Listen to the service and the sermon live at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRncGcR3EDI
The idea that human beings survive death is nothing new. In 399 B.C. Socrates thought that we had at least a fifty-fifty chance of life after death, and he was cautious. Many ancient civilizations believed in an afterlife, including the majority of Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans
Ironically, the ancient Jews were harder to convince than their pagan neighbors. The vast majority of Old Testament texts affirm that every person is a unity of body, mind, and spirit, and when the spirit, the breath of life, the soul, leaves the body the whole person is dead. They are consigned to Sheol where there is no activity, memory, or praise of God, but only endless sleep. The intertestamental book of Sirach summed it up nicely when it said: “The living may debate whether life is for ten years, or a hundred, or a thousand, but … the dead are just dead.”
We know from their debates with Jesus that the Sadducees of the New Testament Era taught God’s blessing was for this life only and denied life after death. Once, at a wedding, a devout Jewish man, knowing I was a Protestant clergyman, said, “Worth, has it ever occurred to you that, though there is a God, God may not choose to raise the dead?”
Now do not despair! As Jesus said, you may have to search for it (John 5:39), but there is a thin thread of hope in the Hebrew Bible. In Isaiah 26:19 we read:
(O Lord) Your dead shall live, and their bodies shall rise. (Those) who dwell in the dust, will awake, and sing for joy!
Likewise, in Ezekiel 37 the prophet has a vision of a valley of dry bones brought to life by the breath of God. And Job declares, “I know that my redeemer lives, and without my flesh, I shall see him.” And who can forget the very personal confession of Psalm 16:
(O Lord) You will not give me up to Sheol or let your (holy) one see the Pit. You show me the path of life; in your presence, there is fullness of joy, in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
We know from the gospels that the Pharisees of the New Testament Era believed in life after death and looked for a General Resurrection at the end of history when God would raise the unrighteous dead to the Judgment that they escaped in life and the righteous dead to eternal life in the heavenly Kingdom.
Christians pin our hopes for resurrection and eternal life on Jesus. It has been almost 2000 years since the Romans ordered the crucifixion and the death of Jesus, and immediately thereafter the disciples of Jesus started to preach that the grave could not hold him, and he had risen from the dead. The good news did not stop with the resurrection of Jesus. The disciples said that, in Jesus, the General Resurrection that the Pharisees expected at the end of the present age had begun, and that it would be completed at Christ’s triumphant return in glory. They said that Jesus was the firstborn from the dead, the first fruits of the harvest, but not the last. All who belong to him would share his triumph over death and the grave.
Of course, the first generation of Christians died, and another generation succeeded it, and skeptics did not waste time in asking second-generation Christians a very disturbing question. According to 2nd Peter 3:23 they asked:
Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.
And one of the great theologians of the second-generation answered:
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
No one has ever waited more than a single lifetime for the coming of Christ. That is why our Moravian Easter Morning Liturgy treats Christ coming back for his church on earth, and our being called home to him in death as but two sides of the same coin.
Still, people get anxious, and some lose their faith. Not long ago, a friend in his late seventies, a life-long Moravian said to me, “Worth, the older I grow, the harder it is for me to hold on to the faith I had when I was young. I am clinging to my faith by the skin of my teeth for fear that I will lose all hope”
My friend is in good company. With each passing year, and with the ascendency of each new generation, fewer and fewer people believe in things we once took for granted, things like the existence of God, the reliability of the Bible as a guide to salvation, miracles, and, especially, the resurrection of Jesus as the guarantee of our own. One need only look at our Moravian Church in America to see that Baby Boomers are much less committed to our faith than our parents were, and the children of Baby Boomers are much less committed to their faith than we are, and so on and so on. And who knows what the church will look like after Covid? Did not Jesus himself say, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
“Is it still reasonable to believe?” That is the question a man once put to me. He was a neighbor to the church I served, and his wife was dying of terrible cancer. His own faith had been shaken, so he came to me and asked, “Worth, do you still believe in the resurrection of Jesus? Do you still have hope for the rest of us?” I said, “You go to a large, dynamic, evangelical church, and your pastor is one of the best known in this city and beyond, why not ask him?” He said, “Oh, I know what he will say. I know what he is expected to say. But you are a Moravian, I figured you would tell me the truth!”
Maybe we Moravians do have a reputation for asking hard questions and giving honest answers. I hope so. With a glowing recommendation like that, how could we do otherwise? So let me answer his question.
First, I will tell you that I have a lively hope because I believe in the existence of God. I have told you before about Crowd Theory. Crowd Theory holds that a randomly selected panel of people, non-experts, who are willing to bet their hard-earned money on the solution of a problem, are better at solving that problem than a panel of carefully selected experts. And I have told you how a friend of mine, a Ph.D. physicist, once told me that he believes in God because of crowd theory. He said, “Worth, more than 90% of all the people who have ever lived have believed in God—and bet their lives on God’s existence. The collective wisdom of the vast majority of the human race is not something we should not ignore.”
