A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on August 29, 2010.
1 Corinthians 15:3-8
O God, you are the one who speaks to our hearts and gladdens our every step. As we pray this morning, we pray in confidence about prayer. Even as we bow our heads and close our eyes, and as we try to determine what things we should bring before you, we do so believing that prayer matters, that prayer makes a difference. Remind us of times where even our most fleeting prayers have opened our lives to the awareness of your presence. Remind us of times when we prayed day after day, week after week, for what seemed to be forever, and in your time, when our hearts were finally ready to receive the request, you granted it to us. Call to our minds the times that we prayed for one thing until we realized that you wanted to give us something else, and we learned to pray for that. O God, there are so many lessons to learn, yet so many times when you have indeed blessed us with your leadership in our lives in times of certainty, times when your grace and care have been so clear. We ask today that you would indeed restore our confidence that prayer matters, that it matters in the world and that it matters in our own hearts, not for the sake of the answers that we have sought but for finding you, for those times when we prayed and did, indeed, encounter you, heard your voice, felt your presence, and even reveled in the forgiveness that you offered us. We thank you for those times when we simply slept in peace because of your nearness. All we really want is you, O Lord, not gifts, but just to be at home in your heart, not even protection, but just to know that you are our rock and our defender. Grant us yourself, and our prayers will all be answered. In Christ’s name. Amen.
The truth of the resurrection is not simply that Jesus is no longer among the dead, but that he now shares the life and power of God.
—Luke Timothy Johnson in The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters
There is an old African-American spiritual that comes from the time of slavery. It is a song that was often used during times of baptism while they were gathered around a pond, creek or river. The song includes the words, “I looked at my hands and my hands looked new. I looked at my feet and my feet looked new. I looked at my brother and my brother looked new.” That spiritual reflects the Christian conviction that when Christ comes to a life, Christ changes things.
Let’s talk about some of the earliest name changes that we read about in the New Testament.
His name was Simon, but when Jesus said, “You will be the rock on which I build my church,” he was given a new name. His name became Peter. There was a change that came about in his life because of knowing Jesus Christ.
Saul was persecuting the church. He was assenting to the death and stoning of early disciples. After his encounter with Jesus, he was given a new name. His name became Paul. We see in these name changes across the countless ages and even in our own lives that when Christ comes, things change. If God is real as we understand through scripture, and if we follow him according to the ways we are taught by Jesus Christ, then how on earth could there not be something different about people who follow God through Christ and people who don’t?
As I have mentioned, for a few weeks now, we are on a worship journey that lasts through May called Now That I Believe. We are going to take these months to explore the things that happen in a person’s life when we begin to follow Christ. What are the things that have taken place and the things that ought to take place? What are the expectations that Christ would have of me now that I follow him? Through next Sunday, we are talking about the core beliefs that we have.
The first Sunday, we determined that God is. Do we read the atheist works that are the best sellers? It is very popular to talk about why it makes no sense to believe in God. Surely, to believe in God sets one group of people apart from another group of people.
Last week, we discussed that there really is something called salvation. There really is a movement in our lives from darkness to light. We move from being selfish and filled with our own pride to God’s love. There really is something broken in the universe that includes our lives. When we come to God through Christ, we are healed, restored, and rescued.
Today, we come to that time when we talk about what it means to believe in Jesus. Why do we believe that God is? Why do we believe in salvation? Why do we believe that Jesus is God’s son?
We read it in scripture. We were taught this as children. Before we were old enough to form decisions for ourselves, we were taken to church and Sunday school and we sung it in the hymns. The real reason that we believe in Jesus is not simply because it is true but because it is real.
I have used this illustration a number of times, but I don’t know any better way to describe it than this. There are many things in our lives that we know in our minds that they are true. We believe them with all of our hearts. We would defend them to the death, and if somebody asked us about them, we would say that they are the deepest of our convictions. But when we come down to it, they really become a part of us. We know it at a deeper level when these things become real.
The easiest one to describe is love. Why do you believe in love? Do you believe in love because you had a good literature teacher in high school who made you read all the sonnets and you thought, “That’s so touching.”
Do you believe in love because you grew up listening to the oldies radio station and you really like The Temptations when they sing, My Girl? Is that why we believe in love?
Did somebody write an essay that we read and we thought, “O yes. Love is a wonderful thing?” I can promise you that is not the reason.
I love because, as a child, I was loved. I love because, as a child, I knew the security of a home, and I had parents and extended family who loved me. I believe in love because I am a husband and have shared a love with a wife all my adult life. I love because I am a father and I know the depth of love that is so joyous that it can hurt and the depth of love that is so fierce that I would gladly sacrifice my life for my children. I believe in love, not because of something that I have read but because I have experienced love. I have had the opportunity to be loved and to love back. There is not anything that anybody could write that would make me believe that deeply. When I hear these things, when I hear the right song, and when I read the right sonnet, I recognize that it has helped me put into words those things that I have experienced, but I believe because it is real. This is why we believe in Jesus, not simply because we read it in the Bible or somebody showed us pictures in Sunday school. All of these things prepare the fertile ground of our hearts, but it is that moment where we encounter Christ who is alive in the world today and he becomes real to us and we say, “I’ve got to read about this. What else can we know about Jesus?” and we go to the scripture.
