Home Worship, April 12, 2020, Easter | Grace Reformed Church
CALL TO WORSHIP
Christ is risen!
He is risen, indeed!
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
His steadfast love endures forever!
Christ is risen!
He is risen, indeed!
Hark, glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous;
The right hand of the LORD does valiantly
the right hand of the LORD is exalted,
the right hand of the LORD does valiantly!
I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the LORD.
1 Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever!
2 Let Israel say
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
3 Let the house of Aaron say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
4 Let those who fear the Lord say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
5 Out of my distress I called on the Lord;
the Lord answered me and set me free.
6 The Lord is on my side; I will not fear.
What can man do to me?
7 The Lord is on my side as my helper;
I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
8 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in man.
9 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in princes.
10 All nations surrounded me;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
11 They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
12 They surrounded me like bees;
they went out like a fire among thorns;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
13 I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
but the Lord helped me.
14 The Lord is my strength and my song;
he has become my salvation.
15 Glad songs of salvation
are in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly,
16 the right hand of the Lord exalts,
the right hand of the Lord does valiantly!”
17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the Lord.
18 The Lord has disciplined me severely,
but he has not given me over to death.
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
20 This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
21 I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord's doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Blessed art thou, O God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Creator of heaven and earth.
We bless you for the dawn, the fresh light of day, the end of the night.
This is the day that the Lord has made, we shall rejoice and be glad in it!
Lord God, our Creator,
We bless you for Adam and Eve and all the race of humanity that has gone before us,
for mother and father, husband and wife, for colleagues and companions.
Lord God of Israel,
We are thankful for the tradition of godliness known from most ancient times,
for patriarchs and prophets, judges and kings,
and for the promises, covenants, and blessings granted to them.
God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
We are thankful for the gift of a Savior, for his ministry of preaching and healing.
He opened the eyes of the blind. He healed the fevered.
He calmed those who were tormented, and gave peace to the anguished.
Almighty God, whose ways are past finding out,
We are thankful that your love for us is revealed in the giving up of your Son,
that Christ took this bitter cup of suffering, that in suffering death he conquered death.
We are thankful Christ is risen. Your suffering Servant has been highly exalted.
For this above all we thank you, that the powers of death he has trampled underfoot.
Christ has burst the gates of hell, and led us forth to eternal light.
He lives, that we might live, the firstborn from the dead, the firstfruits of them that slept.
Blessed art thou, O God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
You who have anointed us with the Spirit of Christ,
joining us together in one body with him and with each other,
dwelling in our hearts, and uniting us to Christ until the day of his coming.
We are thankful for the promise of your coming again,
for the establishment of your Kingdom,
for the wiping away of all tears,
for the victory of your people,
for the vision of a heavenly Jerusalem and the promise of eternal life.
Rejoicing in that glorious day, we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
SERMON: No Two Ways About It
He is risen! He is risen, indeed!
Happy Easter, everyone. This is certainly not a normal Easter for Christians, most anywhere in the world, I know, but that does not stop the fact that we can celebrate the risen Savior today, and do so together, spiritually, even though we aren’t physically together. In fact, I think this is a good time to reflect on the church universal, all those many Christians around the world that we’ll never meet, but are actually, really, our brothers and sisters in Christ, a brotherhood, as we saw when we were studying Philippians, that is actually more real to us than our flesh and blood brothers and sisters. And even then, we can think about those Christians and pray for them, and know that they are worshipping this morning with us, but there are so many more brothers and sisters that we don’t even get to share this time with, who came before us and will come after us. Christ has been building his church since the beginning, and it is a beautiful family. Music can be so powerful, and our rich hymns are there to powerfully remind us of real gospel truths. I’ll tell you that I feel the reality of the church universal most clearly every time we sing “The Church’s One Foundation,” in that final verse:
Yet she on earth hath union with God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won:
O happy ones and holy! Lord give us grace that we,
like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with thee.
A glorious picture of the universal church. We’re in this together.
But now to today. It is Easter, Sunday that we set aside specifically in the year to remember that Sunday morning nearly two-thousand years ago when death was conquered. Now, in Reformed churches historically we have not made a big deal out of Easter as a specific Sunday—not because we aren’t interested in remembering Christ’s rising from the dead, certainly not—but because we never want to forget that we come together on Sunday to celebrate the risen Lord every Sunday, not just one. In fact, that’s why we’re meeting on Sunday and not Saturday, the long-standing Sabbath, because we, as the early Christians did, we recognize the significance of Christ rising on Sunday morning, so much that we celebrate a new Sabbath day on the first day of the week and not the last. So never forget, we are here to celebrate the risen Lord each and every Sunday we gather, not just on Easter.
