christians who refuse to renounce, to set aside, to side rail their faith sometimes make that refusal in the face of brutal unbelief, often the militant atheism of the Marxist, or humanistic sort. These man-centered ideologies are but another, more recent expression of the over-weaning pride of the flesh, and of misplaced confidence in human capacity.
I have built two bridges to our world. First is the observation of Cal Thomas that if Christians want to be of greatest usefulness to the world, they need to be heavenly minded. The second relates to a victory over death. Mr. Woodwardís position is plainly less orthodox than one might wish, probably this is a function of some ambivalence towards Christianity in general. He wants to defend a popular sense that Christianity is both good and bad, an attitude which keeps Christians available as a scapegoat, or whipping boy for frustrated liberals and leftist politicians. The curious thing is that whatever he cites as an example of bad Christianity, turns out, on closer inspection, not to be Christianity at all! Still it is useful to know that in his sense of things at least Jesusí death is plainly connected to the matter of eternal life.
So, letís walk across those bridges into the world of Scripture, a world which is inseparable from our worlds because of its inter-penetration with our worlds. The world revealed by Scripture is our world in its fullest spiritual significance. That is why the Scriptures speak to every age and every culture without exception.
Matthew 28:1-10 relates for us the conversation of the women with an angel at the tombside in addition to other matter-of-fact details. We learn this was not a private experience: there was an earthquake. Now that is something noticeable and hard to attribute to imagination. The witnesses to this were professional soldiers. The implication is that the women were present for this terrifying moment as well. The stone is rolled back and the tomb is empty. The evidence all confirms what Jesus had foretold and explains why there is no grave for Jesus, making the suggestion of a stolen body appear rather lame. They are, like the soldiers terrified, but unlike the soldiers they are also filled with joy: their Master has risen from the dead, and they rush forward to meet Him as appointed in Galilee. On their way, they meet Him, fall at His feet and worship them. Jesus urges them not to be afraid and repeats the angelís message.
Here in a few brief verses is laid out the foundation of the Christian faith:
This event proves that He is the very Son of God, no mere human figure..a moral teacher, or good man.
1Corinthians 15:1-11 reminds us of the basic Christian proclamation related to our Lordís death and resurrection. Jesus died for our sins, was buried and raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. He thereafter appeared to Peter, the twelve apostles and over five hundred reliable witnesses, then to James, the brother of Jesus, and all the other apostles. There will always be doubters and questioners. Paul wants us to know that we have our faith on sound evidential ground, with many witnesses to the resurrection. Paul builds on this foundation (vv.12-28) our hope for our own resurrection. We will be raised, body and soul together. The Greeks appear to have believed that the soul was the real person, imprisoned in a physical body. But just as Jesus rose bodily, our souls and bodies will be re-united in the resurrection..our bodies will be glorified bodies, however, not merely natural ones. And we shall enjoy eternal life in those new bodies. In vv.35-58, Paul affirms that these bodies will indeed be eternal, they will differ in beauty and glory. We will no longer be subject to the limitations which is subject to the laws of nature... limitations of space, time, energy and mass.
Eternal life, we learn from Isaiah 32:1-20, is quietness and confidence forever (v.17). These terms define true, perfect peace and fruitfulness; things reserved in their fullness for the end times. Some people are turned off by the idea of eternal life because their present lives are marred with misery. Eternal life will embody none of this; it will be Godís own life present in us... no death, sickness, evil or sin! (John 3:16.) Eternal life begins in this life("Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." John 17:3.), indeed, it begins the moment we profess belief in Jesus Christ. "Now we know if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God.... not will have, but presently possess.... an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands." (2 Corinthians 5:1.) Furthermore, it is a gift. "And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life." (1John 5:11-12.)
It is a powerful thing to know, to really know that you have eternal life.. it delivers you from the fear of death, and it delivers you from those who would use the fear of death to control, manipulate and degrade you. Simple Christian faith is an awesome thing to those who trust in horses and chariots, the engines of war and the power of the state. It is indomitable, unconquerable, unsubduable, and irrepressible! Having settled the major issues of life, death and resurrection, it confronts the minor challenges of living this life with freshness, courage and vigor. It is the downfall of all tyranny and injustice. It is hated by all who, exalting themselves, would be your gods and loved by those who, knowing the truth and exalting God, look to heaven not as an escape but as the promised destination of faithful pilgrim.
If you do not have this faith, may the Lord of Easter bring it to you. Amen.