•••by Clarke Dixon
Christianity, and religion itself, is often seen to be something helpful. So, for example, it can provide a crutch for those moments you may feel weak. It can provide a belief system for those moments that you need to know there is more to life than what you can see. It can be something you pay attention to for a few moments in a day for the sake of your spiritual health, kind of like an exercise program for your soul. It can provide a good dose of morality for your day.
All these things are helpful, but they all have something in common: they relegate Christianity to the sidelines of your life. They make Christianity something that you can put on the back burner until the time comes you might have need of it. Worse, they turn Christianity into something optional, so that if your spiritual and religious needs are met some other way, then okay, leave church attendance and Jesus following for those who are into that kind of thing. Easter Sunday explodes the myth that Christianity is a religion that can exist on the sidelines of our lives. How so?
It is often claimed that the early Christians invented a religion that had not too much to do with the actual historical Jesus. However, in our recent sermon series we have been looking at how the writers of the four Gospels were either eyewitnesses themselves (Matthew, John) or were very intimately connected with eyewitnesses of the events and key Person they describe (Mark, Luke). Additionally the Gospels were written not long after the events described, indeed early enough that what was written could be checked against what eyewitnesses were saying. Now let us venture beyond the Gospels to consider something that was written even earlier by Paul. In fact many Biblical scholars conclude that Paul was quoting an oral tradition that went back even earlier, possibly a baptismal affirmation. I have highlighted the possible “confessional”:
Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. 3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and 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 brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1st Corinthians 15:2-8 emphasis mine)
The earliest traditions about Jesus were not about his being a good teacher, with later traditions adding in the supernatural bits. The earliest traditions point to the supernatural, in fact they speak of the resurrection of Jesus. As Paul points out to the Christians he is writing to in Corinth, most of those who had seen Jesus following his death and resurrection were still alive – so you can still check the story out with them.
It is fascinating also, that Paul does not mention that Jesus first revealed Himself to the women by the empty tomb. The fact that women were the first eyewitnesses is somewhat embarrassing to the still very patriarchal society of that day. In that time and place if you wanted to invent a religion based on a fabricated resurrection, you would not call upon women to be the first witnesses. Nor would you call upon Mark and Luke to write Gospels. These things speak to the genuine nature of the eyewitness testimony.
These eyewitnesses of the Risen Jesus were not going about trying to start a new religion. They were going about telling everyone about all they had seen. They were not fabricating Jesus, they were responding to Him. They responded with repentance. They responded with prayer and lots of it. They responded with reading the scriptures they had at that time, what we call the Old Testament, with their eyes open to seeing Jesus in them. They responded with sharing the Good News of all that had happened and with all that God was doing and had promised to yet do. Christianity from the get go was not a new religion, but a response to the Person of Jesus the Messiah. It was not a thing to practice, but a Person to know. The earliest Christians were not aware of “taking up religion,” but they were very aware of taking up a cross to follow Jesus. They responded to the evidence of God’s love with love. Christianity was not something “helpful” for them, it was something real and true.
On Easter Sunday we celebrated a baptism in our church. In Baptist circles, baptism is a profession of faith. In baptism one is not saying “I am taking up religion,” or “I am joining this church or that denomination.” Neither is one saying “I am perfect.” Baptism shows the desire, not to take up religion, but to take up a cross and follow Jesus who died and rose again in a very real display of God’s love.
Religion is something that can be put on the back burner. Perhaps many should be taking their religion off the back burner and putting it where I put all the meals I have burned over the years, the garbage bin. Jesus is someOne who died and rose again. He cannot be sidelined. He belongs neither on the back burner nor in the bin. Jesus belongs at the center of our lives. Easter Sunday confirms that fact. And as the early Christians showed by moving their worship from the Sabbath, Saturday, to the day Jesus rose from the dead, every Sunday is Easter Sunday.
Read more from Clarke at Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon