Category: The Apostles' Creed

Sermon: What Is The Trinity and Why Should We Care?

Tomorrow is Trinity Sunday. This is a great opportunity to help one another experience the uniqueness and importance of the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Triune work of God. I hope your Sunday will be wonderful! 

What is the Trinity and Why Should We Care?

John 16:12-15 NIV

12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”

Today is Trinity Sunday

Today is Trinity Sunday in the calendar of the Christian Year. Frankly, I’m not sure I have ever preached a sermon on the Trinity as a theological concept. And, there are several reasons for that.

First, the word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible. That is actually not that unusual because there are a number of theological concepts not found explicitly in the Bible that scholars and Church history and tradition have validated over the past 2,000 years. But the absence of direct teaching from the Bible on the Trinity makes it hard to find a passage of Scripture from which to launch out for a sermon. The passage we read today has hints of a trinitarian relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, but you have to look carefully for it.

The second reason I haven’t preached directly on the Trinity is because it is a topic, a concept, from the academic discipline called “systematic theology.” Systematic theology, briefly, is the attempt by Christian theologians to craft a coherent understanding of the work of God. Typically systematic theologies are crafted from Scripture, Church tradition, and the overarching philosophy of the particular theologian who is writing. So, the topics of systematic theology tend to be conceptual, and often difficult to explain in a way that doesn’t put a congregation to sleep quickly.

But, the primary reason I think I haven’t preached specifically on the Trinity is because it is one of those doctrines that Christians worldwide affirm, but have great difficulty explaining. The idea of One God in Three Persons — three-in-One — is a concept we have difficulty getting our heads around.

While in seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, I served as associate pastor at a church in Irving. Next door to the church was a large apartment complex that for some reason tended to attract large numbers of international residents. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is home to several major universities such as SMU, TCU, and others, and perhaps that was the draw.

A couple of times young men from the Middle East, mostly Iranians, would come to the church office and ask to speak with a “holy man.” Apparently I was the closest thing we had to one, so I often got to talk with these young Muslim men. The primary thing they wanted to debate with me was the fact that Christianity had three gods. I would then try to explain the Trinity to them, but they, like me, had great difficulty in comprehending how One God could be constructed of Three Persons. I never convinced any of those young men that Christians worshipped One God, but that experience did remind me of how difficult the concept of the Trinity is to explain.

The Trinity in The Shack

Several years ago, an interesting book titled The Shack became a bestseller. The story was compelling, but one aspect of that book sparked discussion and disagreement among Christians. William Paul Young represented the Trinity in a very unique way.

For God the Father, Young portrayed God as a large black woman, who was outgoing, warm-hearted, and kind. For God the Holy Spirit, Young’s persona was that of an Asian woman dressed in bright colors who seemed to dart in and out of sight in a Tinkerbell-like fashion. For Jesus, the author pretty much stayed with the stereotype of Jesus as a workman, complete with jeans, flannel shirt, and toolbelt. Each of these personas of God exhibited unique characteristics, and each had a specific role to play in the fictional story.

But, as creative as that portrayal was, Young’s attempt to give the Trinity personality fell short of capturing the theology fully.

Early Heresies About the Trinity

This idea of the Triune God, the Trinity, is a difficult idea to grasp. And it has been difficult for Christians from the early church down to the present. Some attempts have failed miserably to capture the three-in-oneness of God completely. These imperfect attempts to define the Trinity became early Christian heresies. A heresy is a doctrine or teaching that is incompatible with the Church’s view of Scripture and the traditional understanding of the those who have gone before us.

The two primary heresies about the Trinity, although there are more than two, are modalism and subordinationism. First modalism: there were those who said that God was One God who just appeared in three different roles — or modalities —  as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A good illustration of this is one I have heard used to describe the Trinity, but unfortunately it falls short.

The example is a easy one to grasp. I am Chuck Warnock, but I am husband to Debbie, father to Amy and Laurie, and pastor to this church. So, I am one person in three roles. But while this sort of gets at one aspect of the Trinity, it is actually a good example of the heresy of “modalism” — one god playing three different parts.

The other heresy is that God the Father is the supreme figure, while both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are subordinate to him in some way. The details are not important, but trust me, this is not what the Bible teaches.

Early Creeds Address Misunderstandings About the Trinity

So, in order to correct the theological conversation, the early Church developed creedal statements that expressed what the Church believed. The first was the Apostles’ Creed, which we looked at in detail several years ago. The Apostles’ Creed simply affirms in three statements a belief in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

1. I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

2. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord;

3. I believe in the Holy Spirit.

But The Apostles’ Creed left the door open for misunderstanding about the Trinity, so the Nicene Creed was developed from 325 AD, and took its final form in 381 AD.

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, light from light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father;

through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation

he came down from heaven,

was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary

and became truly human.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again

in accordance with the Scriptures;

he ascended into heaven

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father [and the Son],

who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,

who has spoken through the prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead,

and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Note the detailed explanation of the person of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. These details were included to correct the notion that God the Father was superior to God the Son or God the Holy Spirit. The “essence” of all three persons of the Godhead was, in other words, the same.

Theory Gives Way to Reality

But it’s one thing to assert something about the Trinity, to say we believe in the Triune God, and to embrace a doctrine we cannot fully comprehend or explain. It is another thing entirely to base our understanding of God on what we see God doing.

So, let me make the most important statement about the Trinity that I can make this morning, and that is — Our understanding of the Trinity is based on what we see God has done and is doing in the world.

Let me give you some examples.

In the Old Testament, God is Creator of both the world, and of the nation of Israel through whom he will bless the world. Of course, God is present as Spirit, and the Messiah is both prophesied and foreshadowed in various theophanies (appearances of God, such as the angel who wrestles with Jacob). But primary on the stage of the unfolding drama of the Old Testament is the God of Israel, Yahweh, El-Shaddai, Elohim, Adonai, and all the other names by which God is called and worshipped.

In the New Testament Gospel accounts, the emphasis is upon Jesus — his birth, his baptism, his message, his life, his death, and his resurrection. But God the Father approves his Son, and the Holy Spirit descends upon — anoints — Jesus for ministry.

In the New Testament Book of Acts and the epistles, the Holy Spirit is at the forefront, equipping, enabling, guiding, empowering the early church.

In the Book of Revelation, God the Father, Son, and Spirit are all present, each featured in a way that is both consistent with the Old Testament, witnesses to the New Testament, and brings fully into being the Kingdom of God in its closing chapters.

Why Should We Care?

Okay, that surveys the “What is the Trinity?” question, even though I am sure you probably have more questions now than when we began. But to keep this from being merely an academic exercise, we need to turn our attention to “Why do we care?”

This is what’s important and what we need to understand. Doctrine is important, but doctrine comes from the lived experiences of God’s people as they interpret the work of God in the real world.

First, the reason we should care about the Trinity, and be aware of the uniqueness of the One-in-Three and Three-in-One is this: Without a balanced view of all three persons of the Trinity, we can misinterpret the work of God in this world.

For instance, if we emphasize some aspects of God in the Old Testament, and subordinate Jesus and the Spirit, then we come away with a picture of a god of wrath and judgment, who has little compassion. One very well known Baptist preacher did just that after the tornadoes in Oklahoma last week, when he compared the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma with the story of Job who lost all of his children to a mighty wind that collapsed Job’s house.

If we emphasize the person of Jesus to the exclusion of God the Father and the Holy Spirit, we miss out on the fact that God sent Jesus because “God so loved the world…” The purpose of God is to redeem the world, not just the individuals in it. Salvation is the work of God, and that salvation extends not just to individuals but to God’s creation as well. Another famous and trendy preacher was quoted as saying that Jesus is coming back to burn up the world, so he can drive a huge SUV because he’s not worried about this physical earth. Not a good theological position, in my estimation.

Finally, if we emphasize the Holy Spirit, and the charismatic experiences and gifts of the Spirit, it it is easy to loose sight of God as Creator, Son as Redeemer, and the role that the Holy Spirit played and plays in both of those aspects of God’s work.

So, that’s the downside of why the Trinity is important to us. But what’s the upside, what are the positive reasons we need to care about developing our own understanding of the Trinity.

We Learn Two Important Lessons From The Trinity

First, in the doctrine of the Trinity, we find our model for community. As God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit relate to one another, demonstrate love for each other, and work in concert to accomplish the purpose of God in the world, we get the idea of community.

This idea of the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit has been depicted by many Christian scholars using the term “perichoresis.” That’s a Greek word which means, literally, “dancing around.” I like the implications of God — Father, Son, and Spirit — in a divine dance, interacting with one another, expressing love for one another, and complementing the work each has to do.

In the passage we read today, we find some of these elements of mutuality. Jesus says that the Spirit will guide his disciples, glorify Jesus, take what belongs to Jesus and give it to the disciples. But, everything Jesus has comes from the Father, and that is why the Spirit can make it known to the disciples.

If that sounds like circular reasoning, it is. God the Father creates, God the Son redeems, God the Spirit illuminates and equips. In this divine dance of mutuality, each person of the Godhead complements and builds on the work of other members of the Trinity.

