Sunday, February 14, 2021

Christus Resurrexit! (Sermon 5B on the Apostles' Creed)

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell.” Thus far have we gotten in the Apostles' Creed up 'til now. We left off with Jesus' body wrapped up and laid to rest on a bench inside an expensive and previously unused tomb – courtesy of a wealthy donor – in an orchard not terribly far from Calvary. The tomb had been sealed with a round stone slab rolled down a slanted groove, coming to rest at the bottom to cover the small entryway, then sealed to keep out animals and grave-robbers. Meanwhile, we left off with Jesus' soul descending into Sheol, the underworld or realm of the dead, where he announced good news to the dead, cornered Satan and Death on their home turf, vanquished and bound them, and plundered both the keys to death's gates and the souls of the righteous. That's where we left things. But Jesus' body and Jesus' soul are separated from each other. That can't be allowed to stand. We need the line that comes next: “On the third day, he rose again from the dead!”

You see, it had long been foretold that death would not be the end of a united Jesus' story. The true Servant of the LORD who was prophesied to be “pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5) was to be “cut off from the land of the living” (Isaiah 53:8) and be buried (Isaiah 53:9). And yet it's after his suffering and after his death and after his burial that Isaiah 53 narrates that “he shall prolong his days” (Isaiah 53:10) and “shall divide the spoil with the strong” (Isaiah 53:12). This figure described by Isaiah would take up Israel's words voiced by Micah: “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise!” (Micah 7:8). He would sum up Israel's hope told by Hosea: “The LORD... has struck us down, and he will bind us up; after two days, he will revive us; on the third day, he will raise us up, that we may live before him” (Hosea 6:1-2). The psalmist spoke for him in thanking God, “My flesh also dwells secure, for you will not abandon my soul to Sheol or let your Holy One see corruption; you make known to me the path of life” (Psalm 16:9-11; cf. Acts 2:27). Jesus himself, knowing these prophecies, had foretold, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31). And Jesus was not wrong! “God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it wasn't possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24)! Now, Hannah's ancient praise had come fully true: “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Samuel 2:6; cf. Deuteronomy 32:39). Just as Israel had been described by Jeremiah as the “firstfruits” of God's harvest from the earth (Jeremiah 2:3), so it made sense for Israel's Messiah to be the “firstfruits” of God's harvest from the underworld (1 Corinthians 15:20). And so we read that “God the Father... raised him from the dead” (Galatians 1:1), but also that Jesus himself said, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again... I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18), because this resurrection is an act of the whole God, the whole Trinity.

So picture the scene. It's been between thirty-six and thirty-nine hours since Jesus stopped his heart on the cross and allowed himself to die and permitted a separation between his human body and his human soul. The soul descended to the underworld, the body was sealed in the tomb. So it was throughout the sabbath. Now Sunday is coming. There's no light at all in the tomb. The heavy stone stops up the way. A contingent of guards stands outside to prevent external meddling with the body. That body is cold. There's no warmth to it. Everything in the tomb is still – the stillness of death. The body is wrapped in linen. Invisibly, angels keep their own anxious watch. They watch with expectation. This dead body is still united to God. It seems like a sick joke upon the universe, that God should be tied to a corpse, even a corpse preserved from the processes of decay. But then, invisibly, Another enters the space of the tomb. The angel observers see, somehow, a soul rising up from Sheol – and this soul, too, is united to God, is fused to the Word that spoke them into being. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit all take action. The soul once more forms the body, gives it shape and activity and life. In that dormant brain, one neuron fires. In an instant, the brain sizzles with activity. The temperature of that cold skin skyrockets with irrepressible energy. The closed eyes flutter open. The lungs take in air. Motion begins. Scarred feet swing over the bench, touch the earth, stand firm. Body and soul are no longer severed in death. Divine glory and human vitality surge together. The Savior of the world is alive! Clothing himself – we know not how or with what – Jesus carefully folds the cloth that had, just moments earlier, covered his inert head, and he sets it on the bench. Whether the angels roll the stone away for his departure or do it only later to evidence the empty chamber to the world, I don't know. But in moments, with the sky still dark, the Lord has vacated the tomb. Death is done for.

