Today is the last sermon in our Living the Resurrection series and my prayer is that this series has been a blessing to you and helped you to grow in knowing what a wonderful gift our heavenly Father gave us when he raised his Son Jesus Christ from the dead. Next Sunday, we are going to begin a new series called Resilience. The Big Idea behind that series is that all of us face challenges as we grow through life, but Jesus can help us to be more resilient as we go through those challenges. So I hope that you will join us for that series. Today, let’s continue our reflections on living the resurrection.
Tomorrow the NHL playoffs begin and the stakes now get significantly higher for each of the sixteen teams that have made the cut. One thing that has struck me though as I have watched playoff games in past years is the demeanor of the head coach. Many of them are grim-faced, even when their team is ahead in the score. While I am not an expert in coaching, I think that the reason this happens is because the head coach knows that he has a more important job to do than watching the scoreboard. He has to keep reminding the team of their identity, keep calling them back to doing the little things well. In a book he wrote, Bill Walsh, a coaching legend in the NFL, shared his insight about the insignificance of the scoreboard. Some of you may know that he led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl championships and mentored many of his assistants to also become successful coaches.
He wrote, There is no guarantee, no ultimate formula for success. It all comes down to intelligently and relentlessly seeking solutions that will increase your chance of prevailing. Consistent effort is a consistent challenge. When you meet the challenge, the score will take care of itself.”
Now, let’s apply this to our own lives. You or I may not be a professional football player, but we all tend to keep score about something that is important to us. What are the things that you use to keep score in life? Is it the praise you get from others, the rewards you get from work, or the power you wield over others? Is it the “likes” you get on social media, the friends who want to be around you, or the check marks you make on your to-do list? Whether we are conscious of it or not, all of us are using something to keep score.
But what if we have it all wrong? What if we are making a mistake, not only using the wrong kind of scoreboard, but even in keeping score itself? What if keeping score is missing the whole point of life? And who will call our attention back to what the whole point of life is? That is what we are going to be thinking about today as we dig into God’s Word.
The Miraculous Results of Following Jesus
Let’s begin by reviewing the importance of Jesus. Our guide will be Jesus’ words recorded for us in John 5:24, where he says, Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24) Jesus is telling us that what makes all the difference for us and others, for now and forever, is to hear his words and believe our Father in heaven who sent him. In other words, it’s faith that is the defining factor, simple, child-like trust, in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That is what changes everything for us.
We Will Not be Judged
And what are the results of having faith in God? First, Jesus tells us that we will not be judged. Note that the verb “to be” here is in the future tense. Jesus is telling us that at the end of time, when everyone is raised from the dead and judged according to what we have done in this life, we will not be judged. And this is true, even though we deserve to be judged.
In the first part of Romans 6:23, we read, For the wages of sin is death… (Romans 6:23a) Because all of us fall woefully short when measured against God’s standard of perfection, we deserve to be judged and condemned. We deserve to die. However, because he loves us, God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, into the world to live a perfect human life that counts as goodness for all humanity, and to suffer and die on a wooden cross to pay the full cost of forgiveness for all sins of all people throughout the world for all time. The second part of Romans 6:23 tells us, …but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23b) Jesus’ resurrection proves that this is true. Though Jesus bore the sins of all humanity on the cross, the debt incurred by all that sin has been paid for in full by Jesus. Death no longer had any claim on him, so Jesus rose from the dead and walked through the stone walls of his cold, dark tomb to declare victory over sin, death and the devil.
When we believe in Jesus, we are in him, and he is in us. There is a Mystical Union that connects us. Because of that connection, that Mystical Union, all the victories that Jesus has won now apply to us as well. Let me give you an example of how that works. First of all, I need to ask, how many of you know someone from Saskatchewan? I think that the two greatest exports from the province of Saskatchewan are wheat, and people from Saskatchewan. And people from Saskatchewan tend to be very strong supporters of their CFL football team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders. They believe in their team. And this belief does not diminish over time or with great distance. I know people that have not lived in the province of Saskatchewan for 40 years and yet they are still part of what is called the Rider Nation, an army of dedicated Saskatchewan Roughrider fans that is spread all over the world. One time I was at an NFL game in Seattle and saw two guys wearing Saskatchewan Roughrider jerseys… and the Roughriders don’t even play in the NFL. No matter where they live in the world, anyone who is in the Rider Nation, shares in the victories of the team, even though they are not the ones playing the game. The team is doing it for them.
In a similar way, everyone who believes in Jesus Christ is in him and shares in the victories he won, even though we weren’t the ones earning that victory. Jesus did it for us. You could say we are part of the Jesus Nation.
We Have Passed from Death to Life
The second result that happens when we believe in Jesus is that we have passed from death to life. Note that the verb in this phrase is in the past tense. It has already happened. We passed from death to life in the moment that we first believed because we were given new life by Jesus. Jesus has already gone through death, and because we are in him, we have already gone through death too. Jesus has carried us safely through the process of death and raised us up to live a new life with him right now. Yes, we live that new life now in mortal bodies that will grow old and die. But one day, we will live that new life in a resurrected body that will never grow old, never get sick, and never die. Living the resurrection means living before God and humanity the new life that the risen Jesus has already given us.
Living the resurrection is very good, but it is not easy. That is because, even though we really do have new life from Jesus, and even though that new person in Jesus is who we really are, our broken human nature will cling to us until the day we die. Throughout this life, there is a part of us that is still in the grip of death, and that deadness lurks around and tries to trip us up whenever it can. Therefore, we need to know something about the nature of death so that we can be intentional about combating it and living more fully in the new life we have from Jesus.
