Risen?

Read: Colossians 1:15-20

This sermon was inspired by the post “5 Easter Questions to Answer for Millennials”

This passage in Colossians is one of my favorite presentations of the Gospel in the whole of the NT. It tells us who Jesus is, what he has done, and why it was so. I particularly appreciate the way  the English Standard Version translates that last phrase:

“…making peace by the blood of his cross.”

In our worship today, we celebrate Christ’s resurrection. But this may also be a Sunday that bears unspoken questions, inward wrestlings, observed inconsistencies, and even secret denials. Because of that, I’d like to step away from what some of you might be expecting this morning, in order to address some honest questions that may be on someone’s heart today.

1. Why should I be convinced a man really rose from the dead?

We start with a sticky wicket if there ever was one. If I am willing to believe the testimony of the Bible, there’s no question at all. All gospels speak of an empty tomb; Matthew, Luke, and John all describe the resurrection and name witnesses. The NT actually relates twelve different times the risen Jesus appeared to folks, including one blockbuster appearance to over 500 people, most of whom, Paul says, were still alive when he was writing (1Cor 15:6).

But let’s say you’re the skeptical type. I know I am. Think about this? What other explanation is there for what happens among Jesus’ followers? 

The gospels are clear in showing that “the disciples were emphatically not expecting Jesus to be raised from the dead, all by himself in the middle of history” (Wright, SbH, 60). How do you get from frightened and disillusioned disciples hiding out from the authorities to the spiritual wildfire that spread to Rome and beyond in such a short time? There is no other possible explanation for how these stories and beliefs grew up so quickly and with such fervor among Jesus’ followers.

There have been (over the years) many counter-arguments that have circulated. Maybe one of these days, I’ll work up a sermon that shows just how insufficient these are. But suffice it to say–to this day, I have yet to encounter a rival explanation that sufficiently accounts for the transformation of the disciples from timidity to authority, as well as for the exponential spread of Christianity those first few hundred years.

2. If Jesus going to the cross was all about love, why do I see so much hatred and judgment in churches?

Short answer: because so many people and churches care more about themselves and what others think than they do about following Jesus.

Of course, like all short answers, that is a bit harsh.

A slightly more expansive answer (and one that is perhaps a bit more honest, too), is that churches are made up of people who are not yet transformed into Christ’s image. We bear the name of our savior, but even the best among us only strive to live into that image.

Scriptures tell us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23); that “by grace [we] have been saved through faith. And this is not of [our] own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8); and that we are not yet “like him,” though we will be so changed “when [Jesus] appears” again (1Jn 3:2).

Most of us Christians identify all too well with the inner struggle Paul describes in Rom 7(:15, 18b-19)

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

Also, like so many others, we too often fall into the traps and trappings of our culture and world.

The real question is how we–both inside and outside churches–ever could have thought that churches can be any other way. As a church sign I once saw read: “This church is not full of hypocrites. There’s still room for one more.”

3. How do you think this story could change my life after I leave the doors of this church?

Human beings–almost universally–have common themes in life. We struggle with purpose. We wrestle with the good and evil present in our world. We ask: “Is there more to all this?” The gospel message of Jesus Christ and the Easter story answer loudly: “Yes. there is!”

I believe there are at least two important ways this story can change your life. First, the Easter story is one that reorients reality. It is, to use a modern-day metaphor, like taking the red pill, the one that pulls you out of the matrix. Like Morpheus, I stand before you today with a choice.

Take the blue pill—the story ends, you walk out these doors and believe whatever you want to believe. Nothing changes.

“You take the red pill—…and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” As Morpheus says, “all I’m offering is the truth.”

The truth is:

  • If Jesus has been raised from the dead, then every power that uses fear to control has lost its authority.
  • If Jesus has been raised from the dead, then every bridge that has been burned can be rebuilt.
  • If Jesus has been raised from the dead, then the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not (after all) have the last word.
  • If Jesus has been raised from the dead, then we each can rise beyond who we try to be and become who we are meant to be.
  • If Jesus has been raised from the dead, there is nothing that can separate us from the God who loves us so.