So, at the baptism of Jesus, Jesus demonstrates his obedience to the plan of God through baptism. God the Father announces his approval, and the Holy Spirit anoints Jesus for ministry.

In the early church, the Spirit empowers, equips, and emboldens the apostles to tell the good news of Jesus, who is God’s gift sent into the world to redeem it.

Secondly, in the doctrine of the Trinity, we find our mission. Jesus stated to the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” Just as God the Father sent Jesus into the world, so Jesus sends us into the world to do the Father’s work, equipped and accompanied by the Spirit of God.

God’s work involves more than taking individuals to heaven when they die. God’s work is to bring in his kingdom on this earth, so that God’s creation can know the shalom of God — the peace that says all things are as God has intended them to be.

So, God sends Jesus to bring the shalom of God — also called salvation — to the nation of Israel and to all who will respond, whether Jew or not. Which is why Jesus teaches his disciples to pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Father and Son then send the Spirit who equips, empowers, and emboldens the early apostles as well as us today.

And, salvation itself — the idea that we are right with God — proceeds from God, is incarnate in Jesus, and is made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Whatever work we have to do in this world, we do from the standpoint of the Triune God — Father, Son and Spirit — who created, redeemed, and enabled us to do so.

So, let me encourage you today to think about the Trinity — God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But we can’t stop at just thinking about a theological concept. As followers of Jesus, we are loved by the Father, and led by the Spirit. All three persons of the Godhead are at work in our lives, in the life of this church, and in the life of this world.

As we live in new awareness of God in all God’s expressions as Father, Son, and Spirit, our spiritual lives will deepen, our vision of God’s kingdom will expand, and the work that God has chosen for us will take on a new vitality and urgency.

Sermon: I Believe in The Life Everlasting

I Believe in the Life Everlasting

John 6:53-68 NIV

53Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

60On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

61Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?62What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. 64Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”

66From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

67“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

The Last Line of the Apostles’ Creed

We’re almost there!  Today we look at the last line of The Apostles’ Creed — I believe in the life everlasting.  And so the Creed that began with Creation — I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth — now ends without an end.  We affirm our belief today that this life is not all there is, that there is a life that extends beyond our ability to see or know completely and that is the life everlasting.

You will remember that last week we spoke about the resurrection of the body.  We discovered that we are not disembodied spirits — that’s Greek or Roman thought, not Christian theology — but rather we are given new bodies, changed bodies, spiritual bodies unlike anything we can imagine.

Some scholars speculate that this line of the Creed was added at a later date, and that is entirely possible.  The reason it was added, some think, is because in both Greek and Latin the word for “resuscitatation” and “resurrection” are the same.  But there is a big difference in the two ideas.

Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, was resuscitated.  Jesus brought him back from the dead — and he really was dead and everybody knew it.  But Lazarus died again.  So, perhaps some of Jesus’s followers were confused at the idea of the resurrection of the body.  It’s great to be raised from the dead, but were they going to die again?

This last phrase clarifies and expands on the phrase we looked at last week — “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”  So, not only are we going to be raised from the dead, we aren’t going to die again.  That’s the whole point of “resurrection” — resurrection is the defeat of death and the triumph of life, and this phrase in the Creed affirms that the resurrection life in Christ goes on forever — everlastingly.

But what of this life everlasting?  The renowned skeptic and atheist, Bertrand Russell, said that the worst thing he could think of was an eternity that did not end because it would be incredibly boring.  I must agree with Russell in the sense that I do not look forward to eternity either if it’s going to be boring.  Fortunately, the life everlasting is not boring.  Let’s take a look at what we can find out about it from the passage we read today, and from others as well.

The Life Everlasting Is Given by Jesus and Sustained by God

Jesus is teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum, the city he went to after he was rejected in his hometown, Nazareth.  There is some support for the ancient belief that Simon Peter’s house was in Capernaum, and that Jesus stayed there while in the city.  In Capernaum the ruins of a 4th century synagogue were found about 1900.  But, it was almost 100 years later that archaeologists discovered that the 4th century synagogue had been built upon the foundation of a much older structure from the 1st century.  That foundation was most likely the foundation of the synagogue in which Jesus delivered this “Bread of Life” message.

This is very early in Jesus’s ministry, and his references to eating his flesh and drinking his blood are totally lost on the disciples.  His hearers still don’t get it even when he says —

“This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”

They do understand the reference to manna in the desert.  This of course was the way God provided, the way God sustained the lives of the people of Israel during the 40-years they spent wandering from the captivity of Egypt to the promise of the land of Canaan.

You know the story — because they are nomads, pilgrims, they cannot stop to plant and harvest.  God provides from them each day an amount of manna which was sufficient for that day’s provision.  On the day before the Sabbath, God provides two days’ worth so they do not have to do the work of gathering on the Sabbath.

Now flash forward to the New Testament, to Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray.  We call it The Lord’s Prayer, and in it Jesus tells us to pray for God to “give us this day our daily bread.”  Just as God had sustained Israel in the desert one day at a time, Jesus reminds us to pray that God will do the same for us.

And, that daily sustaining comes from God, both now and in eternity.  Jesus is the Bread of Life, and God sustains us in eternity through the work of Christ on our behalf.  In other words, the life everlasting is a life provided by Jesus and sustained by God.  The life everlasting is similar to God’s provision for Israel, but something greater and more lasting than the manna.  After all, those who ate the manna all died.  Those who partake of the life of Christ all live.

The Life Everlasting Is a Difficult Idea

Some of those who heard Jesus had real problems with what he was saying, and John says “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”  They turned back to what?  To their old beliefs, to their old way of life, to their old ideas and old fears.

  • They turned back because they could not believe that anything greater than the Exodus experience could ever happen to the people of God.
  • They turned back because they could not believe in life that goes on forever.  After all the first century was a difficult time.  Life was hard, conditions were rough, mortality was high, hope was in short supply.  This business of another life, a life eternal, a life everlasting was too mystical for them.
  • They turned back because they missed the real work of God.
And, here’s where we need to spend some time.  Here’s what most of us have heard and believe:
  • God created and loves us, and God has a wonderful plan for our lives.
  • Sin has separated us from God.
  • God sent Jesus to die on the cross and rise from the dead to bring us salvation.
  • Trusting in Jesus is the way to gain eternal life.
Basically, what I have just outlined for you is “The Four Spiritual Laws” or the plan of salvation, as it was called years ago.  And, that’s what we believe.  That’s what I believed when as a 6-year old Primary boy I gave my life to Jesus.  That’s probably what you believed, too, when you accepted Christ and became a Christian.
And, there’s nothing wrong with that.  But there is a more complete way to look at what God is doing, and why we have or need eternal life.
First, eternal life isn’t an after-thought, as in, “Oh, now I’m saved, and so I guess part of the deal is I get eternal life.”  Eternal life is the main thought.
The only problem with the Four Spiritual Laws approach is its like looking through a microscope at a tiny part of the universe.  You can see that part really well, but you really should be looking through a telescope to get the big picture.  Here’s the telescope view of what God is doing and why we need and want life everlasting:
  • God did create us, but God also created the world, the universe, the Garden of Eden, all the plants, animals, the earth, the sky, the oceans, the fish, the air, all living things, and us — human beings.  So, we are part of and one of God’s creations.
  • Everything is going along just fine in this new world that God has created.  So well, that God sees everything God has made and says after each and every creative act — “That’s good.”
  • And when God creates humankind, Adam and Eve, we are the high point, the culmination of creation.  We are uniquely made in the image of God, and God breathes into us the breath of life.  The word for breath and spirit in Hebrew are the same, so in essence God breathes the Holy Spirit into us this new creation we know as mankind.  So far so good.
  • God places Adam and Eve in a lush, wonderful fully-stocked garden.  They have to do a little caretaking, but basically all their needs are met, including companionship with God. Everyday, God meets them in the garden.
  • Until one day, Adam and Eve don’t show up to walk with God.  God goes seeking for them, finds them hiding because they are ashamed at their nakedness.  God knows what has happened, but God leads Adam to confess that he has sinned, he has disobeyed God.  Adam confesses that he sought to be god himself, rather than obey God.  Of course, Adam tries to lay the whole business off on Eve, but God is having none of it.
  • So, everything God has done is messed up.  The Garden of Eden is now off-limits to Adam and Eve.  They whole deal is thrown off track because of the sin of disobedience to God.
  • So, God sets about reconciling creation back to God.  God calls people to help accomplish this task.  God calls Noah to save enough of creation so God can begin again.  God calls Abraham to be the father of a great nation.  God calls Moses to lead God’s people out of bondage in Egypt.  God calls David to be king of Israel, and on and on.
  • God also calls prophets so God’s voice is always heard, even when the people disobey.
  • Then God sends Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, Immanuel, God-with-us to reconcile creation.
  • Jesus lives, dies, God raises him from the dead, Jesus ascends back to heaven, and sends the Holy Spirit.
  • Jesus calls followers to help proclaim God’s new creation, the new people of God, the new Kingdom of God.  Jesus teaches the disciples to pray “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
  • God is clearly reconciling creation back to God.
  • And then, God plans for all of creation to be back in fellowship with God — to be in God’s presence as Adam and Eve were in God’s presence in the Garden of Eden.
  • So, we get a glimpse of eternity in several passages of scripture, and one of the more interesting is in Revelation.
“So, what’s the difference in the Four Spiritual Laws, and this?” you ask.
Just this — the Four Spiritual Laws approach focuses the microscope on us — God loves us, our sin is the problem, God sent Jesus for us, God will save us.  And that’s true.
But, a better perspective is the telescope view — Here’s what God is doing.  God is creating, reconciling, and redeeming.  God is at work on the whole of creation, not just us.  God is putting everything to rights again.
Jesus says in the Book of Revelation, ”  Behold I am making all things new.”  Jesus doesn’t say, “Behold, I am making all new things.”  No, Jesus is making all things — all of creation — new again.  Just as it was in the Garden, just as God intended.
Our own personal salvation is a microscopic part of God’s greater plan to fix everything that went wrong.  And we find ourselves being invited to get fixed, and get in on what God is doing for all of creation.
So, I’ve said all of that to say that eternal life doesn’t start when we die.  Eternal life started when God created the world.  We did not exist before our birth, but when we make our appearance on God’s stage, that is when eternal life begins.
The Life Everlasting Isn’t Just About Time