That being said, and as long as we keep that truth in our minds, that we live in an age of Christ having been raised from the dead, we are weak people and we forget it. God gave the Israelites yearly feasts so they would remember his great works in their lives, like the Passover feast during which all of this happened. So it is still good for us to have this yearly rhythm in our lives, and take one Sunday and specifically celebrate and remember Christ’s rising from the dead. And so I declare to you, people of God, he is risen indeed.
Dear Heavenly Father, we come to you and pray this Sunday morning that you send your Spirit to guide our hearts and minds as we consider the resurrection, as we hear from your Word and are made more confident by it. Ready our hearts and minds to receive it this morning, and may the words of my mouth be pleasing to you this day. In the name of our risen Savior, Jesus Christ, amen.
If we could all turn together in our bibles, our text for today comes from 1 Corinthians, the first 22 verses. We certainly don’t have time to fully exposit a text of that length and depth today, but it should become clear why I chose it for this Easter Sunday as we read it. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 1-22. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
Thanks be to God, for his Word.
Well, everyone, since I am a commissioned lay pastor, this post is a temporary one, and as I approached Easter, I have been keenly aware that this is likely the only Easter sermon I will ever preach. Lord willing after I am no longer doing this regularly, I will have occasion to preach a Sunday here or there, but likely not Easter.
So I reflected on that as I considered, if I only had one Easter sermon to preach, what is the most important thing to communicate? What do the people of God need to hear on Easter, if I only get one shot? I’ll tell you I had a similar thought as I was preparing to preach Christmas Eve. I hope that was memorable, and I kind of came to the same conclusion then as I did now. Do you remember what the overarching message was then, when we talked about his birth?
That this really happened. This is real history, and whether you believe it to be real history or not, this event has ultimate consequences over your life. Your relationship to Christ is not just something, it’s everything. It’s not just a part of your life, it’s really the only thing of ultimate importance. And in a way, this is the same message that Paul is preaching to the Corinthians, like we just read. I won’t bring you my argument for this being all true, I’ll bring you his.
This is near the end of one of Paul’s longest letters. He’s spent fourteen chapters teaching the Corinthians—and they had plenty to correct—teaching them about Christian living, about worship, about love, about how the body of Christ the church is to be thought of and function. In the last chapter he just got done teaching about gifts of prophesy and tongues and orderly worship. A letter so full of practical, specific doctrines. After all of that, Paul brings them back around to the main point. Let’s read again starting in verse 1:
Now I would remind you, brothers,
“Now,” a word that signals a transition in thought, a new subject, “I would remind you, brothers.” Pay attention, folks, Paul is about to bring us back to the main thing.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved.
As I close out this letter, Corinthians, I do want you to do all of the things I was just saying. I want you to reform your worship, I want you to stop idolatrous practices, I want you to tolerate sin no more, but here at the end, I want to remind you of the gospel—that Christ lived, he died for your sins, and he rose again. Paul says not only that he preached it to them but that they believed it, and then in verse 2 that it is by the gospel you are being saved!
It’s not just a story, it’s not a moral lesson, the person of Christ and the events themselves are why you are being saved, and the only way. And because your salvation, your being saved is of such paramount importance, then we have to follow it logically. Paul says, if all this stuff I preached to you isn’t true, then you believe in vain. That’s why Paul continues in verse three declaring again, that this gospel, what I preached to you is everything, he says:
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: (what did he receive, the gospel! And then he reminds them exactly what the gospel is) that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
Full stop, right? Can I get an amen?
For those of us who believe, have strength in our convictions about the truth of Scripture and that these things really happened, we could stop right there at the end of verse four, give Paul a high-five, and go off in the confidence in the truth of Christ’s resurrection and the reality of our salvation. Praise God if that is your story, because we know that faith comes from him. But Paul knows, as I do, that those who are outside the church don’t yet have that confidence, and even those in the church like us have seasons of doubt, and times that this might not seem real to us. Is that really surprising that there be doubt? Christ being the Son of God, Christ taking on sins as he just said—those are spiritual realities, we don’t see that happen. But good grief, I know what a dead man looks like, I know what it looks like to bury someone, and every single time it happens, I don’t see that person again. It never happens. My personal experience doesn’t support the concept of bodily resurrection. That’s why we call it a miracle. Miracles transcend normal human experience. They are events in which God specifically alters the way that he made the creation to typically function. So they are not things that are believed easily.
