We approach the Easter sermon with an awareness that in the modern age, an age that is dogmatically agnostic and constitutionally secular, it takes moral and political courage to believe in the resurrection of Christ, because the resurrection of Christ, like no other dogma, directly challenges the basic premise on which the secular society stands. The resurrection of Christ is inherently controversial and anathema to the precepts upon which devotion to religious pluralism rests for the obvious reason: that if it’s true that Jesus raised himself from the dead by the power of the divine nature inherent within him , then by so doing he revealed himself to be who he said he was; the one in whom the scriptures are fulfilled, the one by whose suffering and sacrificial death the whole world is redeemed from sin and reconciled to God, a man who though born of a woman and was, therefore, fully man was also fully God’s equal, being God’s only-begotten Son. And therefore, any doctrine of God that denies or omits him and his appearance on earth is woefully incomplete; which is to say, that if Jesus rose from the dead in accordance with the scriptures then the entire project of the modern age, which seeks to equate all those religions which know not Christ with those that do, is bankrupt. Like the emperor who wore no clothes, the myth that undergirds secularism—that all religious truth is subjective and therefore one religion is as good as another—is exposed as sheer pretense by the resurrection of Christ. In that old story everyone at court was afraid to tell the emperor he was naked. Modern secular multiculturalism, the emperor of our age, is as naked as can be. The resurrection of Christ exposes multiculturalism, the relativizing of all religions, for the empty nonsense that it is.
So brace yourself. I’m going to preach the resurrection of Christ. And for that offense the political-correctness police may arrive at any moment to arrest me. But if they do what is that to me? We take comfort in what Jesus said, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16.33).
There is no religious doctrine more divisive than the resurrection of Christ. When it comes to this subject the world separates into five different camps. Let’s look at those five different camps and let’s see where you stand.
The first camp I would call the O. J. jury camp. The O. J Jury made up its mind before the trial began. There was no persuading them. When it comes to Christ’s resurrection, Judaism and Islam are like the O. J. Jury. The evidence just doesn’t matter to them. Both Judaism and Islam deny the resurrection of Christ but for different reasons. The Jews at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial explained the scandal of the empty tomb by spreading the rumor that Jesus’s disciples had stolen the body. What could be more absurd? How could his cowardly disciples have stolen the body when the tomb was guarded by soldiers? Why would they do this when grave robbing was a crime? The Jewish priests did not want to admit to themselves that, in a fit of madness, they had crucified their king. So rather than admit the truth they betrayed him again by escaping into a bizarre conspiracy theory. Islam is even worse. The Koran tells us that at the last moment God took Jesus off the cross and put someone else there to die in his place. Not only does that fiction make God into an arbitrary murderer but it means that when Mary held the body of her dead son in her arms she failed to recognize that she was holding someone else’s son. According to Islam, Jesus did not die on the cross, so how could he have risen from the dead? How could he have redeemed the world from sin if he failed to die according to the scriptures and rise again? He couldn’t have. That’s the whole demonic point of Islam. The Koran buries Jesus under a mountain of feigned praise but in the end according to Mohammad, he was a minor prophet of no real importance. The next time you hear someone call Islam a “great” religion or the Koran, that is the object of its worship, a “holy” book think about that. Compared to Islam and Judaism, the O. J. Jury was relatively rational and open-minded.
The second camp is the communists. The communists are atheists who consider themselves to be intellectuals rigorously guided by scientific fact. Communists do not stoop to believe in deities or in miracles or any of those old world superstitions. According to their philosophy of materialism, nature accounts for everything; there is no supernatural realm and therefore there was no resurrection of Christ. We may never know what really happened to cause Jesus’s body to be absent from the tomb, but what we do know is that there was no miracle involved. We know that because there are no such things as miracles; because according to the communist, there is no God and therefore no one to cause a miracle to happen. From the communist’s standpoint, the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ is nothing but legend and superstition. Marx compared it to an opiate, a poison that numbs the mind and takes the pain away. He meant that many people, fearing death, cling to the resurrection of Christ as a drug addict does his heroin or as a child does his security blanket. The communist sees himself as a sober-minded realistic adult compared to the infantile Christian. The Christian is escapist, whereas the communist is not afraid to meet death head on and make the best of life without retreating into a make-believe world of religious fantasy. The communist criticizes Christian faith because, as he sees it, the resurrection leads us to dream of a better life to come after death. The communist wants a better life for us all here and now since in his view this is the only life we have and the only world we will ever know.
The third camp is the liberals. Liberalism is the philosophy on which modern secular society is built. The liberals believe in the resurrection of Christ, but only as a metaphor: hope springs eternal. Liberalism is largely sympathetic to Christianity but only because the ethics of Christ, especially his commandments to feed the hungry, care for the poor, heal the sick and judge not lest ye be judged are amenable to the ideals of a secular society. I remember well, early in my ministry, receiving a letter in the mail postmarked the day after Easter. The woman who wrote it to me anonymously said bluntly and in hurried handwriting, “Please remember next year as you write the Easter sermon that some of us have a roast in the oven!” Besides bearing the usual complaint that the sermon was too long, she was making a larger and more important point that for many Christians raised patriotically to share the values of a secular society, the dogma Christ’s resurrection is largely irrelevant to their religion. The resurrection of Christ is, no doubt, an important and dramatic story but it detracts from the ethics of Christ which is the real roast in the oven of liberal Christianity. What’s more important: that we believe a tall tale about a man rising from the dead or that we treat each other with love and respect and kindness? As liberalism sees it, if we do the right thing by our family, friends and neighbors, does it even matter whether we believe in Christ’s resurrection? Who cares what we believe about the after-life, as long as we’re good to each other in this life? Actions speak louder than words, do they not? Was that not the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan, that what matters to God is not one’s creed but the content of one’s character? In other words, to the liberal, religion is important only as means to forming character; therefore, according to liberal doctrine, one religion is essentially as good as another, you judge a tree by its fruit. Therefore, whether Christ actually rose from the dead or not is largely irrelevant. Give me a compassionate pagan any day over a corrupt Christian the liberal would say. All that counts with God is how we live our lives.
