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Sunday, February 26, 2017

“He Ascended into Heaven”

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 24: 44-53
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
February 26th, 2017, Series: Apostles Creed 9/15)

If there is any part of the gospel story we ‘biblical’ Christians pay very little attention to, it is the Ascension of Jesus Christ.  It certainly wasn’t that way in the ancient church.   When I traveled to visit great Cathedrals in Europe, I found them filled with images, paintings, and sculptures of the ascending Jesus as the ascended Lord.   
But it seems we know little how to teach or deal with this today.  Maybe it’s because it’s become very hard for us, in this space age, to imagine Jesus riding on a cloud and rising up in the sky, going up toward the stars.  As the first Russian astronaut said when he returned; “I didn’t see God up there sitting on a cloud!”  Neither did John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, or Buzz Aldrin.  Humans have gone into space and marveled at God’s creation, but none saw any evidence that Jesus actually ascended into outer space.
So, what does this ancient creed mean when it says, “He Ascended Into Heaven?”  Is this something we must believe today?   What in the world, or what ‘out of this world’ are we going to do with this story which tells us that 40 days after his resurrection (Acts 1:40), Jesus ascended into heaven, the sky, or into the clouds?
However you imagine the ascension of Jesus, don’t miss the phrase Jesus speaks to his disciples when he says, “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Lk. 24:49).   This part of the creed which speaks of Jesus’ ascension is about the release of divine ‘power’.   Now that God’s saving power has been clarified by the life, teaching, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, it will be released into the world by the ‘sending’ of the Holy Spirit into life and ministry of the church. 

It is unmistakable that this image ‘the right hand of the Father’ is an ancient image of imperial, ‘power’.  In the ancient world, there were no oval offices, but there were ‘throne rooms’ where Kings and Queens displayed their royal power and instructed their servants to accomplish their will.  The ascending Christ points to the spiritual reality of the resurrected Christ ascending into the ‘heavenly’ throne to accomplish God’s purposes.

Using this well-known image, Scripture points directly to this spiritual power that will accomplish God’s will on earth, as it is in heaven.   We are not left to wonder what these purposes are: “I am sending upon you what my Father promised;…” (v. 49).   The power being sent is ‘that repentance and forgiveness of sins … be proclaimed in his name to all nations….’  (v.47).  An ascending Christ points to the God’s will being ‘fulfilled’ (v.44) or ‘finished’ (Jn. 19:30, that is completed) in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus so that now, the disciples of Jesus and the church of Jesus Christ will be able to be ‘witnesses’  to the ‘power’ of God in the world.  

When the Scripture speaks of Jesus’ work, God’s power, and the gospel witness, it is speaking to a new kind of spiritual power which Jesus’ life, death and resurrection has released into the world.   The gospel presents this power as saving, healing, and redemptive as revealed and released through the message of Jesus Christ.  

Of course, this ‘power’ of God is not yet the dominate power in the world, but it is the dominate power over the world.  This is exactly what the ascension of Jesus means.  While God’s power does not, and will not, dominate the news, politics, past-time, and even the religions of humanity, God’s power is still true, healing, redemptive and saving.  Since Jesus has already ascended to the Father’s right hand, his saving power is now released to become available to any who will believe ‘in his name’.

The recent presidential campaign in the United States was said to be one of the most unusual and unforgettable in American History.   What is common in all elections, which we all know all too well, is the political promises which politicians make to try to get our vote.  Whether it be Republican or Democrat, or Independent, the promise is always something like, “if you put me into ‘power’ I will make a difference in the direction and future of this nation.”  We all know these promises are easily made, but not always easily fulfilled.  But this does not stop or keep the politicians from making them.  I have never seen a political campaign short on promises, but I have seen every president struggle with how their legacy reflects the reality of the promises they made. 

What we need to understand from Luke’s picture of an ascending Jesus, making his promise of power to his disciples, is that this is a different kind of promise from a different kind of leader.  Jesus does not promise his disciples ‘everything’, but Jesus promises his followers the spiritual resources that can make the future possible.   IT is ‘repentance’ of sins and ‘forgiveness of sins’ that the ascending Christ promises as the very different, but real promises of power that accomplishes God’s saving will and work to bring humanity hope.

