Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Message of Easter (Accept no substitutes!)

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and on those in the tombs
bestowing life!

These words are what is known in Eastern Orthodoxy as the Paschal Troparion, which announces the Good News of Resurrection, that Christ is risen from the dead and has, by his own death, defeated death and has bestowed life on all who die in Christ.

Some modern theologians teach that the resurrection of Jesus was spiritual rather than bodily. Some who hold this view maintain that Jesus' human body either vanished or was removed by God, and he reappeared in a spiritual form.

According to the spiritual resurrection theory, when Christ was laid in the tomb, his physical body did not rise, but only his Spirit. Those who take this view maintain that a spiritual resurrection is a way of reconciling the Bible with science, history, and common experience which say that the dead do not rise.

Others say that it doesn't matter what happened to the body, the important thing is that God sustained Jesus in some way after his death and that this is our hope for life after death. As I have written in a number of places, if all we mean by resurrection is the hope for life after death, we do not need Christianity. Other religions and even the ancient Greek philosophers teach the immortality of the soul.

Still others say that Christ did not rise bodily or even appear to his disciples after his death. The resurrection stories are myths, invented to reflect the esteem in which Jesus was held by his followers.

But talk of a spiritual resurrection contradicts the plain sense of the biblical accounts that the followers of Jesus did, in fact, find his tomb empty, and this was the first step in their believing that Jesus had risen bodily from the tomb.

In Luke 24:38-39, Jesus said to his disciples: "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." Jesus himself states that he was not a spirit, but truly, physically alive when he reappeared from the dead.

This, of course, does not convince those who hold that resurrection stories are myths. But the absence of the body, buried and held under close guard by the Jewish and Roman authorities, is the one incontrovertible proof. If those same authorities were later upset (and they were!) with the preaching of the apostles regarding the resurrection of Jesus, all they had to do was produce the body. But they could not.

Concerning the resurrection of Jesus the Apostle Paul says:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (I Corinthians 15:3-6)

Paul also says, "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied." Can we imagine that he is speaking of merely a spiritual resurrection? Of course not.

Two things are apparent from the Bible's teaching regarding the resurrection of Jesus: (1) It is a bodily resurrection. (2) It is the remedy for the two chief concerns that human beings have: (a) How do we deal with the sin that is in each of us? And, (b) What happens to us when we die?

The question of how we deal with the sin that is in each of us contains an assumption: that we are sinners.

A Confession from the historic Book of Common Prayer sums up our condition this way:
[W]e have followed too much the devices and desires
of our own hearts,
we have offended against thy holy laws,
we have left undone those things which we ought to
have done,
and we have done those things which we ought not to
have done.

This is true of each and every one of us. We are inclined toward sin by our natures from birth. But modern liberals have denied the Fall and its effects and have tended to view sin as societal almost to the exclusion of the idea of personal sins. They have worked for social justice, seemingly ignoring the fact that social injustices are merely the effects of personal pride, greed, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth (the seven deadly sins) writ large.

A sense of the reality of the Fall must be recovered in theology and our understanding of human experience. The way we are is not the way God intended. Because of the curse of the Fall every aspect of our beings and our existence been touched by sin. This does not mean that we are as bad as we can be; it means that we are not in any respect as good as we ought to be.

The consequence of our sinful natures and the sins we commit is that we are separated from God. This is the curse of "death" in Genesis 2:17. Yes, physical death is involved, but the main point is that fellowship with God was broken; Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden, and we have been separated ever since. Look at Psalm 22:1 and the crucifixion in Matthew and Mark. Jesus said, "...why have you forsaken (ignored, left, abandoned) me?" That's what happened when Jesus died, he took our separation for us.

The good news of Easter is that the resurrection is God’s answer to both of humankind's deepest questions. The resurrection is God's remedy for sin and death.

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) The reason God became incarnate in the person of Jesus was to take our sins upon him and to free us from the death of eternal separation from God. The resurrection is the validation that his mission was a success and the guarantee of our future resurrected life with him.