As Jesus leaves the tomb, however he leaves and wherever he goes, his body is in some ways the same. It still retains some of its old qualities. When in ordinary space, it's visible and tangible (1 John 1:1; Luke 24:39). It can be touched, poked, prodded. It can be seen, heard, smelled. It's capable of ingesting thiswordly food and drink (Luke 24:41-43; Acts 10:41). It even retains the holes made by nails in his wrists and ankles, by the spear that pierced his side and punctured his heart, and presumably those made by the crown of thorns around his brow and maybe the whip marks on his back (Luke 24:40; John 20:27). And yet his body is in some ways not the same. It operates by unfamiliar physics. It's a heavenly body, belonging to God's new world (1 Corinthians 15:47-49). It's been raised imperishable, glorious, powerful, and fueled by God's own Spirit (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). It's capable of accessing locked rooms (John 20:19, 26). It's immortal and indestructible, and if the wounds bleed anything, it's infinite glory and blessing! And that is very different. This body is beyond need, beyond vulnerability, beyond the world we know. Impassibility, subtlety, agility, clarity – he's got it.

While belonging to another world, the risen Jesus continued to move in the world we do know. And that world, at that time, contained people who were deeply traumatized and scandalized in the wake of his crucifixion. They didn't know what to believe. Their hopes were crushed. It was as if their hearts had been ripped from their chests. They felt ashamed for having invested years in a failed mission, for having gone on record as associates of a false messiah, a mere pretender. They were terrified that they'd soon share his fate, not only being exposed and dying but perhaps even dying under God's curse. They clung to each other because they didn't know where else to turn. Who else would understand? But where to go next, what to do now – that was a mystery.

But then, early Sunday morning, at the break of dawn, a group of at least five female followers – including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Joanna, Salome, and another unnamed woman (Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10) – went to approach the tomb, intending to anoint the body in a mournful funeral rite. But by dawn's early light, they find that the stone has been rolled away (Luke 24:1-3). An intimidating stranger tells them a story about rising and a disappearance (Luke 24:4-7). The women flee, relaying their experiences to the remainder of the Twelve, who largely think the women are hysterical (Luke 24:8-9). But Peter and John go to investigate. John peers in and sees the abandoned grave clothes. Peter bows himself down and enters the tomb. Then John follows him, sees the fuller picture, begins to believe.

Then the appearances begin. At least Mary Magdalene and one of the other women actually see and speak with Jesus (Matthew 28:9-10; cf. John 20:11-18). They cling to his feet, worshipping him. Jesus has to tell Mary not to cling too tightly, because there's more to be done. They go to the Twelve, and Mary declares, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18). After hers, the next recorded appearance that day is to Simon Peter, whose nickname in Aramaic was 'Cephas.' Paul tells us that 'Cephas' was an early individual witness (1 Corinthians 15:5a), and one of the earliest reports from the disciples was that “the Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to Simon” (Luke 24:34). Where Peter was, or what was said, we can only assume to have been a moment of forgiveness. That afternoon, Jesus appears again to two disciples leaving Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus. One of them is Cleopas, whom early tradition suggests was the brother of Joseph. Jesus spends hours with them, teaching and explaining, before finally breaking bread, being recognized, and disappearing in a flash (Luke 24:13-32).

That was suppertime on Sunday night. The pair, forgoing food, immediately hit the road again, hustling their tired feet back to Jerusalem in search of the other disciples. They arrive late Sunday night or early Monday morning, discovering ten of the members of the group known as the Twelve – one, Thomas, being absent elsewhere, and another, Judas, being deceased – along with other followers of Jesus, probably including his mother Mary since she had nowhere to be but with John now (cf. John 19:27). They were in the same Upper Room where the Twelve had eaten a meal with Jesus just three days before. The two from Emmaus must have arrived to find the Twelve talking about Peter's recent experiences. And then, out of seemingly nowhere, Jesus appeared in the room, and the members of the Twelve along with the others saw him (1 Corinthians 15:5b; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23). They were stunned, unsure what to think, wondering if it was a ghost or a shadow or a phantom – but he proved his physical reality to them, and began to teach.

A week went by. The disciples stayed in Jerusalem for the full celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which extended a week beyond Passover and closed with another “solemn assembly” (Deuteronomy 16:8; cf. Exodus 12:14-20). They either remained in Jerusalem a couple extra days beyond it, or began their journey back to Galilee, which would be about a five-day walk. But either in Jerusalem or along the way, Thomas had rejoined the group, but – having seen nothing personally – refused to get his hopes up the way the rest had (John 20:24-25). Eight days after Easter, in a locked room, Jesus again appeared to the Twelve, this time with Thomas included, and removed all doubt – and Thomas recognized him as Lord and God (John 20:26-29).