Speaking of political promises and power,  one of the most interesting stories about a ‘different’ kind of political power was reported by the Washington Post, late last summer, about a politician, Curry Todd who was running for the Republican State House Seat in Tennessee’s 95th district.  He had held that seat for 18 years, but was during the republican primary race, was caught snatching his opponents political yard signs and arrested.  Interestingly, when his opponent , Mark Lovell, heard that his competitor was sitting behind bars with a $100 bond,  he said,  “Man, I’ll pay it.  Shoot, I felt sorry for him.”

While I wouldn’t say that the Mark Lovell’s motivation for paying his opponent’s bail was purely a ‘good deed’, as he said it was, but it certainly does point us toward kind of spiritual power Jesus meant when he spoke of the power of ‘repentance’ and ‘forgiveness of sins’.

INTO HEAVEN = Presence
What is even more astounding about ‘how’ God sends his ‘power’ into the world, is that as Jesus leaves the world,  is how God’s Spirit is being ‘sent’ and released into the world in a greater, better and superior way.   This is counter-intuitive, isn’t it?  When a person leaves, you would naturally think they are less with you---and physically they are.  But what we all know, especially those of us who have lost loved ones, or had to leave loved ones behind, is that ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ because there often an even greater sense of someone’s ‘presence’ in their ‘absence’.

If you turn to the book of Acts, which gives us the most detailed description of the ascending Jesus, you will find ‘two men in white robes’ telling disciples, who are ‘awestruck’ by Christ’s leaving, that ‘This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11 NRS).   While this is a certainly part of a ‘promise’ about when, in the age to come, Christ will ‘restore the kingdom to Israel’, we must also acknowledge that we have already received God’s spiritual ‘power’ to become ‘witnesses’ to this future restoration, which is not only future, but as already begun.  “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority (Acts 1:7),” Jesus said. 
We do not need to know the ‘when’ because ‘…now is the acceptable time,…now is the day of salvation!’ (2 Cor. 6.2).   

God’s power to save is available now, just as God’s work and will can be accomplished now, because ‘this Jesus, who has been taken up…will come in the same way…’ (Acts. 1:11).  We do not belittle the ‘Second Coming’ of Jesus, when we also acknowledge, that through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit among and in God’s people right now,  Jesus is already present with and among us, right here, and right now.  In the ascension, Jesus did not ‘blast off’ into outer space, but Jesus ascended into God’s space, that is ‘into heaven,’ affirming that from now own, the Spirit of Jesus would no longer be limited to one person or one place on earth, but in the coming of the Holy Spirit, Jesus will be anyplace, in every place, wherever God’s Son is acknowledged not only as “Savior”, but also as “Lord”.

The late Baptist scholar, James McClendon, tells of an early Baptist, way back in the 16th century, who exemplified the truth of Jesus’ ascension promise, “I will be with you always’ (Mat. 28.19).   The story is found in Martyrs Mirror,  which tells how baptist Dirk Willems, in 1569, fled his persecutors across the winter’s ice.  When his lone pursuer broke through the ice, Dirk turned back to save the man from certain death.  Thus, Dirk was then caught, tried, and then burned to death for his ‘Anabaptism.’  But as he suffered and died, he cried out ‘over seventy times’ to ‘my Lord, my God!’   McClendon remarked:  If we judge that the Lord was present with him that day,  we can associate his story with unnumbered others, reaching all the way back to Stephen, the very first Christian martyr (Acts 7:54-60), making a link between Christ’s presence and their costly passion  (James McClendon, Systematic Theology: Doctrine, Abingdon Press, 1994, p. 241).

What the ascending Christ means for us, is exactly what it meant for Dirk, and for Stephen, ‘filled with the Holy Spirit..., gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God’ (Acts. 7:55).   Do you recall what Stephen said next?  “Look,” he said,  “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”  (Acts 7:56).  This made the religious leader ‘cover their ears’ (v. 58), but even while they were stoning Stephen, they heard him praying ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ (v. 59).   

Every time we take communion,  every time we pray ‘in Jesus’ name’, and every time we worship, work, witness, or open God’s word of truth,  we find ourselves ‘standing in the presence’ of the ‘Son’ who is not just ‘seated’ at the ‘right hand of God’, but in Stephen’s case, and in our own case, especially when we suffer with him, for him, and because of him,  Jesus will be ‘standing’ at ‘God’s right hand’ (7:56) to be with us.  The ascending Christ is the Jesus who is ‘with us always, even until the end’ (Matt. 28:19). 

HE ASCENDED = Potential
In other places, when the New Testament indirectly mentions the ‘ascending’ Christ, it refers to how Christ’s ‘power’ and ‘presence’ is now made available to our lives.

One of my favorite references comes in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which I’ve already mentioned, where Paul wrote:   “Therefore it is said, "When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people" (Eph. 4:8).   Paul’s point gets fleshed out in the next verses where Paul refers to these ‘gifts’ as human gifts to the church were are ‘some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ until we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4: 11-13).  Here’s the ascension of Christ is tried directly to the most practical, daily, ministry and mission of church.

There are, of course, other indirect references to the meaning of the ascending Christ, but perhaps by now you can get this picture, that it very well may be that the Ascension of Jesus is the most practical, personal, and useful of all the gospel pictures of who Jesus was and what Jesus does ‘for’ and ‘through’ us.  

When I think of Christ’s ascension,  I can’t help but think of one of the first sermon’s I ever preached on the ascension, when I was in Europe.   While I was researching a sermon on the Ascension of Jesus,  I came across a small book of sermons by one of great German Theologians, Karl Barth.  He preached these sermons, and put them in a book entitled, “Deliverance to the Captives” as sermons that were preached to inmates living behind bars  in Basel, Switzerland.  His sermon on Jesus’ ascension was fittingly titled,  “Look Up to Him!”  Because that sermon was already written in German, I studied it word for word, and found it hard to improve on.   Listen to Dr. Barth’s lines to prisoners in their dark prison.  He wrote, “Look up to him, and your face will shine!  What an announcement!  What a promise and assurance!  People, very ordinary humans, with illuminated faces!  Not angels in heaven, but men and women on earth!  Not some lucky inhabitants of an island far away, but people here in Basel, her in this house!  Not some very special people among us, but each and every one of us!  Might this be the true meaning of this promise?  Yes, this is the true meaning.  But is this the only true meaning?  Yes, this is the only meaning.  Look up to him, and your face will shine.. When…any one of us, obeys and looks up to him, to Jesus Christ, a momentous change takes place…Why then are our faces not bright?  … Why don’t we reflect the radiance of Jesus Christ?”  ( p. 46-48).

When Jesus was ascended into heaven, something happened, that remains mysterious, but it should also be the most practical truth of all.  As Jesus told Nathaniel, whom he first saw under the fig tree,  “You will see greater things than these….Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (Jn. 1.51).  What ever happened when Jesus ascended into heaven, it means that  ‘heaven’ was ‘opened’ in a way that there would be ‘angels’ continually, unceasingly, ‘ascending and descending so that God’s power and presence might release our own potential to obey and serve God.

This brings us finally, to the meaning of Christ’s Ascension for our lives. This communicated best by Jesus Later in John’s gospel, where Jesus speaks about being ‘the bread of life’ (6:48) calling people to ‘eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood’.  This was a saying so hard, that even the disciples could not easily understand it.  So Jesus explained: “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (Jn. 6:62-63)

Jesus came to give us the power of his living presence, so that we can fulfill God’s purpose and realize God’s Kingdom potential in this world. But this does not happen unless we invite Jesus to ascend to the throne of our own heart and life.  As Luke Johnson writes: “When the church gathers in the name of Jesus it gathers for nothing if Jesus is not truly our Lord in the daily  living of our lives” The questions we have about the ‘how’ of his Ascension is “not nearly so important as the question the Lord Jesus asks of us.”  Jesus has been acknowledged by the Father in heaven as Lord over all, but have we allowed him to ascend to the throne of our own heart and life?  This is a throne Jesus will not ascend until we bow our hearts fully and completely to him.  Will you bow with me?   Amen.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

“On the Third Day He Arose...”