That the death and resurrection of Jesus was God's remedy for our sins and death could not be more clear from virtually every part of the New Testament:

"For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit," (I Peter 3:18)

"But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8)

"For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Corinthians 5:21)

"He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (I Peter 2:24)

"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." (Romans 3:23-26)

"And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world." (1 John 2:2)

"In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." (1 John 4:10)

"It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification." (Romans 4:24-25)

But liberal Christians have always been reluctant to believe in: (1) the reality of the Fall, (2) the substitutionary death of Jesus for our sins, and (3) the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Why is that?

The answer is as old as Christendom. In fact, it is a problem that exists due to Christendom. By "Christendom" I mean the cultural dominance that Christianity has traditionally enjoyed in the nations of the West, dating as far back as the conversion of Constantine and the Edict of Milan, in AD 313, which made Christianity a legitimate religion in the Roman Empire.

Here is where the problem arises: Throughout its history as the culturally dominant religion in the West, Christianity has gained adherents because of its cultural position who did not actually believe all that Christianity taught. In the early and medieval periods of Christendom, believers sometimes separated themselves from the laxity and worldliness of the Church by entering monastic life.

St. Antony of Egypt withdrew to the desert to escape a world where professing Christians failed to live up to their profession. St. Benedict created cloistered communities where the holy life could be pursued apart from the world’s distractions. St. Francis of Assisi’s call from the Lord to “Rebuild my Church!” was a call to take the holy life out of the cloister and proclaim it to a world that, while officially Christian, consisted of great multitudes whose faith was superficial.

The increase in faith seen in the Reformation and subsequent evangelical revivals and the later revivals of the First and Second Great Awakenings were movements of the Holy Spirit in people who earnestly sought all that the Christian life was meant to be. But the ascendancy of Christendom in the West brought in its train those who sought the approval that came from association with what was often the state church without truly knowing Christ.

The Enlightenment of the 18th century compounded this problem in two ways: First, it not only made a certain degree of unbelief by those who held religious office acceptable, it even made skepticism necessary if one was to be considered intellectually respectable. Almost overnight, skepticism became a virtue, and unadulterated piety became a vice. Second, it gave hardened unbelievers an intellectual vocabulary for expressing their unbelief. The result was that, just as the early liberal theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), sought to make Christianity acceptable to its “cultured despisers” by watering down its tenets in an attempt to reconcile them to the criticisms of the Enlightenment, so much of subsequent academic theology has been shaped by the desire to accommodate Christian beliefs to the sensitivities of non-believers.

We are currently witnessing a phenomenon known as "the New Atheism"—a new expression of atheism that is committed to active and aggressive intolerance of religion. The chief reason for the rise of the New Atheism is not that Christianity has become less believable but that those who doubt the truth of Christianity are under less social pressure to assent to it.

How do we address these "cultured despisers" of religion? We demonstrate by our lives the virtues and qualities that come through faith in Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We witness with bold and articulate apologetics. And, as this site makes clear, we begin by upholding the truth that Christ is truly risen:
Without the resurrection of Jesus the following is true: Jesus is not God, Jesus is not the Messiah, we are still dead in our sins and there is no way to God or heaven, our faith is in vain (it’s a waste of time, energy, money, etc.), Christianity is based on a lie and not facts of history, the doctrines of Christianity ought to be rejected, and no one ought to be a Christian.

But, thanks be to God, the tomb is empty! Christ is risen!

Claims of a spiritual resurrection will not suffice. We eschew religious leaders who espouse "resurrection" as a vague notion that God is somehow embodied in the world and not the triumph of the Son of God over sin, death, and hell. We witness to the only truth that will save the people of the world for all eternity: That Jesus is uniquely God's only begotten Son, that he died for the sins of the world and rose again bodily from the grave—and that he will come again so that those who are living and those who have died believing in him will be resurrected like him and live with him for ever.

This is the apostles' teaching; it is the undiminished faith of those who have known Christ for 2000 years; and it is Church's true message to the world in Jesus' name.

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