Sunday, March 31, 2013

Evidence and more!

He is risen! (He is risen indeed!) What a ground-breaking, history-making, breath-taking event! Jesus has conquered death once and for all, and has blazed the trail for us, so that we can experience that new life. And as we come (today!) to celebrate this, Our Lord’s victory over death, let’s read from the book of Luke, chapter 24: (verses 13-45)

Now that same day, two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened.

That “everything”, incidentally, included the arrest, trial, execution and burial of Jesus.

As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

“What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said but they did not see Jesus.

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven (disciples) and those with them, assembled together and saying [among themselves], “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon,” Then the two [arrived and] told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

I love this story. I wish I had been there! I would have loved to have heard Jesus opening the Scriptures for his disciples. But I also love this story for another reason. In these few verses, Jesus meets with two different sets of disciples and… you probably noticed that he treats them very differently... among other things, this tells us that Jesus meets us where we are, doesn’t it? Rather than insisting that we come to him and do things his way, he show us great love by dealing with each of us in our own unique way.

With the first two disciples on the road, he is actually quite brusque, isn’t he? “How foolish and slow” he says to them! And then he engages them entirely on an intellectual level. The Bible doesn’t tell us why these two were unable to recognize Jesus. My favorite hypothesis is that it was raining, they had hoods up and they were worried about the puddles on the road. But it doesn’t matter – because they didn’t recognize him, their conversation was quite formal and perhaps a bit theoretical.

On the other hand, when Jesus appears to all the disciples together later on, his tone is completely different. “Peace be with you,” he says at the outset – very personal, very compassionate. And then he indulges their fears and doubts by demonstrating beyond question that he is not a ghost, and that he has indeed risen from the dead.

You know, folks have gone to great lengths to avoid the truth of the resurrection. But the evidence makes that challenging! Historians agree that Jesus was a historical person. Historians agree that he was crucified by the Romans. But the evidence that he was alive and well after his crucifixion is so strong, some people have actually suggested that he didn’t in fact die on that cross. This is why the very next thing that Jesus says to the gathered disciples is “Look at my hands and my feet”– he is showing the marks of the nails that held him on that cross! Jesus had, indeed, been subjected to that era’s most brutally efficient and thorough form of execution. Just try telling the Roman soldier in charge of the execution detail that Jesus hadn’t actually died. That was his job; that was his business. And he wouldn’t have tolerated any “mostly dead” customers. As one modern skeptic writes:

It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulcher, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening, and indulgence… could have given the disciples the impression that he was a conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life.

Quite so – but just like the disciples were skeptical at first, Jesus knew that many others would be, too. “Look at my hands and my feet,” he says. Now the next worry that the disciples inevitably had was that they were hallucinating – that this wasn’t actually Jesus, but was perhaps a ghost. So right away Jesus asks them for food so that he could eat it in front of them – after all, they knew that neither ghosts nor hallucinations ate food. Jesus was concerned that the disciples knew the facts. Jesus wanted them to be familiar with the evidence. These disciples aren’t just weak-minded sheep. They need convincing. And convincing is what they got. But note that it isn’t their rationality that gets in the way of their belief. Just the opposite! It is their irrationality that results in it taking so long for the reality – for the facts – to sink in.

It always amuses me when people (typically people on the internet who need to get out more) claim that there is no evidence for the resurrection. There certainly is! As it says in Acts 1:3 “After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.” “Ah” these people would reply, “you can’t take that as evidence: it is in the Bible!” Now this is really remarkable. First they want evidence, but when the evidence is so convincing that it makes people devote their entire lives to it and write it down for posterity, then suddenly we’re not allowed to take that as evidence anymore. Where is the logic in that?

But speaking of evidence: let me share something with you that I learned recently. Now just to be clear: I’m not claiming that this proves anything. I just think that it is really neat. In the time of Jesus, the penalty for grave-robbing was a large fine. But sometime shortly after Jesus, that changed. And the only place that we evidence of that change is in the land of Israel. Archaeologists have found an inscription on a marble slab with an “ordinance of Caesar” – (that’s a new law) and it reads:

It is [Caesar’s] pleasure that graves and tombs remain perpetually undisturbed…. If, however, anyone charges that another has either demolished [such a tomb] or has in any other way [and this is the interesting part] extracted the buried, or has maliciously transferred them to other places … or has displaced the sealing or other stones… let them be brought to trial and let… the offender be sentenced to capital punishment…. You have to wonder what could possibly push the leader of the Roman Empire to interrupt his busy schedule to establish a radical new punishment for a very, very rare crime in a far-off corner of the Empire. It certainly would suggest that a certain recent empty tomb had had some very significant consequences!

But you know – when it comes to the resurrection, it isn’t like one scholar has more facts than another one. Everyone is dealing with the same pieces of information. And it isn’t like one scholar is smarter than another. And it isn’t like one scholar went to a better school than another. None of those things seem to make any difference. Listen to what Pascal wrote about that:

God so regulates the knowledge of himself that he has given indications of himself which are visible to those who seek him and not to those who do not seek him. [He is w]illing to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart, and to be hidden from those who flee from him with all their heart. There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough darkness for those who have the contrary disposition.

So at this stage, we can’t prove the resurrection happened. But there certainly is plenty of evidence for it – so much evidence that the disciples could do no other than believe.

