A Sermon Based Upon 1 Corinthians 15: 1-10a
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
February 19th, 2017, Series: Apostles Creed 8/15)
Tom Hanks received a well-deserved Academy Award for his powerful role in the film, Castaway. A contemporary Robinson Crusoe story, Tom Hanks played FedEx trainer, Chuck Nolan, whose company plane crashed into the sea killing all other passengers.
Nolan survived in a life raft, which washes ashore on a deserted island. The only consolation is that many of the FedEx packages also start washing up on shore. Nolan opens the packages, hoping he they might help him survive. Many of the packages seem useless; like the pair of ice skates, or the basketball he names “Wilson”. But Nolan found a creative use for them, like when he made the skates into a hatchet for a dental tool. After watching that you would never let Tom Hanks be your dentist! The most important package, a box with angel wings on the outside, he never opens. Nolan saves that package the entire four years, and takes it with him on the boat as he is finally rescued.
In the final scene of the movie, Nolan is safe at home in Texas, driving down a lonely highway with the unopened angel wings package in the passenger seat. As he drives, you hear an old Elvis song playing on the radio, “Return to Sender”; which is what Nolan is doing, returning the package to its original sender in rural Texas. Nolan arrives at the house, knocks on the door, but no one is home. So, he places the returned package at the front door with a note. “This package saved my life.” This is how the movie ends.
So what did that package represent to castaway Chuck Nolan? What did he mean when he wrote “This package saved my life?” He never opened it. But it's obvious what that unopened package meant. It represented hope; hope of rescue, hope a future, hope that he will make out of his predicament, get off that island, go back to his family and friends, return to his work, and deliver that package. That package was a box of hope. That hope was always in the back of his mind, unopened, never fully revealed, but full of anticipation and hope, so it kept him going. At one point in the story, the overwhelming loneliness almost drove him to suicide. But it was this hope that saved his life.
Hope still saves lives. Human beings cannot live long without hope. We may not be able to open the package, or even agree on exactly what hope means, as Hope means different things to people. But hope is a power force for life. When people keep hope alive, they find the strength to live another day, even though they may presently be living in a very dark, painful, fearful moment. Hope is what the Apostle’s Creed means when it says “On the Third Day, He Rose From The Dead.”
ON THE THIRD DAY
Isn’t it interesting how resurrection hope begins with the reference to a certain time period, “On the Third Day”? This is not just referring to the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, but it goes back to the very hopeful promise Jesus gave his disciples in the gospels when he told them: “The Son of Man must suffer… be killed and on the third day he will be raised (Matt. 17:22-23, Luk. 18:33; Mk. 8:31). Why on the Third Day? Why not Friday night, or Saturday? Why not rise in the middle of the next week, next month, or a year later? And why did Jesus have to die and be raised at all? Could not the power over death have been accomplished, revealed, or displayed to the world a more decisive, undefeated, less destructive way? For myself, I’d like to have seen Jesus calling those 12 legions of angels to make really big impression, rather than having a couple of dudes looking like Mr. Clean, without the muscles.
Furthermore, why were only a handful of rag-tag disciples allowed to be witnesses? Couldn't the message of hope have gotten out even quicker and more spectacularly if Jesus had risen and appear to Pilate, or to Caesar himself? Now would be a much more definite way to spell HOPE, right? Well, not necessarily. Think about it. Just as Jesus was born in a non-conspicuous way—in a manger, to poor, humble, nobody people; Jesus was also raised only to be seen by a select few, mostly humble fishermen, and to a small community of believers, men and women, of just over 500 people (1 Cor. 15:6). Surprisingly, the resurrection was not God putting on a ‘very big shew’ (as Ed Sullivan used to say), or making a huge popular, impressive impact, and it was not even a surge of power to ‘win the world for Christ’. Though Jesus did say ‘go into all nations and make disciples’ (Matt. 28: 19), he did not say go win the whole world. That would have been a set up for a very big failure and it would have assured people would lose hope (as many do), instead of gaining it.
So, since this resurrection hope came through a small, faithful, and very particular group of people, it was also a hope that would come in a particular moment of history, ‘on the third day’. Interestingly, this term ‘the third day’ was also a term often found in Jewish Scripture. “On the third day” Abraham prepared to sacrifice his only son, Isaac (Gen. 22.4). God sealed the covenant with Moses ‘on the third day’ (Ex. 19:11). “On the third day” Esther went to the pagan King to beg him to save her own ‘Jewish’ people (Est. 5:1), and it was ‘on the third day’ that God’s ‘house was finished’ and rebuilt by returning exiles to Jerusalem (Ezra 6:15). To speak of something happening ‘on the third day’ means much more than just an even that happened in history, but it means an event that changes history; a turning point, or as we are fond of saying, a ‘Rubicon’ moment which tips the scales toward a very different way of seeing, understanding, and thinking about the world.
Perhaps you’ve have had a very ‘Rubicon’ or ‘third day’ type moment in your life haven’t you? Perhaps it was when you were you got married, had a child, got a job, graduated, or had an accident, became sick, or had to face the great loss or difficulty. There are many things that can ‘change’ how we see things, and sometimes, that event or moment in life might even change us ‘for good’. This is what the Apostle’s Creed means when it says this was a ‘third day’ moment. It was a moment that was promised after Christ’s suffering and death, but it was also a life-changing, yes, even a faith-bringing moment to those who would either witness or comes to believe this moment is true---that ‘on the third day’, through the resurrected Christ, hope was clearly resurrected or revived in human history.
We all need some kind of hope, don’t we? Recently I watch another movie, very close to the same idea as Tom Hank’s Castaway. Isn’t it strange how even popular movies return over and over to hopeful and redemptive themes? This film, ‘The Martian’, starred another very popular Hollywood actor, Matt Damon. Indeed, the movie was literally more ‘far out,’ that is, unusual, than did ‘The Castaway’. It was about a future, dreamed about, manned space mission to Mars and how, due to a sand storm, one of the crew members gets left behind. It would take at least four years for a rescue mission. It did not look good.
Of course, Matt Damen’s character, Mark Watney, found a way to survive (It’s a movie). Luckily Watney is a Botanist, who teaches himself to grow potatoes in Martian soil. In this movie, like Tom Hank’s character, Matt Damen’s character also survives by his creativity and ingenuity. What is the same, however, is that in both stories here is someone who is stranded, and against almost impossible odds, ‘lost in the cosmos’, who finds a way to keep hope alive. For Tom Hank’s character it was an unopened box with angel wings that kept his hope alive, but for Matt Damen’s character it having to listen to outdated disco music, which was the only music his lady crew captain had installed at the ‘Hab’; short for Habitat Station.
As you watch that movie, you find yourself, with Matt Damen, tapping your foot, but also wanting to hold your ears because of some of those ‘ancient’ 80’s disco sounds. Amusingly, the very first words Mark Watney says to his captain when she takes his hand to save his life is, “Captain, I really hate your choice of music.” He hated it, but we all know that this off beat ‘music’, which was her favorite, kept inspiring hope, courage, and the humor to face four years of loneliness and not knowing whether he would live or die (Though I did see him hold a cross in his hand once and pray) (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3659388/plotsummary?ref_=tt_stry_pl).
It is indisputable a small group of Jewish disciples were given new hope by the appearance of their ‘risen Lord’ (Luk 24.34). Although there have been many philosophies and some theologies that would try to deny, reinterpret, or ignore what happened ‘on the third day’, there is no other sensible justification for this Gospel that impacted history as it has.
This faith in Jesus’ resurrection is said to go back even to eyewitnesses (1 Cor. 15.6), and when the apostle Paul was started preaching, he quoted a creedal statement already well-established only about 3 to 6 years after Jesus died. “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve… (1 Cor. 15: 3-5).