Second, I will tell you that I have a lively hope because I believe in the God that Jesus reveals. I have told you before that, given the extent of human suffering, the only God I can believe in is the God of the Cross, which is to say, the God the New Testament calls “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The hymn declares that God the Father is “… immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” According to Jesus, God the Holy Spirit is like the wind, “it blows where it wills; we hear the sound of it, but we do not know whence it comes or whiter it goes.” Jesus is the incarnation of the Eternal Word who lived among us. He is the express image of God. He not only reveals God and guarantees that God’s character is Christlike. He also reveals God’s future for our race, the human race. I am not alone in my conviction.
Stanley Jones was a Methodist missionary to India. He went to India in the 1920s, and India of that time was a foreshadowing of the pluralistic and cosmopolitan world we live in now. Once, in a public meeting, he said, “If God is not like Jesus Christ, I don’t want anything to do with him.” When Jones said that, a Hindu, a prominent attorney in that place, stood up and said, “That is bhakti, devotion par excellence. If what Dr. Jones says it true, that changes everything.” In his book, Christ at the Round Table, Jones explained how he arrived at his conviction. When he went into a new town in India to share the Good News of Jesus, he invited people of all faiths, and no faith, to sit down at a round table to discuss the benefits of their faith. He had just two rules at the Round Table: 1 ) Participants were to make a positive statement of what their own faith or lack of faith had meant to them. And 2) Participants could not criticize the faith or lack of faith of the others at the table. At the end of every Round Table Meeting, there was a period of the Open Heart, in which one could say anything. Over and over again, the non-Christians would take this opportunity to say to the Christians, “We non-Christians have been more honest than you Christians; for we all admit how (in times of challenge and difficulty, our faith or lack of faith) has let us down, while you say your faith has affected your lives in powerfully positive ways.” Jones responded, “Well, that may be true, or it may be that Jesus Christ really is The Way.”
Third, I will tell you that I have a lively hope because of all the generations of faith who have gone before. When was at Princeton, I often ran past the house where Albert Einstein had lived when in residence there. It was right next to the house where the great New Testament Scholar Otto Piper had lived. One of my teachers, Dr. Robert Lyon, had studied under Dr. Piper at Princeton. One day Bob told us how, according to Princeton Seminary legend, a reporter was standing on Einstein’s porch with Einstein, finishing an interview. As they talked, Dr. Piper passed and threw up a hand in greeting. When he did, Einstein returned his greeting, then turned to the reporter and said, “A finer mind than my own.” That may be just a legend—the only possible source was the reporter, but the truth is that Christianity has captured some fine minds of every age. Not just saints like Augustine, and Anselm, St. Francis, Dorthey Day, and Mother Theresa, but scholars like C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and scientists like Francis Bacon, Leonardo Di Vinci, and Francis Collins, who mapped the human genome. The Christian faith has produced great theologians like Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Karl Barth—one of the great minds of the 20th Century, Emil Brunner, and the Niebuhrs, Reinhold, and Richard. And above all, at the head of the line, there is St. Paul. Those who have read Paul in depth agree that his thought is as sophisticated in its own way as the thought of Plato or Aristotle. We know from his letter to the Philippians that Paul started (and finished) life as a Jew. He said that he was “circumcised on the 8th day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, as to law a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” But he said:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
“As to righteousness under the law, blameless!” Paul was a devout man who would never play fast and loose with the truth. The was telling the truth when he wrote to the church in Corinth saying:
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
When I was in seminary, I took a course in Resurrection of Jesus, and this text was the centerpiece. I was so enamored of it, that I called my father and said, “Dad, we ought to be presenting the proofs of the resurrection for they are overwhelming.” And my dad said, “No, Worth, we ought to preach the Risen Christ with Power to save.” That, I think, is the truest thing my dad ever said to me. We come to Jesus not just because we want him to save us from death, but because we want him to save us from life. We want the same power that took Jesus Christ out of the grave to help us, not in the moment of death, but in the midst of life’s challenges and struggles. Above all, we want God’s Spirit to bear witness with our spirits that we are the children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Jesus Christ, known, beloved, and cared for by God, so that we can say with Paul, “I know him in whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able, to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.”
On the one hand, I don’t think it is possible to prove our faith to the satisfaction of those who are standing on the outside, waiting for lightning to strike. If God struck us all with lightning—as he did Paul, it would virtually force many of us to be followers of Jesus and human freedom would be gone. A leap of faith—or at least, a step of faith, is required of us all. But when we take it we find that we have landed on solid ground.
So on the other hand, I do not think that it is possible for those who are truly living the life of faith to deny that faith. Perhaps J.I. Packer said it best. In his book, “Knowing God,” Packer compared walking in faith with Jesus to walking an asphalt road on the darkest of nights. He said, “We cannot see the road. Others will tell us it is not there. But we know it is, for we can feel the smoothness and the solidity of its pavement beneath our feet.” Yes, that is it.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.