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.” 

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) (

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 (

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).  (

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.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

“Crucified, dead….Descended into Hell...”

A Sermon Based Upon 1 Peter 3: 18-19
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
February 12th, 2017, Series: Apostles Creed 7/15)

Death, like suffering, are not excitable topics. Can you think of any other place where you will hear someone talk about life, death, or suffering other than at church? With subjects as real as these, and a world full of entertainment at most people’s fingertips, most people stay home.  However truth goes marching on. The church is not about entertainment, it is about truth. And topics like suffering and death are the most difficult truths we humans must face.
We will certainly all die! But we do try to cover it up.  We try to cover it up with sweet smelling flowers, but death still stinks.  We embalm and paint up cold, lifeless bodies, trying to make them look asleep, but they are not asleep.  Those folks buried in the very expensive caskets and vaults are just as dead as those buried in the cheapest, pine boxes. Death is the great equalizer. Death makes the rich poor, and the living poor, look rich. Death makes big things look small, and small things loom very, very large..  
I once sold cemetery plots and funeral plans in Greensboro and tried to tell people that the 800 dollar rubber vault would work about as well as the more expensive 2000 dollar concrete or 7000 dollar bronze ones. Because they are all placed in the ground, I explained, all burial vaults, no matter what kind of liner you put in them, will eventually leak. The body will eventually decay. Even mummies don’t stay mummified without climate control.
When I would go through this, some wanted to buy more expensive mausoleum space. But in those mausoleums the gases build up quickly and the body liquefies in that tighter entombment. I always tried to them the least expensive way was the best deal. I to help them to save their money for living.  Pay early. Pay less.  Pay later. Pay more. This pitch is what made me the best salesman in our group.  Still, after hearing my explanation, most people would still do nothing.  Getting people to prepare for death was an impossible way to make a living.
God’s Love Goes Anywhere
Most of us do not like to hear about, think about, or prepare for our own impending decent into death. But the reality of death and dying is exactly where the Apostle’s Creed now takes us, as it moves from Jesus’ suffering to his crucifixion, death, and burial. But It is the next line in the Apostle’s creed, if it recited at all, that is most difficult and strange:  He Descended into Hell”.  This line is normally left out of the Creed today, showing up only as a footnote.
Not long ago someone unexpectedly asked me: “Can you find anything about Jesus descended into hell in the Bible”?  A quick answer is that there are only a few scant references that grapple with what happened to Jesus between Good Friday and Easter Sunday (See also, Rom. 10:6-7; Eph. 4: 8-10;  Heb. 13:20;  Acts 2: 24, 31; and Mt. 12:40). Perhaps the one text that has more to do with this phrase comes from Acts 2: 31, where speaking of the resurrection of Jesus, Peter preached in the very first Christian sermon, “…his soul was not left in Hell, and his flesh did not see corruption (KJV).”   If you take a text like this as it stands, it sounds like after Jesus died, he went to Hell.  Why would Peter claim that Jesus went to Hell?  If anybody when to Heaven when they died, it had to be Jesus, right?

Other New Testament texts describe Jesus descending into the ‘deep’ (Rom. 10:7), descending to the ‘lower parts of the earth’ (Eph. 4:9), being in the ‘pains of death’ (Acts 2:24, Heb. 13:20), or being in ‘the heart of the earth’ like  Jonah’ was ‘three days and three nights in a whale’s belly’ (Mat. 12:40). But the strangest text of all comes from First Peter, where we are told that Jesus was ‘put to death.., but made alive…and went to preach to the spirits in prison.’(1 Pet 3:18-19).