It remains unmistakable, that right at the core of all Christian belief is this good news of hope that Jesus actually and historically, rose from the dead. I recall, when I was in college and seminary, how I learned of some genuine Christian scholars who affirmed the meaning and message of the resurrection, but they did not actually believe that Jesus was raised in any real, historical, metaphysical way (Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rudolf Bultmann, and William Barclay). They reasoned that since God’s normally reveals his truth to human heart, this was also the way the truth of eternal life was revealed, as a dream, a hallucination, or a spiritual vision, but not with any kind of actual physical resurrection as the gospel’s report. They believed that the truth presented in the gospels, does not depend upon whether they point to a real historical event that actually happened, but that these Easter stories, point to an even more wonderful, spiritual, and mystical truth, that one day, because of Jesus Christ, there is hope of a spiritual reality of heaven after we die.
Interestingly, these same Christian ‘scholars’ were not actually trying to destroy Christianity, though some thought so, but most of them were very devote Christian scholars, trying to do their best to justify religious, spiritual, ‘heavenly’ truth to educated minds who were enlightened by growing scientific evidence, but newly skeptical about these ‘miracle stories’ in the Bible. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln, were just a few of those great human minds who had become skeptical of anything miraculous, though still believing that Jesus was a great moral Messiah. Jefferson had even put together his own bible, by cutting out all references to miracles, including stories of the resurrection.
The western world today, abroad and at home, still inheriting the rewards of the enlightenment, is increasingly more skeptical of biblical or religious truth, especially when it comes to resurrection. In 2013, the well-respected Rasmussen Poll stated even though a 64% of Americans say they believe in Christ’s resurrection, this was down from 77% the year before. That’s a 13% drop in just one year. If that trend would continue, no one in America would believe in Christ’s resurrection in by 2022 (https://winteryknight.com/2013/04/02/new-rasmussen-poll-13-drop-in-belief-in-the-resurrection-since-last-easter/).
Though it may be increasingly difficult from many to confess that ‘on the third day (Jesus) rose from the dead,’ (it was also a small group who believed in the Gospels), we need to know another recent development in serious scholarly thinking about Jesus’ resurrection. Thomas Jefferson may have been ahead of his time in his political thought, but his thinking about miracles and theology was misguided. He wrongly believed that one could cut this miracle of the Bible and still have moral truth. What he did not understand is that the moral truth in the Bible is based on this core miracle, as are the other miracles.
Here’s what the great Thomas Jefferson missed. When the New Testament gospels told the story of the resurrection of Jesus, everyone in those stories knew exactly what dead meant Also, every Jew who believed in a resurrection, knew that resurrection was something that should happen at the end of end of history, not in the middle of it. Whatever the Gospel’s show us, it must be acknowledged that those first disciples were just as surprised and just s confused by a ‘resurrected’ Jesus as anybody would be, then or now. This confusion, just like the reality behind it, is not something you can cut out and still be true to the picture any of the truth this gospel proclaims.
Here’s the point: Without a real, actual, factual, observable, and historical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, there is no Christian faith left to believe at all. As the Apostle Paul said in one of his very first Christian letters,“…if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and YOUR FAITH HAS BEEN IN VAIN (1 Cor. 15:14 NRS). There is just no other way around this resurrection faith. If you cut out this faith in Jesus’ resurrection, then you have cut out all the rest of the Christian faith, and then there’s nothing left to believe.
I like the way a writer for the New York Daily Beast, recently expressed his own struggle with Easter in an article he wrote back in 2015. The writer, with catholic sounding name, Brandon Ambrosino, wrote a very personal article entitled, “Why I Shouldn’t Believe in the Resurrection, But Do.” He spoke of how ‘in the modern world it has become increasingly hard to justify belief that Jesus physically rose from the dead.’ But then, he surprisingly concluded that believing Jesus was raised from the dead is still an essential part of who he is, as a Christian.