So Paul doesn’t stop there and ask the people reading the letter, back then and today, right now, he doesn’t stop and ask them to believe it blindly, he goes on, verse 5:
5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
He's saying that you can believe this gospel, believe that Christ rose from the dead, because the apostles saw him, hundreds of people saw him! And you know what, I saw him.
When I think back to the 30-some odd Easter sermons I’ve heard preached, I’ll be honest, I remember very little. Perhaps it’s having to usually be distracted by music that I’m responsible for, or because my kids are misbehaving, or any of the extra pageantry. We should maybe repent of those distractions if they are keeping us from the gospel. But whatever the reason, there’s only one message on Easter than I can remember specifically, and it was one I heard several years ago, when the pastor took the opportunity to lay out for all the assembled Christians tons and tons of tangible evidence that we have that this actually happened. I shouldn’t need that, right, it’s an act of faith to believe, right? God gives you faith, doesn’t he? Yes he does, and one of the blessings he’s given me that gives me more confidence (faith is just another word for confidence), one of those blessings is logic. And logic responds with confidence when presented with evidence and logical argument, doesn’t it?
That’s what Paul is doing here, isn’t it? He’s making a logical argument that will increase their faith. He makes two, actually, and the first one is this: that you should believe that the resurrection is true because I bring you eyewitness testimony.
Eyewitness testimony is great, valuable, and that’s what Paul offers. But now here, long after Paul, we have so much more evidence than what Paul delivers here that argues for the resurrection being real. I’ll quickly share with you some of the most convincing to me, though there are many more.
First, is that no serious scholars doubt that there was a man named Jesus from Nazareth, who had followers and caused a bit of a scene and was executed in Jerusalem about 2000 years ago. People spend ample time arguing over exactly who he was, and if he was who he claimed to be, but we don’t argue about whether or not he existed. The evidence in the bible would be enough from a practical standpoint, but Jesus is mentioned in plenty of Jewish and Roman histories written at the same time. The central points of that story are not disputed by anyone, really, even non-Christian scholars looking only at evidence outside the bible.
Five years ago a professor at Purdue assembled evidence of the existence of Jesus in an article, from a completely non-Christian perspective, and he was convinced that he existed. Another professor from the University of North Carolina Bart Ehrman said when talking about the gospels,
“These are all Christian and are obviously and understandably biased in what they report, and have to be evaluated very critically indeed to establish any historically reliable information, but their central claims about Jesus as a historical figure—a Jew, with followers, executed on orders of the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius—are borne out by later sources with a completely different set of biases.”
So we can be confident that the stories in the gospels are about a person that actually lived, so we can move on to then examine the question, are those accounts an accurate rendering of the life of this person who actually lived?
Well, we can certainly say that the gospels (and the entire bible) have been passed down to us with an accuracy and with a volume of manuscript evidence unlike any document that old in history. Some argue that the stories have been changed, embellished, or that the miraculous parts of the stories were added later on as legend grew, but that is simply impossible based on manuscript evidence. The first hard copies of the gospels, the stories of the resurrection that we have date from within one to two-hundred years of the originals, and we have people quoting from them in other writings by 100 AD. And we have one fragment of Matthew from as close as 20-30 years from when Christ died. And, not only that, we have about 5000 copies in the original Greek.
Compare that to some other ancient writings. Does anyone doubt that Plato wrote his Dialogues and what we have now is fairly accurate to the original? Of course not! Do we have 5000 copies from within the first few generations after Plato? No! We have seven. And the earliest one dates from 1400 years after he died. In comparison, we can be extremely confident that we have the accounts that the eyewitnesses to Christ wrote.
So if we have established that Jesus existed, and that we have accurate copies of what the witnesses wrote, we have to deal with what they wrote and see if it stands up to logical scrutiny. There are only two options when we consider the stories themselves: either the gospel writers were telling the truth and they believed Christ to be the Son of God, or they were inventing a mythology around a man they admired to gain followers and start a religion.
How about the stories of the resurrection themselves? If you read them all, which you should but we won’t do now, if you read all four, there are some striking inconsistencies. The order of events, the number of people who came to the tomb, how early in the morning it was, when the stone was rolled away. Those are inconsistencies, for sure. But the major points of the story are all the same: several women came to the tomb, the stone was rolled away, Jesus was gone, and they were greeted by an angel or a man who told them Christ was risen.
So what of the inconsistencies? There are other places in the gospels too, where the writers record the same event and there are slightly different wordings, or timings, or sequences of events. The inconsistencies are actually further proof that they were not making it up. If this was an invented mythology to convince potential converts, a story composed rather than recorded, we would expect them to be extremely consistent. Why would a huckster purposely introduce inconsistencies?
