The Reality of the Resurrection - easter 2017
I learned fairly early in my life that Santa Claus wasn’t real. My parents had no real desire to let us keep on believing that story, so in our house Santa Claus was a fun story we told: we’d put out cookies and milk (knowing full well my parents would eat them just after we went to bed), and in the morning there’d be a few presents under the tree with the tag written “From Santa” in my mom’s handwriting. It was fun. But I had some friends who took it very seriously. I’d say things like, “You mean you think Santa’s real?” and they’d look at me like I was insane. Nothing I could say would convince them—they knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Santa was real. So for them, the cookies and milk thing had all the seriousness of a sacrament. The point is that knowing something isn’t real takes all the weight out of an idea; you can’t get too worked up about something, or put much stock in it, if you know it’s not real. And on the flipside, if you know something is real, it completely changes the way you relate to that particular idea.
The problem with Santa Claus is essentially the same problem that most people have with Jesus. We may be able to swallow the idea of some kind of a higher power, but the idea that this ancient book might be telling the truth about Jesus being the Son of God and dying on a cross in Jerusalem and that somehow his death earns forgiveness for our sins and sets us right with God if we put our faith in him… You have to admit, it sounds nuts. So our entire faith depends on whether or not we believe this story is true, whether or not the events which are told in this book are real.
We’re going to be looking at a passage from the end of the gospel of Luke. Luke was a doctor, an educated man, who was with the apostle Paul on many of his missionary journeys. But most importantly here, Luke never assumes you’ll just take his word for it. He set out to write this book in order to convince a skeptic, a man named Theophilus. And in order to produce as convincing a document as possible, he collected eyewitness accounts—from people who had been with Jesus and watched him and followed him. So he’s essentially doing the work of a journalist, taking accounts from eyewitnesses, comparing them against documents which already existed (like the gospel of Mark), and providing a complete account of what happened.
And he would have had ample resources to draw from. Luke’s mentor, the apostle Paul, writes this in 1 Corinthians 15.3-9: 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. So although all those who had seen Jesus weren’t still alive, most of them were: Luke would have had several hundred eyewitness testimonies to draw from to make his case. And this is extremely important—even today, the integrity of a journalist depends on his obtaining multiple sources before reporting any given story.
In this case, there were literally hundreds. The point is that the events depicted in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and in Luke’s gospel were verifiable. They took place in real places with real people, and these people and places could easily be investigated and proven right.
So the passage we’ll be looking at today is actually a great reflection of that idea. So let’s go to chapter 24 of the gospel of Luke; we’ll start reading at v. 36. Just to set the scene a little, Jesus was crucified, he was buried in a closed tomb; and then three days later the stone was found rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, and the body was gone. Jesus appeared to a couple of disciples on the road to Emmaus, and these disciples have come to tell the eleven remaining disciples of this when Jesus shows up.
1) Jesus’s Appearance (v. 36-38)
36 As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. 38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”
So clearly this is disconcerting for the disciples, even with the guys just telling them they’d seen Jesus. If someone you loved had recently died, and then someone told you they saw that person walking down the road, you’d of course simply assume they were mistaken, even if they were insistent. But then if that person you loved suddenly showed up next to you in the room, you’d probably have the same reaction they did. They were startled and frightened (my guess is that’s Luke greatly understating their reaction) and thought they saw a spirit. They thought that what they were seeing couldn’t possibly be real; or at least, that it wasn’t really Jesus, but maybe his ghost, which is just as scary. And I love Jesus’s response: he acts as if they’re silly for being afraid. He says, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”
The disciples’ problem here is our problem. The main reason we have a hard time believing in Christianity is that nagging question, “Is this real?” Not even Christianity in particular, but just the idea of God in general—the one thing we all want to know is: is it real? Could God possibly be real?
If our answer to that question is no, then we’re atheists, pure and simple. I know we as Christians sometimes give atheists a hard time, because once we are convinced of the truth of the gospel, we see its evidences everywhere. But can please we cut atheists a little slack and remember that belief in God, in our day and age, is difficult? Charles Taylor, in his book A Secular Age, sums up the difficulty of belief in the modern West: the defining mark of our secular age is that now, everything is contestable. Our defining characteristic as a culture is not a simple rejection of God, but rather that people are open to other possibilities. And atheists do have this on their side: none of us can blame them for refusing to believe in something they don’t think is real. There’s a word for believing in a fiction: we call it a delusion.
