Cross Words: A Living Christ For A Dying World
April 19, 1987 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | I Corinthians 15:3-8, 20-26
Suppose you were to pick up the newspaper tomorrow morning and read the headlines: “Pope John Paul becomes a Protestant!” Or “Ronald Reagan switches to the Democratic Party!” Or “Mikhael Gorbachev defects to the U.S.A.!” Of course, at first you would be shocked. But then you would want to know what could be behind such a dramatic change—what remarkable cause could have created such an unbelievable effect.
Well, I would set before you today a headline that is nearly 2,000 years old. But don’t let the dust of 20 centuries take the sting and the shock out of it. This headline is just as astonishing as any of those fictitious headlines I mentioned a moment ago. This headline would have appeared one day during the first century in the Jerusalem Gazette. It would have read: “Paul becomes a Christian!”
Believe me, that would have been front page news! Paul, you see, was the most brilliant young Jew of his day. He was a student of Jerusalem’s premier professors. He was a fiery and dedicated leader. He was extraordinarily zealous in his persecution of the Christians. He pursued them from city to city so determined was he to stamp out this rebel faith. He ordered, supervised, and perhaps even actively participated in the stoning to death of men and women—and yes, even boys and girls—who held to faith in Jesus Christ. Paul hated the Christians with a purple passion—and every Jew and every Christian knew it. Then one morning the banner headline blazed across the front page of the newspaper: “Paul becomes a Christian!”
What could possibly provoke such a profound and dramatic change? Paul himself provides us with an answer. He says that it was the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He spells it out in 1 Corinthians 15, where he lists a series of appearances Jesus made after his resurrection: the appearance to some women, the appearance to the disciples, and the appearances to some other groups, one of which numbered more than 500 people. But then comes the clincher. Paul says: “He appeared also to me.” That Paul could not doubt. And that is what reversed his life. As he confronted this Jesus whom he had known to be dead, but whom he now knew to be absolutely alive—as he entered into a new relationship with this risen, ruling Christ, he found the death-defying power of Christ flowing into his life—and there and then he proceeded to spend the rest of his life proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Paul, the Gospel of a living Christ for a dying world.
We are agreed, are we not, that the world is dying.
It seems to me that whatever standard of measurement we apply, that is the irrevocable conclusion to which we must come. Look, for example, at our hospitals, crowded to the doors with the sick and the dying. But do you know the physicians tell us that as many as four out of ten of those people are there because they have first died inside—they have died in spirit—and now their bodies are trying to catch up with their collapse. And some people don’t even go to the hospital. Instead they try to lose themselves in alcohol or in drugs or in like substances—but the end of the journey is always the same: dead end. No matter how we try to fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, the journey of life always leads to death.
Some fool themselves into thinking that the pursuit of this world’s goods is the answer. It is rare indeed these days to find anyone working simply for the beauty of being creative or for the sheer pleasure of fashioning something for the good of humanity. Nowadays, the focus always seems to be on money—that in spite of the fact that life just can’t be bought. For not only is it true of money that you can’t take it with you, but it can’t keep you here, and it can’t even make you happy while you are here. Surely if we didn’t learn anything else from the pathetic experience of Howard Hughes, we at least learned that.
And others fool themselves into thinking that the pursuit of intellectual excellence is the answer. Yes, perhaps the answer is to be found in sharpening our minds, honing our intellects. Don’t count on it. W. Somerset Maugham was one of the great minds of this century. And what he did he say as the shadows of death fell upon him? “My life has been wretched.” Or what about Ernest Hemingway, whose intellectual gifts were staggering? How did he die? By his own hand with a rifle shot. That is the world of the intellect. It is necessary for living but it does not bring us life.
So we live in a dying world. Not only that, we are dying people living in a dying world. Every breath we draw in and every step we take brings us that much closer to the end. Of course, we don’t like to talk about it. We don’t even use the word. We say: “He passed on” or “she crossed over to the other side.” We don’t write our wills because that’s so morbid. And when we go to the bedside of a terminally ill patient, we paste a smile on and we say: “You look great. You’ll be out of here in a few days.” We do not like to talk about it or think about it, but we are all going to die. The mythical “Sword of Damocles” hangs over our heads waiting to fall and nothing we can say or not say will change that. We are dying people living in a dying world.
But then we are agreed, are we not, that Jesus Christ is a living Christ.
Make no mistake, Jesus Christ died. Like all of us, His life on this earth came to an end. Paul writes: “Christ died.” But then Paul writes: “Christ has been raised.” Death, you see, was not the end of the story. Jesus Christ defeated death. He reversed it. He drew its sting. He rendered it powerless.
If you go to Jerusalem today, you will see two suggested sites for the burial place of Jesus. One is what is called “The Garden Tomb,” located behind St. George’s Cathedral. It is a beautiful setting in a shaded garden where flowers grow in colorful profusion. It is a lovely spot. The other site is inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. According to archaeologists, it is the most likely site. However, it is covered over with an immense marble and silver structure which is gaudy, even downright ugly. The place is filled with burning and burned-out candles and the stale smell of old incense. It is anything but lovely. I have visited both places, and I found I couldn’t pray in either of them. I couldn’t pray in either of them for the simple reason that the only reason the tomb is important in Christianity is that the tomb is not important! Jesus Christ was raised from the dead! He left the tomb and thus rendered it unimportant forever.