And then the story itself, the part that is consistent. Why would the first witnesses to the resurrection be women, if you were trying to sell a myth? It’s just like the shepherds at Christmas—both of these groups of people were of low station in this society—women were not even allowed to testify in court. A huckster wouldn’t make his star witnesses people that no one would believe, it’s unthinkable.
There are so many arguments for this to be truth! The last that I’ll share to give you confidence is what happens next in the stories. During the crucifixion narratives in the four gospels, what do we think of the disciples? They are certainly not, as a group, painted in a great light. By the time he is crucified, Peter has denied him three times, they are cowering and scared in the distance. Only John is at the cross. The leader of these followers is dead. That’s usually when a movement disperses, right?
Yet fifty days later they aren’t hiding, they aren’t scared. They’re in Jerusalem—not somewhere else—in Jerusalem, where their Rabbi was beaten and executed just weeks before, and they are proclaiming the very things that got him killed, that he was the Son of God. And so something changed them. Something they experienced gave them confidence and transformed them from cowering, scared disciples into men who were willing to stand up and proclaim that Jesus is Lord, to the point of them dying themselves.
People of God, people don’t sacrifice themselves for a lie. Sometimes people who are convinced of a lie may die for it, but not the ones who make up the lie. Either the gospel writers were liars, or what they recorded was true.
We could go on with these arguments for days. Jesus was real, he was who he said he was, and there are people who witnessed the resurrection and wrote it down.
So that’s the first big logical argument Paul makes in Corinthians. He actually writes it down in a way that assumes they don’t need to be convinced, but he lays out evidence anyway.
But then, in the rest of the passage he makes the second major logical argument: if it didn’t happen, if Christ didn’t conquer death, if he wasn’t raised, then we can’t expect to be raised either. Verse 12:
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.
And then in verse 19:
If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
If it’s not true, what are we doing? That’s what Paul says here. Why are we even doing this? We should be pitied, for sure! Yet so much of the visible Christian church lives exactly this way. Large swaths of people who call themselves Christian don’t believe that the person Jesus really existed, or certainly that he rose from the dead. It’s a nice story, but it’s just illogical. I know that’s shocking, but this brand of Christianity is everywhere! We’ll just get together on Sundays with friends, like this is a social club, sing some songs that make us feel good, listen to a message that contains some good moral teaching and pop psychology to make us feel good, and then we might serve some people in need together, and that will make us feel good too. But we don’t actually have to believe the details of the stories in the bible. What?
Yet this is extremely common! If this is how your church life feels to you, I say repent and believe. Meet your Savior, maybe for the first time. He was both a real person and really God. He came down from heaven, humiliated himself by putting aside the glory due to him, he patiently led a group of quarrelsome, dense, peasants for a few years, teaching them and all those they would teach. And then he died on a cross, bearing the sins of his people and suffering the punishment for them.
And even if you get that far, if that was the end of the story, it would all be for nothing, we would have no hope of being rescued from death. It would be as Paul says later in this same chapter, in verse 32: If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
Christian, either you believe that Christ raised from the dead, conquered death and actually raised from the dead on Easter morning, or you don’t. There is no middle ground, because the resurrection is everything. You either believe that on the last day you will be raised like him, or you don’t. And if you don’t believe that the resurrection actually happened, you don’t believe in Christ! I titled this sermon “No Two Ways About It,” because there are many people who live their lives as if Christ is someone you can visit, just visit on Christmas and Easter, or maybe other times when things aren’t going well. No, you can’t. He’s either your Savior or he isn’t. Either you will be raised with him because he paid for your sins, or you will die for your sins yourself. Only two ways.
What’s amazing about all of this? The way to glory, the way to life, the way to claiming the risen Savior as your own is offered to you freely. Grace is free, Christ calls you to be his own. Repent of your sins, lay them all at his feet, and believe in Jesus Christ. Believe that he is who he says he is, and that he is not just a moral teacher, he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the path, and the only path. And when you do that, when you repent and follow him, know that not only will you be resurrected on the last day, he’s going to transform your life, for the rest of your life.
Heavenly Father, we glorify you, we magnify you, and we lay our lives at your feet. What an amazing gift you have given us, that our lives aren’t futile, aren’t purposeless, because without Easter morning, without Jesus Christ, that’s all they are! I pray that this Easter would be the first real Easter morning for so many who don’t know Christ, or think that they do but never really have. Thank you for your Son, and for his rising from the dead, so that we may go forth in the confidence that we will one day join him, resurrected on the last day.
In Jesus’s Holy, precious name, the name at which every knee will bow, amen.