After Jesus withdrew, the disciples made or continued their journey back to Galilee, where they had been given an appointment to keep to meet Jesus there for a more extended and in-depth visit (Mark 16:7). After finishing the five-day journey, but before the appointed time, Peter decided he wanted to get some fishing in on the Sea of Galilee, and six other disciples – including some of the non-fishermen, like Thomas and Nathanael – joined in. After a night without a catch, that morning they heard a voice call out from someone standing on the shore, from which they were about the length of a football field away. Following his advice, they caught a massive number of fish, John realized it was Jesus, and Peter lunged into the lake and swam to shore while the others rowed behind him – only to find that the risen Lord was cooking them breakfast (John 21:1-14).

Then, at the appointed place in Galilee, Jesus appeared yet again – and not just to the Twelve, not just to those who followed him closely, but to a crowd of over five hundred people (1 Corinthians 15:6; cf. perhaps Matthew 28:16-17). It makes sense: in an open land where thousands could come be fed by the lakeside, it would not have been hard for hundreds to show up to see Jesus, especially if news had scarcely started to reach Galilee that he'd been executed in the first place. Jesus moved among the crowd, showed himself to them, talked with them. And we also hear, after that, of a more one-on-one appearance that Jesus gave to James (1 Corinthians 15:7a), who was known as his brother, a member of his household of earthly origin. James, so far as we can tell, was not a follower of Jesus, nor were other members of the family. Perhaps Mary, returning to Galilee, had told him what happened, but did he believe her? And did Jesus appear to James in Nazareth, at the family home – or was it somewhere else? The Gospels don't tell us the story of how it happened, but an early tradition, which may not be reliable but which is worth mentioning, suggests that James, horrified by Jesus' crucifixion, had begun fasting, vowing not to eat again now that his brother was dead; but then the risen Jesus approached him, broke some bread, and handed it to him while saying, “Brother, eat your bread, for the Son of Man is risen from among those who sleep!”1

Finally, Paul explains that after the appearance to James, Jesus was seen by “all the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:7b). He's not just repeating himself from the Twelve again. This is a bigger group. Earlier, during the years of his ministry, Jesus had commissioned an even bigger group of seventy or seventy-two followers to go and do missionary work in Galilee to prepare the way for him (Luke 10:1). He called them to extend words of peace (Luke 10:5-6), receive simple hospitality (Luke 10:7-8), announce the arrival of the kingdom of God (Luke 10:9b-11), and to demonstrate it by healing the sick (Luke 10:9a) and casting out demons (Luke 10:17-20). It would make sense to describe that whole group of 70 or 72 commissioned missionaries as “all the apostles.” They, too, saw the risen Jesus – as, eventually, would an opposing Pharisee named Saul (1 Corinthians 15:8). As Peter says to the crowds, “This Jesus God raised up – and of that, we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32).

Can we believe their testimony? Can we believe this really happened? Yes! We've already learned why we can confidently believe that God exists. And with that background, other explanations just don't hold up. Think of the core facts that no credible historian can deny. First, Jesus was a traveling teacher in first-century Galilee and Judea whose ministry included actions that his contemporaries understood to be miraculous in nature. Second, during this ministry, Jesus predicted both that it would end in death and that he would then be vindicated by God. Third, Jesus really died, in public view, as a result of being crucified by the local Roman authorities. Fourth, Jesus was buried in a sealed tomb that, shortly thereafter, was discovered to be vacant, and which could not have been opened by human power from the inside. Fifth, a number of Jesus' closest followers then claimed to have seen, heard, and touched Jesus alive after discovering that his body was missing from the tomb – and it could not have been a mass hallucination, since those don't happen, least of all in multiple senses at once. Sixth, even some who were initially outside his group of followers, like James and Paul, claimed to have seen and heard Jesus alive after his death and burial. Seventh, the Gospel accounts of these appearances include details that would have been embarrassing in their society, like the unflattering portrayal of the disciples or like the initial witness by women whose testimony was devalued by law and custom. Eighth, the profundity of these experiences transformed cowardice into considerable courage, ultimately leading many of those who claimed to be eyewitnesses to choose death over recanting their testimony, highlighting their sincerity and conviction. And ninth, where other quickly-expanding religions have often had various earthly advantages like long lives for their charismatic founders, unembarrassing claims, or the assistance of government backing or a military force, Christianity had none of these in its first few centuries and yet saw impressive growth even while under pressure. I can tell you that I've surveyed the guesses that nonbelievers of many stripes have made to try to explain even a few of these facts without admitting that Jesus is risen. They don't hold up. There's only one truly good explanation – and it's that Jesus really did rise from the dead.2 The same body nailed to the cross, the same body buried dead in the tomb, then got up, walked, talked, ate, and inspired awe in eyewitnesses.