Such biblical images of an underworld in limbo,full of lingering spirits, sounds surreal and like some low rated zombie movie. The late Fred Craddock once told how as a child, only around 75 or so years ago, being ordered to make sure he put the cover on an open well so that spirits may not come out of it at night and wreak havoc in the neighborhood. Once he accidentally left the cover off, and worried that he might have released those spirits to bring unnecessary catastrophe.

Having to explain ‘descended into Hell’ or ‘preaching to spirits’ has become too far out for popular consumption. Perhaps this is why most creedal churches have decided to drop this phrase. Fortunately, we Baptists don’t have to worry much about all this, unless our folks start actually reading the Bible. But still, didn't such a phrase or text once mean something and was important enough to get into this very concise statement of faith?  So, let's consider it.

In Psalm 139, when the Psalmist poetically asked the Lord, “Where Shall I go from your spirit? Where Shall I flee from your presence?”  He then goes to say: If I ascend up into Heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Hell (KJV), you are there..., concluding, “Yes, even the darkness can’t hide from you …(139: 7-8). Practically, what the psalmist is saying is that there is no place God’s loving, saving, and caring presence cannot go. Even at the Christ’s cross; descending into that awful, hellish, agony and death, goes Jesus God’s only Son.  Here there was no ‘there but for the grace of God, go I.” Here for the grace of God, Jesus went.

When we consider the crucified Christ, we are looking at the Son of Man, a human being, who was also God’s Son and God’s Messiah, dying the worst kind death imaginable. But at the same time we are also looking straight into all the sin, evil, rebellion which is normally hidden deep in the human heart, now being drawn out and openly exposed to be against God and his heart of love.  But also, here is precisely how the gospel should be preached to all spiritual prisoners.  Then, and now, right in the middle of this most horrible, unholy, and godforsaken place, God is there. This is most ugly place where God’s love and grace is fully revealed. It is On the cross, that God makes his own bed in the Hell of the deep darkness of our sin and death. When Jesus Christ, God’s only Son is crucified, dead and buried, God himself descends from the highest heavenly place in utter humiliation to make it his place to take our place.

The darkness of evil cannot hide from God, and neither can we. Where we are most clearly exposed as sinners, God is most clearly perceived as savior.  Reconciliation takes place where God puts himself in our place’ (K. Barth).   At the cross of Christ, God descended to come to us in Christ, reaching down in love to reconcile the whole world to himself.   Christ’s death on the cross was not God making his Son take our place in judgement, but it was God himself taking the judgement of our sin upon himself and taking our place through his Son to make us an offer of peace. As the letter to the Colossians says, “Having made peace through his the blood of his cross, …to reconcile all things to himself, whether they be in heaven or on earth” (1:20).

I recall an incident in my childhood, when 50 cents rolled out of pocket.  My mother asked where I got the money. My cousin and I  were playing a trick on his younger brother, but I had forgotten to give him back the money. My mother did not believe me and was about to punish me for stealing it.  Then my cousin vouched for me, backing up my story.  But she didn't believe him either and still intended to punish me. Then, the unexpected happened, which I've never forgotten. My cousin told my mother he was willing to take my punishment upon himself to prove make things right.  At the I could not believe he was willing to do that, but it made a believer out of my mother.. She was then convinced I did not steal the money.

The difference for us, is that before God, we all stand guilty. ‘For all have sinned, and come short of God’s glory ( Rom 3:23). This does not mean we are all bad, but it means we are all trapped, slaves to sin, imprisoned spirits, who can't free ourselves all by ourselves. The punishment or ‘wages’ we all earn, just by being born as sinners ‘is death’ (Rom. 6:23). But the  unexpected place we find God is going straight into the ‘wages of sin’ himself. In Jesus, God’s Son descends into the hell of human sin, to die the death he did not deserve.  Jesus took up this this cross, because: ‘God so loved the world, he sent his only Son, so that who ever believes in him, shall not perish, but be given the costly, but free gift of eternal life. It is on the cross that we should learn, again what the psalmist knew long before.  There is no place God’s love will not go---even into the greatest human darkness of sin, wickedness and hate.
God’s grace saves anyone
Through the crucified, dead, buried, and descended Christ, we must not only know that God himself has entered into our ‘godforsaken’ darkness of sin and death, but we must also know that now, because God has descended to take our sin upon himself, that this place, our place, and sin’s space, is not God-forsaken anymore. For when Jesus cried “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me” he revealed how completely God forsook himself, and in Christ God descended, rescinded, and amended the law’s right demands, to make us right in him.