But, the life everlasting, eternal life, isn’t just about time.  We tend to think that eternal life is just about life going on forever.  But it’s more than that.
Eternal life is about life with God.  In Revelation 21:22, John says, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”  In other words, God is right in the middle of his people.
And, this is the New Jerusalem, the New Heaven and the New Earth.  This is creation made again into what it is supposed to be.  But this time, we’re not in a Garden, we’re in a city, a gigantic, three-dimensional city that sings!
And, in the words of the Isaac Watts’s Amazing Grace
When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days, to sing God’s praise,
Than when we’d first begun.
No, everlasting life isn’t about time, it’s about life with God.  It is everlasting because God sustains it.  It is everlasting because the giver is The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the End.  It is everlasting because His Kingdom shall know no end.  It is everlasting because there is no place else to go, and nothing else to do.  When you’re in the presence of God, there is no other place to be.
And so we sing with the saints who have gone before us —
Come and go with me to that land,
come and go with me to that land,
Come and go with me to that land where I’m bound.
No more crying in that land,
no more crying in that land,
no more crying in that land where I’m bound.
Come and go with me to that land,
come and go with me to that land,
Come and go with me to that land where I’m bound.

Sermon: I Believe in the Resurrection of the Body

I Believe in the Resurrection of the Body
I Corinthians 15:35-44

35But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

42So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.  — I Corinthians 15:35-44

Do We Believe in The Resurrection of the Body?

We have now come to the next to last affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed — I believe in the resurrection of the body.  But, do we?  Or do we really believe in something else altogether?  And, is it necessary to believe in the resurrection of the body because don’t we go to heaven when we die anyway?  And, what about those whose bodies are lost or destroyed in fire or battle or a horrendous accident?  Will they rise on the last day too?

Who knew that so few words could create such controversy and uncertainty.

Let’s begin to sort out what the Bible says about this business of the resurrection of the body and why that’s important to us.

Our God is a Flesh-and-Bones God

From the very beginning of Christianity, even during the ministry of Jesus, there was the tendency to spiritualize everything.  Here’s an example — when Jesus meets the woman at the well and begins to talk with her, she attempts to change the subject to an old conflict over where one should worship.  She was trying to shift the conversation from the reality of her own life, to the less-real, more spiritual conversation about an esoteric idea of worship.

We encounter the same problem when it comes to talk about living and dying, and eternity.  We had much rather spiritualize this conversation because we find it hard to do otherwise.

We comfort ourselves during our grief at funerals by saying that the body that lies in the casket is not the person we knew.  It’s only the physical shell and their spirit, their soul, has gone to be with God.  That is true, and Paul said,

We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. – 2 Cor 5:8

So, there is the sense in which we are right.  If we are absent from this body, we are indeed present with the Lord.  But, our presence with God is not at that time the presence of a disembodied spirit.  We have a spiritual body immediately upon death.

The story Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus — not the Lazarus he raised from the grave who was the brother of Mary and Martha, but the Lazarus who suffered at the hands of a rich man called Dives for many years.

They both die, and Lazarus goes to God, but Dives goes into the underword where he is in great torment.  Apparently, Dives can see beyond the divide, and can recognize Lazarus, and Dives himself can be recognized.  Both Lazarus and Dives have recognizable, distinguishing features very much like they had while alive in their physical bodies.

In Hebrews 12, Paul follows his great chapter on faith where he names Abraham, Isaac, and a host of others, by beginning chapter 12 this way —

1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

The picture is of a racetrack with the stands filled with spectators, like the Roman arenas and our modern track and field stadiums.  A great cloud of witnesses, not disembodied spirits, is looking on and cheering us as we run our race.  These witnesses have names and faces, and they are recognizable and known by God and others.

Finally, we do not know about the body of Jesus between the time of his death and resurrection for our encounter comes at he bursts forth from the tomb.  But he is recognizable in his resurrected body — he looks like he did, and yet there is something different about him.  He cautions Mary not to touch him because he has not yet ascended to the Father.  He can pass through locked doors, and also offer Thomas the opportunity to touch his pierced hands and side.  He is real, corporeal, and recognizable, yet different at the same time.

So, our first lesson is that God is a flesh-and-bones God.  He created us from the dust of the ground and it is to that dust that our physical bodies shall return.  But, we then receive a spiritual body with correspondence to our previous physical body, but changed in ways we do not understand.

Why A Body At All?

Paul, as were the other apostles, was fighting a philosopy called gnosticism.  Gnosticism, among other things, said that the material world was evil, corrupt, and irrelevant.  All that mattered was the spiritual.

So, if all material things are evil and irrelevant, then the body is included in that list.  And, if the body is irrelevant, then it doesn’t matter what you do in or with your body. So, you can live it up, sin to your heart’s content, because the body is going away and we’re all going to become super-enlightened disembodied spirits.

Gnosticism also said that Jesus was not from the beginning God, but that the spirit of the Christ — the messiah — came upon him at his baptism, and left him before his physical death.  Gnostics denied the role of the body.

But the point of the resurrection is to defeat sin, death, and the grave.  And, to do that, you must have a body that crosses over the threshold of death, enters that dark door, but then returns in greater power, strength, and presence than before.

In other words, for God to prove that God has defeated death, he has to have a body to show for it.  So, Jesus is raised from the dead to do two things —

  1. To prove that he is indeed the Messiah;
  2. To demonstrate that death is a defeated foe.

That’s why we celebrate the resurrection of Christ.  Because the resurrection, not the cross, proves that God has defeated death.  In the cross God sacrifices to himself his son Jesus in payment for our sin.  In doing so, God could have stopped right there.  God does what he had asked Abraham to do — God gives his only Son as a sacrifice to himself.

To forgive our sins, God could have stopped there.  But forgiveness of sin was not all that God was up to on that day Jesus died.  Sin was settled, but death still roamed the earth.  Death which entered the world with the sin of Adam and Eve.  Death which was the scourge of mankind.  Death which shattered dreams, took loved ones, cut down the young, and stalked the old — death still had the last word.

But, as some preacher said, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!”

On Friday, sin has been given a pink slip.  Sin has been dismissed as the great guilt-inducer.  Sin has been neutralized as man’s most persistent foe.  For there is now permanent, lasting, forever forgiveness.  Hebrews 1 says:

1In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

“After he provided purification for sins, he sat down…”  The high priest only sat down when his work was done.  The high priest only sat down after the sacrifice was made.  The high priest only sat down after the blood of the sacrificial lamb had been sprinkled on the mercy seat.  The high priest only sat down when sin was done for another year.

But, Jesus sits down once and for all because the sin problem is done, settled, paid for, over with, canceled, no longer able to beat us.

But, death is another story.

Death rears its ugly head, prances over the cosmos, and defies anyone to stop it from doing its destructive work.  Death is still loose. His running buddy Sin is no longer at his side, but Death is on the move.

One might imagine that sometime late Saturday night, Death marches into the throne room of God, and says, “You may have solved the problem of Sin, but you can’t stop me.  Jesus may have paid the penalty for all sin for all time, but it cost him his life.  Come with me, I can show you the body.”

And so Death and God go to that garden tomb where Jesus body is laid.  And Death points to the seal placed on the tomb by the empire; Death points to the sleeping Roman soldiers posted by Pilate; Death pounds the stone sealing the grave, a stone that a single man can’t move; and, Death stands back to admire his handiwork.  And Death says, “That tomb contains the body of Jesus.  I put it there, I’m keeping it there, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

But Sunday’s coming.  And without a word to Death, God does what he has always done — God gives life.