This story can completely reorient the way we understand reality–that’s one way it will change you. The other is this: it gives us a mission. A purpose. One author sums up the meaning of Easter in this way:

“Jesus is raised, so he is the Messiah, and therefore he is the world’s true Lord; Jesus is raised, so God’s new creation has begun–and we, his followers, have a job to do! Jesus is raised, so we must act as his heralds, announcing his lordship to the entire world, making his kingdom come on earth as in heaven” (Wright, SbH, p.56).

If Jesus is raised, we have God’s work to do. As the old song says, “Let us labor ’till the Master comes.”

4. Is it ok for me to question what you’re saying?

Now I pour hours into every sermon, hoping to ensure that what I share is truly God’s message for those present. I do so–not to show that I’m smarter than you–but so if anyone chooses to do their own independent research, they will likely come to the same exact conclusions.

You should question everything said by every pastor and spiritual leader you hear. You should take to the Bible and prayer, and if you still don’t see what was said, you should ask questions. Press back, not assuming you are right and I am wrong or vice versa, but in conversation with both listening as truth is sought. If Jesus is in fact “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:3), then we can trust that all truth comes from God. And even more: no amount of questioning can change truth into untruth–questions and honest seeking can only reveal more depth to the truth.

But also, I believe Christianity is most true when we recognize that we are a faith built more on questions than answers. You’ve heard me say it before: Being a Christian is not about knowing the right things.

When we rightly recognize who God is, then we will also realize that much of God will remain a mystery to us. When we try to fathom salvation, we will come up against the wall of our own cognitive limitations. Over and over we will be forced to say “I don’t know.” That doesn’t we don’t try, it just means we must be willing to pursue and sit with questions that will not be answered in this life. It means we must “contemplate the mysteries of faith,” as our Christian forbearers would have described it.

In his book Surprised by Hope, New Testament scholar and pastor Tom Wright says:

Though the historical arguments for Jesus’s bodily resurrection are truly strong, we must never suppose that they will do more than bring people to the questions faced by Thomas, Paul, and Peter, the questions of faith, hope, and love (p.74).

Contrary to what is often thought, it is questions (more than answers) that drive us toward the faith, hope, and love that is central to our walk with Jesus. Without questions, we cannot mature from our infant-like acceptance of the milk of faith to the deliberate chewing on the meat of the life of Christ.

Conclusion

One such deep mystery of the faith is the very simple question of “Who is Jesus?”–a question that undergirds much of our worship today. As we proclaim resurrection in our worship this morning, we continue contemplate that mystery even more. One answer–which itself deserves deeper reflection, is that of our Colossians reading. Listen again from another translation (The VOICE):

[Jesus] is the exact image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation, the eternal. It was by Him that everything was created: the heavens, the earth, all things within and upon them, all things seen and unseen, thrones and dominions, spiritual powers and authorities. Every detail was crafted through His design, by His own hands, and for His purposes. He has always been! It is His hand that holds everything together.

He is the head of this body, the church. He is the beginning, the first of those to be reborn from the dead, so that in every aspect, at every view, in everything—He is first. God was pleased that all His fullness should forever dwell in the Son who, as predetermined by God, bled peace into the world by His death on the cross as God’s means of reconciling to Himself the whole creation—all things in heaven and all things on earth.

Christ is Risen!
He is risen, indeed!

Amen.

In Memoriam

Read: Luke 22:14-26, 31-34Luke 22:39-62; and Luke 23:26-27, 32-56

Good Friday is one of the most painful holy days of the year. This explains why so many of us avoid it year after year……and why we are so quick to jump from Palm Sunday to Easter. But yet so much of such importance happens in those too-often ignored days of life and ministry.

Good Friday, if we will be true to the Bible, is a funeral for our hopes and dreams—and not in that “when we all get to heaven” celebration kind of way; No! it is a time of tragic sadness.

