Can We Trust The Resurrection? - Sermon: 21 May 2017

1 Corinthians 15:1-19
Rev. David K. Wood, Ph.D.

Believe it or not, when I was younger, my life’s ambition was NEVER to become a MINISTER but rather an ARCHEOLOGIST because it combined my deep love of history with a fascination with old bones and all things long dead. So you can imagine my excitement when several years back, I learned how the remains of old King Richard III had been discovered in Leicester, England. What made that discovery PARTICULARLY intriguing was that his bones were not located in a churchyard somewhere or on the grounds of a royal palace but under a city parking lot in a large urban city. Richard was one of the most famous kings of England, remembered by school children and Shakespeare buffs alike as a notorious villain. Hunchbacked and hateful, he is accused of having killed his own nephews—the two young princes--in the Tower of London to usurp the royal throne. Until recently, the whereabouts of his burial plot had remained a complete mystery. According to the history books, in August of 1495, Richard--the last English king to die in battle--rode out from Leicester in central England to the Battle of Bosworth Field where he met his bloody end. Days afterward, his body was unceremoniously returned to the city lashed to the back of a horse. His naked remains were then placed on display to prove to everyone that he was INDEED dead before being dumped into a nondescript grave at a nearby church, covered with a simple shroud, and then buried for the ages. That was over 500 years ago.

How his grave came to be discovered is almost as fascinating as the man himself was. His evil reputation was sealed after Shakespeare wrote a play about him, twisting many of the facts to create a monstrous villain. To rectify this injustice, The Richard III Society was founded in the 1920’s to get the REAL facts out and rehabilitate his reputation. As one person put it, "Since Shakespeare wrote a tragedy and not a history, he was obviously more concerned about a good STORY than he was a good HISTORY." However, it wasn’t until Philippa Langley, one of the society's members, suggested they start a campaign to help locate his grave that people began to think more seriously about it. Some were skeptical at first, convinced it was nothing more than a harebrained idea for even if they DID undertake to find it, after more than five hundred years, it would be like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. And even suppose they DID manage to find his grave, since he was not buried in a coffin but simply dumped in the barren earth, it's hard to believe anything of him would remain anyway.

Despite some reservations, they eventually did embrace the project. After some research, they speculated it was possible he was buried in an area that was once part of the old Greyfriar’s Friary, a monastic building that had disappeared many centuries before. That’s when the story becomes REALLY interesting. After receiving permission from the city to excavate, a team of experts prepared to dig a series of trenches in an effort to locate the original foundation of the friary. Call it women's intuition if you like but Ms. Langley had a strong sensation come from the parking lot and she felt she needed to follow it. To hear her tell it, "We could tell by the start signs that we were in the right area of the Greyfriar’s church. So as I stood there in this parking lot, I had this strange feeling that I was standing right on top of Richard’s grave, right where there was an 'R' painted on top of the tarmac- a hand-painted 'R' for 'Reserved.' So when we outlined the trenches, that letter 'R' was in the first trench and in the very first few feet of the first trench.” 

Well they began their dig right over the spot where the “R” was painted when suddenly they encountered traces of an ancient building followed by something altogether MORE exciting- a human skeleton, complete with evidence of battle wounds--a blow to the head, and an arrow in the back--and scoliosis (or curvature of the spine) which Richard was known to have had. What’s more, the remains were in surprisingly good condition, especially given that they had been laid to rest in a simple shroud, with no coffin to protect them. As a shiver of anticipation spread across the site, one figure sat, deathly pale and shaking, at the side of the trench. It was Philippa Langley as she watched in shock as the search she had championed for so long reached its climax. Someone remarked that the king must have been buried in a “long-term" parking lot.

However, before any celebration could take place, they would first have to confirm the identity of that skeleton. After an exhaustive examination of the bones where they were subject to bio-carbon testing, environmental sampling, and DNA testing (which they compared to the DNA of a man already confirmed to be a 17th generation descendent of the king), there was now no doubt that the skeleton they discovered was in fact Richard III. They considered it nothing short of a MIRACLE that he was discovered on the very first day of their dig, during the very first hour of their excavation. Next, they invited Caroline Wilkinson, Professor of Craniofacial Identification at the University of Dundee, to reconstruct his facial features based on the shape of his skull. Once she finished, they then had a fairly accurate image of what the old king looked like. His bones were later reinterred in Leicester with a ceremony more befitting his status as a former king of England. 