Somehow, in ways too mysterious for our own understanding, Jesus was raised from the grip of Death.  Raised to new life with a new body.  Jesus who had given up his life willingly on the cross was vindicated by God.  God’s vindication, God’s “Amen” to Jesus’ sacrifice, was new life.

And so the ground trembles, the angels rush from heaven to earth, the stone rolls, the death clothes no longer cling to the corpse for Jesus lives.  He is alive.

He who walked willingly through the door of Death, now walks back again.  No one had ever done that because Death would not allow it.  No one had ever done that because Sin barred the way.  No one had ever returned from the grave, untouched by decay, to live forever.  No one.  Until Jesus.

That’s why the resurrection of the body is so important.  That’s why Jesus had to rise again.  That’s why we believe in the resurrection because we know that we live now, we live beyond the door of death, we live in eternity, we will return with Christ, we will live in the presence of God on the new earth, in the new Jerusalem, beside the River of Life, shaded by the Tree of Life, where there will be no more tears, and Death will be finally and forever defeated.

We believe in the resurrection of the body because we believe in the God who gives life.  So, those who have died before us will rise.  Those whose physical bodies have been destroyed will rise.  Those whose earthy bodies have been lost will rise.  And we will know,  Paul says, even as we are known.

As C. S. Lewis says — we will all have faces and the God who called us by name here on this earth, will call us by name again.  I believe in the resurrection of the body.  Amen.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Sermon: I Believe in the Church

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow as I continue the 13-week series on The Apostles’ Creed.  Tomorrow we come to the phrase, “I Believe in the Church.”  I hope your Sunday is a great one!

I Believe In The Church

13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  — Matthew 16:13-19 NIV

Down To Earth Faith

We have come to that part of the Apostles’ Creed concerning the Holy Spirit.  Last Sunday we looked at the statement, “I believe in the Holy Spirit…” and noted that the Creed is divided into three sections.  The first section affirms our belief in God the Father; the second section, our belief in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord; and this section affirms our belief in the Holy Spirit.

The statements in this section are brief, to the point, and packed full of meaning.  Today we come to the statement about the church.  If we pick up the “I believe” part from the opening words of this section, we would affirm, “I believe in…the holy, catholic church; [and] the communion of saints…”

That’s it —  four words for the church, and four more to describe the indescribable relationship of all God’s people, the communion of saints.

But what we also need to notice here is that the scene shifts.  Our attention moves from the past to the present.  From heaven to earth.  From that which is other-worldly, to that which exists now.  We move right down here where we live, to the church.

And, when we say we “believe in the church” we do not mean that in the same way as when we say, “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only, son our Lord.”  We do not even mean it the same way as our affirmation that we “believe in the Holy Spirit.”

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the Persons of the Trinity.  By affirming our belief in them, we affirm they exist, they are unique, and they are worthy of our worship, obedience, and love.  But our belief in the church is different.  When we say we believe in the “holy, catholic church” — or even just “the church” — we are affirming God’s gathering of the church, Jesus as head of the church, and our place in the church here and now, and in the age to come.  This affirmation also means we share a common belief, a common family, a common place with others in the present and coming Kingdom of God.

To say I believe in the church is to say I believe in the people of God, I believe in family, I believe in those who are with me now, those who have gone before, and those who will come after in this crazy, patchwork quilt of humanity touched by God we call the church.  We are not affirming belief in some idea of the church, some abstraction, but in the real church, with all its messiness, failure, and struggle.  We are affirming that God is at work in this church, and in all of God’s churches wherever they are, and whatever they look like.

Some Hints About the Church

We get some hints about the church from this passage we just read today.  Jesus’ ministry is well underway.  The initial euphoria of being with Jesus has faded, and he and the disciples are now in the day-to-day mission of announcing the Kingdom of God with both words and deeds.

But not everyone gets it.  Some have followed for the food.  Some have sought out Jesus for healing, either for themselves or others.  Many have been amazed by his teaching, only to drift back into the routine of their lives without changing what they do.

Others have expressed and acted out their opposition, none more vehemently than in Jesus’ own home town of Nazareth.  There they heard him proudly until he began “puttin’ on airs” and sounding likely a phony, if not dangerous, messiah.  There they ran him out of town.

Of course, the rumor mill was working overtime, as they say.  Imagine life in a community without television, radio, newspapers, magazine, telephone or the internet.  How did people communicate?  Well, they communicated the same way we do today — they talked to each other about one another.  They gossiped, they discussed, they expressed opinions, they drew conclusions, and they sized up the situation.

Jesus, of course, was well aware that people were talking about him.  So, he asked the disciples what they had heard:

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

And the disciples gave Jesus the answers he was looking for:

“Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

In other words, people believed that Jesus was somebody extraordinary.  Somebody special.  They said Jesus was a John the Baptist come to life; an Elijah returned as they expected; or a Jeremiah because of the plain, straightforward way he put things.  But, whoever they thought he was, they knew he was somebody special.

But then Jesus asked, “What about you?  Who do you say I am?”

Apparently this put the disciples on the spot because nobody answered immediately.  Maybe they don’t want to hurt Jesus’ feelings because they know Jesus is not John the Baptist because John is dead.  They know he’s not Elijah the Old Testament prophet who was expected to come before the Messiah came.  They know he’s not Jeremiah the fiery Old Testament prophet.  So, they’re at a loss for words.

If they say, “Hey, Jesus, come on.  We know you’re not John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah” that sounds they don’t think as highly of Jesus as total strangers do.  But, they can’t figure out what to say, or what Jesus really means by the question.

Of course, brash, talkative, impetuous Simon Peter has an answer.  Peter blurts out —

“You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

The Bible doesn’t say this, but I am sure all the other disciples are embarrassed for Peter, who has stuck his foot in his mouth again.  “Okay,” the disciples are thinking, “Jesus is a great guy, a terrific teacher, and he does amazing things — but the Messiah?  Come on, Peter, this is way over the top!”

But then Jesus breaks the embarrassed silence.

“You’re right, Peter.  You’re exactly right, and you’ve said more than you even know.  God revealed this to you, not any person.”

Imagine now how all the other disciples feel.  Pretty small.  Kind of like when you were in school and someone answered the teacher’s question with what you just knew was the wrong answer.  But then the teacher says, “Exactly right.  Good work.”  And then you felt like a dope.  Now you know how the other disciples felt.

What Does This Have To Do With Church?

Okay, so that’s a great story, and we can put ourselves right there with the disciples because we would not have done any better than they did playing Jesus’ version of Jeopardy.  But, what does this have to do with the church?  Listen to what else Jesus says to Peter:

17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Without even knowing everything that this means, even the beginner Bible student can figure out Jesus is telling Peter some good stuff.  But, let’s take a moment and figure it out.

First, Jesus tells Peter that “you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.”  In English, this can be confusing.  Why is Jesus dragging in a rock?  Where did that come from?

How many of you like a good pun, also known as a “play on words?”  It’s kind of like the helpful phrase I remember the teacher telling us in the third or fourth grade when we were trying to learn when to use the word “to” and how to spell it correctly.  The teacher reminded us that there are “three tos” in the English language.  Which is a pretty cute way to remind yourself to use the right “to,” too!  Okay, enough of that.

Well, this business about “you are Peter” and “upon this rock” is a play on words.  Peter’s name would have been spelled P-E-T-R-O-S — “Petros.”  The word for rock in Greek was  spelled p-e-t-r-a, and pronounced in a similar manner, “petra.”

So, Jesus was really saying, “You’re name is Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”  Rock, rock — get it?  Okay, I didn’t say it was a funny play on words, but it is one nonetheless.

The main point here is that Jesus will build his church on the rock of Peter’s confession — Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Of course, our Roman Catholic friends believe that this passage proves that Jesus chose Peter to be the first pope.  Neither history, nor scripture support that assertion.  It would not be until about the third century that the Bishop of Rome would gain ascendancy over the Bishops of Jerusalem, and Alexandria, among others.

And of course, Peter was not a rock.  Peter will deny Jesus, not once, but three times when Jesus is arrested.  So, it is not Peter, or Peter’s faith, or even faith like Peter’s that Jesus was affirming, but Peter’s statement, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

It is that statement, that belief, that affirmation that is the entry point, the foundation, for belonging to and believing in the church.  No one who does not affirm that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God” can be part of the church, for the church is the body of Christ.  She is not a club, or a civic organization, or a fraternal order, or a sorority of the like-minded.  The church is the Bride of Christ, the people for whom Christ died, and the presence within whom Christ now dwells.

What Can We Say About The Church?

So, the first thing we can say about the church is — the church is comprised of those who believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed One, the savior of the world.  It is not enough to believe that Jesus is  or was a great teacher; members of other religions believe that.  Muslims and Jews both add Jesus to their lists of great ethical teachers.

It is not enough to believe that Jesus was an extraordinary figure, a man-among-men, a uniquely gifted holy man, a mystic who could do strange and wonderful things.  While all of those things might be true about Jesus in some way, that is not why he came to earth, that was not his mission on earth, and that is not his continuing ministry to earth.

