Saturday, April 4, 2015

An Easter Sermon from THE TESTIMONIUM

In the first chapter of THE TESTIMONIUM, I took a sermon that I have preached many times in many churches, and had Joshua Parker's father deliver it for Easter.  This is the scene that introduces my main character, Josh, and explains the origins of the faith that sustains him throughout the many trials that he would endure during my story.  I post it tonight, the night before Easter, because it is especially timely now:

Dr. Joshua Parker folded his long legs under him and settled into the pew after the last song ended.  He picked up his well-worn New American Standard Bible and smiled as his father, Benjamin Parker, walked up to the pulpit.  “Brother Ben,” as Baptists in a tri-state area referred to his father, was a towering man in his early seventies with a deep booming voice and an accent that had never left the Ozark ridges where he had been born at the end of the Great Depression.  It was Easter Sunday, and Josh smiled at the thought that Dad’s new church was about to hear his signature sermon for the very first time.  This message lay at the core of everything his father had believed and taught over a ministry that stretched nearly fifty years.  Josh had heard the sermon many times growing up, and every year his father polished it a bit, updating the pop culture references to fit his current congregation before he let them have it on Easter Sunday.

          “This morning I want to talk to you about one of my favorite passages of Scripture,” he began.  “But it isn’t because it is my favorite that I want to tell you about it.  It’s because I consider it to be the MOST important passage in all the New Testament – arguably the most important passage in all of Scripture.”  As Brother Ben’s golden tones resonated throughout the crowded auditorium, the audience shifted its attention slightly.  Some leaned forward; others redirected their gaze from the people around them to the tall figure in the pulpit.  Obviously the new pastor, whom they had already come to respect and admire, had something important to say.

           Casting his piercing gaze around the room, Parker smiled, then lowered his eyes to the large print Bible before him – although he could quote this passage from memory, Josh knew he preferred to read verbatim: “From the Book of First Corinthians, Chapter Fifteen, beginning in Verse One:  Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand,   by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.   For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,   and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,   and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.   After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep;  then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles;  and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.   For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

          Looking up, he posed a question: “Why is this so important? Simple.  It is, first of all, the earliest written account we have of those who actually saw the Risen Christ.  Most scholars think the crucifixion was in 33 AD.  Paul wrote these lines in 54 AD – twenty-one years later, and about ten years before Matthew, Mark, and Luke began composing their gospels.  Obviously, he placed great weight on these words, because he described them “as of first importance.” This simple account of the Resurrection was foundational to everything Paul taught the churches throughout his ministry.  Now let me draw your attention to an odd phrase here: “I delivered to you . . . what I also received.”  What does Paul mean?  Well, when rabbis used that phrase, it was to indicate that the teaching they were about to impart was something they themselves had been taught earlier.  The list of witnesses that followed is arranged in simple Greek verse form so it could be easily memorized. This wasn’t just a random bit of trivia that someone taught to Paul: it appears to be one of the very first catechisms composed by the early church.  So when would Paul have learned these lines about how many people witnessed the Resurrection?  What opportunity did he have to meet the disciples who were there in Jerusalem that first Easter morning?  The answer can be found in Paul’s first letter, which we call The Book of Galatians, written about 48 AD.  In his account of his conversion, Paul explains: “Three years later” – that is, after his conversion on the Damascus road – “I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days.”  Now of course, Cephas is the Greek form of Simon Peter.  What makes this so critical?  The timing, my friends.  Paul was converted only a few years – maybe two or three at most – after the Crucifixion.  And three years after that, he is in Jerusalem, visiting Simon Peter.  That would place this visit about five or six years after Jesus was crucified.  Nearly all the eyewitnesses were still alive at this point! And not just the friendly eyewitnesses either.  The men who crucified Jesus were still present, and most of them still in power.  The members of the angry mob that arrested him were still around, as would have been some of the soldiers who guarded the tomb.”

          Parker paused, gathering steam.  From his pew, Josh watched with interest.  His dad had them now.  Every eye in the place was on the pulpit.  This was not just another tame old Easter sermon, this was thought provoking stuff!  The elder Parker continued: “Now, we have grown up in the church, most of us.  We have had the Easter story recited to us every year since we were toddlers.  And most of us have never questioned it. So the incredible import of what Paul is telling us here is easy to miss!  Let me put it to you this way: suppose that, around the summer of 1969 or 1970, I showed up in Dealey Plaza down in Dallas and climbed up on a soapbox and began to talk about what had happened there just six years earlier.  Suppose I said: “Yes, my friends, it was right here that President Kennedy’s motorcade passed through town.  And three shots rang out, one of which pierced his brain and took his life.  And he was buried in a lavish tomb in Arlington National Cemetery that Monday, as all the world looked on.  Then, three days later, he rose from the dead, and he appeared – first to Bobby, then to the Cabinet.  After that he appeared to LBJ, alone, then to the cabinet again, and then to over 500 witnesses at the same time – most of whom are still alive today!  Last of all, I saw him myself, right on I-30 between here and Texarkana!  How do you think THAT would go over?” he thundered.

