Risen - Week 1: "We Are Witnesses"
Today is Easter--Resurrection Sunday.
Today we're going to celebrate--even Presbyterians celebrate on Easter. We might be the frozen chosen, but at least once a year we thaw out enough to raise the roof.
All over the world today Christians will be celebrating Resurrection Sunday. They'll be celebrating their belief that God became one of us in order to save all of us. That through Jesus, God entered into the world in human form, and--in the words of the Gospel of John--took up residence in our neighborhood.
Jesus preached and taught and did amazing things that gave hope to the downtrodden, marginalized and poor. This caught the attention of the power brokers of his day: religious leaders, politicians, military leaders, to name a few. The worst thing that can happen to those in power, who are not concerned with the greater good, is for the huddled masses to find hope. So they executed Jesus by crucifying him on a cross. He was buried in a borrowed tomb and we believe that three days later he was raised from the dead.
After he was raised from the dead, Jesus appeared to his followers and gave them a challenge to go out into the whole world and proclaim the Good News that sin and death had been defeated.
This is the Good News that Christians proclaim in a nutshell.
So what role does the Resurrection play in all of this? Why do we believe that God raised Jesus from the dead? Lots of people struggle with this aspect of our story. They dig Jesus and all, and they think that he was a great teacher and loving example, but the whole being raised from the dead thing is a bridge too far for them.
The same thing was true in the first century, too. The Apostle Paul, who wrote like half of the New Testament, wrote that the Gospel was "foolishness" to Gentiles and a "stumbling block" to the Jews, which was an ancient way of saying that no one really got it then either.
The Resurrection defies logic. It's impossible.
But according to the Apostle Paul, it is also the most important part of the story. "If Christ is not raised from the dead," he wrote, "than why am I even preaching?" Without the Resurrection, Christianity is just a nice idea--a pleasant set of thoughts about how to live your life. It's not grounded in anything groundbreaking.
This is where a lot of Christians have gone south. They've taken the words of the Apostle Paul to the extreme. They come to believe that people who struggle to become Christians because they doubt the Resurrection need to be convinced.
So these well-meaning, but misguided Christians pick up on something that Jesus told his disciples: "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free." And they believe that if only people knew the truth about the Resurrection--then they would be set free. But by truth, they really mean proof. So they read every book about how the Resurrection can be proven historically, scientifically, journalistically and the like. They memorize vast amounts of Scripture. They prepare themselves to win an argument.
Because after all, that's what this comes down to for them--an argument. They believe if they can just have enough information to win the argument about the Resurrection with people who are having a hard time believing it that they will win them over to Christianity itself. They then engage in debates with these folks whenever they can, and with a great deal of gusto.
But when their arguments are rejected, they often believe that the person rejecting their argument is rejecting Christ and so they wash their hands of them. Because in the end, the truth will set you free, right? And if you won't believe the truth--read proof--then you are condemned.
If you have ever been on the sour end of that argument, you know it's not fun.
Listen, I am not against knowing what you believe and why. I am completely not against being familiar with the Bible.
But let me ask a question.
What does it mean to you that Jesus is Risen?
What does it mean to the world?
What does it mean for Creation?
What does it mean for political systems, culture and art, strife between people?
What does it mean for the Church that Jesus is Risen?
I think that before we start giving people reasons, information and arguments we need to answer these questions.
Because there is a difference between "knowing" something and KNOWING something.
I was listening to one of my favorite pastors the other day and he was telling the story of how he was helping his son study for a Chemistry exam. The kid was killing it. He was answering every question that his dad threw at him. The pastor related how he was shocked how much his kid knew, and how complicated the information was to him. At one point he asked his son about a section on triglycerides--his son had just given him a complicated answer about them.
"What does this mean?" He asked his kid. "What you just said to me, I don't understand it at all--could you explain what it mean?" "Dad," the kid said, "We don't need to know what it means. They aren't teaching us that. We just need to know the stuff in the notes so we can pass."
He had no idea what it actually meant in the real world. The kid just wanted to pass the test so he memorized the information so he could regurgitate it back on command.
There's a difference between "knowing" something and KNOWING something.
In Acts 10:34-43 we have this incredible sermon by the Apostle Peter. He's preaching not long after Jesus has returned to the Father and the church was born at Pentecost. He lets loose a sermon that is directed at the very group of people who executed Jesus.
Dude had some stones.
34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
Then he says this:
39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
The phrase that stood out for me was the one that starts verse 39: "We are witnesses."
What does it mean to be a witness?
A witness is someone who sees something--they were there. They can testify to the facts about an event because they know what they saw, what they heard, what they--experienced.
In Greek the word for witness is martyr.
A martyr in our understanding is someone who is murdered for their beliefs.
We came to know the word martyr in this way because of the fact that many early Christian witnesses gave their lives in defense of their faith. Most of them never saw Jesus, never sat at his feet. They were second and third generation believers.
I get that they would give their lives for their beliefs even though they had never witnessed Jesus firsthand. Their faith was passed to them by people they loved, and they saw the evidence of changed lives as a result. They knew what they believed and why--it was part of them.