If you will notice in the New Testament, there are two different types of stories about the resurrection. There are those stories about the empty grave. “He is not here. He is risen just as he has said. He goes before you to Galilee.” Mary said, “What have you done with my Lord? Where have you taken him?” thinking that his body has been stolen. All of these stories report that the grave is empty. The stone has been rolled away and there is no body in the tomb.
But that is not where the New Testament ends. It also moves to the experience of those people. When Mary comes back to the disciples she says, “I have seen the Lord.” It is not just that the tomb is empty, but she had now seen him. He appears to the disciples and what does Thomas say? Thomas says, “I have no experience in this. I have not experienced it myself so I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it just because you tell me. I am going to have to see him and I am going to have to put my fingers in the wounds to do it.” Of course, he gets his wish. Jesus appears and says, “Put your fingers here. See these wounds.” Thomas falls down at the experience of seeing the risen Jesus Christ and says, “My Lord, and my God.”
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is recounting these people who experience the risen Christ. It is not simply the report about an empty grave but it is about the people who meet Jesus after he has been raised from the dead. Paul says, “Then last of all, to one untimely born, to me.” Paul is saying, “I was born in a time and in a place where I did not have the opportunity to be there. Even though I come on the scene after all of those initial appearances and after the ascension, he still appeared to me.” Of course, our testimony is that he continues to appear all the time. He continues to speak, he continues to call our name, he continues to be a real and powerful presence in our lives. We can all count stories where something happened and we were upset, worried, and distressed. A peace came upon us, and the only way we knew to describe it was to say, “Christ put his hand on my shoulder.” If somebody had been there watching, they would not have seen it, but it was real to us because the present Christ, the one who was raised from the dead and lives forever, is among us.
There are those moments when we needed a word of guidance. We needed to know what to do. The word came to us and it seemed beyond our ability to even think up something like that. The only way we know how to describe it to someone else is, “Christ told me to do this.” It was as real as if someone had whispered in our ear. The word came into our heart and we realized that it is the present Christ leading us and telling us what to do.
I have known people who have had experiences in their lives that they are almost embarrassed to tell because they think it sounds creepy. People have experienced what they know to be the presence of God through a stranger who was there and then was gone, through things that happened in nature. They cannot be convinced of anything other than God was speaking to them in that event. I daresay that many of us have never told other people about the experiences we have because we are so afraid that people will think we are nuts, but the truth of the matter is, it is just one more piece of evidence that the Living Christ is here and touches our lives. I don’t simply believe in Jesus because of what I have read in scripture but because Christ has spoken to me, led me, and done things in my life that there is no other explanation for.
We are Christians, not simply because we believe in God. A lot of different faith traditions believe in God. We are Christians, not simply because we believe in salvation. Other religions have things they ask people to do or to be a part of in order to have some experience that they would describe as being saved, being chosen, or being among the right people. That is not unique in world religions. But we are Christians because we believe that Jesus Christ died and was raised from the dead on the third day. He did not simply teach disciples back then. He teaches us now.
When I open the Bible and read, it is as if the voice of Christ is speaking to me now. I find it very difficult to speak about Christ in the past tense. Jesus is now. We believe these things, not simply because we think we are worshiping the right way, that we have the most facts in our favor, or that science has given us reason to understand quantum physics and why we believe in the resurrection of the dead now and understand where they could not have understood it years ago. We believe because we have encountered Jesus, and he is real. He is real and he is here.
In all the stories of scripture about the resurrection, there is another not yet mentioned. It is the Road to Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke. The friends are walking along and they encounter Jesus whom they don’t recognize. As they walk along, they are talking about what happened in Jerusalem. Jesus says, “Tell me about it.”
The friends say, “Are you a stranger? Are you the only one who doesn’t know what happened?” They tell him about the events, and he opens the scripture to them. The literal thing that Luke says is, “He unstops their ears.” He explains why Christ came, died, and was raised from the dead.
When they come to the house, they say, “Won’t you come in and stay with us?” As they sit down, the table is spread before them. He takes the bread, picks it up, blesses it, and breaks it. In the breaking of the bread, they knew who he was.
As we state our conviction about Jesus and state our conviction that Christ is not among the dead but is among the living, we come to the table where the bread, the symbol of his body broken for us, is before us. The cup, the symbol of his life, poured out for us on the cross, is before us. Christians, for all time, have said there is something in this observance that allows us to sense the presence of Christ deeper than anywhere else. Instead of talking about it, what more fitting way is there than to take to our hands and to our mouths, the symbol that God is with us through Christ, that he has loved us enough to give his only son for us that we might have life?
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.