This ‘descending’ is what is pictured briefly in Peter’s vision of the crucified Christ, after his death on the cross, now descending into the dark, shadowy “prison” of the dead to preach the good news of God’s saving, rescuing grace. to those never forgotten spirits. Although there is still mystery in Peter’s words we can't recover, what we do know, theologically, is no mystery at all. As the early church came to appreciate the knowledge of Christ, some became increasingly concerned with what happened to those who whose life and death preceded the revealing of God’s saving grace in Jesus. This concern was widespread, as it was also echoed in Paul’s preaching when he said ‘the dead in Christ shall rise first.” What Paul was saying, and what Peter was doing here, was simply offering a vision of the hope of God’s saving grace to anyone and everyone. In Jesus, there is no one out of the reach of God’s grace.

The simple, but encompassing message of Peter’s time traveling Christ, was not to suggest that everyone will get a second chance after death, but it is a vision that applies God’s fairness and justice to everyone. It is to affirm that God’s love and grace can save anyone.  It gives everyone a chance for redemption through God’s eternal life, especially those who lived before the gospel was fully revealed.

What we must not do is take this image of imprisoned spirits as a cosmological model the spirit world, like some spiritualists do, but we must take this as a theological picture of who God is, and just how much God loves. Above all, we must never, never limit who God can save, or dare limit who God will save.  As the late French theologian, Jacques Ellul suggested, You can't use the Bible to believe everyone will be saved, but you'd better use the Bible to believe God’s love is big enough to save everyone, or your faith will go mad.’

Several years ago, I read of an elderly mother who was troubled over the premature death of her son, due to addictions and emotional problems. The woman could hardly bear her grief, constantly living in dread of her son not entering eternal life. He had not been been baptized, had had gotten lost in his troubles, but his heart was good. She, as any mother would, dearly loved her son, but she feared that he would never be with her in the life to come.  She took her worries to the pastor, spilling out her concerns and fears. After listening to her pain through her tears, the pastor asked two simple questions: Did you love your son?  Hearing this she reacted quickly; “What do you mean, you know I did, and still do?  The pastor continued with his second question, “Do you dare believe that your love for you son is greater than God’s love for him?”   With this, She paused in thought. Then the pastor gave his word of grace: You need to trust that no matter how much you loved your son, you can rest your troubled heart in knowing that your love, as great as it feels, is only a broken reflection of the perfect, unfailing, and prevailing love and grace of the eternal God.

God’s power can make us free
What Peter’s picture of a descending Christ finally reveals is that this the Gospel of grace goes down deep to the foundation of all things. God’s love is big enough for all Israel, it is bigger than than our own imagination of what love means, and it has proven itself to be the cornerstone of all truth, all faith, all hope, and all love.  It is bigger, wider, higher and deeper because it is bigger than any one religion, and greater than all religions, even our own Christian vision of faith.  If the cross is true, and Jesus descended into this Hell for all, so that anyone can be saved, then the only thing that can lock anyone out of God’s saving, redeeming love, is the the free human  will that refuses or denies the spirit of redeeming love. As CS Lewis wisely suggested, “The door to hell is locked only from the inside.  We can lock God’s love out, but true love doesn't lock anyone out.  “Everyone who calls on the Lord’s name, will be saved.”

But there is one more part of Peter’s spiritual vision of Christ descending into Hades, which may mean either Hell or Death. For when the book of Ephesians painted faith images from this same picture, it reminds us that this same crucified Christ who descended, also “ascended on high and led captivity captive, giving gifts to people.” (Eph. 4:8).  I love the way the writer puts it, echoing Peter’s vision and the great Creed: “He, the very one who descended (below the earth), is also the very one who ascended above all the heavens, in order to fill all things” (Eph 4:10, NET).

