St Michael’s and St Barnabas 5th Sept 2010
Reading – 1 Corinthians 15:50-58
This morning we are reaching the end of our sermon series on the creed. Over the past few weeks we have been looking step by step at the basics of the Christian faith and we have considered why they are so important to us today. My aim all the way along has been to show that the creed is not just an academic exercise, or an interesting piece of liturgy, but a bold declaration that should have a direct and practical bearing on our lives day by day. And so, as we’ve gone along, I hope, for example, you have reflected on what it means to say I believe in the communion of saints and thought how deeply you share your life with your fellow church members here at St Barnabas and St Michael’s. Or, to pick up the theme of last week’s sermon, that you have considered how far you are forgiving and loving towards other people in the busyness of each week. Because if we think of the creed simply as some words that we say each week to show we really are good, proper Anglicans, then we have missed the point. Actually the creed is a radical agenda for action. It reminds us of the wonderful truths of the gospel that should turn our lives upside down and radically affect our values, our priorities, our perspective.
And nowhere is this more the case than in the final statement of the creed this morning I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. For it is a bold declaration of hope, that is utterly unique to the Christian faith, which ought to shape and mould all our thoughts, all our decisions and all our choices.
I wonder how many of us can remember a time when you were promised something you really, really wanted for Christmas – maybe a new bike or a watch or a puppy. Do you remember the feeling of anticipation, the sense of waking each morning, checking to see what day it was, trying to be on your best behaviour so you wouldn’t lose out on your present? You see, what you hope for affects what you think about, how you conduct yourself, even what you talk about with your friends and families. Now that may only a small example, but shouldn’t it be exactly the same for us as we proclaim our faith in the resurrection and the life everlasting?
Of course, I am sure there are probably a few people here who can remember waking up early on Christmas Day only to be disappointed. The new bike you thought were promised didn’t turn up after all, or it was second-hand, or it was pink and only had 5 gears and you wanted the all-new purple model with 10 gears, and extra special mudguards. And I just wonder if sometimes in our heart of hearts we think that about the hope that it is ours in Christ. Of course we want to believe it’s true, but when we wake up and face the real world, isn’t it just a piece of wishful thinking? After all, there are plenty of people around us who tell us that our faith is just pie in the sky, that it’s just a sort of comfort blanket to those who happen to be religious. It would of course be nice to believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting, but let’s get real – this is the 21st century, the age of science and technology, of hard facts and data. How on earth can we maintain this belief in face of all the evidence to the contrary?
Well, I cannot of course stand up and give a scientific proof of our faith. After all as the writer to the Hebrews reminds us faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. But it doesn’t mean that as one child once said in Sunday School that “faith is believing in things you know aren’t true”. Because in point of fact our faith rests on a real, historical event which has been researched exhaustively over the past 2000 years and stood up to every critical examination. And that event is, of course, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It was Sherlock Holmes who once said when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. And indeed over the years all kinds of people have tried to come up with all kinds of alternative theories to explain what happened to the body of Jesus of Nazareth in AD 33, but however plausible they might appear at first sight, in the end all of them turn out to be utterly impossible.
For example, the disciples made the whole story up. Well, that’s a common claim, but the evidence doesn’t really stack up. People aren’t prepared generally to suffer death, persecution and torture like the first Christians for a cause they know isn’t true. The story of the early church is one of extraordinary boldness, and something else has to explain their change of attitude, from utter despondency and dejection, to radiant and radical joy. And of course, if the disciples had simply made the whole story up, the authorities would have produced the body. If they had the opportunity, they would most certainly have shown the world that Jesus really was dead.
Or how about the idea that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross? That fails on so many counts. The Romans were professional executioners. They made sure Jesus was dead all right. And could a seriously injured man with broken legs roll back the stone, overcome the guards and then persuade his followers he had risen from the dead? It all seems highly unlikely.
Or maybe The disciples went to the wrong tomb? If they did, then again the authorities would have been able to produce the body. It wasn’t after all as if Jesus was buried in a pauper’s grave or cemetery. He was buried in the tomb of Joseph Arimathea, and its location was well-known.
And there are other theories as well. The disciples stole the body, for example, which is simply a variation on the idea that they were not telling the truth. Or the authorities hid the body – why? The more you consider all these theories, however attractive, the more you realise they fail to hold water.
There is, at the end of the day, only one real explanation for the empty tomb – no matter how improbable it may seem – that Jesus really did rise from the dead, or to be more accurate, that God raised Him up to new life. But then again if we take the teaching of Jesus seriously, this conclusion should not surprise us. Because Jesus predicted time after time that this was what going to happen, even if His disciples did not understand what He was saying.
And it is, by the way, important to note that these predictions of Jesus knock on the head the popular idea you can treat Him just as a good teacher whose life ended in the tragic death of a martyr on the cross. You would have to rewrite the gospels to remove all the references Jesus made to His death and resurrection, to remove the ending, and delete most quotations from Old Testament prophecy. You might end up with a collection of wise sayings, but you would not have a life-changing gospel that could go on to form the basis of a major world faith.
