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Worship Guide

Throughout human history, much debate has centered around whether Christianity is true, but recent generations have also begun to call into question the goodness of Christianity. If, in fact, Christianity is true, does it offer anything of value to the world? To tackle this question, we begin by considering whether Christianity is simply wishful thinking — a framework generated by humans who are looking to place their hope in a future that’s better than their reality. Watch this Easter Sunday sermon as we explore the challenge and counterclaims of the resurrection as well as the resulting colossal consequences that accompany its truth.

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    Today we consider the very heart of the Christian faith. As the Apostle Paul himself put it, Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Jesus. Christians do not believe that Jesus was merely resuscitated after what we might call a near death experience only to die again at a later date. Nor do they simply believe that he lived on in the memory of his followers. No, Christians believe that Jesus died and was buried and then was raised with a new physical body and entered into a whole new mode of existence. 

    The problem is that people from the first century right on down to the 21st have found this more than a little hard to believe. Every couple of years, I like to illustrate this point with a story from my own personal life. When I was 3.5 years old, I tripped and rolled underneath the railing and fell headfirst from a balcony and fractured my skull. (If you've ever spent any time with me, and if you've wondered, “Is something off about this person? Was he ever dropped on his head as a child?” now you know the answer.) I was rushed to the hospital. I was in and out of consciousness for about three days, but I eventually recovered. Not long after that, I attended Sunday school class at my church, which was taught by my mother and Barbara Van Horn. My mom and Mrs. Van Horn told us the story of the resurrection, how Jesus died, was placed in the tomb, and then on the third day, he rose again. Upon hearing this, I got very excited, and I blurted out to the entire Sunday school class, “The same exact thing happened to me!” The story, of course, is humorous because we know that the same exact thing did not happen to me. We all know that when people die, they stay dead. But the fact that the dead do not normally come back to life is actually not an argument against the Christian claim. That is part of the claim itself. Christians believe that what happened to Jesus was unique. That is precisely why Christians worship Jesus as the divine Son of God. 

    It is my contention that we have reached a critical inflection point within our culture. There have always been people who have been skeptical about the claims of Christianity. That's nothing new. As people have struggled with the Christian message in the past, at least some viewed Christianity as a positive benefit to society. Even if they had their doubts, they saw Christianity in a positive light because it upheld certain moral values or because it encouraged love for the poor or promoted the equal dignity of all people. The driving question for most skeptics was simply, “Is Christianity true?” That meant for a person like me, my primary task was to help people see the reasons why Christianity is credible, why the gospel is believable, why you can believe it. 

    I believe that things have started to shift a little bit because now there are many people who are no longer sure that Christianity is beneficial to society. Increasingly, there are more people who think that Christianity is downright harmful. And therefore the first question that people ask is not necessarily is Christianity true, but is Christianity good? Is it good for society? Is it good for you? Is it good for the world, because if it's not good, then who cares? If Christianity isn't good for the world, we don't even need to listen to it. We don't need to pay any attention to it. That changes things, therefore, for a person like me, because now, along with trying to help people see the reasons why Christianity is true, I also have to help people see why Christianity is good. It's good for you. It's good for the world — so good, that you should want it to be true. 

    Today, on this Easter Sunday, I'd like to begin a new sermon series that will carry us through the spring in which we will address some of the common contemporary challenges to the Christian faith in order to help show that Christianity is in fact good for you and good for the world. We'll begin today with the very heart of the Christian faith, the resurrection of Jesus from the grave. I'd like us to begin by asking the fundamental question “Is Christianity escapist?” Is it nothing more than an escapist fantasy? We'll look at Luke's account of the resurrection, and as we do, I'd like us to consider three things. Let's consider: 1) the critical challenge to the resurrection, 2) the counterclaims for the resurrection, and 3) the colossal consequences of the resurrection

    1But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. 2And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” 8And they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, 11but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.