This is one of the greatest biblical pictures of Christ’s redeeming work, because it not only serves as the foundation of what the gospel can do through the church, but it also points to the limitless possibilities of the loving, saving redeeming Christ, whose has, in his life, death, and resurrection, stooped lower and been raised high to give hope to all creation.  But unfortunately, this redeeming love and saving grace is not celebrated, nor elevated, or authenticated as much as it needs to be. Too much of the church conducts its life, having too little trust or time to test or try God’s loving, saving power.

Today, we are distracted by so many things, as Jesus told Martha, Lazarus’ sister. You know the story, how she was so busy doing stuff,  having little time to at Jesus’ feet, being with her Lord. Then, unexpectedly to all, her brother became deathly sick. Now, she suddenly has plenty of time, and sends word for Jesus to come, quick. But Jesus does not return at once. No one gets An On demand god to do whatever we want, whenever we want. Jesus is supposed to be our Lord, we are not his lord.

When Jesus finally does arrive, Martha appears frustrated. She doesn't trust very well. “Lord, if you’d only been here…” she says. It's not that she doesn't trust Jesus, but she can't trust what happens in death. Who can? Mary, who had time for Jesus still  had this problem too. We all do. When Mary expressed her own struggle with death, Jesus wept. Maybe Jesus started weeping because he would have to learn trust in dying too.  Then, Jesus prayed to thank the Father for hearing him and shouted in full trust, “Lazarus, come out!”  Then, the one who had died, came out of the tomb,  still all wound up in his ‘burying clothes’. Jesus had to order the shocked, hesitating crowd to “Unwrap him and let him go.” (Jn. 11:44).

As we conclude, I want you trust, to believe, and to get still be amazed by the power and promise of this descending and ascended Christ, whose love goes anywhere, and whose grace can save anyone. Everybody doesn't believe this, or act like it, just like some saw the miracle, but didn't want to believe either.  Many still don't live like they believe it..  So, they crucified him, and we still do. But the shock of shocks is that Jesus still hasn't stopped loving, saving, or redeeming us. He broke spiritual prisoners loose in the deepest, darkest, place, and Jesus can break you loose too.  He can free you from whatever prison has your own soul locked up: hate, selfish pride, doubt, fear, or all kinds of powers that addict, enslave, or threaten to steal away your life, your love, or your faith.  And he calls us to go into the Hell of those who need the freeing power in their lives too.

Of course, don't take my word for it.  I'm just a preacher, and people don't seem to value, trust, or listen to preachers these days. That's why I want to end by referring you to see a movie.  It's not your normal movie, and it's a movie that will stretch your faith. It's a movie called “The Miracle at Cookeville.”  It's the story of how some crazy, fanatical people entered Cookville Elementary School back in 1986, with a homemade bomb. 

To make a long story short, the bomb went off, in a classroom full of the school’s children.  Everyone of the should have been killed, but not a single one of them died, nor was seriously injured, including a teacher who was shot.  The Wyoming historical website, says it was a miracle that no one was killed.  Not long afterward, as traumatized children started to tell their story, some of them reported seeng seeing things, no some relatives dressed in white, and more than that, who were present, which one else saw. What you can't dispute is that windows were opened, wires were cut, and children, close enough to die, got away without serious hurt.

You can't document what they saw, but it was clearly documented they should have all died. The bomb should have killed them all; in such a compact space, with all the gasoline, the shrapnel, and the tremendous combustion that should have made “the air burn”, as the evil, sick,minded perpetrator intended. When I got to the end of the movie, I could not help but remember what a British pastor, William Temple once said:“When I pray coincidences happen.  When I don't pray, coincidences don't happen.”

The greatest surprise of life, and in even in death, is that is no limit to where God’s love, grace, and power will show up, except the limits we set.  This does mean we always get the miracle we want, but we may get more than we want. In fact, this is  always what we get when learn to trust the Christ who stooped low, so we can go high and gain the greatest gifts; a love that goes anywhere, a grace that saves anyone, and a power that will even make you free. Amen.