This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Resurrection". See series.
I was talking to a friend the other day. "I know you aren't much of a churchgoer," I said, "but I'd like to invite you to church this Sunday for Easter." "Thanks," he said, "That's very kind of you, but I have a tee time reserved for Sunday morning." I don't quite know what came over me—probably a bad case of self-righteousness, but I said, "The day we celebrate the most important thing that ever happened in human history, and you're going to play golf?!" (I hope he'll still talk to me next time we meet.)
When you really think about it, it is astonishing how lightly people take the commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The fact is, sometimes even we who believe it grow a bit dull to what it means.
All people everywhere have to find a way of making sense of life. That's what religions and philosophies try to do. People look across all the range of human experience and longing, they think about life's big questions and look at the way things are, and they try to find a kind of blanket explanation to lay over all of it. That becomes their religion, their philosophy of life. Everyone tries to do this.
But there are two related historical events—epic, monumental events—that won't fit under any of those blankets: the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the self-proclaimed Son of God, on a Roman cross, and then his literal and bodily resurrection from the grave three days later, never to die again.
What most people who are not Christians do, probably like my golfer friend, is regard those things like they would regard reports of UFOs. Maybe they happened, maybe they didn't; either way, who's to say what they mean?
The Bible says there is no question at all about what these two linked events mean, and what the Bible says they mean is at the very heart and center of the Christian faith. These two events are not historical curiosities or wonders without explanations. These two events were God "breaking and entering" into our world, and they demand meaning. If someone tells you how sure they are of their atheism or their Buddhism or their Judaism, you have the right to say, "Yes, but what do you do with Jesus' deity and death? And what do you do with the historical fact of his resurrection?" Without an explanation—a meaning—their philosophy is not consistent with reality.
In this series we're going to study what one famous writer, J. B. Phillips, called, "the most important chapter in the Bible." It is Paul's explanation of what the resurrection of Jesus Christ means. Let's look at 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.
Paul is about to remind us of Christianity's absolute essence. This is what he was taught as a brand new Christian—what he "received"—and it was what the early Church "received." This was the earliest creed of the Church, day one of Christianity 101, the first words of the baby believer: "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
The bottom line of God's Good News to us
Here's the bottom line of God's Good News to us. Stripped of meaning, the historical fact says that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on a Roman cross. Verse 3 tells us what that means: that the Christ—God's Messiah—died for our sins on that cross. Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah—the Christ, the great delivering King God had long promised Israel. But instead of liberating Israel from the Romans, he was killed—stone cold dead, and was buried like dead people always are. But the significance is that he died as a willing sacrifice, not a helpless victim, to enable God to justly forgive sinners like us and to give us a safe and loving relationship with God as our heavenly Father.
This happened "according to the Scriptures." That's one way we know it is an event that means something. The Bible tells us what Jesus' death means. It is neither a senseless killing nor an event in search of an explanation. God's requirement of a sacrifice for sin is all over the Old Testament, including the explicit promises of Isaiah 53 that "the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." This is the great hope of Christianity. God sent his Son, his Messiah, to die for our sins so we don't have to die for our sins.
Several years ago, Billy Graham was at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, having a brain shunt implanted. "I thought I was dying," he said later. "The doctor wasn't sure whether I was or not, but late at night I knew that that was the end. At least I thought it was. And I prayed and all of a sudden all my sins throughout my life came into my mind. And I asked the Lord to forgive me and I had the greatest peace that I've ever had, and that peace has never left me, because I put it all in the name of Christ." Christianity 101.
The second event that demands meaning is God raising Christ—his Messiah—from the dead, on the third day after he died, never to die again. To begin with, this, too, was "according to the Scriptures." God had long signaled that it would be this way. Not only in a few specific Old Testament references to resurrection, but in all the ways God spoke of his Messiah being a conquering and triumphant King to deliver his people. It's just that no one ever really imagined that his or her national Deliverer would have the nerve to take on death! The Babylonians, maybe, or the Romans, but death?! That was an enemy no one dreamed even God's Messiah could conquer!
The proof that Jesus really died was that he was buried. That's one of the main reasons why his burial is often mentioned in the text. The proof that Jesus rose again is in the multitude of witnesses—people who actually saw, talked with, and ate with the risen Christ, in a variety of settings. In that group were deniers and doubters and the disheartened. And one, Paul, hated Jesus and poured his energies into destroying the early Church. These people weren't any more gullible than you or I, and they all would not only attest to the fact of Jesus' resurrection, but also to its meaning—that Jesus is the Lord of all. Some died rather than recant that.
