Sermon series: God's Story, Part 3

  1. Jesus Rejected at the Synagogue - Matt 13

  2. I Said It - John 1:1-2, 6

  3. Call in the Witnesses - I Corinthians 15

  4. While You Wait - Acts 1

  5. Jesus Is the Answer - John 14

Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 15


Beyond the shroud, beyond the blood and bandages, beyond the spices and the close, dank air, He stood. Alive once more He stood - in six full weeks of sunlight. Then on to heaven He went, sending His spirit into our hearts, making us alive forever. Now the living Christ rules where the best flags wave, in the interior castles of our hearts, but He's here!

Easter! - Hell shuddered and the world trembled - the day the living Savior stood the dumfounded world on its ear!

Easter, The day Christ moved out of His very temporary residence into the best and worst of palaces - the human heart.

Easter, the day inwardness was born. We cannot see His inner life, but because of it we can never be the same again. Those who hold the resurrection in this glorious inwardness fully understand. "Your old unbelieving nature died by baptism when Jesus died, and then God the Father brought Him back to glorious power, and brought Him back to life again, and you were given His wonderful, new life to enjoy" (Rom. 6:4, author's paraphrase).

Life! - Christ's life, this marvelous gift is ours! We don't create it! We can't sustain it. It learned obedience on the cross and proved its power by leaving the cold stone slab of a cave grave.

John Updike wrote these lines some years ago:

Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy sidestepping transcendence, making of the event a parable, a sign printed in the fading doubt of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door. The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache, not a stone in a story, but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of time will eclipse for each of us that wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb, make it a real angel, weighty in Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen spun on a definite loom. Let us not seek to make it less monstrous, for our own convenience, our sense of beauty.

Source: "Seven Stanzas at Easter," in "Telephone Poles." New York: Knopf, 1964, pp. 72–73.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the sine qua non of Christianity. Without it, meaning does not exist.

(Editors note: sine qua non is a Latin phrase for "without which not" and means "an essential element or condition.")

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul lists six wonderful reasons why we may believe with confidence that Jesus Christ is alive. These six reasons come from the six people or groups of people who saw Jesus alive again from the dead. Subpoena the Witnesses:

1. To Simon Peter

"He appeared to Cephas"

One of the last people to see the earthly Christ alive at His crucifixion was Simon Peter. His steadfast commitment to Christ was instantly shattered by the lonely bugle of a common farmyard cock. Following Calvary, Simon sweltered under crushing guilt. After his Gethsemane denial, Peter wept bitterly. He spent three days in deep remorse for all he had done to the living Son of God. Then Easter was born! Then in compassion Jesus made His first appearance to Simon. Visualize their meeting. Christ walks to the still grieving Simon, slips His arms around him, and says, "It's all right, Peter. I'm alive again! No sin, even your sin, counts anymore. You are forever forgiven."

2. To the Apostles

"then to the Twelve"

If only one man sees a dead man alive, it may be called a hallucination. But on Resurrection Sunday, twelve men had the same wonderful hallucination at one time. The apostles saw what Simon saw. How did it effect them? It forged this frightened bunch of bunnies back into men again. At His crucifixion, the apostles had all scattered. Now hope reassembled them all.

3. To Thomas

Alas, the twelve apostles were but "the Ten." One of them, Judas, had hanged himself, and Thomas wasn't present. Out of their minds with uncontrollable excitement, they went to Thomas and said, "Thomas, we have seen the Lord alive." Thomas was a realist - he had only one response. He said, Ean me ido which is Greek for "get real," but is usually interpreted, "Unless I see for myself." Thomas challenged the others: "I must see the nail prints and put my finger into them and thrust my hand into His side or I will not believe."

The next Sabbath as eleven of them were standing, talking, laughing, came Jesus' third appearance. Somewhere just after the hors d'oeuvres, perhaps, they locked all the doors for fear of Jewish persecution.

"Guess who's coming to dinner?" the air around them seemed to say as Jesus dropped into their very midst. "Peace be unto you!" Lo, the once dead speaks! Jesus stares at Thomas. Thomas stares back! Jesus says, "Thomas, come here. Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing" (John 20:27, author's paraphrase).

It is then that Thomas falls down before Jesus and cries, "My Lord and my God!"

4. To the 500

"Then He appeared to over 500 brothers at one time"

If you want to further strengthen the apparition-versus-hallucination theory, a lot of people must see Him at once. Consider the glory of Christ standing in the middle of 500 people, all looking and affirming. When Paul wrote I Corinthians some years later, he said that some of these 500 souls "had fallen asleep, but the greater part remain alive to this day!"

P.T. Barnum once said, "You can fool all of the people some of the time. And you can fool some of the people all of the time. But you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." Jesus is seen here by 500 at once! No one-person hallucination here! Here is the Christ of the billboard! The neon-sign Jesus! Historically recorded high and lifted up! Alive!