But Taylor goes on, and what he says is absolutely right. Even if we manage to reason the possibility of God away, whether admit it or not, whether we realize it or not, we all feel there must be something more. We see this in a particularly keen way through art—particularly the stories we tell. In literature, in movies, in television and comics and video games, artists very often try to grasp things that aren’t real and make it feel like they are. Why do they do that? Why do we love the idea of lightsabers and fantastic creatures and magic and other worlds? Because even if we’re convinced these things aren’t real, there’s a part of us which wants them to be, and there’s a part of us that even feels they must be real, somewhere and somehow, which is why those stories are often told so vividly. The atheist author Julian Barnes put it this way: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” Or as Taylor puts it, even if we don’t believe in God, we are all “haunted” by him.
So faced with that feeling we have that God is there (even if we don’t actually believe he exists), the only choice atheists have is to go with what they can reason, what they can know, and explain their feelings away as simple bad wiring. I can feel however I want, but it doesn’t mean anything; what counts is what I know, what I can prove, what I can reason. An atheist sees a miraculous event and thinks, “I must be hallucinating. It must be a trick of the light. Because whatever this is, it can’t be real.”
Now, if we ask ourselves that question, “Could this be real?” and our answer is yes, then we’re up for a challenge. And that challenge is to be able to give a convincing reason as to why we believe it’s real. Most Christians are content with the subjective experience of conversion—as well we should be! The Holy Spirit works in our hearts to open our eyes and believe that the gospel is the truth; he convinces us that the Bible really is the Word of God. And that is usually enough for us. But God knows that even for those who are converted, there will be moments where our brains will speak a little more loudly than our hearts, and we’ll say to ourselves, “But do you hear yourself talking? This is nuts!”
So although the light which the Spirit shines in our hearts to regenerate us is completely sufficient, God in his grace gave us more than a subjective experience. He gave us an objective witness to a real person.
2) Jesus’s Reality (v. 38-42)
When Jesus sees the disciples doubting, see what he does (v. 38): 38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.
In other words, Jesus didn’t leave them with a merely subjective experience of his resurrection. Think about it—he could have simply come back from the dead, immediately ascended to heaven, sent the Holy Spirit, let the Holy Spirit do his work of opening the disciples’ eyes to see the truth that Jesus is alive…and let that be enough. He absolutely could have done that. But that’s not what he does. He gives them objective, physical, observable proof that he has been raised from the dead. “I’m not a ghost, I’m not a vision, I’m not an illusion—I’m real.”
He invites them to touch him. “Touch me, and see,” he says. “For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Even in his glorified body, he does not remain distant; he does not hold himself up as a faraway God to whom we have no access. He invites them to closeness, to intimacy, to contact with himself.
He invites them to look, and he tells them where to look. “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.” Why would this prove anything? Because his hands and feet still bore the marks of his crucifixion. The wounds where the nails went through were still visible. There could be no doubt, when they looked at his hands and feet; this was not a man who looked like Jesus; this was not some kind of strange doppelgänger. This was Jesus, the same Jesus who died on the cross—this same Jesus was now alive.
And then he does something that is profoundly simple and beautiful: he asks them for something to eat. V. 41: 41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate before them. So there’s more proof here. A hallucination can be more than visual and auditory; if one hallucinates strongly enough, one can even physically feel the hallucination. But a hallucination cannot make something disappear. A hallucination cannot eat the food on your table. The fact that he eats is the final objective proof to see that this is really a human being standing before them, and it really is this human being.
But it’s beautiful too, isn’t it? That the resurrected Christ, returned from death in glory and power, would do something so simple and human as eating a piece of broiled fish that his disciples had prepared. There are few things that bring people together like sharing food; and by this simple act Jesus shows that even now, he’s not above doing just that.
So now Jesus switches gears a bit. After having firmly established the reality of his resurrection to the disciples, he tells them the plan again. But this time, he’s not talking to them about theoretical possibilities. He’s not talking about something so high it’s barely imaginable. This time, when he tells them the plan, it has the weight of objective reality behind it.
3) The Plan (v. 44-49)
First Jesus looks to the past. V. 44: 44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” He had told them this before his death—that the Old Testament, which was all the Holy Scripture they had at that point, was speaking about him; that he would fulfill it, that he would accomplish all that was written there. This is nothing new. But at the same time, it was new, because now Jesus was telling them these things with the weight of the objective reality of his resurrection behind it.
