Sunday, June 12, 2016
(On this Sunday, we baptized J_______).
As Jeremy went under the water, I pronounced him “dead.” This is not only about J______. Recall your baptism. I or another pastor took you down under the water, dead and buried in sin. Then you are raised and we say, “Raised to new life in Jesus Christ.” Sin leads to death, but because of Jesus, his death on the cross and his resurrection, we have new life. We become new creations. We do not remain buried in the ground to return to ashes. We are raised.
For what? Jeremy has entrusted himself to Jesus. You and I, if we have put our faith in Christ, also have entrusted ourselves to Him. We are saved, born again, bound for resurrection. Our baptism shows this. What about our lives? For what are we saved?
In the 16th century in Europe, a group of Christians called Anabaptists insisted that babies could not be baptized. Baptism was for people who were able to consciously choose to follow Jesus and when baptism happened it had to be by immersion. In the reformation, Protestant Christians separated from the Catholic Church. Anabaptists, the ones denying the acceptability of infant baptism separated from other Protestants like Lutherans and the Reformed Church.
As a result, over 1000 Anabaptists were arrested and killed by both Catholics and by other Protestants. Their main crime was they allowed themselves to be re-baptized. Women were drowned for this, and men burned at the stake for doing what Jeremy did today, undergoing immersion, believer’s baptism.
Dirk Willem was one such Christian, an Anabaptist follower of Jesus. Imprisoned, awaiting execution in his home town of Asperen, Netherlands, he escaped. He made a rope of cloths tied together, and fled over the wintry countryside as a guard gave chase. He risked running right across a frozen pond. The ice held, but when the guard followed, it gave way dooming him to a certain, frozen death.
Raised to new life in Christ. For what?
Dirk Willem stopped running, turned around, and helped the man who a moment ago had been chasing him. Dirk had escaped and was in the clear, but he believed what Jesus said when Jesus said to love our enemies. He pulled that man from the frigid waters and the man was ready to let him go, but this all took long enough for others to catch up. For living as a part of new creation, as one who is of the Kingdom of God, Dirk Willem was burned at the stake on May 16, 1569.
Near the end of his letter to the Corinthian Church, the Apostle Paul zeroed on the core Gospel. Chapter begins, “Now I would remind you brothers and sisters, of the gospel … [on] which you stand” (15:1). It all comes down to this. Paul’s final word for them in this letter is the essential Gospel.
Competing narratives vie for our soul. Every one of us lives under the covering of a dominant story. Maybe it is a national story or a social class story or a race story. Whatever it is, this was true of the Corinthians; it was true for Dirk Willem which is why he was willing to go to his own death to save the man who represented the powers that killed him; and, it is true for you and me. Competing stories position themselves to be the dominant story of our lives. Paul wanted the Gospel to be the dominant story for all who would read this letter.
Verse 2, we are saved if we believe. Verse 3, Christ died for our sins, was buried, and raised. Please note that each portion is equally critical in our story. There is not more weight on the cross. The cross is essential. The burial is and so is the resurrection. The gospel includes all of it. Later in this chapter, Paul declares that if Jesus was not raised in a bodily resurrection, it’s all for nothing. Without the resurrection, the cross is just a torture device. Without the cross, the resurrection never happens.
And in beginning in verse 5 and running through verse 11 is another, equally essential element of the Gospel: the appearances of the risen Lord Jesus. This testimony is here because Paul wants the original readers of this letter and every subsequent generation of readers to know that there were multiple eye-witnesses who attested to a literal, bodily resurrection.
New Testament writers worked to place the resurrection as an event history, something that literally happened. In the opening verses of his Gospel, Luke asserts that he is writing history. He took the same approach in the book of Acts. In John’s gospel, the author claims to be an eye-witness to all that has been described including the resurrection (John 21:24). A similar claim is made in Second Peter (1:5) and here in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul names several eyewitness.
Theologian Paul Fiddes labels this approach to knowledge of Jesus as ‘scientific,’ affixing to the discipline of historical research the same standards of inquiry used in science (see Past Event and Present Salvation, chapter 3). Fiddes thinks the resurrection cannot be determined by means of scientific inquiry because it is an event that cannot be reproduced within the boundaries of the laws of nature. It is a supernatural event so the fact that it happened cannot be established by historical research. Fiddes is not denying a bodily resurrection. He just denies that we can prove it by the conventions historians use. Rather, we know the resurrection happened because we know it by faith. Fiddes believes this approach to knowing is as valid and as important as the knowledge we gain by scientific inquire. In dealing with salvation, he feels both ways of knowing – by faith and by scientific inquiry - are essential.