5. To James

"Then He appeared to James"

According to Mark 3, James, the half-brother of Christ, had gone with his family to try to get Jesus to quit preaching His true identity. James seems to be saying to Jesus, "You're telling everybody you're the Son of God. Our family's now the national laughing-stock. Dearest brother, shut up! You're ruining our family reputation!" In Mark 6 James says, "Jesus, you're mad! You have a demon. We've got to bring you home."

When I was called to preach, I went home in joy to tell my family. I decided to start with the worst member of my family first - my unbelieving, agnostic, hard-core, sister. I knew if I could tell her, I could face the devil himself with the news. And so I said to her,

"Guess what happened to me, Sis!"

"What?" she said.

"God has called me to preach!"


"Yeah, God!"

"It must have been long distance," she smirked.

"It was! He called me to preach."

"Look," she frowned, "if God called you to do anything, it was not long-distance; it was a wrong number."

James didn't believe His brother, Jesus, could possibly be the Messiah. An early Christian legend says that he continued working in the carpenter shop after the crucifixion. One evening as James meditated in aloneness, there was a lifting of the latch of the door. The brother he had doubted to be the Son of God, walked into the carpenter shop. The tale says that Jesus walked to James and put His arms around his brother and conferred upon him instant faith in the living Christ.

If this is the manner of Jesus' appearance to James, it is the only appearance of Jesus Christ to someone who didn't believe in Him. I've always wondered why Jesus wasn't more forthright with doubters. If I had been Jesus, I think I would have gone back and grabbed Herod by the throat and said, "Ah-ha, Harry! Now do you believe?" And I would have gone to Pilate, shoved him into a chair and said, "Listen up, Pontius! Now do you see I really am who I said I was?"

But Jesus, with no trace of a grudge, Jesus leaves His enemies to die in doubt. Still, James is not just an unbeliever; he is a compassionate, broken-hearted unbeliever. James was an unbeliever who cried out to believe that all he was told was true, who ultimately became the head of the church! I would believe in Jesus if for no other one reason than that his skeptic brother believed in him. The family is the hardest place to achieve real credibility.

6. To the Apostle Paul

"Last of all, as to one abnormally born, He also appeared to me."

After his resurrection, Jesus stayed on earth about 40 days (or six weeks). During that time, Christ kept popping in and out of sealed rooms, confronting people on lonely walkways and making His reality known to as many as 500 at once. After six weeks, he went back to heaven. Then, a whole two years later, he appeared to St. Paul "as to one abnormally born." The amazing thing about this is He appeared to a man who didn't merely doubt Him, but was actively taking cause against Him. Paul fought the resurrection and locked up those who believed. In Acts 7 and 8 he even officiated at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Paul was a militant agnostic. Changing his mind about Jesus was most difficult.

Paul, earlier called Saul, had heard of the resurrection and cried, "Foul!" Paul was to discover a hard truth: Once you've stomped your foot on the floor and said, "It didn't happen," it's very difficult to say, "Oh, maybe it did."

When Barbara and I first moved to Omaha, the "X-Files" were epidemic - flying saucers were everywhere in those days. I don't know why, but U.F.O.'s were faddish and frequent stuff! But as for me, I have never been a real big believer in flying saucers and was openly skeptical about it. I picked up the newspaper one morning after breakfast and read of an Omaha man driving down I-80. At the 84th Street exit, he saw a flying saucer. It scared him so badly he drove his car off the road. The rescue squad had to come and get him and take him to the hospital. As I sat at the breakfast table reading and doubting, I said to my wife,

"Why is it that everybody sees flying saucers and nobody takes a picture of one? Do you know why they don't take a picture of one?" Barb calmly took a bite of her eggs and said, "No." I nearly yelled across the breakfast table: "They don't take a picture of a U.F.O. because it's hard to photograph schizophrenia!" Well, that was a pretty strong stand for me.

That very evening we decided to go shopping. We came to a stop sign just at dusk, a block or so from home. Over in the eastern sky, I suddenly saw these little cigar shaped things, sort of undulating back and forth near the horizon. I looked at them for a minute and rubbed my eyes, trying to make them go away. They wouldn't! I noticed Barb was looking at them, too.

"What are those things?"

"You know what they look like."

"I know what they look like. What are they?"

"O.K., smart-aleck, where's your camera?"

I'm sure they weren't flying saucers, but whatever they were, the point was made.

Once you take a fiery stand against something, it's awfully hard to take an "un-stand" against it. Paul had taken such a fiery stand against Jesus that nothing short of a personal appearance by Jesus Christ would ever have changed his mind. Yet this man who once persecuted others and killed others for Jesus was transformed into the number one missionary-evangelist of all time!