          The audience was trying to process this.  Some of the younger ones laughed out loud, while many older ones scowled at the pastor, wondering what he was getting at.  Josh, who had heard this illustration many times before, was nonetheless moved by it all over again.  His father’s voice crackled across the assembly: “They’d start measuring me for a rubber room, wouldn’t they? Because they understood a fundamental truth in Dallas in 1970, just the same as they understood it in Jerusalem in 40 AD – dead people STAY dead!” 

Now they got it.  Many in the audience began to nod; others looked stunned as they processed what they were being told.  The church was absolutely silent.  Josh saw that his father’s words had made a visible impact on them.  As his father read the next passage from Corinthians Josh began to reflect about the many churches that had heard this message before.  Josh had been born in 1980, while his father was pastoring in Denton, Texas.  His earliest memories were of scorching hot summers and mild winters, of church fellowships and youth rallies, and of the fascination with the past that his father had shared with him.  They had scoured creek beds for fossilized shark’s teeth and arrowheads, and read and discussed biographies of presidents and kings long dead. They had gone to see every traveling exhibit of ancient artifacts from foreign cultures that came through the museums in nearby Dallas.  When he was ten, his father had been called to a church in Spiro, Oklahoma, and Josh had listened with wonder to old timers talk about the amazing Indian mounds that had stood there before treasure hunters looted them during the Depression.  One time, an elderly archeologist who had been there in those days had come to town and described how the central burial mound at Spiro contained a vaulted chamber with a ten foot ceiling, stacked high with rare and perishable artifacts never seen in any American site: feather capes still perfectly preserved, shell gorgets, wooden burial masks plated in copper, and thousands of turquoise beads.  It was at that lecture that young Josh had made up his mind to become an archeologist – to discover and excavate ancient treasures, to see them properly written up and curated, preserved so that future generations could gaze at them.  As he grew older, Josh became disgusted with the state of American archeology – politics had forced the science to pander shamelessly to Native American demands, so that beautiful and scientifically valuable relics were required by law to be put back into the ground, never to be seen again by anyone.  He then decided that, while his love of archeology was unchanged, his focus was not going to be the flint chips and pottery shards the Native Americans had left behind.  His faith was drawing him towards the Middle East, to the place where Christianity had been born, where traces of its origins could still be found today, proving that the Biblical record was more than just myth and legend.  Josh believed that Christianity was rooted in real, irrefutable history.  So he got his degree and then his doctorate in Biblical archeology, and participated in excavations at Qumran, Capernaum, and most recently at Ephesus, where he had helped discover the remains of a fourth century church built on the reputed burial place of the Apostle John.  Now he was home on a brief sabbatical before returning to Ephesus, to finish cataloguing and publishing his finds there.

          His father was reading the final passage of the day as he returned his attention to the sermon:  “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.   Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.   If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.”

          Brother Ben looked slowly around the room. “I put it to you today, my friends, that Paul got it absolutely right.  The world has been doing its best to put Jesus back in that tomb for two thousand years because they understand what many Christians forget: that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, our faith is based on a lie. Our belief is not in a risen Savior, but a desiccated corpse.   If Jesus did not rise from the dead on the third day, we might as well tear down the church and build a bowling alley, for all the good we are doing anyone!”  He paused for the last time. “But that isn’t the case, is it?  We serve a living, risen Lord!  And because He was powerful enough to conquer the grave two thousand years ago, He is powerful enough to handle whatever you are struggling with today!  He holds out His hand to you this morning, offering to take your burden, to forgive your sin, to cleanse your life, and to make you a new creature!  All you have to do – is TAKE IT!”

          The organ swelled, and the choir began singing the old hymn: “I serve a risen Savior;  He’s in the world today.  I know that He is living, whatever men may say!”  The congregation rose and sang along, and Josh joined them, his clear baritone ringing from the rafters.

1 comment:

  1. Indy, that is the BEST "in-a- nutshell" sermon on the Christian faith I've heard in a while!