    The Critical Challenge To The Resurrection 

    I'd like to begin with the critical challenge to the resurrection. One of the most powerful arguments against the Christian faith is that it is merely a form of escapism or wishful thinking. Rather than dealing with the real world as it is, human beings have created God in order to help deal with their problems. One of the first people to make this argument was a man named Ludwig Feuerbach in the mid 19th century. He basically said that God did not create human beings in his image, but rather human beings created God in our image, so God is simply a projection. We looked at ourselves, and we imagined a superhero version of ourselves, and we projected that on a god. Feuerbach had a significant influence on people like Karl Marx, Frederich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud — the so-called “masters of suspicion.” 

    Karl Marx famously said that religion, and specifically Christianity, is the opiate of the masses, meaning that Christianity is like a drug that fills people and especially the poor with delusional thoughts. It causes us to forget the real pain and suffering that we experience in this present world, and it inhibits our desire to seek change in this world because it fills us with false hopes of a better world to come in the future. 

    Frederich Nietzsche, for his part, said that God is dead, and Christianity is nothing more than an attempt by the weak to control the strong. Nietzsche despised Christianity. He said that Christianity was for wimps, and if God is dead, so are Christian morals. He dismissed the values of Christianity as slave morality. He said that Christianity keeps you in this servile position because it teaches you to be humble and kind and loving and to put the needs and the interests of other people ahead of yourself. But Nietzsche said that Christianity therefore is just a smokescreen. It's just an attempt to try to control people. And if God is dead, then so are Christian morals, and therefore the only way to live a truly authentic life is to dare to live as if there is no God, and to dare to live as if there are no rules, because that's the only way that you'll ever become a powerful person. 

    Sigmund Freud, following in the footsteps of Feuerbach, said that Christianity is simply a projection of our desires — that God is an illusion fueled by our infantile need for a father figure in the sky to help us cope with our feelings of guilt or fear or inadequacy. 

    The masters of suspicion — Marx, Neitzsche, and Freud — all said that Christianity is a form of escape. It's for people who need a crutch because they're weak. It's a self-fabricated delusion for those who can't handle the real world as it is. 

    The Counterclaims For The Resurrection

    Are the critics right? Is Marx right that Christianity is simply a drug? Is Nietzsche right that Christianity is a smokescreen? Was Freud right that Christianity is nothing more than wish fulfillment? It all depends on the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus hasn't been raised from the dead, then they're probably right. But if God did raise Jesus from the dead, then it shows us that the world in which we live is far more mysterious than we ever thought at first. If Jesus has been raised from the dead, it shows us that this world is a far different place than we ever previously imagined. 

    Let me offer a counter argument to this critical challenge. First of all, notice in Luke's gospel, several women discover the empty tomb and report the news to the remaining 11 disciples. That right there is a powerful argument for the truth: the veracity of the gospels. Because women were not considered credible witnesses in the first century. They weren't allowed to testify in a court of law. Imagine, if the story were false, if you were fabricating this story about the resurrection of Jesus, and you wanted to convince skeptics that Jesus had been raised from the dead, you would never make women the first witnesses of the resurrection. And yet all four gospels insist that women were the first to discover the empty tomb. They were first to see the risen Jesus. They were the first to tell others about him, which just goes to show that the story of Jesus' resurrection could not be merely invented. 

    Here's another striking detail in verse 11. The disciples, the very apostles, didn't believe the women's word at first. They dismiss it as nothing more than an idle tale, which shows us that ancient people were no more credulous, no more gullible than we are. They were just as likely to dismiss the account of the resurrection as a fabrication or a fairy tale. As the New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright has argued extensively, we have to keep two things in mind. 

    First of all, the word resurrection always meant physical bodies. The word “resurrection” never meant “life after death.” It was not a fancy way of talking about the immortality of the soul. It didn't describe how your soul goes to heaven after you die to enjoy some kind of ethereal existence beyond the clouds. No, the word “resurrection” only meant one thing: physical bodies. That's different from reincarnation — the idea that the dead come back as somebody else. No, if you're resurrected, it means that you are raised with a new physical body to enjoy life in a new physical world. You are really you. You don't lose your personal identity, and you don't become somebody else. 