But what does it mean to believe this? What difference does it make? It first of all clarifies who God is. To pick the real God out of a lineup, you need just one description: he's the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Before everything else, he's a God of Life, a God of Resurrection. That's the kind of God the true God is. And everything we need to know about him is folded up in what we see in Jesus. Because Jesus is alive! He cannot be confined to Sheol. He cannot be locked away in a tomb. He cannot be quarantined. No, the Word-made-flesh is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus “lives by the power of God” (2 Corinthians 13:4), and with the power of God in his hands, he is vital and engaged. One fourth-century Christian explained that Jesus' work in the world is proof positive that he's not dead any more:

If anyone is dead, he cannot act … Since the Savior still works so many things among human beings..., would anyone still have doubt in their mind whether the resurrection has been accomplished...? … How, if he isn't acting..., does he stop those active and alive so that the adulterer no longer commits adultery, the murderer no longer murders, the unjust no longer grasps greedily, and the impious is henceforth pious? How, if he is not risen but dead, does he stop and drive out and cast down those false gods said by unbelievers to be alive and the demons they worship? For where Christ and his faith are named, there all idolatry is purged away, every deceit of demons refuted, and no demon endures the name … This is not the work of one dead, but of one alive...3

And so Jesus' resurrection powerfully declares his identity. Paul tells us that Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of Holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). This act of God singles out Jesus as special. It vindicates everything he claimed for himself, including his claim to have God for his Father in a unique way, and to be the Divine Son. It makes it possible for Jesus to be king forever, fulfilling God's vow to David. God has raised Jesus from the dead, rewarding him for his life of humble obedience and vindicating him against the judgments of the world that rejected him. Jesus' resurrection, in vindicating Jesus, thereby confirms the whole gospel message. God was and is active in the life of Jesus. God aims through Jesus to rescue the world. God is establishing his kingdom through Jesus. And the destiny God has in mind for the world is to become like what we see already in Jesus Christ.

This sets Jesus apart from everyone else who's ever lived. Great social reformers from history died and stayed put. Mohandas Gandhi died in 1948 and was cremated, and his ashes were dumped in a river or stored in urns. Martin Luther King Jr. died in 1968 and was buried, and his body is still entombed in his national historical park in Atlanta, Georgia. Great philosophers from history died and stayed put. Aristotle died in 322 BC, he was buried somewhere in Greece, and their dust is still part of the soil. Immanuel Kant died in 1804, and his body is still in a mausoleum in Russia. Friedrich Nietzsche died in 1900, and his body is still buried at a church in eastern Germany. The resurrection sets Jesus apart from every religious leader from history. The Buddha died in the fifth century BC and was cremated, and his remaining bone fragments, hair, ashes, and teeth were spread throughout the world. Muhammad died in 632 in Arabia, and his body is still in Medina buried under the Green Dome. And this sets Jesus apart also from every political leader of history. Julius Caesar was stabbed in 44 BC, and his body was cremated on an altar east of the Roman Forum, where a temple was then built for his worship. Charlemagne died in 814 and was buried, and his body is enshrined in a cathedral at Germany's western border. Henry VIII died in 1547 and was buried, and his body is still at Windsor Castle. George Washington died in 1799 and was buried, and his body is still in a vault at Mount Vernon. Abraham Lincoln died in 1865 and was buried, and his body is still under a monument in Illinois. But dig where you will, you will not find Jesus. Jesus has become “the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (Colossians 1:18).

Jesus is preeminent in all respects because he is the Firstborn who conquers Death. He proves that Death does not get veto power over the universe. Death will not always win. “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again: Death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). We're told, in fact, that what Jesus now has is “an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16). God “raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption” (Acts 13:34). As that fourth-century Christian observed, “Death having been put to death by him, what else should happen than that the body should rise and be shown as the trophy over it? Or how else could death be shown to be destroyed unless the lordly body had arisen?”4 And by proving his victory over Death, Jesus has taken away our only reason for being held in the fear of death – and that fear is frequently the motivation that drives all manner of human foolishness in our society today (Hebrews 2:15).