So what does the objective reality of Jesus’s resurrection change about this? Jesus’s resurrection proves that not only has Jesus been telling the truth all along, but that the prophets were right! These folks had grown up hearing the prophets read; the Hebrew Bible was something they would have practically in their bones. But any of you who have grown up in church know this: no matter how many times you hear these stories, these prophecies, we all have moments where it all seems a little too incredible to be true. But now, everything these men and women had grown up hearing has been proven to them. This man, standing in front of them, was the objective, tangible proof that everything they’d always heard was true.
Next, Jesus focuses on the present. V. 45: 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
Jesus had already claimed the authority to forgive sins—in fact, this was one point of contention the Pharisees had with Jesus; they viewed this claim as heresy, because only God could claim such a power. So what does his resurrection change about this claim? Now, none of the disciples can say his claim is just a claim: he anchors his claim in rock-hard reality. The disciples had seen his life: Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life on our behalf, for us. And he died the death that we deserved—as Paul said, the wages of sin is death. But now, Jesus proves that he has Jesus has defeated death. His resurrection has proven that all the Scriptures said about the Messiah were true of him: it has proven that he is the Christ who was meant to suffer and die and rise again; it has proven that God has accepted his sacrifice for us; it has proven that he has the power over the sin that corrupted creation. He’s not looking forward to a faraway future, but today, he does indeed have the authority to forgive sins.
Lastly, he looks to the future. V. 46 again: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” Jesus demands that his disciples should now go and proclaim these things to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. This will be their mission until his return. So again—what impact does the resurrection have on the disciples’ marching orders?
History is filled with stories of people who have gone off on quests after receiving some kind of vision or assignment from a higher power. We have examples from fiction, like King Arthur and his quest for the Holy Grail, or Frodo and his quest to destroy the One Ring; we also have examples from true history, like Joan of Arc’s leadership during the siege at Orléans, claiming to be acting on a mandate from God. We’ve all heard stories of people setting off on quests hoping that things will go as they planned. But the resurrection proves that the disciples are not on a quest of that kind. They are not sent on an ideological quest, and theirs is not a doomed mission.
Their mission is a real matter of life and death; their message is the eyewitness testimony of this man; they are not dealing with ethereal, theoretical questions, but with absolute, concrete, objective reality. And they are not going out to proclaim this message on a frail hope that things will go as they should; but rather, with the objective reality of the risen Jesus behind them, they are leaving knowing they have received orders from God himself, the Son of God who has defeated death; and thus that when he tells them to go proclaim the gospel to all nations, it is because the gospel will be proclaimed to all nations.
You see, everything we believe in Christianity hinges on this one event. Everything we base our life on depends on this event. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15.17, if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. But in this book we have true, reliable, eyewitness accounts that this did happen. Jesus did live; he did die; he was raised. And his resurrection proves that he is who he said he was: the Son of God, the Word of God, the Savior, the Messiah, the One who has defeated sin and death.
So I’d like to encourage you this morning. If you believe in Christ, know that your own subjective experience of the Holy Spirit’s converting work is wonderful, and precious. But God didn’t leave you with only that subjective experience—he’s given you proof. The resurrection is real. Jesus is alive. So when you speak to others of your faith, you can point them to credible, eyewitness accounts that these things truly did happen. When you sing about the glories of the gospel, you can know that your joy is not delusion. When you pray for the forgiveness of your sins, you can know that your prayers are not mere wishful thinking. He died and was raised to forgive his people of their sins. This forgiveness is, like the resurrection, an objective reality which you can trust.
I’m well aware that some of you this morning may not know Christ; some here may not believe in him. I understand why, so please believe me when I say I’m thrilled you’re here with us. I hope you feel welcome. But I’d like to encourage you to consider that your disbelief in something doesn’t make it false. I can ask you your name and where you come from; and you can tell me your name is Julie, and you’re from Canada. To which I could respond, “No, I don’t think that’s true. I think your name is Carlos, and you’re from Mexico.” And I might even really believe it. But I think we’d agree that what I choose to believe about you doesn’t change who you are in the least, because you’re real. And it’s the same for everything that is real. So your question this morning should not be, “Can I accept these things?” but rather, “Might these things be real?” And the answer is a resounding “Yes.”
If you don’t know Christ this morning, the call of the gospel for you is not a call to believe in a fairy tale, or something too good to be true. It is true. Jesus did live; he did die; he did rise from the dead; he did ascend to heaven in his body; he will come again; and he invites all who will to believe in him and be forgiven by him, and adopted into God’s family forever. This is real, objective reality. You can trust it. You’re invited to trust it, and love it, and celebrate it for all eternity.