    Resurrection only meant one thing, and there was only one group of people who actually believed in the physical resurrection, and that was the ancient Jewish people. Even then, only some Jews believed that God would raise the dead, but when he did, he would raise everybody from the grave at the same time as part of his promise to renew the whole world and to usher in a new heavens and a new earth. All of which means that nobody, and I really mean nobody — certainly nobody from a Greek background and nobody from a Jewish background — would have believed that God would raise one single individual in the middle of history while the rest of the world goes on as it is. If you told an ancient Jewish person that Jesus had been raised, they would say, “What are you talking about? Has God brought an end to sin and suffering and sickness and death? Is there no more pain, no more sorrow? Has he wiped all the tears away from our eyes? If not, then the resurrection hasn't happened, because the resurrection is going to happen to everybody at the same time when God ushers in the new creation.”

    Ancient people would have thought that the idea that Jesus had been raised from the dead was just as ludicrous, just as preposterous as we would. So what changed their minds? I'd like you to consider three claims. We can debate the significance of these claims, but we have to accept them as historically secure. These three claims are as secure historically as anything else we know about the ancient world. Those three claims are that 1) the tomb was empty, 2) the risen Jesus was seen, and 3) the disciples were changed

    The Tomb Was Empty

    I'm going to cover this very briefly, but if you would like to learn more about this, I'll refer you to my Easter Sunday sermon from one year ago where I covered these claims more exhaustively. But here very quickly, No. 1: The tomb was empty. By itself an empty tomb wouldn't mean all that much because sometimes tombs were robbed, especially since people were often buried with their valuables. Of course,it's very possible that someone stole Jesus' body. But it's highly unlikely, because Pontius Pilate ensured that Jesus’ tomb was sealed with Roman guards who would have faced execution themselves if they failed in their duty. The fact is, the easiest thing to do in order to discredit the early Christian movement would have simply been to produce Jesus' dead body, but no one ever did. I find it rather intriguing given the ancient practice of turning burial sites into shrines that there's not a shred of evidence that Jesus' followers ever venerated his tomb. Why not? Because they didn't think he was there. 

    The Risen Jesus Was Seen

    No. 1: The tomb was empty. No. 2: The risen Jesus was seen. The New Testament recounts for us at least 10 different appearances of the resurrected Jesus to different people in different locations and different states of mind. Jesus appeared to individuals. He appeared to small groups. He even appeared to 500 people at one time. Again, sightings of the resurrected Jesus by itself wouldn't mean a whole lot. People in the ancient world knew about ghosts. They knew that sometimes people had visions of loved ones who had died, but they had a language for that. They would call that a “vision” or an “apparition.” If they saw that loved one, they would say it's the loved one’s ghost or their angel. They wouldn't call it a resurrection because resurrection only meant one thing: physical bodies. Even if these appearances happen quite frequently, the person would know that the body of their loved one was in the tomb and that this was just a vision. But when it came to Jesus, his body wasn't in the tomb. They didn't think that they were talking to a ghost, because they could see the marks of his wounds. They could touch his body. They watched him eat fish. I don't know about you, but I've never seen a ghost cook breakfast. 

    The Disciples Were Changed

    No. 1: The tomb was empty. No. 2: The risen Jesus was seen, No. 3: The disciples were changed. The gospels give us a completely unvarnished view of the disciples, and they are not presented positively in the New Testament. They don't demonstrate much faith. They're constantly jockeying for position. They never understand what Jesus is talking about, and they consistently let Jesus down. But after the resurrection, they're completely changed. They're completely transformed. They're willing to risk their lives for what they have seen and what they've heard. Now, of course, it's possible that they engaged in the conspiracy, but if they made it all up, not one of them ever broke down and said it was all a lie even though it cost them their lives. Tradition tells us that all of the apostles except for one died for their faith, and the one remaining person was exiled for the rest of his life. I'm with the philosopher Blaise Pascal on this one who said, “I believe the witnesses who get their throats cut. Those are the people that we can trust.” Something must have happened to the disciples that transformed their doubt into faith and their fear into courage. 