Paul said, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”  I Corinthians 12:3

But, now let’s move on to what else Jesus says about the church.  Secondly, Jesus says that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  Now, usually we think that this means, “The devil can’t do anything to the church.  Hell can’t hurt the church.  The forces of evil cannot stop the church.”

That’s not at all what this means, although those statements are true.  Here Jesus is saying, “The gates of hell will not be able to stop the church on its victorious march.”

Do you remember the old black-and-white western movies?  Some of my favorites were movies like John Wayne’s Fort Apache, but it could be almost any western featuring the U. S. Cavalry, and Indians.  Of course, we now know that we were stealing the lands owned by native Americans, but that’s not my point.  My point is that in those movies, almost always there comes a time when the fort is under attack and they’re forced to close the gates.

And, for dramatic effect, as the gates are closing, the lone rider who many thought would be lost, comes riding in just in time to get inside the fort before the gates are closed.  Then, the Indians attack, but usually the gates hold and the Cavalry is victorious.

Okay, you’ve got that scene in your head.  Only imagine the fort is hell, hades, the world of the dead, and the church is launching an attack on the gates.  But this time, the gates don’t hold.  The church breaks through, death and hell are defeated, and God’s Kingdom is triumphant.

That’s what Jesus was saying.  The church, his church which he builds on the rock of confession, will triumph.  The church will win.

But Jesus goes on —

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

The church, built on the rock of confession that Jesus is the Christ, will become a keeper of the keys to the Kingdom.  What are they?  We don’t know exactly and scholars have debated this endlessly.  But we can get some hints by just asking ourselves what keys do.  Keys unlock locks.  Keys open doors.  Keys allow access where before the way was barred.

So, the church holds the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.  For me that means that we have the great privilege and responsibility of opening doors that others cannot open.  We can open a way to God.  We can unlock the gift of eternal life.  We who are in the church hold the keys of life — keys that unlock shackles that bind; keys that unlock prison doors.

And, Jesus says, whatever we unlock on earth, God will consider unlocked in heaven.  In other words, we in the church are acting with the authority of Christ.  We are his representatives, his ambassadors, with full authority to act on behalf of our King.

That’s the church we believe in.  That’s the church universal, the church of all believers from all times and places.  That’s the church of Jesus Christ, with all its earthly imperfections, its faults and failures, that’s the church to which Jesus has entrusted the keys to the Kingdom.

What we do with those keys is up to us.

Sermon: I Believe in the Holy Spirit

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, October 25, 2009.  This is the eighth in a 13-week series titled “Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed.” Today we look at the Holy Spirit.

I Believe in The Holy Spirit

25“All this I have spoken while still with you. 26But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  — John 14:25-27

The Third Person in The Creed

I had the opportunity to speak to students at Duke Divinity School this past week, and to meet Dr. Curtis Freeman, who is the director of The Baptist House at Duke.  Dr. Freeman and I had a chance to chat later in the afternoon.  In the course of our conversation, my sermon series on The Apostles’ Creed came up, and Dr. Freeman was curious as to how that was going.  He had read about my intention to preach on the Creed this summer, and emailed me that he was going to be speaking at a conference in Alabama at Samford’s Beeson Divinity School — a Baptist university — on the Nicene Creed.  So, creeds seem to be more and more popular in Baptist life, not because we are in danger of adopting one officially, but because we believe the statements in the great creeds of Christianity.  He also told me that Duke Divinity was hosting Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, distinguished professor in systematic theology.  Dr. Freeman told me that Wainwright uses The Apostles’ Creed as his outline for his sytematic theology lectures.  Of course, he’s a Methodist, which explains a lot, but nevertheless, I’m not so far out in doing this series after all.

So, let’s get down to business today.  The Apostles’ Creed could be easily divided into three main sections:

  1. The section affirming belief in “God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”
  2. The second second on our affirmation in “Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,”
  3. And, the third section, stating simply, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

Two powerful lines in the Creed are devoted to God, and ten lines are devoted to Jesus.  The two lines about God use high content titles to describe God — Father, Almighty, Creator.   Those three words describe our relationship to God; God’s own pre-eminence over everything; and, God’s creative act.

The ten lines about Jesus walk us through his life from his relationship to God, to his conception, birth, suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, descent into hell, resurrection, ascension back into heaven, his position at the right hand of God, and his sure return to judge the living and the dead.  Those ten lines cover a lot of territory, but they also tell a story familiar to us, and a story that forms the heart of the Christian faith.

At first glance, one might look at The Creed and think that there is only one line devoted to the Holy Spirit, and that line is not very descriptive — “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”  Period.  End of sentence.  But actually, a semicolon resides at the end of that phrase, connecting the Person of the Holy Spirit to that which follows.

In other words, our belief in the Holy Spirit acknowledges that it is the Holy Spirit who empowers the church, unites the saints, regenerates sinners, breathes resurrection life into transformed bodies, and sustains us in the life everlasting.

So, while we are going to talk about each of those things — the church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting — when we do, we will also be talking about the work of the Spirit.

So, the Holy Spirit is not getting short shrift in the Creed, or in our attention in this series.  But today, we’re going to stop at the very short, but powerful phrase — “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

Who is The Holy Spirit, and How Did He (or She) Get Here?

Who, then is the Holy Spirit?  Well, if you read the popular work of inspirational fiction, The Shack, you remember that the author portrayed the Holy Spirit as a blithe female persona, flitting here and there in the blink of an eye.

We may not be ready to call the Holy Spirit “she” today, but by all means we should not call the Spirit “it.”  The classic understanding of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, or any of the other names the Spirit is identified by is that the Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Divine Trinity.

There is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit has always existed as co-eternal with God, of the same essence as Father and Son, and yet with unique ministry.

We encounter the Holy Spirit first in the first verses of Genesis, where the Spirit of God broods over the unformed earth.  The image there is one of a hen brooding over her chicks to bring them safely and carefully into full maturity.

“But,” you say, “I thought God the Father, Almighty was the creator of heaven and earth?”  God was, and here is where all this gets a little tricky.  It is very easy for us to talk about the Trinity, but very hard for us to explain the Trinity.

Perhaps this will help:  The Holy Spirit is the Person of the Trinity who encounters humankind here on earth.

  • So, when God creates the earth, and everything else, The Holy Spirit is the one who shows up to do the work.
  • When God sends his only Son to earth, The Holy Spirit is the Person of the Trinity who moves miraculously in Mary’s life so that she conceives Jesus.
  • When at Jesus’ baptism, God the Father says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased,” it is the Spirit who descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove.
  • When God resurrects Jesus from the dead, it is the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit who breathes the breath of life into Jesus’ transformed body.

And, so the Holy Spirit is now God with us, and that is exactly what Jesus says to his disciples in the passage we read today.

Just as God sends Jesus to the earth, to humankind, so God the Father and God the Son send the Holy Spirit to earth to be God’s continuing presence with those early disciples and with us today.

Our Problem With The Holy Spirit

But, we are often like the believers in Ephesus.  When Paul arrived there for the first time, he asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit since they believed.  Their reply was, “We haven’t even heard if there is a Holy Spirit.”  And here’s why 21st century Christians in America sometimes act that way:  we’re not sure we want the Holy Spirit.

That’s right, we’re just not sure we want to go there.  We as Baptists are pretty sure we don’t want to do weird stuff, like speak in tongues, heal the sick, and jump pews.  We’ll leave all of that to our Pentecostal friends, thank you very much.  So, the first problem we have with the Holy Spirit is a problem of weirdness.

And, there is a lot of weirdness that takes place when the Holy Spirit is around.  On the Day of Pentecost, weird things happened — the sound of a rushing wind filled the place where the apostles were staying.  Flames of fire appeared over their heads, and they spoke in languages they had never learned.  So, what was that about?

Well, while it sounds weird, several things were going on at once.  For the Feast of Pentecost, Jews from all over the known-world had stayed in Jerusalem since the Passover.  They came from a variety of cities, nations, and tongues.  And, so the speaking in “unknown tongues” was a reversal of The Tower of Babel story.  Once, as recorded in the Book of Genesis, man had tried to make a name for himself and build a ziggurat that reached into the throne room of God.  But God frustrated that effort by confusing their language, mixing up their speech so that they could not understand one another and could not finish the project.

But at Pentecost, God unscrambles that confusion by giving Peter and the other apostles the ability to preach in languages they had not learned, so that everyone who was there, no matter where they were from, understood and heard the story of Jesus.  So, when God does weird stuff, it always has a purpose.

But, that doesn’t mean we want to be weird, and besides the Day of Pentecost has come and gone.

Which brings me to our real problem with the Holy Spirit:  we think that the Holy Spirit only does the weird, the miraculous, or the extraordinary.

But Jesus calls the Holy Spirit “the Comforter.”  That doesn’t sound too weird, or even miraculous.  Jesus said to the disciples that the Holy Spirit was “with you, and shall be in you.”  The Holy Spirit is the abiding presence of God in our lives.

