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“If Christ Be Not Raised From the Dead . . . .”

 

1st Corinthians 15:12-20

In the course of my holocaust studies I frequently come upon accounts of heartbreaking delusion. I read, for instance, of Jewish people in the 1940s who hear of something dreadful said to be on the point of befalling their people. They look at each other in horror — but only for a few seconds — and then console themselves, “But of course it isn’t going to happen; it couldn’t happen here; we live in a civilized nation; this is the land of Beethoven and Schubert and Goethe and Heine and Schiller; this is the country whose appropriation of the Enlightenment gave Jewish people recognition and opportunities unparalleled anywhere else in Europe. What we’re told is about to happen could never happen here.” But it did happen, and when it happened the delusion was exposed as lethal – albeit exposed too late.

Our hearts go out to anyone we find living in a delusion.

The newscast tells us of yet another elderly person who opened her door to a man in a fine business suit, and who told her he was a bank official bent on uncovering a fraudulent bank employee. In order to help the bank in this important task would she kindly cooperate and temporarily withdraw her savings as well as her late husband’s life insurance benefits. We all know the rest of the story: another trusting eighty year old who has been swindled out of all her material resources.

Perhaps the most extreme form of living in a delusion — and therefore the one to which our hearts go out the most — is the delusion of the mentally deranged person. He tells us he is Napoleon fighting in the American Revolution, pursued alternately by the RCMP and Admiral Nelson. The psychotic person’s delusion appears to extend everywhere and comprehend everything. He appears most to be pitied.

What did I say? Extend everywhere and comprehend everything, most to be pitied. The apostle Paul insists that if Jesus Christ has not been raised from the dead then those who believe in him are deluded, overtaken by hallucination. Since those who believe in him believe that he is the one through whom and for whom everything has been made, that he is sovereign over the entire cosmos, then the delusion in which such believers are sunk is no little delusion. This delusion extends everywhere and comprehends everything. “If Christ be not raised from the dead”, says Paul, “we believers are of all people most to be pitied, for we are in the grip of a hallucination that’s total.”

I: — “If Christ be not raised”, the apostle begins, “then our preaching is in vain.” Of course it’s in vain. Preaching is always a matter of pointing to Jesus Christ as the living one who not only lives now but whom death will never be able to overtake again. What could be more futile, vain, than commending as living, living eternally, someone who is at this moment deader than a dinosaur? This is not to say that such a preacher herself is fraudulent or hypocritical; merely to say that such a preacher is deluded. And because she is deluded with respect to the truth about Jesus, what she urges upon others is unsubstantial, groundless, ineffective; in short, utterly unreal.

Preaching is never merely a matter of setting forth a cluster of ideas or notions on a religious topic. Preaching the gospel to the yet-ungospelized is not the same as commending capitalism to communists, or commending the Prime Minister’s platform to those who support someone else’s, or commending the monarchy to republicans, or commending sobriety to the substance-habituated. In every situation just mentioned someone is placing one set of ideas alongside another set, at the same time assuming that the other party will see the inherent superiority of the contrasting set of ideas. The western capitalist assumes that the notion of capitalism is transparently better than the notion of communism. The Chinese communist, needless to say, assumes the exact opposite.

Preaching isn’t this; preaching isn’t articulating notions whose inherent superiority is self-evident. Preaching, rather, is testifying to the living person of Jesus Christ as he is clothed with his truth. In the course of this testimony the living one himself emerges from the sincere but garbled utterance of the preacher and stands forth as living person to be seized and trusted and loved and obeyed. Preaching is a matter of uttering many words about Jesus when, in the midst of these many words, the Word himself steps forth in such a way that hearers are no longer assessing words; hearers are confronted with that Person whom they cannot evade and concerning whom they must now decide. But of course the one spoken about can loom up out of the many words about him and stand forth as the world’s sole redeemer and sovereign and hope only if he is alive. Unless Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and is now alive, preaching is nothing more than an exercise in comparing idea with idea, notion with notion, even bias with bias.

When next you hear a sermon ask yourself this question: does the preacher exude confidence in the promise of the risen Lord, confidence that he will startle hearers as witness is borne to him? Or does the preacher exude no such confidence, with the result that the sermon has to resort to shrillness, exaggeration, or manipulation? Preaching that resorts to such devices is already in vain, since these gimmicks attest the absence of any conviction that Jesus Christ is alive.

On the other hand, preaching that rests its confidence in the promise of the living one to manifest himself; rests its confidence in the one spoken about to speak for himself; rests its confidence that he who is pointed to as if he were far off in truth is here to meet us now; preaching that exudes the preacher’s experience of Christ; namely, that he can unstop deaf ears and open blind eyes and thaw frozen hearts — such preaching is never in vain just because the risen one himself will always honour it and use it to confirm himself alive as he puts another new-born on the road of lifelong discipleship.

II: — “If Christ be not raised from the dead”, the apostle continues, “then your faith is in vain.” Of course it’s in vain. Faith is our glad, grateful, adoring embracing of the one who has first embraced us. But the dead don’t embrace. Then if Jesus hasn’t been raised what we thought to be our faith (we thought we were embracing him) is the ghastliest delusion. Little wonder the apostle says we would then be the most pathetic, pitiable creatures on earth.

Think of it this way. Faith is always faith in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate One, the Son of God. On Good Friday it appeared that his Father had abandoned him to contempt and cruelty. What if Easter hadn’t occurred? What if the Father had abandoned his Son forever to contempt and cruelty? Faith in such a God would be ludicrous, and if ludicrous then surely in vain, for such faith (so-called) would be nothing more than the desperation of naïve people in the face of a snickering deity.