    None of these claims would prove anything on their own. The only thing that perhaps they might prove is that Jesus really was dead. How do you account for the rise of the early Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus in the middle of history, which sprung up literally overnight with no pre-existing worldview to back it up, and then spread throughout the Mediterranean world like wildfire? How do you account for that? An empty tomb by itself would be a tragedy. Sightings of the resurrected Jesus would by itself be perhaps dismissed as a hallucination. Or the transformation of the disciples all by itself would be considered remarkable. None of these claims by themselves mean all that much, but taken together, the result is explosive. The best explanation of the facts historically is that on the third day, after being violently, brutally tortured and executed by professional killers — Roman soldiers — Jesus was completely, thoroughly alive again with an entirely new kind of body. That's why they called it a resurrection. 

    The Colossal Consequences Of The Resurrection

    That is the counterclaim to the critical challenge. If the resurrection happened, then what are the colossal consequences? Let me suggest that the consequences of the resurrection of Jesus are immense. It means that Christianity is 1) good for the world, 2) good for our relationships, and 3) good for you

    Good For The World

    First of all, if Jesus has been raised from the dead, it means that Christianity is good for the world. All the gospels emphasize that the resurrection of Jesus took place on the first day of the week. That was a deliberate echo of Genesis 1, which describes God's creation of the world. What the gospel writers are underscoring for us is that the resurrection of Jesus is the first day of the new creation. The Bible presents to us God as the Creator of all things, who makes this world as a gift of his grace. This world is filled with beauty and love and truth and goodness. The problem is that God's good world has gone bad as a result of sin, as a result of human rebellion and failure. But God promised that one day he would judge the world, meaning that he would set it right again. He would put right everything that had once gone wrong. He's going to wipe the tears away from our eyes. He'll get rid of all evil, all sin, all injustice. There will be no more sorrow, no more suffering, no more pain. The new creation will be even more glorious than the old one. 

    Therefore, God's ultimate goal is not to remove us from this world, but rather to renew this world. That changes everything. The message of the resurrection is that this world matters. This world matters. Everything we do now in service to Jesus counts. Nothing will be lost. Nothing will be wasted. We are called to anticipate the future world that God has promised — the new heavens and the new earth — in our actions now, because as we do, we provide the people around us with a glimpse — and it may just be a glimpse, but it is a real picture nonetheless — of what all creation will be like when God renews all things. 

    Think through some of the implications of that. Some people say that Christians are too heavenly minded to be any earthly good. But in fact, the opposite is true. The people who have done the most to make this world a better place have been motivated and animated by a Christian vision, whether they realize it or not. Where do you think we got the idea that men and women should be treated equally? Or that every life is sacred? Or that we should love and care for the poor? Or that the strong have a duty to protect the vulnerable and the weak? Or that it's more noble to absorb suffering than to inflict it upon others? Who do you think were the people to first create orphanages or hospitals or schools or homes for the poor or for the dying? Who do you think first launched the effort to abolish slavery or to improve working conditions in factories and mines or to limit child labor? The fact of the matter is, the values that we hold most dear within Western society did not arise out of ancient Greece or arise out of ancient Rome. The things that we value most arose out of our Christian past. 

    The Oxford professor C.S. Lewis directly addressed the critique that Christianity is a form of escapism or wishful thinking in his book “Mere Christianity.” Lewis writes: 

    “A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. 

    [They] all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.

    It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”

    Marx said that Christianity was the opium of the masses and that the only way to affect real change in this world is to eradicate religion and to overthrow society through violent means. But the Polish poet and diplomat Czeslaw Milosz turned that argument on its head. He witnessed firsthand some of the horrors of Marxism under Joseph Stalin, and he said that the true opium of the masses is not Christianity. 

    [No,] "A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death — the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged."

