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.

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