Of course, such expeditions have not just been limited to Egyptian pharaohs and English kings. Over the years, there have even been efforts made to locate the bones of JESUS CHRIST. Several years ago, the Discovery Channel aired a two-hour special entitled “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” which attempted to prove, though not very convincingly, that a tomb discovered back in 1980 was actually the grave of Jesus, that he had married Mary Magdalene and had a son named Judah. The claim was that upon their deaths, all three were laid to rest in a family tomb that is now buried deep beneath a Jerusalem apartment complex. 

It is undeniable that we live in a highly rational and scientific age, where clear proofs are required before we accept something that so obviously violates the laws of nature. After all, we've all seen a dead person at one time or another, but how many of us have ever encountered a person who had returned to life after he or she had been legally declared dead for a few days. Probably the closest I’ve ever come to that was at a hippie church I used to attend back in the mid-1970's while living in California. One Sunday, the minister, fumbling for something to say, suddenly blurted out, “Well has anyone been raised from the dead lately?” and a man sitting in the back row jumped up and said, “I DID! I had a heart attack last week and my heart stopped for a few minutes. But the paramedics refused to give up on me and so here I am today- a real live miracle!” There wasn’t one of us who wasn’t blown away by that testimony. Technically though, something like that might be BETTER considered a “resuscitation” rather than a “resurrection.”

Years ago, the wife of a friend of mine was killed in an automobile accident and her husband--a local pastor--organized a 24-hour prayer vigil at the funeral home believing that God would raise her up in the same manner God had raised Jesus from the dead. For 24 hours straight, he and his friends fasted and prayed over his wife’s body, but it was not to be. I certainly admired him for his deep faith but the realist in me thought the whole episode was nothing more than a bizarre exhibition. The fact is that people DON’T normally come back to life once they have died.

In light of the recent discovery of King Richard's remains, I had to ask myself that if it WERE possible to prove once and for all that the tomb of Jesus HAD been discovered, if it could be clearly demonstrated that the small ossuary or stone box with his name on it did IN FACT once hold the bones of our Lord, then what kind of effect would it have upon my faith? Could I still maintain a faith in Christ and in God if that faith no longer could support the idea of his resurrection? After all, doesn’t Paul say rather conclusively in our N.T. lesson that “if Christ is not risen...then your faith is in vain?” Would God or Jesus Christ or the church or even LIFE ITSELF still have meaning and validity if it were determined that he died just like any other man and three days later, REMAINED dead?

However, before we could answer this question, we would first have to ask ourselves WHY Jesus’s resurrection is so central to our life and faith in the FIRST place. To BEGIN with, it validated his mission and his claim to be the Son of God, the long-expected Messiah. His followers now knew that Jesus was who he said he was. SECONDLY, the resurrection also validated his teaching, that every word out of his mouth could indeed be trusted as faithful and true. THIRDLY, Christ's resurrection attested to the fact that his work as the “Lamb of God” who bore our sins upon that cross was now finished. It represented his Heavenly Father’s stamp of approval, that God was in effect saying, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!” And FINALLY, it served as a witness to all his followers that even as the Son had overcome the forces of sin and death, so too was that power broken for US; that even as he had been raised up from the grave, so too would WE be resurrected when time and history had reached their ultimate conclusion. You see, Christianity is really a religion with “resurrection” at its heart for WITHOUT it, there would have been no New Testament and thus no "Good News" for us this morning. There is no GREATER affirmation or exclamation in all the world than the words "Rejoice! The Lord is RISEN!"

Now back to the question of whether Christ would CONTINUE to hold significance for me if it were proven once and for all that the bones of our Lord had finally been found. Well the answer for me is an unqualified YES and that is because my faith in Christ does not rest upon the discovery of any bones or positively-identified archeological evidence. The four gospels indicate that Christ’s resurrection was MORE than just an historical event. What happened to Christ on the third day had completely transformed him so that afterwards, he was physically different from what would have been the result had it been you or I who had died. For instance, when Lazarus was raised from the dead after four days, you could say he was “resuscitated” but when JESUS was raised after three days, he was “resurrected”- something entirely different. It was an event which theologians would call “extra-historical” or outside the boundaries of ordinary historical occurrence. To begin with, we’re informed that his grave clothes perfectly remained in place even though his body was no longer present. We know that Mary did not recognize him when he appeared to her at the garden tomb, nor did the two disciples on their way back to Emmaus when he walked and talked with them throughout the afternoon. John tells us that Christ suddenly and mysteriously appeared to his disciples that first Easter night in the Upper Room although “the doors and windows were shut for fear of the Jews,” and he did the same thing A WEEK LATER when he appeared before them, but this time with Thomas present. Clearly, there was something different about him in his resurrected state than before his death that showed he possessed something more than a physical body and that this was much more than the usual historical event.