    Good For Our Relationships

    If Jesus has been raised from the dead, if his resurrection is the first day of the new creation, then it means that Christianity is good for the world. But more than that, it means that it's good for our relationships, because God has promised to do for us at the end of history what he did for Jesus in the middle of history. He is going to raise us up with new physical bodies to enjoy life in this new physical world that he is bringing into existence. It is of course true that apart from the resurrection, some people might be able to come to terms with the prospect of their inevitable death. But what many of us really can't bear is the thought that we might be cut off forever from the people that we love the most: a friend, a spouse, a parent, a child, a lover. For many of us, it's our relationships that make life meaningful. Our relationships are the key to our happiness. And for that reason, one of the greatest crises that many of us will ever experience in life is the death of a loved one. When it happens, when we lose that person, we long to be reunited somehow with their faces, with their voices, with their touch. 

    But if Jesus has been raised, consider the implications. It means that you will not lose your individual identity after death. No, you will get your body back better than before. Your new resurrected body will be better if for no other reason than because this time, it'll last. And it can't be taken out by sickness or by age. But even more than that, it means that for those who cling to Jesus in faith, we need not be separated ever from the ones we love the most. No, as we're united to him, so we can be united to them. If Jesus has been raised, it means that you will see that smile again. You will hear that laugh. You will feel that embrace. This is not the end. Death doesn't get the last word. 

    God promises us that through the resurrection of Jesus, the same thing is going to happen to us, and we will be transformed. We will be changed in the twinkling of an eye, and we have no idea what we will be like. What we know is that through Jesus, we will become the best, the most beautiful, the truest versions of ourselves, because we will become like God himself. We will become like little gods and goddesses, and that heightens the way in which we relate to one another now. Do you realize it is of course possible for us to think too much of ourselves? But it's almost impossible to think too much of other people, especially when we consider their future destiny through the resurrection of Jesus. This is how Lewis puts it. He says,

    "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

    All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

    Good For You

    If Jesus has been raised, it means that Christianity is good for the world, it's good for our relationships, and yes, it's good for you. If God raised Jesus from the dead, then it vindicates the claims that Jesus made about himself, that he really is the divine Son of God. It vindicates Jesus' claim that he gave himself up for our sins on the cross so that we might be able to experience forgiveness. Some of us might say, “Look, I don't think I've really done anything all that wrong that requires forgiveness — certainly not from God.” But that is a superficial response. Look deeper. 

    Who of us could say that we haven't done or said something or failed to do or say something that we could never change, we could never take back, we could never undo for which we could never really make amends. The full weight of our sins is enough to crush us, but oftentimes we don't have the courage to really face the facts. But if Jesus has been raised, then it means that our sins have been dealt with. They've been blotted out. They can never be held against us. It's the promise of forgiveness that makes it possible now to confront the reality of who we are and to rest in the knowledge that our world will be restored. Our relationships will be restored. We will be restored. 

    Don't you see? Karl Marx had it all wrong. Christianity is not a drug that deludes us into thinking that nothing we do now matters. No, it's actually those who believe that their present actions have eternal significance who do the most with what they have been given to make this world a better place. Nietzsche was wrong. Christianity isn't for wimps. No, it takes an enormous amount of courage and an enormous amount of strength to resist our selfish impulses and to love other people more than we love our own ego. Freud was wrong. Christianity isn't just a projection of our desires, writ large on a cosmic screen, because, no, if Jesus has been raised, then it means that our deepest longings for forgiveness, for love, for a better world are grounded in reality. 

    No, Christianity is not escapist. The true escape from reality is the belief that this world is all there is. But if Jesus has been raised, that means that Christianity is good for the world, it's good for our relationships, and it is good for you — so good, that you should want it to be true. Here's the really good thing: It is! 

    Let me pray for us. 

    Father, as we consider the critical challenges to the Christian faith today, we pray, especially on this Resurrection Sunday, that we would take to heart the counterclaims for the resurrection of Jesus, and help us to understand, to appreciate, and to embrace the colossal consequences that if Jesus has been raised, then Christianity is good for the world, good for our relationships, and good for us. We pray that you would help us to embrace that truth, to take it deep into our hearts and our lives so that we might be transformed by it through your grace. It's in Jesus' name that we pray. Amen.