Know What You Believe — A series based on The Apostles’ Creed — Part 6
1 Corinthians 15:17-20
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.
I. Question: Why are creeds important?
Although many of you have been most affirming of my decision to, for the first time in my ministry, prepare and preach a series on The Apostles’ Creed, some of you have questioned the necessity of this. Comments have been made that this is “too academic, that John’s trying to make a classroom out of the sanctuary.” “We come to St. Andrew’s for comfort, encouragement and inspiration, not for a theological head trip.”
So why am I taking the time to stretch myself and you by preaching through this early Christian creed? And why are creeds even important?
Answer: Christian faith is not based on sentimentality but on acts of God that happened in history.
These facts are recorded in the Bible. And, as the need has arisen in history, these facts have been organized into credal statements which are reminders on what our faith, comfort, encouragement, hope and inspiration is based.
For example, back in 1999, the interim pastor of a large Presbyterian church in St. Paul, Minnesota, preached an Easter sermon declaring, “Without a doubt, Jesus was raised from the dead.” But he went on to also say, “It does not matter at all to me if He was ‘physically’ raised from the dead.” The press referred to this “eyebrow-raising” message as part and parcel of revisionist Christianity of the sort pioneered by the Jesus Seminar led by Marcus Borg, who declares, “The truth of Easter is grounded in the continued experience of Jesus through the centuries, not in what did or did not happen on a particular Sunday 2,000 years ago.” Borg continues, “To this day, people continue to experience Jesus as a living reality. If we were to find the skeletal remains of Jesus, it would be very odd to say, ‘O, we have been wrong all this time.'”
I clipped that Religious News Service report, published in the April 12, 1999, issue of The Presbyterian Outlook, and placed it in my files under the topic “Resurrection.” I thought of it and many of the similar statements made by proponents of the Jesus Seminar that periodically appear in both religious and secular journals. Every so often, I am confronted at the door of the church by some of you, troubled by these reports.
This week, I came across an article in The Christian Century dated September 20, 2003, by William C. Placher, titled “Why Creeds Matter, Believe it or Not.” It was a review of two books by the Yale University historian, Jarislov Pelikan. One is titled Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, and is a compilation of these creeds throughout Christian history. The second is a book written by him titled, Credo. In these works, Pelikan observes many in this present age feel that creeds are irrelevant, the very notion of heresy is alien to the contemporary mind. Most people tend to choose their church because of its congenial music or strong youth program, instead of any particular set of beliefs that it confesses. Even some scholars of Christian history conclude that political and social conflicts really have been more important than doctrinal debates. Placher, the reviewer, makes this profound observation, combining his own thoughts with those of Jerislov Pelikan and Lionel Trilling. Let me read this to you:
It is now fashionable to argue that creeds should be less important than deeds and piety, and that formal confessions impose the will of the elite on ordinary folk. In response to the first claim, Pelikan quotes Lionel Trilling: “It is probably true that when the dogmatic principle in religion is slighted, religion goes along for a while on generalized emotion and ethical intention — ‘morality touched by emotion,'” but it “then loses the force of its impulse and even the essence of its being.” Even if I have a warm personal relationship with Jesus, I also need an account of what’s so special about Jesus to understand why my relationship with him is so important. If I think about dedicating my life to following him, I need an idea about why he’s worth following. Without such accounts and ideas, Christian feeling and Christian behavior start to fade to generalized warm fuzziness and social conventions.
I take these notions quite seriously. This is why biblical expository preaching is so important. This is why familiarity with the historic creeds of the church is important. We can, if we aren’t careful, get caught up in a sentimentality of religious thought, faith and expression that becomes detached from both the divinely revealed biblical record and the church’s endeavor through the centuries to make sense of that biblical record. When you and I declare The Apostles’ Creed, we are stating, in a most basic liturgical expression, the foundational beliefs on which our faith, comfort, encouragement, hope and inspiration are based.
For example, last week we looked at the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross. This actually happened in history.
At the door of the church after one of the services, a young woman came up to me, bubbling over with excitement. She told me how, fifteen years ago, she had opened her life to Jesus Christ, receiving Him as Savior. She declared, “What makes me so excited now is the basis of what you shared from the pulpit this evening. For the first time I realize what happened to me fifteen years ago! It wasn’t what I did. It was what Jesus Christ did for me on the cross. I am only now coming to understand what ‘amazing grace’ means.”