I know that sounds fantastic, unbelievable, too good to be true—but no more fantastic today than it sounded 2,000 years ago when those women went to the tomb early on a Sunday morning. They carried with them nothing but their pain-drenched memories. They didn’t expect the sun to rise that day because the sun had gone down forever on their hopes and their dreams. But there, wonder of wonders, they met Jesus, not dead but alive. Bursting with joy, they ran back to tell the disciples. At first the disciples didn’t believe the story. Just a bunch of excitable women, nerves overwrought, given to seeing things that are not there and hearing voices no one else hears! But then something—I don’t know what it was—maybe it was something the women said or maybe it was the look in their eyes, but something provoked Peter and John to go have a look for themselves. What they saw so transformed them that they learned how to live, truly live, in the midst of a dying world. And they spent the rest of their days delivering the message. It is a message which has drawn you to this place and hundreds of millions like you to places like this all across the world. What they announced was that like Paul, they had met a living Lord Jesus Christ.
In the last century, there was a great celebration when America’s first transcontinental railroad was completed. Track was laid simultaneously from east and west. The point of meeting turned out to be Promontory Point in Utah. A golden spike was driven in the ground where the tracks met. When that spike was firmly set, a telegrapher’s key touched off a one-word message to the world: “Done!” And that’s the Easter message, too. D-O-N-E, “Done!” Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead.! Done! He is the living Christ, now and forever alive.
And, of course, we are agreed, are we not, that this living Christ can transform our dying into living.
Normally, I wouldn’t do this in a sermon, but there is a great truth hidden away here in 1 Corinthians 15 which is just itching to be released. So hang on tight and let’s become temporary students of the Greek language.
Paul sets the scene in this passage, and every verb he uses is in what is called the aorist tense. Now an aorist verb is a verb which indicates something that is past, finished, over and done with. And in describing what has happened, Paul uses one aorist verb after another. He says, “Christ died…” It’s an aorist, over and done with. He says, “…He was buried.” It’s an aorist, over and done with. He says, “…He was raised…” It’s an aorist, over and done with. Then Paul says, “Jesus appeared…”—and he lists a whole series of people to whom he appeared. All aorists, all over and done with. But now at the conclusion, Paul’s cry is, “Christ has been raised to life.” The verb here is not an aorist. It is in perfect tense. And in Greek the perfect tense stands for that which is yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It stands for that which occurred in the past but which continues into the future. So Paul is saying: “This Jesus is alive—now and forever alive!”
Paul understood, you see, that no argument or theological proposition could bring us to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. He understood that no clear proof could be set out to unalterably convince us of the resurrection. There is only one way—and Paul knew it—only one way for us to know that Jesus Christ is alive. We have to meet Him. We have to encounter Him in our experience. We have to know Him in our lives. And it’s happening. It’s happening all over the face of this earth. People are meeting Him.
At Stanford University, after you have been accepted but before you are actually enrolled in the school, you are required to fill out a lengthy questionnaire. One of the questions is this: “Who or what is the greatest present influence in your life?” Last September, some 40% of the students entering Stanford University answered that question with two words: “Jesus Christ.” Now you can’t be short on brains and be accepted at Stanford. Not only that, but the question asked, “What is the greatest present influence,” and the answer was Jesus Christ. He is—and they know it—alive! And because He lives, they shall live also.
Or what about the incident which occurred recently in Czechoslovakia as reported by Michael Green? A communist lecturer came from the Soviet Union to address a gathering of students and their families at one of Czechoslovakia’s largest universities. His theme? “Denying the Resurrection of Jesus.” He spoke for nearly an hour. When he had finished, an old Eastern Orthodox priest who was in the audience asked for the opportunity to respond. At first, the lecturer was nonplussed. Then he said that the priest could have one minute. The lecturer had talked for an hour, and he offered the priest a minute. The priest said: “I don’t need a minute. I need only five seconds.” Then looking out over that enormous crowd, the old priest suddenly cried out: “Christos Anesti”—the two words with which the Orthodox Easter service begins—”Christos Anesti, Christ is risen!” And immediately that whole audience stood in a great roar of response they cried: “Aurethos Anesti—He is risen indeed!”
Yes, in lands that are enslaved and in lands that are free, people—old and young, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, black and white and brown and red and yellow—people are meeting the Lord Jesus Christ. And when they meet Him, they know, with Paul, that He is now and forever alive. And because He lives, they shall live also!
I have profited from re-living in my mind the story of the man who met Jesus Christ and who found in Him new life and deliverance from alcoholism, and who subsequently stood, every Sunday morning, in the passageway which led to the pulpit of his church. There, as the minister would pass by, he would tug on his sleeve and say: “Dominie, tell them that they can. Tell them that they can!”
You can. You can meet this Jesus. You can live in Him, and He can live in you. This isn’t something for 2,000 years ago. This is something for right here, right now. You can meet Him. I want to ask you: if you can’t take stock in Jesus, then what in this dying world can you take stock in? If you are not willing to try Jesus in your life, then what in this dying world are you willing to try? You see, He gives life. No matter what you may encounter in life, no matter what you may encounter in death, He gives life! Claim Him. Claim victory. Claim life. Say it now in your own heart. Say it, with Paul.
“Christ shall reign in my life until He has put all His enemies under His feet. And the last enemy…the last enemy to be destroyed is death!
Hallelujah and Amen!