Speaking for MYSELF, the most COMPELLING proof of the resurrection has NEVER been the empty tomb. Rather, the initial evidence of the resurrection lies in the lives of the DISCIPLES THEMSELVES who in a matter of days went from being terrified members of a failed movement, cowering behind closed doors, into men and women emboldened to preach about Jesus even at great cost to their own lives. Someone, something had encountered them that profoundly changed them at their core, reinvigorating their hope and reorienting them once again towards the future and their mission. Only an encounter with the Risen Christ could account for such a dramatic transformation. WHY ELSE would they subject themselves to such hardship and oppression for the cause of Christ; WHY ELSE would they endure shipwrecks and imprisonments and even DEATH ITSELF unless they had some assurance he was present to them and going to accompany them every step along the way in their journeys.

A SECOND proof to me has been in the examples of resurrection life I see all around me. What GREATER proof can there be of the living reality of Jesus Christ than to see him incarnated through the caring and faithful witness of his church, in those Christians who consistently demonstrate an uncommon humility and love in their daily lives. It is often said that we may be the only Bible that our world will ever read. Well such persons become for ME the living embodiment of the Risen Lord, and through their encouraging words and quiet acts of charity, I KNOW WITHOUT A DOUBT that Christ, through his Holy Spirit, is living and operating within them.

And then there is one FINAL proof for me of the resurrected Christ and it is also the MOST CONVINCING. For that, I must appeal to one of the greatest minds and most profound Christian thinkers to ever live- the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. Between the hours of half past 10 and half past midnight on Monday, Nov. 23, 1654, the feast day of St. Clement, he claims that Jesus appeared to him. In that one instant, all doubt was gone, God was real, and the Christian story was all true. He wrote that night in his journal, “Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ. God of Jesus Christ. My God and your God.” He subsequently abandoned his interest in mathematics and science to devote the rest of his life to theology and philosophy. For Pascal, God was REAL and Christ was ALIVE, and because he had PERSONALLY received a vision of him, he could NEVER have doubts again. This was not unlike the vision that the great persecutor of the ancient church, SAUL OF TARSUS, had of Christ on the Damascus road which eventually transformed HIM into ST. PAUL, the GREATEST Apostle the world had ever known. 

Like Pascal, MY personal encounter with the Risen Lord remains for ME the ULTIMATE proof as to the reality of Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection. Oh you can READ about him in the Bible or in some theology textbook, and you might HEAR about him on the radio or on TV, but if you’ve never MET the Risen Lord, if you’ve never had your OWN life touched and transformed by him PERSONALLY, then you’ll NEVER be able to know the truth of his resurrection. As Paul says in the third chapter of his epistle to the Philippians, “O that I might KNOW him, and in KNOWING him, EXPERIENCE the power of his resurrection, SHARE in his sufferings, and BECOME LIKE HIM in his death, so that, if possible, I TOO may attain the resurrection from the dead MYSELF."

As Children of God who have already experienced his resurrection life within us, we in turn become the greatest proof that Jesus Christ is REAL, that he is ALIVE, and that he is NOW PRESENT in the very guise of you and me! Under the direction and empowerment of his personal spirit, WE become Jesus Christ incarnate to the rest of the world. We become his HANDS- to aid and assist whomever God sends our way; WE become his FEET- going into those places that others would rather avoid; and WE become his VOICE- crying out for justice for those who no longer have a voice of their own. Let others continue to speculate about his bones or argue amongst themselves as to whether he was raised or not, or whether it was a physical or spiritual resurrection. WE, on the other hand, shall continue to offer the MOST CONVINCING PROOF OF ALL- through our very OWN witness! Amen and amen

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