I received a card this week from a person commenting on last week’s message on the cross. She thanked me for it and for the videos I have done twice now in the sanctuary, which so graphically portrayed the crucifixion scene. She describes what happened to her two years ago on Easter Sunday when I first showed the video clip of the crucifixion. “For the first time I felt, as well as understood (intellectually), what Jesus suffered and it brought me to my knees in repentance. That experience has made all the difference in ‘changing my heart’ as our praise song sings.”
You see, these are the elementary facts of the faith. If we are not careful, incarnation will be reserved for Advent. The atoning work on the cross will be restricted to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the services once so well attended, which are now almost ignored in the Western world. The resurrection would end up being mentioned only on Easter and treated in such an inspirational way that people can feel good that one of two days they come to church, whether or not they see the resurrection as something that happened in history or just interesting religious poetry. The creeds, in our case The Apostles’ Creed, give a resilient foundation of a biblical factual nature. It declares the “faith once delivered to the saints.”
Thus far, in our previous five messages, we have looked at our confession, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; he descended into hell . . . ” Today we look at the phrase ” . . . the third day he rose again from the dead . . . “
II. What is being said here is: The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead actually happened.
The cross isn’t the end of the story. If it is, you have a religion that ends up with its final historical event being an act of violence, with a martyred Lord whose skeletal remains are somewhere in an undiscovered tomb. Or perhaps in a garbage dump somewhere in the vicinity of Jerusalem.
No, the earliest confession of the church is not “Christ is crucified!” Instead, it is “Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!”
This brings us to our biblical text of the day, one of many that can provide the basis for this message. The Apostle Paul writes to the young church at Corinth:
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you — unless you have come to believe in vain.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and 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 and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:1-8)
Although it is the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, bearing your and my sins, that meets the standards of a righteous God for the atonement of sins, it is the resurrection of Jesus Christ that propels us forward in the assurance that we serve not a dead martyr but a risen Lord!
Paul was aware that there had been and would be persons who tried to explain away the resurrection with the theory that He simply “swooned” on the cross and was revived in the coolness of the tomb. There was the theory that His body had been stolen, either by the disciples to create the myth of the resurrection, or by the authorities who wanted to rid that culture of any remembrance of Jesus of Nazareth. There was the theory that some people had hallucinated, thinking that they saw Him. There was another theory that in their confusion they went to the wrong tomb and found it empty.
But Paul understood the importance of the resurrection. He knew the Old Testament prophecies. He understood the Old Testament typologies. He had spent time with some of the apostles, who told him how Jesus himself predicted the resurrection. And he had talked to scores of men and women among the 500 plus brothers and sisters who had seen the resurrected Jesus over a period of several weeks. He himself, in his zeal to crush the early church, had been on his way to Damascus to further carry out his diabolical efforts, when he was confronted by the risen Christ and was radically transformed.
If you would like to read a much more erudite analysis of the resurrection from an academic standpoint, I commend to you William Barclay’s chapter titled “The Third Day He Rose Again” in his book, The Apostles’ Creed for Everyman. Barclay says, “If the Resurrection is removed from the messages of the early Church, then that message loses its centre and its soul. The claim on which all other claims were based is invalidated, and there is very little left.”
Instead of going that academic route, let me just emphasize one of the best evidences for the resurrection of Jesus Christ was how His dispirited disciples, who had disappeared at His crucifixion, came back to life, transformed persons after seeing their resurrected Lord. This motley crew, this cast of characters had very little promise. They were the most unlikely people to transform the world.
It was this group, less Judas Iscariot, that rallied together around their crucified risen and ascended Lord and, when filled with the Holy Spirit, went out and transformed the world. All but one, according to church tradition, ended up martyrs in the conviction that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
Yes, the great affirmation of the church through the centuries has been an affirmation reserved not just to Easter Sunday but to every time the people of God gather in worship. It is this: “Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!”
III. If the resurrection didn’t happen, you and I are most to be pitied!
First: Your faith is futile.
Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile . . . ” (1 Corinthians 15:17).
The reality is, if Christ did not rise from the dead, you and I are just “playing church.” We have had a hoax visited upon us that makes us pathetic people. We are just reminiscing over some ancient religious mythology, relevant only in that perhaps we could learn from the example of that dead first-century martyr how to more caringly treat people. At the same time, He was either a lunatic who thought He was God and wasn’t, or he was a fraud who knew He wasn’t, but claimed to be. That’s not the kind of ethical teacher I am prepared to follow.
Back in the mid-forties and early fifties, there was an evangelist by the name of Chuck Templeton, who was a dear friend of Billy Graham. The two men started out together in the Youth for Christ movement. Chuck had the rally in Toronto, Canada. He had a winsome personality and was a powerful speaker. Originally, he was more popular than Billy Graham. Chuck began to doubt biblical authority. He went off to seminary and began a downward spiral in his faith, trying to hold on to some of the spiritual concepts while increasingly denying the factual basis of biblical teaching and the historic creeds of the church. He left the ministry and went back to Canada and became sort of the Jack Paar/Johnny Carson of the Canadian broadcasting system. He rose close to the top in comedian national politics. Along the line he wrote a novel. The theme of the novel was that some archaeologists had found the bones of Jesus. The Roman Catholic Church had acknowledged the authenticity of the discovery, but they kept the fact secret because such an admission would destroy the faith of so many, and ruin a good business.
But if, perchance, his fictional narrative had its core in the truth that Jesus never did rise from the dead, we should close up shop immediately because our faith is futile.
Second: You and I are still locked in by sin.
Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).
We have a wonderful way of sort of trivializing sin.
My friend, Jim Johnson, sends me some cute E-mails. A recent one included some comments by children.
Little three-year-old Reese was overheard praying, “Our father, who does art in heaven, Harold is his name. Amen”
Another little boy was overheard praying, “Lord, if you can’t make me a better boy, don’t worry about it. I am having a real good time like I am.”
A Sunday School class was studying the Ten Commandments. They were ready to discuss the last one. The teacher asked if anyone could tell her what it was. Suzy raised her hand, stood tall and quoted, “Thou shalt not take the covers off thy neighbor’s wife.”
After the christening of his baby brother in church, Jason sobbed in the back seat of the car all the way home. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, the boy replied, “That preacher said he wanted us to be brought up in a Christian home, and I want to stay with you guys!”
The Sunday School teacher asked her children as they were on the way to the service, “And why is it necessary to be quiet in church?” One bright little girl replied, “Because people are sleeping!”
A parent said, “I had been teaching my three-year-old daughter, Caitlin, the Lord’s Prayer for several evenings at bedtime, and she would repeat after me the lines from the prayer. Finally, she decided to go solo. I listened with pride as she carefully enunciated each word right up to the end of the prayer: ‘Lead us not into temptation,’ she prayed, ‘but deliver us some E-mail. Amen.'”
And one particular four-year-old prayed, “and forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.”
We can make our little jokes, but the reality is: sin is sin. Hell is separation from God, in this life and for eternity. If Christ did not rise from the dead, you and I would be locked into our sins. We would either have to create a religion based on works and try to win the favor of God, or carry out some perfect adherence to the Old Testament law.
I can introduce you to people here in the United States and other parts of the world whose lives have been devastated by sin, even though they may not understand it to be that. They may refer to it as addictive behavior or dysfunctional personality traits. I can take you to other parts of the world to people who do believe there is such a thing as sin, and are mutilating their bodies in pagan temples, lying on beds of nails, throwing themselves prostrate on the ground, literally whipping themselves in bodily mutilation to win the favor of the gods.
Third: You would never see your dead loved ones again.
Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished” (1 Corinthians 15:17-18).
Goodbye. This is it. Eat, drink and be merry. There’s nothing more.
