What Are the Odds? (Easter 2005) 3/27/05
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita Kansas
University Congregational Church
What are the odds? There are two billion people in the world today who claim to be Christians. Oh, we’ve grown up with neighborhood churches on practically every block, so we just take for granted that this religion we call Christianity is the norm. But talk about humble beginnings! If Las Vegas style casinos existed in ancient Palestine, Jesus would not have been considered a very safe bet to become the central figure of the largest religion in the world.
Just consider the facts. He was born to an unwed teenage girl. He was raised in a political backwater, nowhere near any seat of world power. And as an adult he became some sort of teacher-prophet who roamed Galilee, a northern region of Israel, saying very much what the prophets who had come before him had said—that God is more concerned with acts of compassion than with displays of piety; that our loving deeds are far more important to God than our practice of religion.
His public ministry lasted no more than three years, at which time the Roman government, in collusion with the corrupt authorities of his faith, charged him with the only crime they could that would allow them to kill him: sedition—being a traitor. And they killed him in the painful and humiliating way reserved for the worst criminals: crucifixion.
No, if, some 2000 years ago, you had walked by Golgotha—that terrible hill outside the walls of Jerusalem—and seen the life of Jesus slowly ebbing away, as the people who had once followed him either ran away to hide or joined those who laughed at him and spit on him and mocked him; and if you then entered the Golgotha Las Vegas style casino and said you wanted to place a bet regarding the criminal whose lifeless body was hanging from that cross; and if you explained that it was your belief that the person on that cross would become the central figure in human history; that in fact the world’s largest religion would be named in his honor; well, that casino would have been more than happy to take your money. Seriously! What are the odds?
But then, God has never seemed too concerned with odds. Scientists tell us that after the Big Bang the universe unfolded in such a way that the odds of life evolving out of that scalding cauldron of chaos were miniscule. And yet, some 13 or 14 billion years later, here we are, walking, talking, thinking, questioning proof that God is unconcerned with the odds.
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Today, all over the world, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Allow me to be brutally honest about something. There are people in this congregation who believe the physical body of Jesus left this earth three days after he was murdered by the Roman authorities. And there are people in this congregation who believe the resurrection was something spiritual, as opposed to something that happened to the actual atoms, molecules and cells that comprised the body of Jesus of Nazareth.
It is very important for us to accept the fact that there are sincere Christians on both sides of this issue. And let me once again be brutally honest with you. I don’t know which side is right. The way Jesus came into this world and the way he left it are not as important as what he said and did while he was here, and what happened after he left. Because Jesus of Nazareth did teach us how to live; and Christ is risen. Christ is risen. That is the mystery of our faith, the mystical heart and soul of Christianity.
But our view on the mechanics of that are not what determines whether or not we are Christians. Clearly, the Bible tells us that Jesus made several appearances after his death. All four gospels tell different versions of the story. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James—all women—are said to have first encountered the risen Christ. It is interesting that Jesus’ first appearance would be to women, who were so marginalized by the culture of first century Palestine.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus then appears to two men who are leaving Jerusalem and walking the road to Emmaus. The two men do not recognize Jesus, even thought they knew him in life. Jesus asks them what they are talking about. I’ll read from Luke’s account:
Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas (KLAY-oh-pus), answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’
As the story continues, Jesus, whom they still do not recognize, explains the scriptures to them regarding the Messiah. Then the story continues:
As they came near the village to which they were going, Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
When I read that story, Jesus seems to be more of a spiritual reality than a physical reality. He just vanishes! But then, still in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus appears to his disciples, and this time Luke seems intent on convincing us Jesus had a physical body. Luke writes:
While they were talking, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Those two stories come from the same gospel—the Gospel of Luke. If you start adding in the other gospel writers’ stories of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, it really starts to get confusing. The Gospel of John, for example, goes to great lengths to say that the disciples had gathered where all the doors and windows were securely shut. And then Jesus just appears out of nowhere. But then Jesus shows the disciples his hands and side where his flesh had been pierced!
What is going on here? Is this resurrection thing something physical? Is it something spiritual? What are the gospel writers trying to tell us? Their stories can be read and interpreted in many ways. What is the message beneath all of this confusion?
