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How Do We Know He’s Alive?

 

Mark 16: 1-8

I: — “Did he really rise from the dead?” the sceptic asks. “Prove it. Prove that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the Dead. If you can prove it, then the Christian message might be true after all.”

Let me tell you right now: there is no proof. Jesus consistently refused to traffic in proofs. At the outset of our Lord’s public ministry the tempter took him up to the top of the CN Tower. “Jump off, and land without spraining your ankle; then the whole world will know that you are the Son of God.” “No”, Jesus had replied, “If I do that, people will only look upon me as a sideshow freak, they may find me entertaining or even puzzling, but they will never follow me and magnify my work in the world.” A few months later some bystanders were uncertain as to whether they should throw in their lot with Jesus or wait and see. “Give us a sign”, they told him, “an unmistakable sign that you are the one we should follow.” “No sign”, said Jesus; “Signs are for armchair debaters who lack commitment; signs foster arguments among armchair dabblers; I want foxhole followers. If you join me you will know who I am and rejoice in it; if you don’t join me, a sign won’t get you to change your mind. A sign will only set you to squabbling among yourselves as to what the sign means.” You see, for those who have met the risen Lord signs are superfluous; for those who have yet to meet him, no sign is ever sign enough.

From time to time people ask me if the resurrection of Jesus can be proved. It can’t. What’s more, Jesus himself has never wanted it proved. He has always wanted followers, not detectives.

II: — Then what can be proved? What is confirmed historically? History confirms two facts.

(i) Jesus of Nazareth landed himself in immense trouble with religious leaders. He was labelled a false prophet. Since “everyone” knew that the days of the prophets were past, anyone who sounded like a prophet had to be false. Therefore he was a false prophet.

He was a blasphemer too. He appeared to speak and act with the authority of God. When he was pressed to deny that he did so, he refused to deny anything. Anyone who claims to speak and act with the authority of God is a blasphemer.

He was a seducer of the common people. The ne’er-do-wells, the amoral, the irreligious — he drew them all to himself instead of sending them back to the pseudo-wisdom of the self-important and superior.

Not surprisingly, he was disposed of at the city garbage dump where the Roman executioner kept a scaffold ready-to-hand.

This is fact one. Thirty year-old upstart lands himself in trouble with religious officials who then ask civil authorities to execute him.

(ii) Fact two. His former followers, who had misunderstood him over and over and who had finally forsaken him and written off their time with him as embarrassing naiveness; his former followers began announcing zealously that he was alive. They were convinced he was alive, they said, simply because they had met him. Therefore they would no more think of trying to prove he was alive than you would try to prove me alive when you meet me at the door of the church after the service. No longer regarding him as deluded and themselves as naive, they worshipped him as Lord – he hadn’t been blasphemous after all when claimed to be the Son of God – and they insisted that with him a new age had dawned, the dawn of the “Age-to Come.”

History confirms that he died. History confirms that his former followers declared him to be alive, and declared him to be exalted as Lord of the entire creation.

“But wasn’t the tomb empty?” someone asks. If you were an ordinary citizen of Jerusalem and you heard reports of an empty grave in the city cemetery, you would merely conclude that someone, whether friend or foe, had removed the body for whatever reason. An empty tomb never proves that someone is alive; an empty tomb “proves” no more than that a tomb is empty; an empty tomb never proves that dead wandering teacher is now living ruler of the cosmos.

To be sure, early-day Christians insisted that the tomb was empty. Nevertheless, no early-day Christian believed upon Jesus risen because of an empty tomb. Early-day Christians believed upon Jesus risen because the living Lord Jesus himself had seized them and convinced them that he was alive and was in fact the very one they had seen crucified. This is the only reason anyone believed in the resurrection of Jesus then; it’s the only reason anyone believes in the resurrection now.

The apostle Paul didn’t make a trip to the Jerusalem cemetery, see an empty tomb, and finally draw the right conclusion. Quite the contrary. Paul was preoccupied with his cruel business of persecution when the risen One himself stepped in front of him and floored him. Peter was fishing. Mary Magdalene was grieving. Fearful disciples were fearing. All of these people were busy with the things which preoccupy us. And it was while those people were about everyday matters — working, weeping, fishing, fearing — that they were stolen upon, overtaken; they were impelled to acknowledge that Jesus had been brought to life and installed as sole, sovereign Lord. It still happens exactly like this.

III: — Let us be clear about something crucial. Romantics may tell us that Mozart “lives on” in his music and Shakespeare “lives on” in his plays and Martin Luther King Jr. “lives on” in the cause of justice for Afro-American people. But romantic talk is entirely inappropriate for Jesus. Jesus does not “live on” in his disciples. Jesus lives himself. Period. And because he lives himself, he directs and sustains and empowers his own cause throughout the world.

No early-day Christian remembered Jesus. Do you understand the force of this? No early-day Christian recalled Jesus. We remember or recall only those who have departed. We recognize those who are alive in our midst. Christians have always recognized Jesus. We meet him and adore him, hear him and cherish him, embrace him and obey him. We do. So did our ancestors before us. What did it mean for them?

(i) Our ancestors in faith revelled in their conviction that death had been conquered; not cancelled, but conquered. The difference is crucial. On my first pastoral appointment I sat with a woman who was most distressed at her 65 year old sister’s terminal illness. “If only Emma could be cured”, she kept saying, “if only a miracle would occur”. Gently, as gently as I could, I pointed out that if Emma’s terminal illness were reversed now, she would still have to die later. In other words, if she didn’t die at 65 she would still have to die at 69 or 72 or 81. If for some reason she came back to health at 65, then death had been cancelled at least for the moment; i.e., postponed.