We lay to rest aspirations and expectations as we sit—mournfully—with the disciples who really and truly thought this was the end. That things just didn’t turn out the way they had hoped. That maybe they had gotten it all wrong, and Jesus wasn’t the messiah they thought he was.

In the darkness of this night:

We too misunderstand what Jesus says with clarity.

We too wrestle with doubt.

We too struggle to stay awake.

We too choose the easy paths of the world.

We too deny our Lord.

We too flee when things get difficult.

We too mock others even when we ourselves are dying.

We too fail to understand that even death cannot hold back the love of God.

Therein lies the Easter message. But it is not yet Easter. So tonight, and tomorrow, we join the disciples for an honest couple days in the darkness of uncertainty.

If we cannot sit with them in the darkness of this night, we have no right to celebrate the dawn to come. Do not sleep, my sisters and brothers, but pray that you may not enter into temptation.

The Prodigal Messiah

Read: Luke 15:11-32 and Luke 19:28-40

New Eyes

Back many years ago, a New Testament professor of mine suggested that whenever you think you know what a parable of Jesus is about: turn it on its head, rearrange the characters, or somehow look at it differently.

These stories, like all symbols and metaphors, are layered with potential meaning. As part of our Christian scriptures, parables such as the Prodigal Son are not simply ancient morality lessons; through the ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit, these words speak old truths in new ways, addressing the heart of each reader and generation.

To that end, I found myself wondering: What if we read the story of Jesus and the Palm Sunday story through the lens of the parable of the Prodigal Son?

A Prodigal Jesus?

So……what if Jesus is the prodigal? Even considering such a thing, we are obviously looking from a limited human perspective instead of the omniscient perspective of God (which we too often pretend is our own). So from our human perspective—in scriptures and in our lives:

How has Jesus appeared to be prodigal—extravagantly wasteful?

Reading the parable, it’s easy to see that the older brother believes the prodigal son has wasted two things: time and resources.

How does it appear Jesus wastes time?
How does it appear Jesus wastes resources?

I took to the Bible to see what kinds of criticisms were launched at Jesus. And, in the way such things go, something immediately connected. Most of attacks Jesus suffered were at the hands of the Pharisees, who fit the role of the older brother in the parable pretty well.

They, like he, are the the ones who are steadfast, dependable,

Never gonna give you up
Never gonna let you down
Never gonna run around and desert you
Never gonna make you cry
Never gonna say goodbye

They are the good, religious, got-it-all-together kind of people.

But they are also the ones of whom Jesus says: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20)

All this makes the Pharisees a pretty good fit for the older brother in the parable. And what is their frequent criticism of Jesus? It is that Jesus wastes time with the wrong kind of people.

In multiple places, you can find the Pharisees asking Jesus or his disciples “Why does he eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mk 2:16). They see Jesus—much as does the older brother in the parable—as frittering away time and resources on intangibles like food and drink and parties instead of more sound and respectable choices.

But to that criticism, Jesus responds directly—albeit with a bit of sarcasm:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17 ESV).

The “well ones”, the “righteous”—in other words, the older brothers, the Pharisees—see the way Jesus spends his time as a dereliction of duty—he should spend his time with us (they believe, and sometimes we do too), or at least doing the things we think are most important.

Maybe (once this is obvious to us) the identification of the “father” in the parable then becomes clear. Perhaps the father—the one who welcomes the prodigal messiah with open arms—is precisely those who are “sick” in sin. Maybe those awful sinners that we avoid at church and the supermarket—perhaps they are the ones who are most likely to welcome this messiah with open arms. Perhaps they are the father, to our filling the older brother’s shoes.

Palm Sunday Story

Using the parable of the Prodigal Son as a backdrop for the story of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we see things continue to line up.