And note that Jesus – in keeping with his incarnation (the God of creation coming down to share our humanity) and in keeping with his mission (to seek and to save the lost) – Jesus does not just snap his fingers and expect his disciples to immediately “get it”. Rather, he meets them where they are – with their fears, and their doubts, and their worries, and their preconceptions. And he slowly brings them to the truth – until they absolutely, positively, cannot doubt the truth before them –that Death. Has. Been. Conquered.

But you know, as awesome as that is, as amazing as that is, as game-changing as that is… that’s not all. Jesus had something else in mind. After Jesus had convinced the disciples— “Then…

… he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” – Luke 24:45

And this was on Jesus’ agenda for both sets of disciples, wasn’t it? Sure, the facts were important. The facts were simply that he had died, he had been buried, and that he rose from the dead. But Jesus also wanted his disciples to understand the meaning of those facts. Jesus needed the disciples to understand that his death and resurrection are part of God’s cosmic plan to save creation. And along with creation, to save you and me, too.

At this stage, whenever we hear about someone “opening the scriptures” we sometimes make the mistake of filing that into our “that’s just a religious thing” bucket. Sure, one aspect of opening the scriptures is certainly religious, but I’d like to highlight another aspect this morning. You see, back in Jesus time, the scriptures were the basis for an understanding of the world. Their education was a scriptural education.

What this means is that Jesus wants us to be able to situate the events of Easter in our understanding of the world. But I need to warn you: whenever we do that, these events have a way of taking over! Sure, we might think that we are fitting the historical events of Jesus death and resurrection into our understanding of the world, but when we really deeply accept them, they eventually become the basis for our understanding of the world.

You see, there can be – there should be – a personal connection between Easter and each one of us. And in order appreciate this connection, I’m going to ask you to indulge me briefly and consider a profound philosophical question:

“What’s the point?”

Isn’t that a great question? It is the kind of question that can stop you in your tracks. It is the kind of question that teenagers like to ask their parents – often because they know we don’t have a legitimate answer. There are few things quite as satisfying as being able to “get the point” – and there are few things quite as tragic as “missing the point”.

So “What’s the point?”

See the arrow? See the point? Well, the point is usually found at the end of the arrow, isn’t it? When we ask “What’s the point?” we’re really asking “What is it that we are pointing toward?”

With language, we can interpret this arrow with certain key phrases – certain “linguistic arrows”. Here are two of them: “in order” “so that” Let’s start with an example, to get the idea – pay attention, and you’ll hear those linguistic arrows in the story I’m about to tell. What’s the point of… studying?

When I was a grad student, we played host family for a very bright young man from China – one of the first students to leave China in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, if anyone remembers that. Doing the dishes together every evening, Fang and I had many a good discussion about just about every topic. One evening, I asked him about his devotion to studying. Well, he told me, He studied in order to do well in Engineering, to graduate near the top of his class. So I asked him what he intended to do next. Ah. He wanted good marks so that he could get into grad studies at an American University. A fine goal, I thought. “But what was the point of that?” I asked. He wanted to work for Microsoft, he said (this was long before Google). And what did he expect that would provide, I asked. He would make lots of money so that he could retire. “I see.” I said, “All of this is in order to have a comfortable retirement…” And at that, he smiled. He held up his hand, he had caught on, and realized what the obvious next question was: “so what’s the point of that?” Why pretend that the entire reason for one’s life is the very end of it?

When people nearing the end of their lives are asked about what they would do differently if they had a chance, they don’t typically say that they wish they had worked harder to make their retirement more comfortable. People who run after wealth or pleasure or learning never seem to reach satisfaction. They always report that those pursuits are like chasing the wind, as Solomon puts it. Instead, when surveys have asked elderly people that question, one of the answers that comes up to the top is that they would have liked to have invested more time and energy in things that have lasting value – things that go beyond just this life.

Remember how Solomon puts it? “[God] has also set eternity in the human heart” -- we long for there to be a point – a real point – a point to life itself – that goes beyond our time on earth. And as C.S.Lewis says, this longing isn’t just a cosmic accident:

A man's physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man's hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some … will.

Right on. And in the empty tomb, we find something beyond just a philosophical argument. We find strong and convincing evidence that there is indeed something beyond this life. But that isn’t the only point of Easter! Let’s see what the Bible says... Let’s have a quick look at three verses that each have those magic words (those “linguistic arrows”) – each giving us a better idea of the point of Easter.

Romans 6:4 “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

This is the point folks: in fact, this is what it means to be a Christian – as Leonard Ravenhill put it: Christ didn’t come to make bad people good; he came to make dead people live! Here’s another important one:

Romans 8:16-17 “we are God’s children … and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” This verse highlights an important aspect of the Easter story that we often try to avoid. You see, there is no glory without suffering. There is no resurrection without death. If we do not take up our cross and follow Jesus, we cannot expect to share in his resurrection. One last one:

Romans 14:9 “Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”

…so that he might be Lord of all. And this isn’t just a theological statement. And this isn’t a cosmic ego-trip, either – this is the same Jesus who the Bible says put aside equality with God and emptied himself for our sakes.

Tim Keller: Everyone has to live for something. Whatever that something is becomes “Lord of your life,” whether you think of it that way or not. Jesus is the only Lord who, if you receive him, will fulfill you completely, and, if you fail him, will forgive you eternally.

The Bible says that “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Some will do so willingly, like the cheering crowds watching the parade. On the other hand, some will do so grudgingly. The captives at the end of the parade never have much choice in the matter. But the same is our experience, whether we like it or not. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. You can do it willingly, joining with those who cheer on the conqueror of Death, or you can waste your life and end up there anyway. The choice is yours.