Sermon 28 April 2019

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET, 28.04.19

 “HE IS RISEN!”, 1 Corinthians 15.12-22

 Listen Here: https://soundcloud.com/user-942286720/sermon-28-april-2019

 

Last Sunday, Easter Day, should have been a day of unreserved celebration. Easter Day is the greatest day of the Christian year, the climax when we give thanks together in joyful praise and worship, for God’s gift to us of his Son, Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of our sins, secured on the Cross, and for the promise of new, resurrection life.

But this year Easter has been grievously overshadowed by the news of the bombings of the churches in Sri Lanka.

 The Church of Scotland has a congregation in Sri Lanka: St Andrew’s, Colombo. It is close to one of the bombed hotels. The congregation was in the middle of its Easter Day service when the bomb next door went off. The minister stopped the service in some confusion. Some members went immediately to see what help they could offer. Others remained to pray.

In the week since we have seen the death toll climb beyond 250, one of the worst atrocities of its kind. The Christian community of Sri Lanka is living in fear, trying to make sense of it all.

And here we are at St Columba’s, on the first Sunday after Easter, still celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, but doing so in the shadow if this great suffering. Yet, whatever else, we want to hold to the Easter promise, shared by Jesus’s followers down the centuries, whatever they faced. The promise is contained in these words of greeting: “He is risen!”

So, let me share with you for a few minutes what I understand lies behind these words, “He is Risen!”

To help us think about this, I want to focus on what the statement made by Paul in chapter 15 of his First Letter to the Corinthians:

16if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

One of the most memorable sermons I ever heard was preached some years ago during a conference I attended in Scotland. In the course of his sermon the preacher pointed out two facts about Jesus Christ which he said were entirely historical, and indeed incontrovertible.

The first fact was that Jesus really existed, he was a living, historical person. We’re not to think he was an invention, or a fiction, or a legend of later centuries, as some have argued. Apart from the Bible, which seems to me a perfectly reputable body of evidence, but apart from the Bible, Jesus is attested by the contemporary Jewish historian, Josephus, as well as two Roman and pagan writers, Tacitus and Pliny. From these sources outside the Bible, we know for certain that Jesus lived, was a teacher who had followers, and was crucified in Jerusalem around 30 AD.

The second historical fact was that the first followers of Jesus believed that he was the Son of God, and that he was raised to life again after his crucifixion. Now let me be clear. The fact here is not that Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead — though I believe he was — the fact is that his followers believed he was resurrected from the dead.

Now, if we accept this, we face a crucial question: why did those first Christians believe that? Dead men don’t rise to life. Resurrection from the dead is so inherently unlikely, even impossible, that something quite profound must have occurred to persuade them.

Let me suggest four things for us to consider by way of evidence.

First, the inconsistencies. All four gospels record the resurrection, but there are inconsistencies.  For example, Matthew says that two women went to the tomb, Mark says it was three women who went to the tomb, Luke doesn’t give the number, John says it was just one woman, Mary Magdalene. Matthew and Mark say the women saw one angel; Luke says they saw two. Matthew, Mark and Luke say the women entered the tomb, John says it was the disciples, Peter and John, who entered the tomb. Some would argue that this demonstrates the unreliability of the record: it must be mistaken, or some kind of later invention.

But, let’s pause here. Police and court lawyers will tell you that witnesses to the same event, a crime or a road accident, do differ in the details of what they have seen, what they have witnessed. That’s actually confirming, it suggests strongly that there has been no collaboration, no making it up. It’s much more likely to be true, than false.

Secondly, there is the empty tomb. That is very significant. All four gospels tell us that the tomb was empty, the body was gone. That is undeniable. But why? What lies behind that?

Some say the women and disciples went to the wrong tomb, in the dark before the dawn. Surely not! If such a mistake had been made, then it would have been quickly put right.