Do you realize how radical this resurrection was? For one thing, it was not merely resuscitation. It wasn't anything like those accounts we read from time to time of people whose hearts stop beating, or who see themselves leaving their bodies, heading down a white tunnel, only to snap back to life. Those people are still mortal, still dying. Nor was this (if I can put it this way) a mere miracle. I realize there is nothing mere about Jesus walking on water or multiplying loaves or healing someone. But the Resurrection is in a class all by itself. This was a miracle that changed the course of humanity. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, not back to his old life but to a new kind of life, is the single most significant event in human history. That is because it overcame the single greatest limitation on human beings—death. In raising Jesus to new life, God changed the entire meaning of human existence. He completely redefined our word "life." This was the Eighth Day of Creation, the re-creation of a new race of humanity, a race of people who are no longer mortals, but immortals.
Lots of people believe in life after death. At most American funerals, people say that the person is "in a better place." They don't have a shred of evidence, of course, it's just their philosophy—their way of thinking; it is something we want to believe. But Jesus' resurrection from the dead defines life after death. There isn't any other kind of life after death besides that which Jesus initiated. This means several things. First, Jesus' resurrection proves that resurrection to a new kind of life is possible. Now we have a concrete reason for hope. Second, the Resurrection directly ties any hope of living again to Jesus Christ. Eternal life happens his way or it doesn't happen. Third, since the resurrection of Jesus is absolutely linked with the death of Christ for sins, we must take that part of the Good News equally seriously. The Resurrection vindicates Jesus' death—that he was the Christ dying for sins. He must, in fact, be the Savior and Lord he purported to be, and that means we need him and him alone to forgive our sins and give us eternal life. We must put our faith in him!
Jesus' resurrection tells us what a resurrected person is actually like and that there really is a body when we live again. We don't become angels or ethereal spirits. There is no reincarnation. People who put their faith in Jesus will be raised like Jesus and will have bodies like Jesus.
We also learn that a resurrection is not the natural course of things. It isn't the work of "Mother Nature." It is a powerful act of God's will and grace, given to those who trust him for it and not given to others.
Finally, there's this: all people will experience life after death, in a manner of speaking. The Bible says so. Christ's resurrection doesn't accomplish that. It is part of our God-given humanity. What Christ's resurrection offers us is not existence after death, but Life after death—life with God, life no longer toxic with our sin and sorrow, life without weeds and wounds. Without Jesus, it's more like people die forever. It isn't really immortality, but rather everlasting mortality. With Jesus, we really live forever! And the bonus of all this is that this resurrection life starts the moment we put our faith in Christ, not just when we die.
Remember how Paul said that he was the last of the eye witnesses of the risen Christ? He marvels at this not only because he saw Jesus long after he had ascended into heaven, but because he was about the last person on the face of the earth who deserved to see Jesus, given his history.
God's grace offers this Good News to even the worst of sinners.
Paul, the persecutor and murderer of Christians, the hater of Jesus himself, is proof that no one is out of the reach of God's grace. If God would save Paul from his sins, and give Paul the holy honor of serving him, God can surely do it for anyone who believes that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
So Paul concludes in verse 11, "So, then, whether it was I or they [any of the other witnesses], this is what we preach, and this is what you believed." If you are a Christian, don't forget this. This is the heart of your faith.
It was just a year ago, the week after Easter, that Paul B. Gordon wrote a letter to all his employees at Gordon Food Services, a big sprawling company headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Paul was a beloved employer, and he was dying of cancer. In the letter he thanked his people for all their good work and for the support they'd shown him and his family. Then he concluded his letter with this paragraph:
While the outlook for my time here on earth is not long, please rest assured that my outlook for eternity is secure. I do not say that because of anything that I've achieved from an earthly perspective. The only reason I can speak so confidently is because of God's grace. The Bible says that we all fall short of God's standards. I am only made right with God because the penalty that belongs to me was paid by Jesus! That is what the celebration this last Sunday was all about! Jesus conquered sin and death and the grave when he rose from the dead. It is my desire and my prayer that each of you would come to experience that grace and have the same assurance of where you will spend eternity.
Paul Gordon went to be with Jesus on May 6, 2008.
Does your way of looking at the world—your philosophy of life—account for these two incontrovertible historical events: the death of Christ for our sins and his resurrection three days later, never to die again? Would you like to have God, alive and loving, in your life—in your very heart? What better day than Easter to be born again, this time not as a mortal, but as an immortal in the likeness of the risen Christ!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.