Raising Faith from the Dead
Scriptures: Luke 24:1-11, John 20:11-18
By all rights the Christian faith should not have survived
Jesus' death. This is not the case with other religions. Most great world religions have had no trouble surviving the death of their founder. Confucius, Buddha, and Mohammed were all considered great teachers or prophets, which meant that their followers could hold on to their teachings even after they died. It is somewhat like the Theory of Relativity. Albert Einstein may have originated the Theory of Relativity, but the Theory of Relativity does not depend on Albert Einstein. It is valid whether Einstein is alive or not.
Not so with Christianity. The disciples did not follow
Jesus only because of his teaching. They were impressed by his teaching, but what amazed them was the authority he claimed for himself. One time they were out on the Sea of Galilee in a storm, and Jesus said to the wind and the waves, "Stop!" And they did. And the disciples said to each other, "Who is this that the wind and the sea obey him?" That is not something Confucius would have done, nor Buddha, nor Mohammed.
A better example: On several occasions Jesus claimed the
authority to forgive sins. Confucius, Buddha, and Mohammed never claimed the authority to forgive sins. They talked about atoning for sins. They taught people to ask God for forgiveness, but they never claimed to have authority on their own to forgive sins. But Jesus did. And when asked if he was the Messiah, the Son of living God, he said, "I am." That is not something Confucius would have said, nor Buddha, and certainly not Mohammed.
It was not the wisdom or insight of Jesus' teaching that
caused people to follow him. They followed him because of who he was. They believed him to be the Messiah, the Christ, God's chosen king to bring God's righteousness and peace to the world. That belief should not have survived the crucifixion.
As some of you may know, Jesus was not the only person who ever
claimed to be the Messiah. In 132 A. D. a man named Simon Bar Kokba led a Jewish revolt against the Romans. At first he had so much success he proclaimed himself to be the Messiah and attracted thousands of followers. Three years later he was killed, and overnight his movement vanished. How many of you today have heard of Simon Bar Kokba?
By all rights that's what should have happened to Jesus. When Jesus
died on that cross, all faith in him should have been shattered.
And in fact it was shattered. You can see this in both scripture
readings. In Luke 24 the disciples are told about the resurrection, and verse 11 says, "These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them." In our second scripture reading Mary goes to the tomb, finds it empty, and assumes that someone has taken away the body. It never occurs to her that Jesus is risen from the dead. Even when she sees him, she mistakes him for the gardener. When Jesus died on the cross, all the hopes of his followers died with him.
And then, somehow, they were reborn. Somehow this discouraged,
disillusioned group of disciples became the most fearless missionaries the world had ever seen. One minute they were puzzling over an empty tomb and the next minute they were preaching courageously all over the Mediterranean.
Whatever scholars may say about what is historical or not historical
in the Bible, there are two indisputable facts of history. One is that Jesus died, and the other is that his followers continued to believe in him. And they believed not just that he was a great teacher, not just that he was a great prophet, not just that he was a wise sage, but that he was the Risen Lord, the promised king, the Messiah, who would bring God's righteousness and peace to the world.
I once read a story about a man's first visit to the Grand Canyon in
Arizona. He came up to the rail, looked down into the gorge, and said, "Hmm. Something must have happened here."
Something happened between Good Friday and Pentecost. That something
is Easter. The disciples did not believe in Jesus because they liked his teaching or his politics; the believed in him because they met him risen from the dead. It was not his principles but his presence-his living presence-that changed their lives forever.
As some of you may have guessed from previous sermons, my all-time
favorite writer is C. S. Lewis, the Oxford professor who later in life became a Christian. One thing I like about C. S. Lewis is that his conversion was not sudden and dramatic, but gradual and persistent. He did not find Jesus after hitting bottom with drugs and alcohol. He had no near death experience or personal crisis. He was a successful scholar at a prestigious school, living a quite contented life, until Someone greater than himself began messing with him.
He describes what happened in his autobiography called Surprised by
Joy, which you can get from our church library when I return it. As the title indicates, Jesus took him by surprise, like Mary Magdalene on that first Easter morning. He felt pursued by something greater than academics, greater than his successful career, greater than his comfortable life. He began to recognize that he was put here by Someone (with a capital "S"), that he was responsible to Someone (with a capital "S"), that he was wanted by Someone (with a capital "S"), and that he would not be at peace until he responded.
One reason I like C. S. Lewis is because his story, minus the
successful academic career, is somewhat like mine. I never went through alcoholism, drug abuse, or a near death experience, I just felt myself called to serve Someone bigger than myself. I realized I was put here by Someone (with a capital "S"), and that I was responsible to Someone (with a capital "S"). And then I realized that Someone was Jesus. The very person who demonstrated the authority and power of God in his teaching and healing and forgiving was the same person who willingly gave his life for us on a cross. When I discovered that, I realized how loved I was and how deeply I was wanted.
Near the end of his autobiography Lewis describes what might be called
the night of his conversion, the night of his encounter with the Risen Christ. I should add that C. S. Lewis was not anxious to become a Christian. He suspected, rightfully it turns out, that following Jesus might disturb his comfortable life. But that's the thing about a Risen Lord. He is not an object of study but a person who is seeking you out. I think that is a crucial difference between the Christian faith and other religions. At the heart of Christianity is not a set of laws to follow or teachings to study; at the heart of Christianity is a person who is seeking you out. C. S. Lewis writes,
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen [I find it ironic that C. S. Lewis encountered the risen Jesus at a college of Oxford called Magdalen] night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. . In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing: the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape (pp. 228-229).
It was not logic that made C. S. Lewis a Christian, it was the persistent love of the risen Christ still calling our name 21 centuries after Mary Magdalene.