I have had several hundred memorial services in my 40 years of ministry. I and any other minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ can almost instantly detect the different tone of grieving between those who have put their trust in Jesus Christ and those who have not. A non-believer does not understand the promise of reunion in heaven, though they may refer to their loved one as “standing on the first tee” or “sidling up to the bar at the heavenly yacht club.” But even those statements have a hollow, empty edge to them. Then there’s the believer whose tears may be just as prolific and whose grief may be every bit as deep, but whose countenance is that of one who grieves for himself, not for the one who is gone, for she knows the sorrow is for the moment. Someday, she, as a believer, will be reunited with her loved one who already is in the presence of Jesus Christ.
Fourth: You should be pitied.
Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19).
A person who has bought into a merciless hoax is a pathetic person, a person to be pitied.
Every so often I visit one of our members who is slowly descending into dementia. I dread that day for myself. How sad it is to see the confusion. One dear friend kept telling me about her sister and her mother. She talked in the present tense, although her mother had died decades ago, and her sister several years earlier. She talked about her Daddy as if she were a little girl, and he would be coming home soon. We love these persons. Through no fault of their own, they are simply out of touch with reality. God help us wrap our arms around them and to care for them. But we don’t base our present activities on the actuality of what they are saying. Their thoughts are, may I say it lovingly and tenderly, at that point, “deranged.”
That’s how we are if the resurrection never really happened. We are talking nonsense, and a talker of nonsense is to be pitied. Sometimes we can be seduced by nonsense.
I remember, as a young minister in training at Princeton Theological Seminary, being assigned to Trenton State Mental Hospital. I and several of my colleagues would go there once a week. The first time we went we were met in the first ward by a doctor who led us on a tour through the facility, from one ward to another. When we went to leave, we said goodbye to the doctor, assuming he would escort us out to the lobby, only to see an orderly step in between him, us and the door. We found out that this man, so bright and articulate, so knowledgeable, who had led us on the tour, was one of the patients. That was our first major exposure to the pathos of life lived in unreality.
We are most to be pitied if Christ is not risen from the dead. Let’s grow up. Let’s get it straight. Let’s not walk around in self-delusion.
IV. But in fact Jesus did bodily rise from the dead!
Paul puts it in these words, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22).
This means that you have forgiveness.
If you confess your sins, God is faithful and just to forgive your sins and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness. Jesus did it on the cross for you. Through His life, death and resurrection, you can be a forgiven person.
That’s no excuse to be a lousy father. God does forgive lousy fathers. That’s no excuse to use abortion as an escape for an unwanted child brought about by premarital sex. God wraps His arms in love around women and men who have mistakenly taken that route and are willing to repent.
This gives no excuse to be involved in white-collar crime, embezzling for one’s self the hard-earned trusted investments of others, for which the penalty is time in jail. God wraps His arms around and loves embezzlers who repent and make whatever efforts they can at restitution.
This gives no excuse to be unfaithful to your spouse. Yet God forgives. And thank God for a spouse who also is willing to forgive if one owns up to what they have done wrong and gets the relational help necessary to rebuild trust.
This gives no excuse to be insensitive to the poor and the powerless. God wraps His arms around those of us who are and wants to teach us how to be more caring of others.
Right here in the sanctuary there is a lousy father, a woman who has aborted, an embezzler who has already been to prison, a husband who has been unfaithful, a person insensitive to the needs of those poor and powerless, and a pastor who has his own sins — some obvious, some not so obvious.
Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, you and I have forgiveness — and there is nothing we have ever done that is unforgivable, except the refusal to come to the foot of the cross in repentance, looking up into the eyes of the crucified and risen Lord and claiming His remission for sin.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ means you are promised reunion with your loved ones who have died in Christ.
Today, on All Saints’ Day, we will read 58 names of our St. Andrew’s membership who have died in the last twelve months. We will then pause to remember all of our loved ones who have died, and those griefs that you and I continue to carry.
My daughter, Suzanne, won’t be mentioned out loud, but I will say her name quietly in my heart. I look forward to seeing her some day in the presence of Jesus Christ, not because she or I have led perfect lives but because we are both clothed in Christ’s righteousness.
I claim the promise He made when He said, “‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?'” (John 11:25).
Yes, I believe this!
I claim His promise when He said, “‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also'” (John 14:1-3).
I claim that promise based on His life, His death and His resurrection
My friend, Doug Coe, who lost his son, Jonathan, to Hodgkin’s Disease, declares, “I live with one foot on earth and one foot in heaven!”
