April 20, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
YOU EXPECT ME TO BELIEVE THAT?
I Corinthians 15:12-20
Nine-year-old Joey was asked what he had learned in Sunday school. He said, “Well, Mom, it was pretty cool. We learned how Moses rescued his people from Egypt.”
She asked if he remembered the story. He said, “Sure. It was like this. When they got to the Red Sea, Moses had his engineers build a pontoon bridge so they could all get across safely. Then he used his secure satellite link to call in some F-22 Raptors. They flew in, locked their laser guided missiles on the bridge, and demolished it before the Egyptian army could go across.”
She said, “Now, Joey, is that really what your Sunday school teacher taught you!?”
“Well, no Mom. But if I told you what the teacher really taught us you would never believe it.”
There’s a lot in the Bible that is hard to believe. Including the part about the resurrection of Jesus. And there are a lot of Easter sermons that are written so as not to offend those who have a hard time believing that it really happened. Lots of sermons will be preached today about hope and new life and that there are no limits to what God can do. Nothing wrong with any of that. Easter does proclaim all that and more. But many of these sermons will carefully tiptoe around what the Bible clearly says — that Jesus actually died and actually came back to life.
Paul has a hard time with believers who are selective in what they believe. Apparently some in that favorite church of his in Corinth were saying that there is no such thing as the resurrection. You die and you are dead. That’s it. Apparently they found some ingenious way to still call themselves Christians without believing in the resurrection. And Paul will have none of it. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins . . . If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
I’ve never preached an Easter sermon like this one before. I’ve never before taken the time to present the evidence, step by step, pro and con, to make the case that the resurrection really did happen. Even if you’re not a Christian, or you’re not sure if you are a Christian, or you’re pretty sure you’re the kind of a Christian that can believe in Jesus without believing in the resurrection, I challenge you to listen today with an open mind and reach your own conclusions.
I’m going to be making four points. One more than the typical three-point sermon. After all, this is Easter. Everything is bigger and better on Easter.
First, Jesus really died. That sounds obvious, and it is. But it’s important. The “swoon theory” has been around for a long time. It suggests that Jesus just appeared to be dead when he was taken down from the cross. He basically had fainted. That’s what “swoon” means. But once he got some fresh air and maybe some smelling salts, he revived. So this theory says that the resurrection is false because Jesus didn’t really die on the cross.
How do we know Jesus was really dead? As it turns out, the death of Jesus is not at all controversial among scholars in the field. Even among non-Christian scholars. When you study ancient history, you are lucky to have two independent sources to confirm a fact. But when it comes to the death of Jesus, we have not only the multiple sources in the Bible but we also have five ancient sources outside the Bible. Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, Mara bar Serapion, and the Jewish Talmud. They all agree that Jesus was put to death.
There is a New Testament scholar living today named Gerd Ludemann. He’s an authority on the Bible who doesn’t believe in the Bible. He doesn’t believe in the resurrection. He is an atheist. But here’s his conclusion about the crucifixion: “Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.” There are very few things in ancient history that any scholar would say are indisputable. The death of Jesus is one of them. So he really did die.
Second, we have early reports that Jesus rose from the dead. Emphasis on “early”. Why is this important? Because another common claim is that belief in the resurrection is just a legend. Many years after Jesus died people started claiming that he had come back to life. But they conveniently waited long enough it wasn’t possible to prove them wrong. There were no more eyewitnesses. There was no more hard evidence. So the resurrection is not history. It’s made up. It’s a legend.
Here are the facts. We have preserved for us a creed of the early church. This creed tells us what Christians believed a short time after Jesus died. We find this creed in I Corinthians 15:3-7.
That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time . . . Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
We know Paul wrote this around AD 54 or 55. This would have been about 25 years after the crucifixion. But the creed itself has to be older than that. Paul says he is giving to them what he had already received himself (15:3). When did he receive it?
Paul’s conversion to Christianity came one to three years after the crucifixion. He may well have received this creed then. While he was resting in Damascus as his eyesight returned. Or he may have received it during the 15 days he spent in Jerusalem with Peter and the other disciples about three years later (Galatians 1:18-19). So it’s possible, even likely, that this creed that says Jesus rose from the dead was formulated very soon after the actual event. That would make it a news flash, not a legend. The New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn said: “This creed we can be entirely confident was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus’ death.”
Even if he’s wrong, even if it took 25 years, still this would not have been nearly enough time for a legend to form. And it’s not just this one creed. We also have Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts, each of them written too early for a legend to have developed. The practical reason it was too early for a legend is that if the resurrection was just a tall tale made up by people who wanted to believe it, there would have still been people alive who could have called them on it. They would have been happy to do so. So we know Christians were believing in the resurrection early, very early, in the history of the Church.
We have a confirmed death. And we have reports of a resurrection that came so immediately after the event that they cannot be legend. But that’s not all we have. Third, the tomb was empty. We could spend all day on this one. We’re just going to touch briefly on three things that relate to the empty tomb.
First, we have what’s been called “The Jerusalem Factor”. This is simply that everyone in Jerusalem knew where Jesus had been laid to rest. The Christians knew. The enemies of the Christians knew. It was no secret burial place. So if the tomb wasn’t empty someone surely would have said so.
Second, “The Criterion of Embarrassment.” This actually is routinely used by historians to separate fact from fiction. If the writer is reporting something that would be embarrassing to the writer, it’s probably true. When writers shade the truth it’s normally to make themselves look better, not worse.
