The Unbelievable Beliefs of Unbelief

I don’t think I have ever preached a full blown apologetics sermon on Easter Sunday morning. This year was no exception.

However, I do attempt to add an apologetic element to the Easter talk as it is important to remind everyone that what we believe is based on events that actually took place. We don’t believe the resurrection happened because it is in the Bible. We believe it is in the Bible because it happened.

A few things occurred to me as I was reading through the Easter story. So let me try and explain some of the things that you would have to believe to disbelieve the Easter story.

The first thing that struck me as a bit odd if you believed that the Easter accounts in the gospel are history thin, might seem a bit strange at first. It is found in Matthew’s gospel and Luke’s gospel. It is the Roman centurion’s response to the death of Christ:

The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’ Luke 23.47

Matthew expands on Luke’s account with some additional detail, indicating that the other soldiers had the same reaction:

Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” Matthew 27.54

If the gospel writers had simply been writing to serve some sort of overarching theological or literary purpose, why include something that could easily have been disproved? Both gospels were written within a generation of the first Easter, so it is very possible if not likely that there were people around who had actually been there. If Matthew and Luke did make this up, they took a huge risk, because something so easily disproved would have called into question the authenticity and the value of the rest of their respective gospels.

If you believe that this was made up, you are forced to conclude that both Luke and Matthew were trying to persuade Jewish Christians that there had always been a place for gentiles in the church. To strengthen their case they independently made up a story about a centurion and Roman soldiers at the cross.

If they didn’t make up the story independently, then they colluded in a most calculating way. To make their accounts appear more authentic, they agreed on the overall narrative and changed the details to make it look more authentic.

Is it not more plausible to believe that they spoke to different eyewitnesses – or even to some of the soldiers or the centurion himself! – and recorded their recollections of that moment?

A second thing that occurred to me concerns the idea that the disciples stole the body. (We can safely rule out the mass hallucination theory. It has no weight whatsoever).

If we are to believe that the disciples stole the body – we have to in some way account for the empty tomb – then that calls into question the picture we have in the gospels of the disciples as a frightened group of men locking themselves away in case the authorities come looking for them.

The disciples of the gospels had no motivation to risk their necks trying to steal Jesus’ body from the tomb. So if we are to believe that they stole the body of Jesus, we have to believe that they were not in the kind of disillusioned, fearful state presented in the gospels.

If the gospel record about the disciples isn’t accurate, why did they allow themselves to be presented in such a bad light? And even if they were prepared to make themselves look so bad to further their deception, why did they ever allow Jesus’ body to be buried in the first place? Why risk it falling into the wrong hands? They could have taken the body of Jesus after He was crucified and hid it. The only reason Jesus was buried was because Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus asked for permission to take and bury the body of Jesus (John 19.38-41).

And if you think the whole Easter story is made up, then how on earth have the gospels and their accounts of the events of Easter survived for almost two millennia, especially when what they claim as fact could have so easily been disproved?

It seems to me that the more you reflect on Easter, the beliefs of unbelief become harder and harder to believe. And that’s before you get into serious apologetics. After all, I was only letting my mind wander during sermon preparation. Happy Easter.

A week of failure and a day of grace

Holy week, as it is called, might just as easily have been called failure week.

It was a week when the weakness and human frailty of just about everyone in the Easter story was painfully exposed.

The fickleness of the crowd is staggering. From “We want Jesus to be King” to “We want a terrorist to lead us” within the space of five days must have left any polling organisations in Jerusalem looking very foolish.

Of course, we expected as much from the religious leaders. And Pontius Pilate was always going to make a decision that he believed would protect his career.

But the disciples! Judas’ deal with Jesus’ enemies to betray the Lord is astounding. The bickering over who would be the greatest in the kingdom was perhaps unsurprising. But abandoning Jesus when He was arrested  probably came as a shock to the disciples themselves.

And then there is the seeming failure of Jesus’ own mission as He hangs on the cross.

Holy failure seems to be the message of holy week.

Yet even in the midst of the unfolding failure, Jesus Himself speaks of resurrection (Matthew 26.32). Even in His prediction of Peter’s denial, He speaks a word of grace: Peter will be restored and he is to strengthen his brothers (Luke 22.31-32).

Resurrection followed the cross. Easter Sunday brought grace after a week of failure. The deserting disciples were restored in their faith and recommissioned to go into the world (John 20.21).

Thankfully the week of failure wasn’t followed just by a day of grace but by a whole era of grace. An era that we still live in because of Christ’s death and resurrection. And that grace extends to each of us no matter where we find ourselves.

There are weeks that reveal our weakness. There are circumstances that unveil our susceptibility to temptation. But because of Easter there is grace. In fact, because of Christ’s resurrection, even the week of failure looks like a huge God engineered victory.

 

Prayer: turning the language of weakness into the language of prayer

I don’t think I have ever met a Christian who has not at some point in their life struggled to pray.