I have often heard people remark during or after a particularly difficult time, “I don’t know how people who don’t believe in God are able to get through what I’ve just been through.”  That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, comforting, strengthening, caring, and guiding.  That’s not weird at all.

But whether we are comfortable talking about the Holy Spirit or not, the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives and the lives of all believers.

Get Used to The Holy Spirit Because He’s Our Down Payment on The Resurrection

Paul said that the Holy Spirit is the earnest money, the down payment on our own resurrection.  In 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, Paul says:

21Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

The Spirit is the guarantee, the down payment, of what is to come.  God gives us himself as personal guarantee of the fidelity of His promises, His saving grace, and our eternal place with Him.

So, it would seem like we need to know something of the Holy Spirit, because after all, the Holy Spirit is our guarantee of life everlasting.

The Holy Spirit Equips The Church

One of the primary purposes of the Holy Spirit is to give gifts to each follower of Christ.  Of course, the greatest gift is God’s gift of salvation, but there is more to being a follower of Jesus than just eternal life.  There’s life here in the body of Christ called the church.

Paul said that Christ is the head of the body, but that the Holy Spirit gives each of us gifts to fit into the body.  Some have supernatural gifts, some have more everyday type gifts, but none of us is overlooked in the gift-giving of the Holy Spirit.

If I were to suggest to you today that we could do what Jesus did, some of you would think that I was either speaking rhetorically, or I was exaggerating.  But that’s exactly what Paul, and Jesus himself, said.  The key to that, though, is we don’t do it alone.  By bringing our gifts, and using them in concert with the gifts of others, the body of Christ carries out the work and ministry of Christ in this world today.  Feeding people, healing people, announcing the good news, befriending the friendless, demonstrating kingdom values — all these things are only possible if we live in the Spirit, and express the gifts the Spirit of God has given to each of us.

The Spirit Also Wages Spiritual Battle

But, let’s not kid ourselves.  This world is a long way off from being what God intends for it to be.  The Lord’s Prayer asks for God’s will “to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  We are not close to having that prayer answered universally yet.

As a matter of fact, the Spirit is also fighting for us and the kingdom of God.  Now, we know how the story will end because Jesus has already defeated sin and death.  But have you ever watched those “nature-at-its-wildest” shows?  I saw a new one the other day called “Monsters of the River” or something like that.  The star was trying to catch some gigantic fish that lived in the Amazon, or a river pretty much like it.

The one thing they always say after they catch the gator, or croc, or in this case a fish that looked to me like the world’s largest catfish — the one thing they always say is, “Okay, be careful when we put him back in the water, because his tail can be deadly.”

And, that’s where we are today.  Satan is a defeated foe, the church knows its going to be victorious, but in his death throes, Satan’s tail can be deadly.

Paul said, “10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” — Eph 6:10-18 NIV

We’re in a spiritual battle, we’re to take the sword of the Spirit, we’re to pray in the Spirit — sounds like the Holy Spirit is doing a lot for us in the realm of the unseen world, that we need to know about.

I am reading David Augsburger’s book, Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures.  Augsburger is primarily speaking to those who will offer pastoral care and counseling to persons from cultures other than their own.  He told this story to illustrate the power of a world known to other cultures, if unknown to us:

In Indonesia, a man converted to Christianity from Islam.  He was troubled by a talisman — a gold coin — visible just below the surface of his skin, on the underside of his forearm.  He said that this talisman has brought him good luck, success, prosperity, and power in the past.

But when you examine his arm closely, you notice there is not scar or visible sign of how the gold coin got under his skin.  He says that a Muslim priest, a shaman of sorts, placed the coin on his arm, and then the shaman covered the coin with his own hand.  When he removed his hand, the coin was imbedded under the man’s skin.

The young man came forward during a worship service at his new church, asking the pastor for prayer for this talisman.  The pastor showed the young man’s arm, with the gold coin imbedded in it, to the congregation and asked them to pray that the power of the coin would be broken.

As the congregation prayed, the pastor placed his hand over the embedded gold coin, just as the Muslim priest had done.  As they prayed, the pastor removed his hand from the man’s arm.

The coin was no longer under the young man’s skin.  His arm is clear, scarless, and with no sign of the coin.  The pastor held up the coin in his hand as visible evidence to the congregation that the power of God was greater than the power of the coin.

That is a true story, and if we do not understand it, it is because the Holy Spirit works in ways beyond our comprehension or culture.

We do believe in the Holy Spirit for every time we weather a storm, bear a burden, survive a difficulty, or need comfort, the Spirit is there.  He is at work in our world, continuing the ministry of Jesus, at work in our lives through each assembly of believers called the church, and at work in the unseen world where the struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, and powers, and rulers of darkness.

Sweet, Holy Spirit, sweet heavenly dove,
Stay right here with us,
filling us with your love.
And for these blessings
we lift our hearts in praise,
Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived,
When we shall leave this place.

Sermon: I Believe In Jesus The Coming Judge

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed
I Believe in Christ The Coming Judge

Acts 10:34-42
34Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. 36You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.  39“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.

Where We Are In The Apostles’ Creed

We now have arrived at the part of the Apostles’ Creed that states —

From there He shall come to judge the living and the dead…

This is the final statement about Jesus, after the statement about God, and the statements about Jesus, that precede it.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the 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. [See Calvin]

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

Remember we are using The Apostles’ Creed as an outline to address the major doctrines, or teachings, of the Christian church.  And, while we as Baptists do not use a creed in our corporate gatherings, that does not mean that we do not believe in the statements contained in the Creed.

But, back to today’s topic — the return of Christ and the judgment of everything.  So far in our look at The Creed we have had an event to hang on to each statement about Jesus:

  • For “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” we have the angel’s announcement to Mary and Mary’s response; and, of course, we have the entire nativity story and the celebration of Christmas;
  • For “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried” and including the phrase “He descended into hell” (which requires a whole discussion all to itself, but is nonetheless a part of the Passion of the Christ), we have Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.
  • For “The third day He arose again from the dead” we have the resurrection of Christ and Easter;
  • And for “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” we have the Ascension of Christ and the Sunday that celebrates that event.

All of those affirmations are statements of belief rooted in a past reality.  Jesus was born.  Jesus did suffer and die.  Jesus did rise from the dead.  Jesus did ascend back to the Father in heaven.

Each event was witnessed by real people and each were profoundly affected by the event they witnessed. From shepherds and wisemen, to disciples and followers, to those who saw Jesus alive, each event was verified by numerous eyewitnesses who continued throughout their lifetimes to speak of what, in the words of John,

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.”  1 John 1:1-3a

But when we come to today’s affirmation — “from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead” — we have left the events of the past, and are now affirming one final event that will take place in some future time, unknown to any except God the Father.

I’ve Got Good News and Bad News

Okay, you’ve probably all heard this one, but it makes a point about this business of the second-coming of Christ and the judgment of everything.

One of the Pope’s assistants rushed into him and said, “Holy Father, I’ve got good news and bad news.”

The Pope said, “Okay, what’s the good news?”

The assistant replied, “The good news is that Jesus has returned and wants to talk to you on the phone.”

“Great,” the Pope responded.  “But what’s the bad news?”

“The bad news is, he’s calling from Salt Lake City.”

Okay, that’s an old and silly joke, but it kind of captures our ambivalence about the return of Christ and the judgment of the world.  We’re not sure if we want to hear it or not.  Frankly, we’re not sure we even believe it anymore, although there it sits, in the middle of The Apostles’ Creed.  Of course, even if we abandon the Creed, there are longer versions affirming that we as Baptists believe that Jesus will return to the earth bodily and visibly, and that Christ will judge the earth as the final act in God’s great drama of creation and redemption.

Our scripture passage today is almost a word-for-word match to the words of The Creed, probably because early Christians took much of what they used to compose The Creed from the words of Scripture itself.

So, the good news is this is a belief of the Christian church from the first century and the original apostles.  The bad news is that after 2,000 years this statement has lost some of its practical punch.

Why This Statement in The Creed?

The Apostles’ Creed was a concise statement of the commonly held beliefs of all Christians.  It started in very simple form, in a version known as the Roman Creed.  Over the centuries as controversies arose, The Creed was amplified, tweaked, and clarified to address specific heresies, or false teachings.

One of those was a Gnostic teaching that God was unconcerned with mankind’s actions.  The idea of Christ returning to judge the earth was a counterpoint to the teachings of the Gnostics that all matter is evil, that what we do in our physical bodies doesn’t matter, and that it is only the spiritual that is significant.

Other heresies denied the physical resurrection of Jesus, and his transformed body.  Others said that Jesus had already returned, and that now believers were left to their own devices.  So, this statement in The Creed, because it comes directly from scripture, pushes back at many of those false teachings.

But, rather than being just a reply, or a response, this statement in The Creed is a positive affirmation of a long-held belief known as The Blessed Hope — the confidence that Jesus would return to the earth, vindicate his followers, and judge the earth.

Here’s the importance of the return of Christ, and his judgment of the earth — without this final chapter, without Christ’s return and judgment, God’s salvation history is incomplete.  The story of God must have an ending, and this is the beginning of that ending.