Or think of it this way. Faith in Jesus is faith that he is the one in whom God routs the tyranny of evil and renders the strongholds of Satan the kingdom of God . Faith in Jesus is faith that the mighty deeds of his earthly ministry were signs and instalments of that kingdom where only God’s will is done. But if Jesus isn’t raised from the dead then his mighty deeds, so far from being signs and instalments of the kingdom, were nothing more than transient, sideshow amusements.

What about his teachings? His teachings, he insisted, are the manufacturer’s manual to that kingdom which cannot be shaken. Are they? Or are they merely the exaggerated expostulations of an extremist? Let’s be honest: of themselves, our Lord’s teachings do resemble the exaggerated ranting of an extremist. Just listen to him. “Either you love God — profoundly love God — or you are more surely addicted to money than a junkie is to cocaine.” On the face of it this assertion is ridiculous. Why did he juxtapose God and mammon, God and money in this way? Why did he assume that God and money are the rival powers, jointly exhaustive, in the entire universe? His assertion is categorical, without qualification. He offers no argument, no explanation, just a bald, bold assertion. “Do you lust after someone to whom you aren’t married? Then you are an adulterer, just like those promiscuous types you despise in your heart and warn your children against.” “Either you forgive from your heart the person who has violated you or you have invoked the death sentence upon yourself, for either you pardon the person whose treatment of you is inexcusable or you forfeit God’s pardon of you.” “You won’t give up anything that inhibits your spiritual growth? Then you aren’t fit for the kingdom of God and you might as well depart for the outer darkness right now.” Our Lord’s teaching sounds so very extreme. It is extreme. Then is it wildly exaggerated and for that reason false? If he hasn’t been raised from the dead then his teachings can be dismissed as the raving of a zealot we do well to forget. If, on the other hand, he has been raised and now lives eternally, then we should pause and ponder his teachings, for they are the manufacturer’s manual to that kingdom which cannot be shaken.

III: — “If Christ be not raised…you are still in your sins”, the apostle continues. Of course we are. We are still in our sins in two senses. In the first place, if Christ be not raised then his Father’s ratification of his death as the effectual sacrifice for sin hasn’t occurred. The death of Jesus is then no different from the deaths of the two terrorists who died alongside him. Concerning the deaths of these two terrorists Charles Wesley never wrote, “God and sinners reconciled.” Concerning their deaths another hymnwriter didn’t write, “In the cross of terrorists I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time.” When John the Baptist was executed his friends lamented that a good man had been bushwhacked; his friends never exulted that the sin of the world had been dealt with definitively.

The resurrection of Jesus, on the other hand, is the Father’s declaration that this execution is unique in all the world; this execution isn’t defeat but victory. This execution isn’t finally martyrdom but amnesty. This execution isn’t finally ultimately to be lamented but celebrated. Because Christ has been raised from the dead we know what his death means. Because Christ has been raised the Father has declared to the world that the Son’s sacrifice is sealed, accepted, honoured, made effective for all men and all women everywhere.

There is a second sense in which the Corinthian Christians, to whom Paul wrote these words, would still be in their sins if Christ had not been raised. If Christ had not been raised then Christ could not seize the people in Corinth and claim them for obedience and righteousness. Had they not been seized, claimed for obedience and righteousness, they would still be stumbling in disobedience and wallowing in unrighteousness.

Make no mistake. The reputation of the people of Corinth was known the world over. It resembled the reputation of present-day Thailand . Everyone knows what the major tourist attraction is in Thailand . Everyone knows that the business of venereality is so lucrative in Thailand that the government there won’t do anything about it, won’t even protect the twelve and thirteen year olds who are exploited by it. The ancient world had a word for all this, a verb: “Corinthianize”. In the ancient world if you wanted to speak of every kind of degenerate human sexual activity from the shamelessly immoral (but not perverse) all the way to the unmentionably perverse, you needed only one word: “Corinthianize”. If Christ had not been raised from the dead, he wouldn’t have — couldn’t have — seized and startled and claimed those who came to faith in him and were added to the congregation in that city. Those people would still have been doing what they had been doing before the risen one had arrested them. In this sense they would still be in the midst of their profligate sins.

You and I are less dramatic sinners than the people of Corinth . To say we are less dramatic sinners, however, is not to say we are any less sinners. Yet because Christ has been raised from the dead we too are no longer in our sins; no longer in our sins in the sense that we are now endeavouring to repudiate sin as quickly as we recognize it, endeavouring to put it behind us, never so much as to entertain it or flirt with it. We want only to triumph over it and praise God for the victory, like any authentic disciple.

IV: — “If Christ be not raised”, the apostle says in conclusion, “then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” Of course they have perished. Only the deluded would think anything else. Christians have always known that death is death. Romantics may disguise death romantically and pretend any number of silly things about death, but Christians know that death isn’t sleep. (Jesus didn’t sleep on the cross.) Death is death.

It is the presence of Jesus Christ — and only the presence of the risen one – that renders death sleep for his people. When Paul speaks of “those who have fallen asleep in Christ” he means Christians who have died and who have trusted the resurrection of Christ to be their resurrection too. But if Christ has not been raised then there is no resurrection for them to trust to be theirs. They died trusting a phantom; they died deluded.

Yet Christ has been raised from the dead. Their trust in him has not been misplaced, has not been in vain. What it all means is that we can entrust our departed loved ones to the care and keeping of the God who will preserve them and us as surely as he has preserved his own Son.

Christ has been raised from the dead. Preaching is not in vain. Faith is not in vain. We are not still in our sins. And our friends in Christ who have died have truly “fallen asleep in Christ”, for his resurrection is theirs — and ours — as well.

Christ has been raised from the dead. We are not deluded folk who are briefly living out a giant fantasy. We live in truth. We shall never have to be pitied, let alone pitied above all others.

Christ has been raised from the dead.

Victor Shepherd
Easter 2007