The supposition is that Paul died with his head on a chopping block. I believe when the axe came down to sever the apostle's head from his body, his blood pressure was a cool 120 over 80. The new Paul - the resurrection-believing Paul - felt no fluctuation of mood. What changed him? He had seen the living Lord. In fact, all of the apostles died a martyr's death rather than say it didn't happen. Paul Little once said, "You know, people will die for the truth. And they will even die in sincerity for a lie. But they will not die for a lie that they know is a lie."

Charles Colson perhaps illustrated it best when he talked about those dark days in the closing of President Nixon's political career. It finally became obvious that "The President's Men" could no longer shore up the currents of doubt. When that time came, Nixon called all six of them in. They were the weary apostles of a messiah who clearly wasn't going to make it. Colson said that as he looked at Erlichman and Dean and the others in that room, he realized Nixon's days were about over. John Dean had blown the whistle on all of them, and in but a while they watched the president walk to the helicopter to avoid impeachment. Those six men would walk out of a political office to prison, completely shattered by the sins of one person they had all trusted.

If Jesus were phony, would those twelve men who had walked with Him for three years have stood by their resurrection story till the shattering end of their lives? Would they have watched their lives go down the tubes, some elevated on crosses themselves?

The only reason that Jesus can save is because He is alive.

Where's the Corpse? Dead saviors are never good at redemption. Let us set the truth in an earthy context. The word savior means something like "lifeguard." Suppose we take a dead lifeguard, have him taxidermied, set the sun glasses on him, and perch him in the high chair. No matter how desperate our situation; no matter how we thrash the waves and splash in the water, he cannot save, for he does not live. But in one instant cry, a living lifeguard will be in the water, chopping the foam to bring us to safety.

Illustration: Paul Harvey once told of a little boy, whom doting parents had spoiled into a brat. The boy carried with him a sack, and in the sack there was a most pitiful kind of stirring. He had captured some tiny birds. The sound of imprisoned wing-beats slapped hopelessly at the heavy manila walls. A pitiful chirping now and then issued from the little paper prison that he swung at his side. He met an old man as he walked along.

"Whatcha got in that sack?" asked the old man.

"I got a sack full of sparrows!" said the little boy.

"What are you going to do with them?" asked the old man.

"I'm going to take them out of the sack, one by one, and tease them - pull a feather out now and then, and then I'll release them to the cat for his dinner."

"How much would you sell the whole sack for?" asked the old man.

The little boy thought a moment and decided that he should put a lot of capital on the venture and dicker down if he had to, so he threw out the figure: "I'll take two dollars for the sack!"

"Done," said the old man; and he reached in his pocket, pulled out the two dollars, and gave them to the lad. The lad then handed him the sack. The old man held it far more kindly than the reckless youngster had.

In a moment he untwisted the coiled paper neck of the bag and pulled it open. In but a little bit, the sky connected brilliantly with the open inside of the bag and the birds were gone.

And so it happened one day that God met Lucifer with a huge bag. Inside the bag were the most hopeless sounds of life struggling to be free. Humanity was bagged for brokenness. Bagged were the sounds of human children crying into stolid sack sides - the sounds of old men wailing in pain.

"What have you got in the bag?" asked the Father.

"The people," smirked Lucifer.

"And what will you do with them?"

"I will torment them one by one, and when they are all worn out with trials, I will throw them into hell."

"And what will you take for all of them?"

"Your only Beloved."

"Done!" said the Father. And He reached down to earth and gave us the gift of His Son.

And in such a happy trade-off have we come to hold the key to the resurrection and the life.

Now we rejoice in the wisdom of the apostle John. "The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn't have the Son of God does not have life." 1 John 5:12 (HCSB)

Easter life has come to set us free. It has come to enable us to soar.

The poet Elva McAllaster sat watching gulls from her window and meditating upon the glorious power of the resurrected Christ. She could but thrill over all that the overcoming power of the resurrection had set us free to become. I pass her anthem on as a testimony of Easter life.

Firm-winged, the gulls, this shining afternoon Glide past my window. Glide alone, in threes. Glide without effort. Curve and turn and rise. Enthralled, I watch. No strain, no struggle in Firm-sinewed wings; no crashes in mid-air. No suicidal anguish pulls apart The rhythm of their wing-beats. For such flight Gull wings were made. Gull wing-bones. Feathers, too. So ought the soul to be; it, too, was made To soar in upper regions undismayed, Yet hobbles, hobbles, hobbles over stones, Wing-broken, feathers draggled. Thing of groans.

Source: Elva McAllaster, "Of Man's First Disobedience and the Fruit…," from A Christianity Today Reader, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (New York: Meredith Press, 1966), 34.

Jesus is alive. Let all believers exult and soar above those mundane matters that cripple and hobble living. He is alive! It is the cry of joy that forbids believers to be earthbound. Sky is the only worthy habitat of faith.