There is indeed a message in the midst of this biblical chaos, and the message is as simple or as complicated as we want to make it. The message: Christ is risen. We can worry over the details as much as we want, but the bottom line is that Christ is risen. Jesus left this world however God wanted him to. God is the God of all reality—the physical and the spiritual—and I do not believe God was constrained by the odds when Jesus was resurrected.
And that is what matters: Jesus was resurrected. Christ is risen. The whole point of the resurrection stories is to assure us that the resurrection is real. It happened. This was not a mass hallucination on the part of the disciples. The disciples of Jesus of Nazareth really did experience Jesus Christ in that room following Jesus’ death on the cross. When the Apostle Paul, who never met Jesus of Nazareth, encounters the risen Christ several years later on the road to Damascus, that encounter is real. Paul was not hallucinating. When a person in the world today looks into the depths of his or her soul and sees something ugly, or hurtful, or meaningless, whether that insight comes from bad luck or bad behavior; and when that person prays to God for forgiveness through Jesus Christ; and when that person receives from God the strength to stand back up and look life in the eye, this time with the Holy Spirit of God inside—that is real. It happens every day.
There is only one universe, and God rules over the whole thing. There is not a spiritual universe and a physical universe. The spiritual and the physical are parts of the same whole. And the whole point of the cross—the whole point of Easter—is that all of creation came together in one magnificent healing moment in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The world was broken and it was healed. And now, when we are broken we can be healed. Now, when we are hurting, or suffering, or even facing death itself, we know that we live in a universe where God is not constrained by the odds. We live in a universe where good really does conquer evil. We live in a universe where faith, hope and love give purpose and meaning to our every breath.
If we say that Christ is risen; if we surrender to the mystery of our faith; that leaves us with a couple of pretty important questions. First, what does that mean for our lives—what does it mean to live in a world where Christ is risen? And second, where do we find the risen Christ in such a world?
Believing that Christ is risen has amazing implications for our lives. In fact, it changes the whole focus of our lives. In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Paul viewed his life as nothing in comparison to the greater glory of God. Why should he worry about his fleeting life on earth when God rules over eternity?
Few of us have Paul’s strength of convictions. Few ever have. Paul is, after all, the author of more books of the Bible than any other person—almost half the books of the New Testament are attributed to him. So he sets the bar pretty high for what it means to live one’s life in a world where Christ is risen. But we needn’t worry if we fall short of his example. The gospel message—the good news—the whole point of Easter—is that God loves us in spite of our shortcomings. The great 20th century theologian Paul Tillich said the most difficult thing about the Christian faith is accepting that you are accepted. Surely I must do more than just be who I am! No! God loves you just as you are.
I believe the most important passage in the entire Bible is found in the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul writes:
I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Oh how I wish we Christians would really listen to what Paul is saying there. Paul is telling us that Easter took care of everything. Listen to what Paul is not saying.
Paul is not saying, “There is absolutely nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God… except for not making a confession regarding Jesus Christ.” No! Nothing can separate us from God’s love!
Paul is not saying, “There is absolutely nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God… except going to the wrong church.” No! Nothing can separate us from God’s love!
Paul is not saying, “There is absolutely nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God… except failing to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin.” No! Nothing can separate us from God’s love!
Paul is not saying, “There is absolutely nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God… except not thinking the physical body of Jesus was resurrected.” No! Nothing can separate us from God’s love!
Do we get it?! Do we understand that the good news really is good news? Can we come to grips with the fact that God loves us just like we are, and accepts us just like we are, and only wants for us—God’s children—to live joyful lives filled with love and abundance?
And if we can accept that wonderful fact, can we understand that God knows our lives will be abundant only when we surrender to Christ, and allow Jesus to live through us? We don’t live good lives and perform good deeds because we have to. We aren’t loving people because we feel an obligation to follow some commandment. We do it because that is what makes life fulfilling. Loving one another is what life is all about.
And we do it for one other reason—the answer to the second question we posed about the risen Christ, namely, where do we find the risen Christ in the world today? Jesus himself gives us the answer in the 25th chapter of Matthew. Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” When asked when they had done such wonderful things for Jesus, he says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Christ is risen. And we know where to find him. Not out there among the stars. Not on some other plane of existence. The risen Christ is right here, right now. He is using our eyes to see the world. He is using our hands to heal the world. He is using our minds to imagine a better world.
Imagine that! The risen Christ, right here, right now, inside you and me. What are the odds?