But the disciples--the apostles--those firsthand witnesses of Jesus life and ministry... Do you really think they would have been willing to die for something they knew wasn't true? Would you? If you knew that Jesus hadn't really been raised from the dead, would you be willing to die bearing witness to that fact as every single one of the apostles did?
They knew what they saw. And it changed them.
There's a difference between knowing something and KNOWING something.
When Jesus told his disciples, "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free," the word that he used for "know" was special. There were like twelve words for the word "to know" in Greek. One of them was the word oida, which was commonly used to describe knowing something because it was in your head. The other word that is used by Jesus is ginosko, which means "to know" but it's more commonly used to describe sexual intimacy.
There is a difference between simple belief, and intimate knowledge.
What I am about to say next is for the Christians in the room, so if there are people who aren't Christians here--you're off the hook for a second. But you may want to lean in just a bit because what I am about to say is probably something that you wish you'd heard Christians say a long time ago.
The difference between knowing and KNOWING plays out in a lot of different ways when it comes to Christian-types like us.
Some of us memorized vast amounts of Bible verses and we can quote them on demand. For every occasion, we have a Bible verse. We can throw down when it comes to Bible verses.
I can't even tell you how much of the Bible I memorized when I was a kid. Huge chunks of it. Chapters, entire books, you name it. But at some point I had a faith crisis and all of that head knowledge didn't do me any good. I got to a point where I didn't think God cared all that much for me, and I didn't care all that much for God.
But later in my life after a long journey I re-discovered a verse that has now become my life verse. Jeremiah 29:11 "For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans not to harm you but to give you hope and a future." I know I quote this verse all of the time, but it's my favorite.
There was a time in my life when I felt like there was no way that God would ever want to use me--that there was no real purpose for my life. I had done too many things. I had run too far away. But this verse spoke to me. It spoke to me about grace and second chances. It helped me to see that God's plans for my life were perfect and full of hope.
I used to know a lot of Bible verses. But I KNOW that one.
Or what about Christians who love to give hundreds of reasons why certain things are sinful? They can give you chapter and verse from the Bible on why that thing that those people do is sinful in the eyes of angry God.
What I want to ask them is simply this. Can you tell me about a time when you received grace you didn't deserve? Don't give me reasons and lists why those things are sin--tell me about how you've been forgiven. Tell me about that time when you found yourself on your knees, broken, sorry, wounded, messed up--because of what you did, or said. Tell me about how you felt peace wash over you, how that relationship was restored, how that addiction was broken...
I don't care so much about what you know. I want to hear about what you KNOW.
Some Christians can give you list of all of the current events that are happening in the world today that point toward the Apocalypse. They will warn you about the impending end of the world. They have authors they can quote, verses they can share. They wake up every day and see the world as a fearful place or worse as a place full of signs that God is going to wreak destruction on everything and finally... finally those people are going to get theirs.
I want to ask them: Instead of telling me how awful the world is---could you tell me something else?
Can you tell me about a time when you looked into the sky and you knew that God loved you. Because you saw that sunset over the lake with the unbelievable color in all of its infinite variety and you realized that God could have made that happen any old way---but God made it beautiful because He loves us.
Tell me something that you KNOW.
There's a difference between knowing and KNOWING.
When it comes to the Resurrection, the signs are all around us. We could spend all of our time trying to convince people that God raises from the dead, or we could just tell our stories. Because every single one of us has a story about how they saw something that they thought was dead--come back to life again: a marriage restored, an addict cured, a wayward child returned, an unbelieving spouse come to faith... We've seen the impossible made possible.
We KNOW this.
I remember years ago, I was working a late shift as a hospital chaplain and I was called to see a woman who was about to have surgery the next morning to remove her vocal chords. I was about to have one of the very last conversations that she would ever have. She told me that she was a believer in Jesus, that she had followed him faithfully her whole life. She had done everything she was supposed to do. She went to church. She went to Bible study. She gave to the church. Her kids grew up in Sunday school and youth group.
And now she would never speak again. She was angry with God. The things she knew were failing her. I took out my Bible and asked her if she would be interested in reading the Bible out loud--perhaps for the last time. She nodded through her tears.
We opened the Bible to Lamentations chapter 3
1 I am the man who has seen affliction
by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.
2 He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light;
3 indeed, he has turned his hand against me
again and again, all day long.
As she read, her voice became tighter and angrier. She read the indictments against God that begin the chapter--a book dedicated to sorrow, anger at the Almighty, frustration, fear and all the rest of it.
16 He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust.
17 I have been deprived of peace;
I have forgotten what prosperity is.
18 So I say, “My splendor is gone
and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”
I remember the tears running down her face as this woman with the last bit of voice she had cried out to God. Everything she thought she knew seemed to have come to nothing. And then she read this...
21 Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
She paused after reading that verse--her voice trailing off. She began to cry, but she smiled at me through the tears that came down her face in a flood.
"I am not consumed." She said to me. "I am not consumed."
In that moment she realized that God had not left her. God had taken her anger, her unbelief. God could handle it. And in the end, God would redeem it all. She'd had knowledge of the Resurrection before, but in this moment she had INTIMATE knowledge of it.
There's a difference between knowing something and KNOWING something.
Christ is risen, beloved. He is risen indeed.