All four of the Gospel writers report that women were the first ones to discover the empty tomb. What’s embarrassing about this? In that time, in that culture, women were not considered reliable witnesses. You would never put a woman on the witness stand. If you want to find out what really happened, you ask a man. That’s just what they believed. Josephus, the Jewish historian who worked for Rome said, “Let not the testimony of women be admitted.” The Talmud said, “Any evidence which a woman gives is not valid to offer.”
So, if the Gospel writers who reported that the tomb was empty were just making it up, they would have also made up the identities of those who first found the tomb empty. And we can be sure they would have been men. It was an embarrassing detail that would have been included only if it were true that women who could not be trusted were being trusted this one time.
Finally, we have “Enemy Attestation”. What did the enemies of Jesus say? They said the tomb was empty. They agreed with the women! They did not argue this point because there was no point arguing it. What they did was offer an explanation. They said the tomb was empty because the disciples stole the body. It was an explanation that made no sense. The disciples had no motive, no means, and no opportunity to steal the body. But it was the best story they could come up with.
It reminds me of the old “dog ate my homework” story. You don’t have the homework, but what you do have is a creative story about why you don’t have the homework. If you had the homework, you would give it to the teacher. If you don’t have the homework, the best you can do is give the teacher a tall tale. If the enemies of Jesus had the body of Jesus, they would have been able to put an end to Christianity then and there. That would have ended all this talk about a resurrection. But they couldn’t do that. They would have loved to do that, but they couldn’t. The best they could do was come up with a cover story.
The question of history has never been, was the tomb empty? The record shows that everyone agreed on that. The tomb was empty. The question of history has always been, how did the tomb get to be empty? And the only explanation that makes sense is the one we celebrate today. That Jesus rose from the dead.
Fourth, we have eyewitnesses. Lots of them. The Bible tells us that over a period of 50 days Jesus appeared alive in more than a dozen instances to more than 515 people. He appeared to opponents and doubters as well as to believers, to men as well as to women, to groups and to individuals, indoors and outdoors. We have multiple ancient sources, inside and outside the New Testament that document these post-resurrection appearances.
There is so much evidence here that the same atheist scholar we mentioned earlier, Gerd Ludemann, said this: “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.” That’s an atheist talking! Which suggests an obvious question. If he believes that, why is he still an atheist?
Here’s why. Here’s why a lot of people come right to the brink of believing and then back away. There is a loophole. I want to be honest about that. There is a way you can agree with everything we’ve said so far without having to believe that Jesus really came back to life. It’s very popular with skeptics, both inside and outside the Christian faith. It is the belief that those who saw the risen Christ just thought they saw him. They wanted so badly to see him alive that they had hallucinations.
That’s the loophole. And here’s why it really isn’t a loophole. Hallucinations happen to individuals, not to groups. A hallucination is an individual event in an individual mind. For two people to have the same hallucination would be extremely unlikely. It would be about as likely as my wife and me having the same dream at night. That just doesn’t happen. And for 515 people to have the same dream, the same hallucination? That would be a miracle as great as the miracle of the resurrection itself. And even if they did, even if they just saw what they wanted to see and they all just happened to see the same thing, that must mean the real body of Jesus was still in the tomb. And everyone agrees, it wasn’t. So the loophole closes quite quickly.
There is so much more that could be said. I haven’t even touched on the change in the disciples — how they went from cowards to fearless, willing to die for their faith. And at the center of their faith was their absolute certainty that Jesus had come back from the dead. They had seen it for themselves.
I know that’s a lot of information to dish out in a short time. You may feel like you’ve been drinking from a fire hose. And I have just touched on the high points. You can go a lot deeper into the research of this subject and I hope you will. Don’t just read the writers who write what you want to hear. Listen to all arguments on all sides. Weigh them carefully. You will find, if you are not yet convinced, that the evidence for the resurrection is overwhelming.
But that’s not what Easter is all about. It helps to know that what we celebrate is something that really happened and not the greatest hoax in history. That’s a good thing. But the main thing is not that you believe that something happened a long time ago. The main thing is that you receive that same risen, living Jesus into your heart today. We’ve been exercising our heads for the last 20 minutes, but Easter is not primarily about the head. It’s about the heart. It’s about the change that comes to the heart when we invite the Lord Jesus to come in.
He died on that cross and he rose from that tomb for us. Not so that we could be amazed that it really happened and able to answer all the objections from skeptics. That wasn’t his purpose. It wasn’t so we could look back and say, “Wow! that sure was amazing!” It was so we can look forward and say, “Wow! I can’t wait to see what God is going to do next!” It was so we can eagerly claim the future that has now been opened to us. It will be a glorious future. Because Christ is alive. And because we are alive in Christ.
Thank you, God, for Easter. Thank you for what happened on Easter. Thank for the incredible victory you won on that day long ago, a victory that has been celebrated ever since. But most of all, thank you for what can happen and will happen because of Easter. Thank you for the victories yet to be won. Thank you for the confident hope that you will win. And thank you for your call upon our lives, to not just stand on the sidelines and cheer, but to enter the fray. To offer ourselves. To be used, indeed to be used up, for the cause of Christ. And then to know that because he lives, we too shall live eternally with you. Through Christ, our Risen Lord, Amen.