Friday, March 22, 2013

The Invitation of Easter

Each year Christians around the world set aside a week to reflect on the death of a first-century peasant Jewish carpenter known as Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, like thousands of other citizens of the ancient Roman world, was executed by the authorities with a technique known as crucifixion. Today, the cross is universally recognized as a symbol of Jesus’ followers and the church established in his name. The question seems obvious: How does the death of one man launch a global movement that continues even two thousand years after his death? What was special about this Roman execution as opposed to the thousands of others like it? How does an instrument of torture (a cross) become a symbol of one of the world’s great religions?

The answer is found in what happened after the death of Jesus. We are told in the New Testament as well as in other first century literature, that the followers of Jesus claimed he was miraculously raised from the dead on the third day following his execution. To validate this claim, they pointed to an empty tomb and several encounters they claimed to have with their resurrected Lord. The truth of their claim was a topic of great debate in the first century. That debate continues. If Jesus was, in fact, raised from the dead, it explains why the death of one first-century peasant matters two thousand years later. If, however, Jesus was not raised from the dead, then his death on the cross should matter no more or less than any of the thousands who died the same way. The Apostle Paul said, “... if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith ... And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile ... If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:12-19 NIV). In other words, if the resurrection didn’t happen, we are wasting our time! If Easter is nothing more than a nice story or an annual tradition, all the claims of the New Testament and the Church are worth little more than the paper on which they are printed.

There are some, many of whom may identify themselves as Christians, who see the resurrection as nothing more than a beautiful symbol or story of God’s triumph over evil. While they may not believe Jesus literally came back from the dead, they celebrate Easter as a tradition of their hope in God. They, along with others, argue that Jesus is remembered not because he was raised from the dead, but because he was a great moral teacher, perhaps even a prophet of God. They do not, however, accept that his death on the cross serves as any universal means of salvation, much less that he was literally resurrected from the dead. C.S. Lewis once famously argued, “That is one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – or else he would be the Devil of Hell.” (Mere Christianity, pg. 52)

As people around the world observe the celebration of Easter, it becomes an annual invitation to wrestle with the one foundational claim of the Christian faith … Did Jesus come back to life? If he did, then everything he claimed about himself and his offer of salvation is true. If he did not, then nothing else he said matters. Whatever our religious background, such a radical claim deserves our consideration.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Tough Sayings of Jesus

When my children were small and first learning to communicate, we would remind them to use their words. Rather than simply grunting or crying, we would encourage them express their wants, needs and feelings using words and phases we could understand. Their words weren't perfect. Their grammar was terrible, but we knew they needed to practice communicating if they were going to be successful in life. (They all know how to communicate now and sometimes we wish we had never given them that advice!)

Jesus used his words, but his words were more than simple communication. John tells us that Jesus was "the word made flesh" (John 1:1). The same words that spoke the light into being and formed the stars took on flesh and walked on the very earth he spoke into existence. Jesus didn't just speak words, he was, and is the eternal Word. Jesus used his words to heal. Like when he spoke to the lame man at the pool of Bethesda, "Get up!, pick up your mat and walk" (John 5:6). Jesus used his words to speak comfort; "Your brother will rise again," he told Martha as she grieved at her Lazarus's grave (John 11:23). Jesus used his words to forgive and correct; "Has no one condemned you? Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:10-11). The words of Jesus have been the most scrutinized words in all of human history. For two thousand years, scholars and skeptics, saints and satirists have studied the words Jesus. For many, his words offer comfort. For some, they are the source of pain. For everyone, they present a challenge and an invitation.

The challenging words of Jesus are found in statements like, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Does Jesus really intend us to believe that he is the exclusive way to God? Other difficult passages include, "If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out" (Matthew 5:29), and "do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear" (Matthew 6:25). These words sound impractical if not radical. These passages were difficult for Jesus' original audience and have been baffling audiences for generations since. Sometimes Jesus' words are difficult to understand, and sometimes they are difficult because we understand them all too well.

The difficult sayings of Jesus are also an invitation. They invite us to consider a God who's ways are not our ways and who's thoughts are not our thoughts. If we could understand God, he would cease to be God. Therefore, it stands to reason that we wouldn't understand all of Jesus' words. If we could, He would just be another great teacher or philosopher. But Jesus was much more than that. Jesus was the very Word made flesh.

As we approach Easter, let us consider some of the tough sayings of Jesus. I believe each difficult saying is an invitation to live a life more in tune with the one who designed life. Every time we wrestle with a difficult saying of Jesus, we are fighting for a better way to live. I pray you'll join us each Sunday for The Tough Sayings of Jesus. I also hope you will spend the days between now and Easter reading the Gospels for yourself. Make your own list of tough sayings and discover how God may be inviting you to a better way to live.

Grace and Peace,