Some say that Jesus fainted, swooned on the cross, and then revived in the cool of the tomb, moving the stone himself and coming out. Again, surely not! Roman soldiers were too professional, and too used to the practice of crucifixion not to know when a crucified man was dead.

Well, then, someone stole the body, removed it under the cover of darkness.

Quite a few people have argued along these lines. But who would have removed it? If the Roman or Jewish leaders stole it, all they had to do when those first disciples made the claim of resurrection was to produce the body. The Christian church would have been stopped in its tracks. OK, then maybe the disciples stole the body. But then they above all would know that Jesus had not been raised. How come they were so adamant that he had been raised, and how come so many faced persecutions, and even martyrdom, knowing that their claims were based on a lie?

“He is risen!” My second piece of evidence is the empty tomb.

Thirdly, there are the appearances. Jesus appeared to, and was seen by, many after he was raised to life. All four gospels record those who saw him. And Paul give an impressive list in 1 Corinthians 15.

What was this? A hallucination? A ghost? No! The appearances recorded in the New Testament are of a physical, material, body, albeit one that was not always recognised, seemed to appear and disappear at will, and passed through locked doors. There was something familiar about the risen Jesus, although also something very different. Not just a resuscitation, or revivification, like for example Lazarus. What are we to make of Jesus’ words in Luke, Touch me and see, a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.

 The witness accounts, for all their inconsistencies, are convincing. The tomb was empty, and Jesus appeared bodily to many after his crucifixion and burial. The appearances are crucial to the New Testament evidence.

Fourthly, and lastly, there is the powerful and persuasive evidence of the transformation of the disciples from frightened, scattered and bewildered men and women, hiding in locked rooms, into a group, a growing community, that proclaimed the Good News with such conviction and certainty that the Church became established, grew and spread across the world. Good News for us Gentiles as well as the Jews. And the gates of hell have not prevailed against it!

Several of Jesus early followers were martyred for their faith in the resurrection. For them “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” How could they have done that, how could they possibly have faced that, if they did not believe that their faith was true?

The Easter claims of the Christian church remain challenging. Many in our society and our culture say simply that dead men don’t rise to life. But Paul says, so very clearly, in our text that if the resurrection of Christ is not true, then our faith is futile, it’s nonsense, it’s useless to us. If sin is a real problem to us and to our world, then it’s not been dealt with. The faithful dead have died in vain. There is no life to come, and death has won, the grave is victorious. No, says Paul, the resurrection of Christ is true, and it matters.

My friends, there is new life here, we are to be alive in Christ, crucified and risen, to have life in all its fullness. This is not just something for our heads, it’s something for our hearts. You and I are called to go out to bring that life to our broken and needy world, following the command of the risen Lord to love one another as he has loved us. The world with all its conflict, corruption, and injustice doesn’t have to be that way. The church, the body of Christ, we who claim to be his followers and disciples, it’s up to us to bring about that new world, transformed and renewed in Christ’s image. In our words and our deeds let’s joyfully set forth Christ so that others see him, and are attracted to him, and come to him, and experience that new life that is in him alone.

I end with this.

As most of you know, this is Church, St Columba’s, was destroyed in the Blitz of the Second World War. Many other churches were too. But I heard the story of one such church that has stayed with me.

In early October 1940, one of the City of London churches was struck and totally destroyed by German firebombs. That was on a Saturday night. Earlier on that day the congregation had gone to great trouble and expense to decorate their church for a harvest thanksgiving service. Centrepiece of the church decorations for that service was an elaborate display of sheaves of corn brought in from the surrounding countryside. They had been carefully chosen, and the corn stems were heavy with ripe seed.

The church was devastated, and lay untouched in ruins for months. But imagine the surprise when summer came on, and green shoots were seen, the corn seeds had germinated, and there was a new and totally unexpected harvest amongst the rubble.

“Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”

May we go out today to make that Good News true in our lives, and in the lives of those around us.

 

Andrew Anderson

Oxford, April 2019