There can be all sorts of reasons for this. Sometimes it is because of physical or emotional tiredness. Sometimes it is the pressure of a busy life. Sometimes we go through a season of what is vaguely described as a season of spiritual dryness. Difficulty in praying is often the result when we experience any of the preceding.

What can intensify the inner struggle that we experience, and even the sense of failure, is the recognition that we have all been given so much in Christ. We have the Holy Spirit living in us. We are adopted children of God. What’s the problem? Why should there be any problem whatsoever with prayer?

Thankfully, the Bible does take into account our humanity and the way that impacts on our prayer life. And God has given us His Spirit to help us precisely because we still live in mortal bodies in a fallen world.

In Romans 8.26, Paul says that the Spirit helps us, not in spite of our weakness, but because of our weakness. Our weakness is a combination of living in human bodies in a fallen world and not knowing what to pray for. That’s why we need the Spirit’s help.

The word helps is the same word as is used in Luke 10.40 when Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. She was seeking her sister’s assistance. The Spirit assists us.

The Spirit helps us by giving us a language of prayer. The words wordless groans have been interpreted in various ways. Some maintain that it is the Spirit who does the groaning. Some say it is a reference to speaking in tongues. Some say that the Spirit transforms our groans into the language of prayer.

I don’t think we can say that the Spirit does the praying for us, so that we don’t have to pray. It’s more a case that He helps us in prayer by praying through us. He prays through us in wordless groans. (This could I believe refer to speaking in tongues as an aspect of this kind of praying. I don’t have space to set out the reasons here. Leave a message if you want to know my thoughts on this!)

Groaning is not an unknown form of prayer. When Jesus healed the deaf and dumb man, as recorded in Mark 7, verse 34 says that He sighed. The word translated sighed is the same as the word translated groans in Romans 8.26.

Interestingly in Acts 7.34 we are told that God heard the groaning of the Israelites when they were in slavery in Egypt. And we know what happened there!

The Spirit takes what most would consider the language of pain and transforms it into the language of prayer.

It might seem at first glance that this kind of praying is praying in its weakest form. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. It is through this kind of praying that we are able to pray for the church in accordance with God’s will. This kind of Holy Spirit empowered praying enables us to pray effectively because it enables us to pray in God’s will.

How do we pray like this? We simply open our hearts to God and let the Spirit take what is within us and turn it into effective prayer. Perhaps our weakness isn’t such a big deal after all.

Reconnecting with your inner priest

Over the last couple of decades there has been a lot of discussion as to what exactly the church is never mind what it does. Such discussions often draw on the images of the church that are found in the New Testament. Some think of the church primarily as the bride of Christ. Others focus on the family image expressed in the teaching about God’s fatherhood and our new status as adopted sons and daughters. For others still the metaphor – and reality – of spiritual conflict makes them think of the church primarily as an army.

One strand of New Testament teaching that is frequently overlooked in the discussion is the presentation of the church as a spiritual priesthood.

It is both surprising and unsurprising that this aspect of revelation has been neglected.

Unsurprising, because of the complicated history of priesthood within the church and the misgivings many have about the catholic understanding of priesthood. And it is unsurprising that this aspect of revelation has been underplayed in the Western church as the alternative to Christianity until fairly recent times has been secularism; in the developing world the religious alternatives are usually some sort of religious system in which a priest or priestess is central.

It is also surprising, because in both the Old and New Testament, God reveals His intention that His people are to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19.6; Revelation 1.6). According to 1 Peter 2.5 the church is a holy priesthood and verse 9 of the same chapter describes the church as a royal priesthood.

So how does seeing ourselves as a priesthood affect the life and ministry of the church?

For a start, it directly connects us to the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus was and is our Great High Priest (Hebrews4.14). He is the priest who offered up Himself as a sacrifice for us. And according to Hebrews 7.25, He always lives to make intercession for us.

Jesus is Saviour, King, Redeemer, Prophet, Son of God. He is also Priest.

There are three things, amongst others, that a priest does, that have great significance for us.

Firstly, priests offer sacrifice.

What kind of sacrifice can we offer? According to Romans 12.1-2 we are to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice. In other words the sacrifice that we make is to use our bodies to glorify God. That is our sacrifice. Just as Jesus offered up His body as a sacrifice, so we offer ours as a living sacrifice.

Secondly, priests pray.

Hebrews 5.7 says that Jesus offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears.

In any religion the priest or priestess is seen as a mediator. Someone who stands between people and God. Who represents God to people and people to God.

The church is God’s representative on earth. The church is to bring the needs of the world to God in prayer. And to bring the God’s love to the world through evangelism and acts of service.

Finally, priests offer worship to God.

Hebrews 13.15 says “Let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that confess His name.”

The church is not only a praying community. God intends it to be a worshipping community.

God has placed His church in the world to represent His ways and to care for the people of the world. The teaching of the church as a priesthood captures this truth in a way that none of the other images of the church do. Perhaps it’s time we reconnected with our inner priest.