The fourth camp into which the world separates because of our varied responses to the resurrection of Christ is the camp comprised of timid Christians. Timid Christians are those who dutifully come to church on Christmas and Easter, for baptisms, weddings and funerals. They stand to recite the Nicene Creed not because they know exactly what it means, but because it’s expected of them. They’re faithful to believe what the church teaches and to accept what the Bible says is true, but if you ask them why they believe as they do, they can’t really tell you except to say that “if the church teaches it and it’s in the Bible I believe it.” Timid Christians have their heart is in the right place but they are easily intimidated by liberals and communists, by Islam and by Judaism, by anyone who challenges the dogmas of their baptismal Creed because they just don’t know or understand the reasons that undergird the faith. Timid Christians have a blind faith. A blind faith, though better than none at all, is like a house built on sand. As soon as the opponents of Christianity begin to marshal arguments against the resurrection, the timid Christians retreat. As soon as someone objects to the doctrine that Jesus may be, by virtue of his prophetic death and glorious triumph over the grave, both Christ and Lord of all, to whom all human beings owe a priceless debt of gratitude, the timid Christian surrenders and seeks a truce with the unbelieving world pleading, “Why don’t we just agree to disagree? We’re all children of God. Can’t we all just get a long together?” The timid Christian, too afraid of rejection to fight the good fight of the faith, slaps a “Coexist” bumper sticker on the back of his car and drives cautiously away.
Those four camps, I estimate, account for about eighty percent of the people in this world, who all have one thing in common. They don’t believe that the resurrection of Christ actually happened. It’s not a real event to them like the sunrise this morning in the east. It’s more like a dream or a fantasy. It’s real to some but it has no basis in history. Therefore, they see no compelling reason to believe in the resurrection of Christ. And therefore, there is no good reason to have an absolute preference for Christianity over any other religion.
But there is a fifth group that I would call the true believers. They are outnumbered in a largely unbelieving world but they have one great advantage. True believers listen to God’s word and learn. When Jesus took his disciples up the mountain and revealed to them the light of his divine nature as a preview of what they would see on that first Easter day, the voice of God, the Father, said to them “This my beloved Son, listen to him.” True believers; be they Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox are those who listen to him. And when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14.6) they hear what he’s saying. By raising himself from the dead, not as a ghost but as a whole person living eternally in a glorified body, Jesus proved that he was not just blowing smoke when he made that bold claim to be the sole mediator between humankind and God. True believers are not afraid of the truth. They accept the facts for what they are and follow them to where they lead. And the facts of the resurrection of Christ are these. We have a man from Nazareth who said he would fulfill the scriptures by suffering, dying and rising again on the third day, who gave credibility to this outrageous claim by working many miracles among the Jews, including raising at least three people that we know of from the dead. We have an empty tomb. We have hundreds of people who said they saw Jesus fully alive after death and who backed up their faith by suffering martyrdom rather than deny what they saw and heard in Him. And we have a new religion formed shortly after his death around the belief that the same Jesus who died on the cross rose from the dead and lives eternally in and through his church, which he has sanctified by the Holy Spirit. True believers have what those first witnesses of the resurrection had: a faith in Jesus Christ that ascends to the level of unshakable conviction. The first Christians knew what they believed about the resurrection of Christ and they knew why. And no one could talk them out of it or change their minds. Even though for two thousand years the world has been trying to change their minds, there’s no reason to listen to the world. The unbelieving world hates Jesus Christ and denies his resurrection, but they cannot make him go away. As he said to his disciples before he ascended into heaven, “I am with you always even to the end of the age.” Tyrants in every age have assaulted his church, persecuted and martyred true believers but they cannot kill him who lives eternally. As Saint Paul, who violently persecuted the church until he met Christ resurrected and became a true believer, said, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God because we testified of God that he raised Christ” (1Cor. 15.14–15)
Unless you think all the saints were lying or delusional, you have to admit that there is only one explanation that makes sense of why the tomb was empty on the morning of the third day following his burial, why so many saw him alive that day and for several weeks after his death ate with him and learned from him and why thousands of sane faithful Jews after his death asked to receive baptism in his name and then began to worship him as Lord; and that is the explanation they gave. That he proved himself to be a man of his word by doing exactly what he said he would do; by raising himself from the dead he revealed himself to be God—a fact, the most important event in human history—they could not deny.
The story of Jesus overcoming the grave and appearing to many before ascending into heaven is not make-believe. God has really done this. And I submit to you that if you are not already in the camp of the true believers, if you honestly dare to examine the evidence for Christ’s resurrection with an open mind, you soon will be. And that’s where you want to be because, if Jesus was anything, he was a man of his word. After feeding five-thousand people by multiplying a few loaves of bread and a few fish, he promised them this: he said, “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6.40). Don’t let an unbelieving world psych you out. If you have not already, today, right now, put your faith in Jesus Christ and determine to stand with those who stand in the camp of the true believers. The world may mock you and some of your friends may even turn their backs on you, but on the last day when he raises you up, you’ll be eternally glad you made the choice to believe in Jesus Christ.