A friend of mine discussed sermons with a pastor of one of Canada’s mainline churches. He and his wife had visited the pastor’s church at Christmas and Easter. Although they enjoyed the rhetorical skills of the pastor and appreciated the social programs of the church, they were disappointed that the sermon did not bring the full gospel to the worshippers. The pastor did not, for example, believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus on Easter Day. When my friend pointed this out, the pastor replied, “Oh, come on Jim. This is the 21st century.”
When my friend Jim told me the story, I was in the midst of reading Acts, in which we witness the Apostle Paul being invited to speak to learned Athenians in the Areopagas.
Paul told them about the God who made the heavens and the earth, the God who does not need human beings for anything, unlike the lesser gods that the Athenians were worshiping. Paul also told them about the resurrection of Jesus. At this point he lost at least half of his audience. We read that “some sneered” when Paul mentioned the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
When I read that I had to laugh. In my mind I heard one of the sneering members of the Areopagus say to Paul, “Oh, come on, Paul. This is the first century!” A bit of an anachronism, I know. But the point is that no matter what century you live in, belief or unbelief in the physical resurrection of Christ is made of the same stuff. Belief has no best before date; it is not cancelled out by scientific development and knowledge when it comes to spiritual things. And cynicism is as old as the hills and has nothing new to offer. Living in the 21st century does not change matters of the heart.
We read that at least two prominent Athenians did believe what Paul had to say: Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, and a woman named Damaris, as well as several unnamed persons.
It is a mystery how and why people come to believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus. It is, of course, the work of the Holy Spirit. And it is safe to assume that we human beings can block out the voice of the Holy Spirit, especially when we reduce God to our own level of existence, which is what our culture is good at doing. Whereas in earlier ages, people tended to take supernatural reality seriously, today we have enlarged the field of knowledge to the point where we think we can explain away most mysteries. Technological developments have opened up the world of possibilities beyond anything our ancestors could have experienced. Psychological insights seem able to explain the inner world of human beings. Medical studies have increased the possibility of fighting and preventing diseases. Where exactly is God needed to improve our lives? Why is the resurrection of Christ such an essential and foundational part of our confession?
Well, let’s start with the inability of our world to prevent wars. Let’s see how successful we are in overcoming addictions to drugs, alcohol, pornography and food. How trustworthy are people in positions of power? Why are so many marriages breaking down? How come the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger? The list can go on, but it all boils down to our inability to overcome sin. Something is needed to overpower the death of our civilization.
Another friend of mine, living in the Netherlands, ended one of his letters to me with the following stark, unqualified observation: “De mens is slecht” [human beings are wicked]. Not a very popular statement to make in the 21st century!
The only thing that blocks our entrance to a healthy, safe, wholesome, happy and peaceable kingdom is our dependence on ourselves. Without God, we are stuck with what much of our century has to offer: no resurrection, no restoration, no future.
All the more reason for us to be bold and speak of the physical resurrection of Jesus.
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!
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