On Sunday, the crowds expected Jesus to be/act/do things a certain way. Yes, they honored him; but that honor was conditional. In honoring him, they entrusted him with certain hopes and expectations. Perhaps they expected him to advance their cause—to overthrow Rome, to reestablish a nation of Israel, to enforce their interpretation of the Law onto those who dissented……

But instead of using that trust and those resources to advance their cause, they witnessed Jesus piddling them away in the gutter, spending his time with prostitutes and tax collectors, people who were believed to be unfit to worship in God’s house, and sinners of the highest order.

So, as we might then expect, the crowds turned against this prodigal Jesus on Good Friday, just as the older brother turns against the prodigal. Shouts change from “Hosanna!” to “crucify him!”; and before Pilate they ask for the release of another man, Barabbas.

While our biblical text does not make this explicit, it is quite possible that Barabbas was yet another person claiming to be the messiah and attempting be precisely the right kind of messiah—the kind that promised to overthrow Rome. The crowd (it is clear) would much prefer such a military messiah to this prodigal Jesus, so they turn against him—just as does the older brother against the younger in the parable.

When power and money and what-I-deserve is at risk, the older brother does not see how love comes into play. He does not welcome this messiah—whoever he may be or however he may be. He can only extend welcome on his own terms……to achieve his own ends……at any cost.

Back to Us

These stories and verses demand that we reevaluate our own practices of welcome and hospitality. They force us to ask what “the church” is supposed to be? They remind us that if our care/our ministry/our attention is focused on those who are well, then we are likely following the wrong messiah. If that is the case:

Perhaps even, when Jesus comes again, we too will stand by disappointed when the prodigal messiah returns.

Perhaps we too will be angry and frustrated at the undermining of our ideas of who and how Jesus should be and love.

Perhaps we too will be left standing outside, wondering what all this means for us and our positions of respect/authority/and power?

Conclusion

From the perspective of the Jews, the Messiah was a prodigal—who knows who, doing who knows what; but clearly not where and who we need him now. There are a lot of people who feel that way today.

But the biblical texts remind us that when the Messiah did come, he was not as expected. No triumphant arrival of the now-rich, now-powerful. No glory and pomp and circumstance.

Quite the opposite: the Messiah came as a servant. Instead of running to him and embracing him, the Messiah’s own family (the Jews) turned against him. And so their rejected prodigal became our loving Savior.

That loving Savior meets us where we are and how we are. He defies our expectations, but he loves us as we are. He forgives without cause, embraces without hesitation, and chases even the darkest shadows away.

Hallelujah! What a savior!

Transition to Hymn

There’s a hymn called “Lead Me to Calvary.” The last stanza is a kind of prayer:

May I be willing, Lord, to bear
Daily my cross for Thee;
Even Thy cup of grief to share,
Thou hast borne all for me.

Lest I forget Gethsemane;
Lest I forget Thine agony;
Lest I forget Thy love for me,
Lead me to Calvary.

We celebrate today Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem for the Passover. But we cannot forget the trajectory of today’s events—for in them, Jesus was pointed squarely at the cross.

If we are to be his followers, that too will be the direction of our own lives. In the eyes of the world, it may look like we have become prodigals ourselves, when we follow the biblical teachings that instruct us to share what we have; to take care of aliens, widows, and the fatherless; to visit the sick and those in prison; and to live as a servant of all.

But such is the path of Jesus. If we are going to follow that path, we need to know more about it. And I’d encourage you to consider participating in some of the various opportunities here at First Baptist to do just that. I would be happy to talk with you more about advancing your walk with Jesus through the small groups we have here.

But also, James reminds us in the second chapter of his letter that faith and belief alone is not enough. Being saved is not about knowing the right things. It’s about following Jesus. We must, like James suggests, “show [our] faith by [our] works.” And to that end, I’d like to encourage you to consider how or whether your faith is lived out in your life—through your relationships, your Facebook feed, your political discourse, your time management, your parenting strategies, your attentiveness at work and school……all of it.

Because if we are disciples of Jesus……if we are working to follow his path—a path that points toward the cross—then that identity will permeate every part of our being. After all, if Jesus’ disciples do not proclaim his gospel of love and life, then these very stones will cry out.