No, when all’s said and done, there is really only one explanation for what happened – that as we saw in the creed a few weeks back he was crucified, died and was buried; he descended to the dead and on the third day he rose again. So what difference does all this make to us?
First of all, the resurrection of Jesus provides the proof of our own bodily resurrection. That is the whole cut and thrust of Paul’s argument earlier in 1 Corinthians 15, which concludes in verse 20 with these wonderful words: But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. Although we may not understand how exactly we will be raised, or even when, we can have the confidence to know that just as our Heavenly Father raised the Lord Jesus from the dead, so one day He will raise us. Because although as Paul reminds us in verse 54 the time hasn’t yet come when the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory” the ultimate power of death to destroy has been cancelled through Jesus’ death on the cross.
This isn’t of course to say that death no longer has a real sting. I expect there are few if any of us who haven’t experienced the heartache and grief that death brings. But – and this is the point Paul is making here – the sting of death to interrupt and to end our relationship with God has thanks to Jesus been broken once and for all. As he says in verses 56-57: The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
You see, on whatever day when we stand before the judgement seat of God, death will no longer be able to read out a charge sheet listing all the times we have broken the law and commandments of God. Of course we will have to answer for those times when we failed to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves. But instead of condemnation, instead of being led out to ultimate and eternal separation from God, Jesus will intercede on our behalf and say: It’s OK. I paid the price for you. Welcome home. And with our hearts full of worship and praise we will say goodbye to aching limbs and tired bodies and clothe ourselves with the immortal and the imperishable as we come before the throne of God.
It’s little wonder that Christians across the ages have responded to this prospect with songs of adoration. One of my favourite hymns is by the 19th century hymn-writer, Robert Murray M’Cheyne – it can be sung to the tune of Rock of Ages.
When this passing world is done
When has sunk yon glorious sun
When we stand with Christ on high
Looking o’er life’s history
Then Lord, shall I fully know
Not till then how much I owe
When I stand before the throne
Dress’d in beauty not my own
When I see Thee as Thou art
Look Thee with unsinning heart
Then Lord, shall I fully know
Not till then how much I owe
When the praise of heaven I hear
Loud as thunders to the ear
Loud as many waters noise
Sweet as harps melodious voice
Then Lord shall I fully know
Not till then how much I owe
Chosen not for good in me
Waken’d up from wrath to flee
Hidden in the Saviour’s side
By the Spirit sanctified
Teach me Lord, on earth to show
By my love how much I owe
And the ending of this hymn leads me on to my second point this morning: that the resurrection of Jesus provides a purpose to what we do know. Because if we believe one day we will be raised with Him, then we know that whatever we do in Jesus’ name is of lasting and eternal value. That’s why after all these glorious words about the resurrection Paul ends with this very practical, down to earth conclusion: Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.
The trouble is, if we’re honest, we can see all kinds of apparently more important things to do than give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord. Now don’t get me wrong – Paul isn’t saying we shouldn’t worry about providing for our family, or keeping up our home, or making sure we do the best we can at work. After all, all these things can in their own way represent good and effective labour in the Lord. But if we really understood Paul’s teaching, we would have a radically different perspective to the way we look at life. We would give God the first 10% of what we have, instead of the change left over in our wallet. We would make our quiet time with God each day a fixed appointment instead of something we might do if we had the time. We would seek fellowship with other Christians as a priority rather something we might do if we don’t have a better offer. Because we would see that tithing, prayer, reading the Bible, worship are all preparations to live with Christ in eternity and that nothing could ever be more valuable.
I guess that in theory most of us realise this. But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of everyday life, there’s just so much that seems to come in the way of us spending time with God. Cooking, cleaning the house, doing the garden…the list goes on and on. Now it may surprise you to learn that I am not advocating that we stop doing those things and, for example, go to church instead. Instead I believe a more faithful, authentic Biblical model of church is that we spend time in fellowship with one another, and then we help one another with the things that need to be done. We provide meals for one another, we help those who need help with the cleaning, we maybe set up a taskforce to dig gardens and mow lawns. Because it is actually in the practical, loving acts of service that we show most clearly that we are the body of the risen Lord Jesus.
Now to get this level of sharing, to actually be a church where we truly care for each other’s needs may well require a radical change of attitude. It will involve building deeper levels of trust, and really investing time getting to know our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. But it will be an investment well worth it. For in the end our basic mission as Christians is quite simply to provide proof to the watching world that Jesus is risen.
And how do we do this? Well, maybe fifty years ago we might have had some success handing out tracts to prove the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. Folk might well have read them, and some indeed might well have come to faith. But in today’s world people want to know not only that the Christian faith is true, but also that it is real. And so – and this is the conclusion to our whole sermon series on the creed – they are less interested in the words that we say, as in the things that we do. They want to see evidence of lives transformed, of a different quality of being, of a real Christlike love that is full of care and compassion.
So are you up for the challenge? Will you let the creed shape and mould your life and the life of this church? Or are you content for it to be a nice piece of liturgy that at the end of the day isn’t that important? How prepared are you to give yourself to labour in the Lord knowing that your labour is of eternal and infinite significance in God’s sight?
Read – Ephesians 1:15-23