Let me say it this way — from the creation of the earth and mankind’s place on it, all the way through the events of the Old Testament, down to the coming of Jesus as the Christ, God has been on a mission to redeem his creation.  Theologians call this the “missio Dei” — the mission of God.

The story of God and His people is not complete unless and until God sets everything right.  Everything cannot be set right until Jesus returns as he rightfully deserves, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  And, everything cannot be set right until Jesus gives his opinion, his judgment, about the world, its systems, and its people.  In other words, the setting right of everything awaits the return of Jesus and his judgment.

So, its not enough to say, “Well, Jesus gave us a wonderful example to live by, and that’s all that we need.”  Nor is it enough to say, “We need to work for God’s kingdom to come on this earth as it is in heaven.”  That is true, and we do need to do just that, but the only reason we need to do so is because one day, God’s will is absolutely going to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

What’s the Return of Jesus About?

First, Jesus will return.  The apostles believed that he would, because Jesus himself told them that he would.  In Matthew 25, Jesus says,

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” — Matthew 25:31-33 NIV

So, by Jesus’ own words, he states that he, the Son of Man, is coming again in glory, and to judge the nations.  Several times in the gospels Jesus speaks of his return, and so this idea that Jesus is coming back is not on the disciples made up, or the church invented to keep people in line.  Jesus himself spoke of his visible, bodily return.

But, we are skeptical.  Two thousand years have passed, and still no Jesus.  Maybe we don’t need to believe that Jesus really will return because it seems like a fading possibility.

Okay, let me ask you this:  Do you believe that Jesus came in the form of a tiny baby?  Most of us here today, if not 100% of us, would say, “Yes, I believe that Jesus came as a tiny baby.”  But what’s harder to believe — that God can limit himself, come down from heaven, enter the womb of an unmarried woman through some mystery of conception that we cannot understand, be born as a baby by totally natural means, and then grow up to save the world from its sin;

Or, that God comes with lightning, angels, and glory to the earth?

Frankly, I think it’s easier to believe God will come with lightning, angels and glory, than that God was born a baby.

Okay, but that’s not the only reason.  As I said earlier, if Jesus doesn’t return, the story is incomplete.  Jesus came first as the Suffering Servant found in the prophet Isaiah; he returns the second time as the recognized Messiah, God’s Anointed One.  The first time many, most as a matter of fact, missed who he was.  The second time no one will miss who Jesus is.

Let’s look at my favorite passage about Jesus one more time:  Philippians 2:5-11.

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

That’s what happens at the second coming of Jesus:  everybody and everything — every knee and every tongue — in heaven, in earth, and under the earth, confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

So, the first time most don’t get it; the second time everyone gets it.

I’m Good on Jesus Return, But What About This Business of Judgment?

We’ll all be happy for Jesus to come back someday, I’m sure.  But the thing we really have trouble with is this business of God’s judgment, or more accurately, Jesus’ judgment of everything.  But let’s take a close look.

Our big problem with the “day of judgment” is we have a picture of wrath and destruction in our heads.  And to be sure there is that element of purging with fire that we’ll talk about in a moment.  But here’s the picture of judgment that we need to focus on.

Psalm 98:8-9 says —

8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
Let the mountains sing together for joy; 9 let them sing before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.

The psalmist calls on nature, God’s creation, to rejoice, to clap and sing, because God comes to judge the earth.  God’s judgment is the final act of God’s salvation.

A quick personal story:  I traveled to Mexico several times on business before tourists had to show American passports.  To cross the US-Mexico border a tourist only had to show some type of US identification to go over and back.  Of course, all that has changed now, but even in the late 1990s and early in this decade, business travelers to Mexico had to have a business visa.

This visa was a separate green booklet that had to be stamped on your entry into Mexico, and then stamped on your exit from Mexico.  Well, the first time I crossed over into Mexico after receiving my visa, I had it appropriately stamped upon entry.  We went in, met with our customers, and then made our way back across the border.  The rep I was with forgot to have us stop and get our exit stamp, which neither of us thought was a big deal.

But, six months later when I tried to re-enter Mexico, the immigration official pointed out that I never “closed” my last visit. I did not have the stamp that said, “Salida”  with the appropriate date of my exit.  He refused to let me enter the country again.  And, he pointed out that the fine for failure to obtain an exit stamp was close to $800 US dollars, because several months had passed.

I was stunned.  First, I didn’t have $800 US dollars on me, so that was out of the question.  Second, my customer was expecting me, so I had to make my appointment.  So, I asked very politely, “Is there some other way we can solve this problem?”

The immigration official looked at me, and smiled.  “Well, of course, if you could pay some small fee, say $25, we could stamp your visa.”  Of course, this small fee was paid in cash, and I received no receipt for it, but the official took his “Salida” stamp from the drawer and properly stamped by visa.  Then, he took his “Entrada” stamp, and stamped it again with the current date to give me legal entry into Mexico.

My point in telling that story is this — we have to have an exit, an ending to God’s story.  And that ending is the return of Christ, and his judgment of the earth.

But, judgment isn’t in itself destructive or vengeful.  Judgment is God’s opinion.  So, when Jesus returns, he returns to give his opinion of all the world’s systems, nations, and people.  Matthew calls it “separating the sheep from the goats.”

Other gospel writers use similar analogies as in “separating the wheat from the weeds.”  The point is, Jesus is going to give us his opinion of what is useful to the Kingdom of God, what is faithful to the Kingdom of God, and what will endure within the full-arrived Kingdom of God.

Things like “sheep” and “wheat” represent those things and people that are useful to, faithful to, compatible with, and obedient to the Kingdom of God.  Remember in Jesus’ early ministry, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Repent and believe the good news.”  Well, the good news is judgment made plain.  The good news is Jesus opinion of the world.

Judgment is both good and bad.  The good is some are sheep, some are wheat, some are received with a “well-done good and faithful servant.” The bad news is some people and things are judged to be “goats, weeds, and bad servants.”

And the criteria for Jesus’ judgment is Jesus himself.  Jesus is the incarnation of God, and how people, nations, and systems received Jesus is judgment in itself.

In John 3:16-17, Jesus said,

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,[a] that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” — John 3:16-18 NIV

Okay, but here’s the disclaimer:  Jesus is the righteous judge.  In other words, he doesn’t judge like we would.  Our job is not to figure out how Jesus is going to judge, our job is to live in light of Jesus love for the world.  To live as he lived. To see the world as he saw it, as sheep without a shepherd.  To love God and love others.

Jesus’ judgment is not just about going to heaven when we die, it’s about God’s opinion of everything here on earth, including us.  Whether we are among the living or the dead when Jesus returns does not matter.  What does matter is whether we are among the faithful.

Sermon: I Believe in the Ascension of Christ

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed series continues with this sermon, I Believe in the Ascension of Christ, from Luke 24:36-53.

I Believe in the Ascension of Jesus
Luke 36-53

36While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

37They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

40When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate it in their presence.

44He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

What Do You Do With The Body?

A favorite part of just about any murder mystery is what to do with the body?  You know how those stories go: first,  the murderer kills the victim.  The details of the murderer — is he or she an escaped convict, a deranged lunatic, a jealous lover, or a scheming con artist?; and, the victim — is the victim an unfaithful lover, a double-crossing partner, an innocent bystander, and so on — change with the particular plot line, but the basics of the story are the same — one person kills another.

This story is as old as Cain and Abel, and the problem of what to do with the body of the victim is as old as the murderous act itself.  Cain apparently buried his brother Abel in the same field where he killed him, and when God asked Cain “Where is your brother, Abel?”  Cain replies, “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?”

Nice try, but it didn’t work.  God tells Cain that the blood of Abel cries out to God from the ground.  In other words, I know what you did with the body.

Same thing happened to Moses.  Moses is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter from among the bulrushes of the river, and eventually is raised in Pharaoh’s household.  But somewhere along the way, even though he looks and dresses like an Egyptian, Moses finds his Hebrew identity.  He is outraged at the treatment the Hebrews are receiving under Pharaoh’s regime, but there’s not much he can do about it. Until one day, he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew.

Moses anger swells, and before he knows it, Moses kills the Egyptian.  Which is sure to be a big problem for him with Pharaoh and his henchmen.  So, Moses buries the Egyptian’s body in the sand to conceal his crime.  It doesn’t work, however, because someone saw Moses do it, and so he has to flee to the backside of the desert, which is a long way off.

But with the story of Jesus, we have a different problem.  The Apostles’ Creed has us affirm —

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,
And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead and buried,
He descended into hell.

On the third day He rose again from the dead.

Now, the problem is this — Jesus has risen from the dead.  That’s Easter, that’s the resurrection, that’s the moment in which God breaks the power of sin and death, and the life of Jesus becomes the prototype for all humanity, for all life to come.

But, what do you do with the body?  The empty tomb is mute evidence that Jesus is not dead.  Jesus appears to the disciples for a period of 40-days between Passover and the coming of the next big Jewish festival, Pentecost.