Paul tells us sharply that “if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17) – but since Jesus has been raised from death to life, then the key to salvation is to “believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” (Romans 10:9). That's to bring it into the center of your will, to be committed in all your decisions to the life-giving power of Jesus' resurrection. See, as one old preacher said, a heart that thinks Jesus is still dead and buried – well, that heart is a tomb. But a heart that knows he lives and reigns, really and truly in the body – well, that heart is no more a tomb, that heart is heaven!5

For Jesus was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). When God vindicated Jesus, he also vindicated the existence of a new humanity in him, the renewed human nature that flows to everyone united to the risen Christ. This, in fact, was exactly what God meant in raising Jesus from the dead: that in doing so, he'd set us right by unleashing the power of a new humanity. Jesus was raised to connect us to true life, for he says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life: whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). The promise of life is for all who follow him and cleave to him (1 Corinthians 15:21-22), that through his resurrection we might be “begotten again to a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). We aren't brought into union merely with a deceased man. We're brought into union with a Savior who is Life! And because the One Vine lives and thrives, so may the many branches that abide in this Vine!

Jesus' resurrection puts believers – those who cling to the Risen Lord as their Savior – on the winning side of the universe. The resurrection means that Death really is beaten, Hell really is beaten, Devil really is beaten, Sin and Evil really are beaten, all the worldly powers that wield death and fear as means of control are beaten, everything that opposes Jesus is beaten – he has the victory! And so standing with him is to be ultimately on the winning side of the war, no matter how any given battle unfolds. As one fifth-century Christian tells us:

Through [the resurrection of Jesus], death was abolished, corruption destroyed, passions extinguished, mutability removed, the inordinate emotions of sin consumed, the power of Satan overthrown, the urge of demons brought to nothing, and the affliction resulting from the law wiped out.6

Jesus' resurrection establishes him as “Lord... of the living” (Romans 14:9), meaning that we who are up and moving belong to him. And the resurrection is a promise that Jesus “continues forever” (Hebrews 7:24), being always available to help. He was raised from the dead to be an active deliverer (1 Thessalonians 1:10). And the “power of his resurrection” changes lives (Philippians 3:10). Just as in his death we can be made dead to sin, so in his risen life can we be made “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11), “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). So “present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (Romans 6:13).

And not only can this be true now, but Jesus' resurrection is the pattern for our future hope – that we might be conformed to what he now is, not just morally and spiritually but physically and metaphysically. “Those whom [God] foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (1 Corinthians 6:14). In him, the age-old exile comes to an end. Jesus is the first to return to the land of the living, but he promises he's the leader of a cosmic caravan to come.

And Jesus' resurrection is the pattern, not just for our personal future hope, but for the whole world's future hope – the entire universe will be conformed to what he now is. With the events of that morning, God has started a new thing that's every bit as groundbreaking as Genesis 1:1. A new creation has begun. A new creation is being built, and the risen humanity of Jesus is the cornerstone and foundation for a new universe in which everything disappointing will be made good. And as witnesses of the resurrection power that lives in the risen Christ, we have the privilege to announce to a passing world the good news that a new creation is dawning, and that faithful union with the Foundation-Stone – this Resurrection, this Life, this Savior, this Lord Jesus – is the way to get in on the ground floor of an eternal glory! For Jesus rose because Love must always be stronger than Death and all Death's lesser minions. And Love will not stop until all things willing are glorified in him.

So “awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14)! “This is the One taken from the flock and led to slaughter, who was sacrificed in the evening and buried at night, who was not broken on the tree, who was not undone in the earth, who rose from the dead and resurrected humankind from the grave below.”7 “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!”8 Thanks be to God for his “great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Ephesians 1:19-20). Hallelujah! Glory to the risen Lord! Glory to undying Love! Amen.

1 Fragment from the Gospel of the Hebrews, quoted by Jerome of Stridon, On Illustrious Men 2

2 See discussions in, e.g., William Lane Craig, Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (Edwin Mellen Press, 1989); N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003); Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregel Publications, 2004); Craig S. Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), chapter 22 and appendix 8; Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (InterVarsity Press, 2010); W. David Beck and Michael R. Licona, eds., Raised on the Third Day: Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus: Essays in Honor of Dr. Gary R. Habermas (Lexham Press, 2020).

3 Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation 30

4 Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation 30

5 Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 75.4, in Fathers of the Church 110:17

6 Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on the Nicene Creed 7

7 Melito of Sardis, On the Passover 71

8 Paschal Troparion.

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