While he doesn’t delve into how we know, theologian James McClendon accepts the resurrection as an event in history. Two theologian-historians, N.T. Wright and Mike Licona, have written lengthy volumes explaining why the best conclusion to be drawn from the available evidence is that Jesus actually did rise from the grave. Whether that is enough to say that inquiry can establish the historicity of the resurrection, I cannot say. But all the scholars I mentioned, Fiddes, Wright, Licona, and McClendon along with many others would agree that scientific inquiry cannot establish what the original followers of Jesus thought the cross and resurrection meant.
To understand meaning, we have to live in that other sphere of understanding Fiddes name – knowledge that comes by faith. Fiddes says, “the living and incomparable Lord cannot be pinned down under the microscope of scientific investigation. [We] need the eye of faith, and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring matters into focus before we can say [and believe] that ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’” (p.37). Paul and the other New Testament writers always operated with the eye of faith. Even when they tried to establish hard, objective facts by way of insisting upon the eye-witness nature of their reports, those reports were packaged persuasively in an attempt to lead the reader to faith. The apostle was at the same time objective, faith-based, and evangelistic.
We understand the events of salvation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the appearances of the risen Lord Jesus both by science and by faith. I have spent a bit time explaining both ways of understanding specifically because we live in a post-enlightenment era. We are science and technology dependent. There are individuals who are happy to let science take care of our healing at the hospital and our entertainment with 1000 devices and our banking and our shopping and our military defense. In all these ways, some individuals trust in technology, but when it comes to heaven, then switch and trust in God. And never do the science and the faith meet.
For others, that won’t do. When everything rides on the next scientific advance, to then rely on something outside of science for the afterlife is just superstition. Science has to have a say in our faith understanding. However, science (including historical proof as science) cannot have the final say. The resurrection is outside the parameters of science. God is outside the parameters of science. So is meaning. Thus when we, as followers of the crucified/risen Lord who come from the scientific age, express our faith we need to do so in a way that is rooted in faith but understood by those rooted in science. We have to talk about salvation in a way makes that makes sense to people today.
Jesus lived in first century Palestine. Fact.
He was crucified when Jewish leaders collaborated with Romans leaders. He was crucified, dead, and buried. Fact.
He rose from death and appeared to his followers. Call this fact or belief, but it happened. Jesus literally rose in a bodily resurrection and first century people saw him.
What we believe about God and salvation rest on these facts which we declare to be irrefutable. What these things mean has to do with the relationship that comes when the Holy Spirit reaches out to us and we respond. This is faith knowledge and faith-living. We declare both, what we know and the life we will commit to live in believer’s baptism by immersion.
But then, what this all means, is only seen in how we live. Prior to the resurrection, it was hard. Jesus repeatedly told his followers that like him, they needed to walk the hard road, persevere through persecution, and endure in godliness and faith. They just wanted to jump ahead straight to the New Age, bypassing hardship. McClendon observes that if the disciples had had their way, there would have been no cross. If Jesus had his way, there would have been 13 crosses (McClendon, p.235). And we have to take up our cross and follow Him. When we do that, when we’ve evaluated the evidence and responded to the Holy Spirit and we decide that because of what we’ve found and what we’ve felt we should then walk the footsteps of Jesus, then we have a full-bodied, lived salvation.
So, we study and pray. We think and feel. We calculate, evaluate, and meditate. All of it is done in hope and trust, believing that God will make us ready when our moment comes and our pursuer is about to fall through the ice.
Remember the opening story of the Dirk Willem who stop his escape to rescue the guard falling through thin ice. In that moment, he was not engaged in deep theological analysis. He was not moved by a deep warmth from God, I don’t think. He was scared and running for his life. But he stopped because deep inside himself he could hear the voice of Jesus telling him to love his enemy. This enemy would drag him to the stake where he would be slow-roasted to death.
When we are attacked verbally or relationally or maybe physically, when we are hit, do we hear Jesus telling us to love our enemies and do we obey?
When it gets really hard, do we run as fast as we can to safer ground, or do we stand and point to the crucified, risen Lord and declare, I am standing with Him and trusting in Him, no matter what?
When being a Christ-follower is costly, do we backtrack and settle for a watered down faith indistinguishable from any other worldview, or do we pay the cost, carry our cross, and follow Him?
The gospel is salvation: through the cross and the resurrection, Jesus saves us from sin and death and saves us to life eternal in His kingdom. We know this salvation that we have through measured, reasoned study of the facts. We know this salvation that we have through our deeply personal, emotional response to the Holy Spirit who whispers to our hearts that we are forgiven and beloved. And our salvation is known when the watching world sees our lives and sees Jesus.