As a thinking person, Ambrosino confessed having been tempted to take Christ’s Resurrection simply as a metaphor, or a figure of speech, expressing human hope for a future beyond death. Then, he says, he came across Oxford Scholar, Peter Walker, who spoke frankly: “The talk about resurrection’ by Jesus’ followers ‘meant one thing and only one thing---God’s act of raising from physical death.” Take it or leave it, believe it or don’t, but if the good news the gospel gives us is only this: Jesus lived and died in human flesh, and was made alive in the Spirit’ (1 Pet. 3.18) being seen and touched, but also appearing and disappearing at will, because God raised Jesus’ from death, transforming him, as he desires to transform us, from ‘perishable’ to ‘imperishable’ and from ‘physical’ to being ‘raised a spiritual body’ (1 Cor. 15: 43-44). (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/04/05/why-i-shouldn-t-believe-in-the-resurrection-but-do.html).
FROM THE DEAD
The modern ending reads “On the Third Day, he Rose Again.” This is probably best, since the creed has already said he ‘died and was buried.’ But I want to conclude with the more, redundant, traditional option, “On the Third Day, He Rose From the Dead.” We need to think once more about what we are actually saying.
When you have faced death, either your own mortality, or you have buried your parents, a spouse, a child, or a loved one, and you find yourself looking straight into death; this is what we are up all up against. Those disciples also saw Jesus suffering, dying an awful death too, and they knew what following Jesus would probably mean for them too, as Jesus invited them to ‘take up their cross and follow’ him, which could mean premature death (Matt. 16:24).
My point is this: I don’t want us to think for one moment that I’m just talking about some nice little creed, or belief, that you can tuck away somewhere for safe keeping, in your Bible or even in your heart, only to pull out whenever you feel you might need it. No, this faith that preaches and proclaims that Jesus actually, factually, and historically ‘rose from the dead’ means that Jesus means, that if you follow Jesus Christ, and you live for him, you too will suffer and die, either because of your faith in him, or because this is what happens to people in life. We die.
We will either die for something, or we will die for nothing, but the most obvious reality we all face is our date with death: “It is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgement” (Heb. 9:27). You know this to be true, so why am I reminding you? I’m reminding you because the message of Jesus’ resurrection is not something we wait on, to prove whether it is true or not. You can’t prove resurrection. Even those mysterious Near Death stories, or Heaven Is Real stories. They may be cons, visions, resuscitations, but they are not full resurrection. Only Jesus has ever been fully raised from dead. And this resurrection of Jesus can’t be proven by facts, or reasoned arguments, but it can only be proven by the life we live in him. Resurrection can’t only be proven in the experience of having Jesus’s own life and power for life, being lived in and through us, here and now.
Listen to Paul wrote to the Philippians. He spoke of his desire ‘to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death’ (Phil. 3.10). When you read or hear that, it sounds like Paul has it backwards; resurrection→, sufferings→, and then,→ death. Shouldn’t it read the more like, sufferings→, death→ and then →, resurrection? But look again. Paul speaks of knowing Christ and the POWER of his resurrection, which is proved when you share in Christ’s ‘sufferings’ as you risk and dare to live for and in him now. The promise and power of our future in God is only unveiled and revealed when we live and suffer for the greater good, which is God’s will and work for us to do, here and now.
Speaking of this Christian baptism the resurrection challenge of living a new, different, Christ-centered life now, before we die, Paul wrote to the Romans, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his…(Rom. 6.5). Did you catch his phrase, ‘like his’? It is when only when we join with Jesus in the mission of his own life, that we also share with Jesus the promise of his unique, resurrected, eternal life.
Finally, Resurrection faith “begs the scrutiny of the obvious” (Joan Chittiler). Resurrection is not about information, but about transformation. When you visit the resurrection stories, you certainly don’t encounter many answers about what happens when we die. So, back to our original question: Why isn’t there more put on big display for us, to convince us all about what happens to us after death? Well, the short answer is because it’s not about us, it’s about God. If our lives are not with and about God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, there is, in fact, nothing else that can be said about us. This is why Jesus’ resurrection is what matters. Amen.