GOSPEL LESSON Mark 16:1-8
EPISTLE LESSON I Corinthians 15:1-8, 12-19
SERMON: “The ‘If/Then’ of Resurrection” Rev. Helen Collens
Did you know that our wonderful pianist has a day job as Professor of Philosophy at Aquinas College. Recently, I learned that one of her regular teaching assignments is a course in symbolic logic. And that was actually my favorite class when I was a student at Kalamazoo College. In symbolic logic, letters stand for phrases, so that the proof of the validity of an argument is not affected by the words in the sentence, but by whether or not the argument follows the rules of logic.
I don’t know why, but for some reason the substitutions start with the letter P. I think the first rule of logic we learned was that P implies P. Logic isn’t hard. Pretty soon you add to P implies P things like if P implies Q then not Q implies not P. That’s a simple form of an “If/Then” statement. Why are philosophy majors required to take such a course? So that they can test the validity of their philosophical arguments without getting misled by the words. Theology majors should probably be required to take the same training.
That’s just a bit of background for what I mean when I say, let’s take a look at the If/Then of Resurrection.
Dr. Billy Graham once told Time Magazine, “If I were an enemy of Christianity, I would aim right at the Resurrection, because that is the heart of Christianity.”
Over the years there have been a number of theologians who doubt the truth of the resurrection. One of the founders of the “Jesus Seminar,” -- Dr. Robert Funk, told Time Magazine, “The tales of entombment and resurrection were latter-day wishful thinking. . . Jesus' corpse went the way of all abandoned criminals' bodies: it was probably barely covered with dirt, vulnerable to the wild dogs that roamed the wasteland of the execution grounds.”1 Thomas Jefferson rendered pretty much all of the miracles from the four gospels powerless. His bible called The Jefferson Bible, ends with the words: “Now in the place where He was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.”2 Jefferson had no problem with the crucifixion or the burial, but he stopped short at the resurrection.
Another Jesus Seminar major participant, Marcus Borg, said this: “I think the resurrection of Jesus really happened, but I have no idea if it involves anything happening to his corpse, and, therefore, I have no idea whether it involves an empty tomb….so I would have no problem whatsoever with archeologists finding the corpse of Jesus. For me that would not be a discrediting of the Christian faith or the Christian tradition.” I’m not quite sure what he meant by that. Possibly Borg subscribed to the idea that Jesus lives on in our memories and our Christian service much the way we may feel our great-grandmothers live on in our hearts.
Imagine with me for a moment that when you got up this morning the newspaper headline said, “Body of Jesus found in Israel. Christianity in Chaos.” What would it mean for us if the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the one we call Christ, were proven to be untrue?
The Apostle Paul wrote:
2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Beyond the litany of the death, burial, resurrection and sightings of the Living Christ, the most important phrase in this text from I Corinthians is Paul’s statement that if these events are not true then you have believed in vain. If Jesus Christ is still in a tomb somewhere, if He is as dead now as He was when they took him down from the cross, then when I was twelve, I got dunked in a baptistery for no good reason. I have swallowed a lot of morsels of bread and sips of grape juice for nothing. I have wasted a lot of Thursday nights in choir practice, Sunday mornings in Christian Education and worship, three long, hard years in seminary and twenty-two years in ordained ministry. And I have hundreds of books in my library that need to go to the junk heap.
If Jesus Christ has not been raised from the dead, then I'm wasting my time preaching and you're wasting your time listening. As a matter of fact, it would be hard to figure out who the bigger fool is; me standing up here preaching as if what I am saying is true, or you sitting out there nodding as if you believe it. The truth of the matter is, if Jesus Christ were still dead, then Easter bonnets and bunnies make more sense than the cradle and the cross.
Without a risen Savior the Apostle tells us our faith is futile and we are still answerable for our sins.
And not to drag you down with me, but that if Christ is not risen then Paul says we are all false witnesses: 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead.
There are those who claim that Christianity and all other religions are but a crutch, for weak people to get through tough times in life. I’ve always felt some concern for people who had to go through life-threatening illnesses, grieve the loss of loved ones, slog through the day to day difficulties of life or contemplate the inevitable end of their own lives. But Paul says, if Christ has not been raised then those folks should feel sorry for you and me: (19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
If resurrection were not true then our faith would be meaningless, our prayers powerless, our ministry useless and we would be a bunch of misguided, sorry folk who would do better to do just about anything other than worship and serve the Lord by convincing ourselves that we are taking care of his sheep.
Now imagine with me that you got up this morning and the headline said, “Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christian Messiah, proved true beyond a shadow of a doubt,” and the article that followed answered every question or doubt possible. If resurrection is true, then what?
If resurrection is true, then along with both demons and angels, along with the centurion who guarded him at the crucifixion and along with all of the gospel-writers we would be moved to proclaim, “Surely He is the Son of God.”
And if he is the risen Son of God, he has taken the punishment for all our sin, and we are free to accept the gracious redemption offered to us through his suffering and sacrifice.
If Jesus is the risen Son of God, then we can believe him when he says that God loves the world so much that God sent Jesus so that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life. If Jesus is the risen Son of God then we have a valid promise that our sins are forgiven and that he has prepared a place for us in God’s heaven.
If Jesus is the risen Son of God, then we probably ought to pay close attention to his teachings, particularly to the command to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind and with all our spirit and our neighbor as ourselves. If Jesus is the risen Son of God, then we are truly called not only to love our neighbor, but to love our enemies.
If Jesus is the risen Son of God then we have a banquet to share, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet we will enjoy throughout eternity.
If Jesus is the risen Son of God then we have a mission – given to us by the Lord himself – a mission to make disciples, to baptize and teach all that Jesus commanded us.
Faith is a funny thing. Grasping it is a bit like trying to pick up a wet watermelon seed with a pair of toothpicks. We could talk for two thousand more years about Jesus of Nazareth, whether or not God raised him from the dead, whether or not he is God’s only Son, our Lord and Messiah. No symbolic logic, no philosophical or theological argument will satisfy every one of us. Each of us must decide for ourselves if we believe resurrection is true.
Just let me ask you this: If you are walking along a path and come to a fork in the road and two men are there, and one is dead and the other is alive, whose directions would you follow?”
Why do we celebrate Easter with enthusiasm and hope? Because Billy Graham was right. Resurrection is at the heart of our faith.
1 Richard N. Ostling, "Jesus Christ, Plain and Simple," Time, 10 January 1994.
2 Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), 147.