But to say that death has been conquered is to say that death has been stripped of its power. On the day when the Lord was raised from the dead and death was stripped of its power, his people — you and I — became gloriously free. The writer of Hebrew insists that Jesus Christ has “destroyed the power of death and has delivered – freed – all who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” (Hebrews 2:15) Sigmund Freud maintained that no human being could honestly face the prospect of dying, and therefore all human beings were unconsciously controlled by fear of death. But Christians aren’t determined and governed by their fear of death; Christians are determined and governed by the risen one who has freed us from that bondage in which the fear of death imprisons people and manipulates them.

Because the Christian is freed from the power of death and therein from the bondage arising from the fear of death, the Christian is free to give her life away. The Christian is free to risk himself on behalf of the one who risked everything for the people he loved. And since the world-at-large unconsciously tries to protect itself against death by piling up things and fortunes and reputations and rewards, the Christian is gloriously freed from preoccupation with things and fortunes and reputations and rewards. Because death is now stripped of all power to dislodge us from our security in Christ, we are freed from having to pursue the false securities, abysmal insecurities, of money and fame and mastery. We are free to give ourselves away.

(ii) The resurrection meant something more to our ancestors in faith. It meant that God guarantees the effectiveness, the triumph, of all cross-bearing. When Jesus died on Black Friday, his followers had concluded that his cross meant one thing: his suffering was utterly disastrous and completely useless. But when God raised him from the dead, they knew something else: God had vindicated Christ’s suffering and now advertised it as victorious. The resurrection of Jesus – and only his resurrection – turned Black Friday into Good Friday, “God’s Friday.” Resurrection means that our Lord’s cross-bearing has triumphed: atonement has been made for the sins of the world. If his cross-bearing has triumphed, ours always will too; ours will always be effective.

Our Lord guarantees the effectiveness, the triumph of whatever cross we take up for him and for his work and for his people. Resurrection doesn’t mean that cross-bearing can now be stepped around; it doesn’t mean that what we used to call “cross-bearing” is now no more than a minor nuisance. Resurrection means something entirely different: the crosses we take up anywhere in life, everywhere in life, will always yield fruit of some kind. The crosses we shoulder are gathered up in that one cross which includes them all. And they will all be rendered fruitful by the power of that resurrection which made our Lord’s fruitful.

For this reason my mother spent years patiently assisting young girls who had been sent to an institution when their parents no longer wanted them or couldn’t look after them. The girls, aged 8 to 16, were ill-behaved, devious, frequently mean-spirited, and of course psychologically stressed. On one occasion they harmed my mother physically. I suspect that more than a few grew up to be psychopaths. Yet my mother always knew that what she endured from those girls for the few years of their lives she was in touch with them would bear some fruit which she could leave with God.

For this reason my late father went to the Fort Saskatchewan Penitentiary every single Sunday afternoon for as long as he lived in Edmonton (eleven years) to provide music and a sermon for a service of worship. He knew that the convicts often seemed indifferent and uncomprehending and even resentful. Yet he never felt that his time was wasted. One day when I was about twelve years old I asked my father (innocently, I thought) if he’d ever seen any results for his eleven years’ work among convicts. Immediately he turned to me and said, a bit sharply, “I didn’t do what I did in expectation of seeing results; I did it because it was right.” Still, in the providence of God he was permitted to see the fruit of his work on one occasion at least. One day my father was sitting on an Edmonton streetcar with my mother when a man approached him, whispered briefly to him and shook his hand. The man had come to repentance and faith through the prison ministry, and now exulted in the fact that he could live, one a day at a time, without falling back into criminality.

The sacrifices we make right now for the sake of the kingdom; likely only we are aware of them, and it would be both poor taste and unbiblical blabbing to speak too much about them. And of course there are days when we resent the pressure of the wood and wish we could ditch this cross plus so many others. Of course there are such days; after all, Jesus wasn’t grinning on Calvary . Nonetheless, on Easter Sunday we are given fresh heart because our conviction is renewed: that resurrection which vindicated our Lord’s suffering and rendered it victorious guarantees as much for us.

(iii) Lastly, our ancestors in faith knew that because Christ had been raised from the dead and now lived and ruled in their midst, he would always use them, honour their discipleship, empower their testimony, regardless of how badly they had failed him in the past or might fail him in the future. The Bible is an agonizingly honest book. It portrays God’s people with all their defects. There’s no cosmetic cover-up to make God’s people look good. Peter denies. David murders. Moses rages. James and John think they are going to get positions of privilege in the kingdom. With shocking insensitivity born of selfishness the disciples squabble among themselves over who is going to look best precisely when Jesus is at his worst.

It’s no wonder that on several occasions Jesus sighs with exasperation and addresses the disciples, “O you midgets of midget faith!” Yet because Jesus Christ is alive and honours the mission his people take up in his name, it is we, people of midget faith, fumbling faith, stumbling, bumbling, falling down faith; we are the ones he will ever use.

Regardless of everything we find amazing in life what’s most amazing, unquestionably, is the humility, patience and helpfulness of our Lord who continues to deem us indispensable and honour our work as only he can. We are people of little faith; yet little-faith-people are the only people he has. Then we his followers are the very people whose service he will magnify in a manner as wonderful as it is unforeseeable. I don’t need any proof of all this.

I am as confident about it as were my foreparents in faith, and for precisely the same reason. He who was raised from the dead overtook them not once but many times. As often as he did he reconfirmed himself as living, as lordly, as loving.

He has done as much to me. As much, I trust, as he has done to you.

Victor Shepherd
Easter 2004