I’m now in the second week of my study leave, writing… And reading the odd detective novel. I want to thank Rev Dr David Pitman for preaching yesterday at Centenary. Here is what he said:
Sermon for Easter 3 (26 April 2009)
I John 3: 1-7
Luke 24: 36b-48
One night, years ago, I was sitting across the table from a local businessman at the weekly Rotary Meeting. He was a new member and we had not met before. He looked at my name badge and my designation as “minister of religion” and said, “What’s your line?” So I told him that I understood myself to be a contemporary representative of Jesus Christ, called to help people to know Jesus as their friend and Saviour in their own lives and to share in carrying on the work that he began. While I was speaking, this man looked at me quite strangely, and then he said, “And you’re telling me you actually believe all that superstitious nonsense?”
I understood then, as I understand now, that confronted with skepticism and rationalism it is pointless to try and argue the case for faith in Christ. The good news about Jesus is to be shared, not debated! The apostle John had the right idea when he wrote in his first letter:
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life. (I John 1: 1)
These words reveal very clearly that the first Christians also understood that they could not persuade others to follow Christ on the basis of rational argument. They witnessed to their faith in the light of their own personal experience and gave substance and authenticity to that witness through the way they lived!
Our Gospel reading from Luke 24 needs to be set in context. The preceding verses tell us what was happening. The disciples were gathered together, still fearful and confused following the traumatic and amazing events of Easter. They were talking amongst themselves about the empty tomb and the encounters with the risen Jesus that had already occurred.
While this was going on, two disciples rushed in, having hurried back all the way from Emmaus in great excitement to share the news that they had been with Jesus,
that at first they had not recognised him,
that he had walked and talked with them on the road,
that he had sat with them at their own table,
and that when he broke the bread they knew him for who he really was.
And they said, “As we walked and talked together, even before we recognised Jesus, our hearts burned within us!”
It is our calling and our privilege in Christ, to declare what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.
This was exactly what the first Christians did. They didn’t try to prove anything! Transformed by their encounter with the risen Christ they became courageous public witnesses to what they had seen and heard. Because their hearts burned within them they felt much like the prophet Jeremiah who declared: Your message is like a fire burning deep within me. (Jeremiah 20:9)
The significance of seeing, hearing and touching is very apparent in our Gospel passage for today. Luke is at some pains to emphasise the reality of Jesus’ presence.
In this way, Jesus responded to the fear and confusion of the disciples, because their initial reaction to seeing him was a mixture of terror, joy and disbelief! What a mixture of emotions!
What a paradox!
Here we have yet another example of the honest insights the Bible gives us into the humanity of those about whom we read. When they saw Jesus, the disciples experienced both joy and disbelief at the same time. Luke tells us of the disciples that in their joy they were disbelieving!
Their joy came from seeing a dear friend they thought was dead and would never see again. What they had hardly dared to believe possible was true!
The disbelief came from having to cope intellectually with what they thought was impossible. Jesus was dead. He could not be in the same room with them!
Once again we see the disciples in all their frail humanity, and in them we see ourselves!
These resurrection stories help us to understand something of the struggle of faith. The paradox of joy and disbelief is our experience, too. From this experience the disciples emerged ready to face a hostile and unreceptive world and share the good news of Christ crucified and risen. This fearful and confused group of people became the nucleus of a worldwide movement of the Spirit.
The reading for today from the Book of Acts dramatically illustrates this transformation. Here we see Peter in a new light. In the space of two months, he has been changed from a broken-hearted individual into a bold, public proclaimer of the gospel.
If we are looking for proof of the resurrection we should look for it here, in this honest portrayal of frightened individuals who are completely changed through their encounter with the risen Christ. The burden of proof for the resurrection of Jesus does not lie in reason and argument, but in lives recreated and renewed by the power of his love!
There was a young man, 18 years old, who lived alone in a large city attending university. At the university there was a group of Christians who used to set up a table in the Union building and look for opportunities to share their faith with the other students. This young man loved to go to that table and make life hard for them. They tried to tell him about the resurrection and salvation through Jesus. He told them how foolish they were to believe such things and posed all kinds of difficult questions about war and suffering and so on.
But a strange thing happened. Even though he tormented them with his questions and made fun of their faith, they invited him to their homes, bought him coffee, fed him meals and, as he found out later, never stopped praying for him. They treated him as a friend even though he treated them as people out of touch with reality. They were patient with him, kind to him, helped him, forgave him, answered his questions as best they could and made him feel welcome when no-one else did. They showed him Christian love.
Within six months, because of their witness and how God used it, that young man became a Christian. His name is Richard Fairchild. He is now a minister of the gospel. And he has a website on the internet from which I got his story.
The great thing about those university students was that they understood that trying to prove their faith to a young student skeptic through rational argument was largely a waste of time. They did the best thing of all. They showed through their patient, uncritical love and support, the reality of the transforming grace of Christ.
It is very important that we be able to express what we believe and what being in relationship with Jesus means to us. However, the ultimate proof of our faith is not found in our capacity to argue and reason persuasively, but in our willingness to love and care.
It has been my experience over the years that many people are fearful and reluctant about sharing their faith with others. They see their faith as a personal matter between themselves and God, which doesn’t necessarily have much to do with other people. Yet it is clear that Jesus never intended our relationship with him to be a private possession that we keep to ourselves.
At the heart of these resurrection stories in the New Testament lies the message:
YOU WILL BE MY WITNESSES!
WHAT YOU HAVE SEEN AND HEARD YOU ARE TO SHARE WITH OTHERS!
One of the realities we have to deal with is that we are not first-hand eyewitnesses of the events of Easter.
We can sing the old Negro spiritual:
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when he rose up from the tomb?
And the answer is “NO”, we were not there. We can only go there by faith, in our imagination! So, what is it that we ourselves have seen and heard to which we can bear witness?
Well, we each have our own story, our own experience of the way in which Christ has changed us and made a difference in our own lives. And then we have also seen how faith in Christ has transformed the lives of other people we know. This is what we have seen and heard. We need no more. The burden of proof for the resurrection of Jesus requires no reason or argument, only the sharing of the gospel story, our own stories, and the stories of those whose hearts also burn within them because they know the every-day miracle of the presence of the living Christ.
When I was minister at our Albert St Congregation in the city, we used to keep the church open every day, staffed with volunteers to offer assistance, including prayer ministry. One day, a lady from Taiwan came into our church. She was in great distress and one of the volunteers, Lester, spoke to her and prayed with her. Before she returned home she wrote Lester the following letter.
I don’t know how to express my appreciation for your kindness. I was a lonely traveler and cried with sadness in your church. And something happened that warmed my broken heart. Although the problem still exists, I’ll face it with wisdom and courage. All of your blessings will continue with me. Thank you again
Thank God that when L. went to the Albert St church that day it was open so that she could come in. Thank God that Lester was here, available to God and to L. Thank God for the ministry that Lester offered to L. and for the fact that she went home knowing that God cared about her.
The burden of proof for the resurrection of Jesus does not lie in reason or argument but in the transformation of people’s lives.
He comes to us today, people of God, and offers to us the same gift of peace that he offered to his disciples long ago. His grace is available to us in our fear, our joy, and our disbelief. As we break the bread together today, he will make himself known to us and we will feel our hearts burn within us.