But, this is a big problem now.  Jesus appears about 11 times to various individuals and groups of followers.  And, he is very much alive, not a ghost like they imagine in the passage we have just read.  In his appearances, Jesus does several things:

  1. Jesus encourages some of the disciples to touch him, Thomas being the first case in point.
  2. Jesus walks with the disciples.  The most famous episode being the walk on the road to Emmaus with two followers of Jesus.
  3. Jesus breaks bread with his followers.  Again, the road to Emmaus story.
  4. Jesus cooks breakfast.  He makes fish and bread, which is not something you would expect the resurrected Messiah to do.  But, it probably reminds the disciples of the time Jesus fed 5,000 with fish and bread, and this is just as real.
  5. Jesus eats with the disciples.  John has him eating fish, and so does Luke.
  6. Jesus speaks to the disciples and others.  Apparently he speaks in his normal voice, not some kind of heavenly booming bass profundo.
  7. Jesus commissions the disciples to carry on his work in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.
  8. Jesus blesses his followers.
  9. Jesus gives them instructions, telling them to wait in Jerusalem for power from on high, the Holy Spirit.

So, Jesus does at least 9 things, and maybe more, that show he is a real, live person, not a ghost, a vision, or an apparition.  But, then what? What do you do with the body of Jesus, even if He is alive?

Getting Off The Stage

When I was in high school I got involved with the drama club, and we put on several plays of somewhat uneven quality, I must admit.  But, we learned a great deal about what actors call “stage craft” — the business of acting.  One of the big moments in any play is an actor’s entrance.  So, if you’re coming through a door, you make sure the door knob turns, or the door doesn’t get stuck, so your entrance is smooth and doesn’t become a sort of comedy of errors in itself.

But just as important as getting on the stage, is getting off.  Again, if you’re going through a door, you want to check ahead of time to be sure the door opens, or the knob turns, or whatever needs to happen, happens.  An actor wants his exit to be important, but not awkward.  If you aren’t in the right position on stage when you need to exit, things can get very awkward.

And, in one way, that’s where we find Jesus.  In a place on the stage of history that no one has ever occupied.  His entrance was to be born.  That, of course, was pretty dramatic in itself, for he was “conceived of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.”

Pretty amazing stuff, and in terms of stage presence, Jesus had that too.  He went about healing people, feeding people, teaching, raising the dead, and training a band of followers who continually seemed not to get what Jesus was trying to teach them.

But, the story takes an distressing turn for Jesus’ followers.  He is opposed by religious leaders, eventually arrested, beaten, tried, and sentenced to death by crucifixion.  Then, he’s crucified.  When he dies, he’s taken down off the cross, and buried.  And here is where the story might end, because all the other stories like this, or even close to this, have ended this way.  The hero gets killed, the body buried, and that’s the end of the story as his followers slip away into the darkness.

But not this story.  In this story, the hero doesn’t stay dead.  In some inexplicable, supernatural event, Jesus rises from the grave.  And, in case there is any doubt about His resurrection, the massive stone gets mysteriously rolled away from the mouth of the grave, the grave clothes are lying neatly folded, and angels announce the news that “He is not here, He is risen from the dead.”

But, now what?  How does Jesus get off-stage, so to speak.  Most of us exit through the door of death, but for Jesus, death was just a revolving door — in and then out again.  How does this story resolve itself.

I suppose Jesus could have just hung around.  But that wasn’t the plan.  The plan from the beginning was that Jesus enters the human realm, does what only God-Incarnate can do, then goes back to his throne in the presence of God the Father, but in His place sends the Holy Spirit.  So, that’s the plan, but how does Jesus get off-stage, so to speak?

Who Comes Down Now Goes Up

We have the old saying, “What goes up, must come down.”  That’s called the Gravity Creed.  But, in Jesus case, what, or better, who came down to earth, must also go back up into heaven.

In the 19th century, theologians got really upset that Jesus ascended “up” to heaven.  Some even said that the idea of heaven being “up” was an outmoded, primitive idea which proves that the story about the ascension couldn’t be true.  Heaven wasn’t up, they said, and so Jesus would not have gone up to go back there.

Well, they’re batting .500 — they got it half right, in other words.  Heaven isn’t up.  Heaven is the presence of God.  Heaven is no more “place” as we know places than God is a man as we know men.  But we speak in the only words we know, and in the first century their idea was that the living were on the earth; the dead were in the pit, or the underworld, or the land of the dead which was under the earth; and, that heaven was above the earth.  Theologians call this a three-tiered cosmology, which is pretty much how we still think of life, heaven, and hell today — here, up from here, and down from here.

And remember, the Bible tells stories with a theological point.  Which doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t go up, but it does mean that there is a deeper meaning to “up” than we might think.

The Significance of Up

The Bible uses this “up-and-down” language to represent a lot of theological ideas.  Here are some of them:

  • Adam and Eve are told to go “down” from the Garden of Eden after they sin.
  • The Tower of Babel is a failed attempt to “go up” to God and heaven.
  • Noah and his family are preserved by the ark’s ascent on Mt. Ararat.
  • Moses goes up to Mount Sinai to speak with God and receive the Law.
  • Mount Zion, the mystical dwelling place of God, is reached by “ascending” the hill of the Lord.
  • At the Transfiguration of Jesus, Jesus and three of the disciples go up on the mount where there Jesus is transformed, and speaks of his coming death with Moses and Elijah.
    • Moses has gone up to be with God on the mountain several times, including right before his own death.
    • Elijah is taken up by God into heaven by a fiery chariot.

So, the people of God revealed in Scripture understand that one goes up to God, and down to sin, death, and the grave.

One way or the other, Jesus is going up to God, to heaven, and to the right-hand of God for eternity.

Going Up Doesn’t Mean Going Away

But, just because Jesus goes up to God at the ascension, doesn’t mean Jesus goes away.  Jesus goes up, so the Holy Spirit can come down to Jesus’ followers.

Jesus has already told his followers that he’s going to send the Paraclete, the One-Called-Alongside, to help the disciples.  They’ve seen the power of God in Jesus’ healing and other miracles, and Jesus has promised them that they will do the same things, and greater than He has done.

Jesus has already breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  That in itself was a theological act, and act reminiscent of God’s act at creation, breathing into Adam the breath of life.  Only this breath of life was the life of the Spirit.

Jesus had told the disciples that all authority was given to him, in heaven and earth, and that they were to wait for the Holy Spirit.

And, so they waited.  For days.  In fear.  In Jerusalem.  Uncertain what would happen, or if they would even know it when it did.

And then, all heaven broke lose.  The wind blows with a mighty rushing sound — the presence of the Spirit.  Tongues of fire — another manifestation of the Spirit appear on the disciples heads.  The disciples speak in languages they have never learned, a reversal of the confounding of languages at the Tower of Babel.  And Peter, inspired by the Spirit, says, “This is what the prophet Joel spoke of.”

The Spirit comes, the church is born, the followers of Jesus are empowered, Peter preaches and three thousand who had great doubts about the man called Jesus were converted in an instant and were baptized.

Going up doesn’t mean going away.

We Are Living The Story

We tend to think of all these things as past-tense:  Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus rose again, Jesus ascended back to heaven.  The Holy Spirit came.  End of story.

But it’s not the end.  It’s the beginning for us.  The beginning for the church.  The beginning of witness.  The beginning of the faith.  The beginning of the good news which would be carried to all the world.  Jesus is alive, and what’s more, He’s seated at the right hand of God the Father.

It has pleased God, the Bible says, to put all things under Jesus’ feet.  In other words, Jesus is in charge.  Jesus reigns.  Jesus is the Lord of All.  Jesus sends the Spirit to us.  Jesus is still active in this world that he came to live and die for.

We are living the story of God’s redemptive love.  We are the present actors in this great drama written and directed by God.  Jesus the Messiah has made his entrance as the most helpless of humanity — a tiny baby.  He has lived his life as the most unusual of men.  He has died a horrendous death.  He as risen victorious from the grave.  He has resumed the mantle of heaven and ascended to his rightful place.

But here’s where it really gets good — He’s left us to represent him here in this world that he loved so much he gave himself for it.  And, we’re not alone.  He sent the Holy Spirit to fill us, gift us, guide us, and empower us.  We are living the story of Jesus, in the power of His Spirit, for the life of His creation.

That’s what the ascension is all about.  Not just a clever theatrical trick to get Jesus off-stage, but a dramatic theological transition, a moment that transcends time and space, where heaven received in victory the risen Christ, and earth received in gratitude His ever-present Spirit.

As we gather at His table today, He is present with us.  Theologians have argued for almost 2,000 years about “how” Jesus is present in the broken bread and poured out wine.  The church was split, denominations formed, and wars fought over the “how” of Jesus presence at this table.  But that misses the point.

Our concern today is not “how” Jesus is here.  Our concern today as we gather at this table is that He is here, and we are present with Him.  Had he not come, he could not have gone.  Had he not gone, he could not have sent the Spirit.  Had the Spirit not come, we would not be gathered here today.