Because of His bodily resurrection from the dead, you and I have hope for both this life and the next.
Ernest Gordon was a British Army officer captured by the Japanese during World War II. He was assigned to the building of the Burma-Siam railway. Each day, Gordon joined a work detail of prisoners to build a track bed through low-lying swampland. If a prisoner appeared to lag, a Japanese guard would beat him to death or decapitate him. Many more men simply dropped dead from exhaustion, malnutrition and disease. Ultimately, 80,000 prisoners died.
Gordon could feel himself gradually wasting away from a combination of beri-beri, worms, malaria, dysentery, typhoid and diphtheria. Paralyzed and unable to eat, he asked to be laid in the death house. His friends, however, had other plans. They carried his shriveled body on a stretcher from that contaminated place to a new bed of split bamboo.
Something was astir in the prison camp. Something that Gordon would call “Miracle on the River Quai.” For most of the war the prison camp had served as a laboratory of survival of the fittest, every man for himself. The men lived like animals. For a long time, hate was the main motivation to stay alive. Recently, though, a change had come. One event in particular struck the prisoners. A Japanese guard discovered that a shovel was missing. When no one confessed to the theft, he screamed, “All die! All die!” and raised his rifle to fire at the first man in line. At that instant, an enlisted man stepped forward and said, “I did it.”
Enraged, the guard lifted his weapon in the air and brought the rifle butt down on the soldier’s skull, killing him. That evening, when tools were inventoried again, the crew discovered a mistake had been made. No shovel was missing.
One of the prisoners remembered the verse, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Attitudes in the camp began to shift. With no prompting, prisoners began to look out for each other rather than themselves.
Gordon sensed the change in a very personal way as two fellow Scots came by each day and cared for him, dressing the ulcers on his legs and massaging the atrophied muscles. He put on weight and, to his amazement, regained partial use of his legs. By default, because he had studied some philosophy, he became the unofficial camp chaplain.
Gordon’s book tells of the transformation of the camp so completely that when liberation finally came, the prisoners treated their sadistic guards with kindness and not revenge. Gordon’s own life took an unexpected turn. He enrolled in seminary and became a Presbyterian minister. He ended up as the Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University, when I studied there in the early 1960s.
You see, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the present power of His Holy Spirit, you and I are equipped to live through the toughest experiences of this life and the life to come.
Not everybody made it out of that concentration camp, but the crucified and risen Lord was right there in the midst of that mess.
Dave Hemstreet is a friend of mine who died a few weeks ago at age 54 of lung cancer. His story is a familiar one. Youthful indiscretions, followed by a rude awakening in jail. Having hit the bottom, he returned, like the Prodigal Son, to the waiting father. Skeptics of evangelical faith are frequently cynical about its staying power. Dave’s renewed faith had that staying power. I watched him as he integrated his faith with everything he touched — his sense of humor, his willingness to face the unfairness of life, his faithful witness by word and deed to his Savior, the risen Christ, who he trusted to be with him in death, even as He was with him in life.
Two of my dearest friends, Jeanne and Leighton Ford, lost their university-age son, Sandy, to heart failure a couple of decades ago. They now have an adult daughter, Debbie, who is fighting the recurrence of cancer. She and her husband, Craig, who have their own high-school and college-age children, are battling for her life. Some of us are joining them in this battle with our love and prayers. It isn’t easy. One friend, Sherol Hayner, sent Deb — this precious daughter, sister, wife, mother — who is experiencing all side effects (nausea, hair-loss) of chemotherapy, these words by Elizabeth Rooney, titled “Lullaby for a Christian.” Deb is finding these words very helpful as she claims hope for both this life and the next from the resurrected Christ. I conclude with these words that I hope you, too, find helpful:
Sleep sweetly, child
The arms of Love
Relax and let Him hold you.
The day was His
And now His is the night.
All will come right.
Entrust yourself to Him
Has bound you.
Sleep sweetly child,
And let His love
This is one of a series of sermons based on The Apostles Creed. Additional sermons from that series will appear in Preaching On-Line in March, April and May.
John A. Huffman, Jr. is the Senior Minister at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. He is a Senior Contributing Editor to Preaching