Let me explain what that battle is like. Before I moved to BC, I was a fan of the Calgary Flames hockey team. It has taken me years to transition from cheering for the Flames to becoming a fan of the Vancouver Canucks. But I must continually fight against my old Flame-ish ways so that I can grow in my new life as a Canuck fan. And I need to tell you, now that the Flames make the playoffs and the Canucks didn’t, I am in grave danger of backsliding into my old life during the upcoming playoffs.
Jesus Reverses Spiritual Death
As we look at what the Bible says about death, the first thing that we notice is that it says something that may seem strange. The Bible tells us that, without faith in Jesus, people are dead, even though they are physically alive. How can this be? That’s because it is talking about spiritual death, a death that is more important than physical death because it impacts our entire being now and our eternal destiny going forward.
We should note that spiritual death has three different aspects to it. This is significant because working against death in the ways that it tries to control us requires us to take action in each of these three aspects, or directions. Some of you might remember the triangle from the LifeShapes series we did a couple of years ago. Well, that same triangle can be used to describe what happens with spiritual death and spiritual life.
First, and most importantly, spiritual death cuts us off from our “up” relationship with our Creator who is the source of all life. We can never be truly alive without a relationship with God. We are also dead in our interior world, which is our “in”relationship. Without God enlightening us, we don’t even know who we are, or how we function or what motivates us. We try to apply remedies to the wounds in our soul and the hunger in our heart, but without knowing who we really are, we can never get it right. We also experience death in our “out” relationships with those around us. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have positive relationships, but because God is not involved in those pre-Jesus relationships, those relationships cannot support us in being the person that God knows we can be.
The spiritual death in our “up” relationship is reversed the moment we believe in Jesus because he is the One who reconciles us to God. In Jesus, we have a loving relationship with the living God. The death we experience in our “in” and “out” relationships will take time to heal. It is a task that we will never fully complete in this life. But we keep struggling against the remnants of death in our lives because we want to more fully live for Jesus. And Jesus brings healing to our lives through the interconnection of our up, out and in relationships. As we spend time with Jesus in our Up relationship, he gives us healing and hope to faithfully engage with our Out relationships. And it is often in the context of our Out relationships that Jesus heals our inner being. We all need a community of faith-filled friends to support us and help us heal.
Jesus Transforms Us Through Resurrection Friends
Perhaps then, it should come as no surprise to us that, in nearly all of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, he appears to groups of people who are then transformed by him into becoming resurrection friends. Let’s turn now to John 20:19-31. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now. In his account of that first Easter Sunday, John tells us, On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders,… (John 20:19a) Here we see that Jesus’ followers are paralyzed and isolated by fear, which could be described as a type of death. Continuing on, we read, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. (John 20:19b-20)
Did you notice the change that came over the disciples’ lives when the risen Jesus appeared to them? They passed from death (by fear) to life (with joy). And Jesus not only gave his followers new life, he also gave them new purpose. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:21-23) Jesus’ followers were appointed by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be Jesus’ representatives in this world, and that is still true today.
Thomas, who was not present when the risen Jesus appeared, remained untouched by his resurrection. In fact, he was resistant and highly skeptical. When the other disciples told Thomas that they had seen the risen Jesus, Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. (John 20:25-26) Note that Thomas’ resurrection friends loved, accepted and included Thomas even though he did not believe, and that would make an eternal difference in Thomas’s life.
Continuing on, we read, Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” (John 20:26-27)
Imagine for a moment that you are Thomas. You had adamantly refused to believe that Jesus had actually risen from the dead and demanded convincing proof. Now, in this moment, the risen Jesus was standing right before you and offering the proof that you demanded, along with the command, “Stop doubting and believe.” What emotions would you be feeling? Shock, shame and humiliation perhaps, along with amazement, wonder and joy? It was like that process that Jesus does which we looked at two Sundays ago: Jesus took Thomas, blessed him, broke him, and then gave him back to himself. But Thomas was not the same. Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
Christian tradition tells us that Thomas traveled to India and proclaimed the Good News of Jesus there. Today, there are nearly 28 million Christians in India, and the largest population of Christians is in the state of Kerala, which is the region where the once-skeptical Thomas established churches and boldly proclaimed the Gospel, even though it eventually led to his martyrdom. Centuries later, on the other side of the world, we are blessed today to have people in our church, and I have someone in my family, whose ancestral home is in Kerala, and they are Christians because of Thomas, who was transformed because his resurrection friends created a loving environment where he could meet the risen Jesus.
We All Need a Company of Resurrection Friends
Dear friends, all of us need a company of resurrection friends. It is in the midst of such a company that each of us is washed by Jesus in the waters of Holy Baptism. There Jesus unites us with him in his death and resurrection, washes us clean of all our sin, and gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit. Our new life with Jesus begins in that moment. But then what? How do we carry on? How do we keep growing in the abundant life that Jesus gives us? How do we keep fighting our old dead nature that keeps trying to overtake us? We need resurrection friends to do that.
To people untouched by Jesus’ resurrection, we are one of 8 billion people on this planet, each one a random combination of water and minerals that will soon return to the nothingness from which we came. Only people who have been touched by Jesus’ resurrection themselves will know that the truth about you is much bigger than that. Because their eyes of faith have seen the wounds of the risen Jesus, they knew two things to be true. Jesus was crucified, and Jesus has risen, and that makes all the difference for the entire cosmos for all eternity. With the lived experience they have of new life with Jesus, they can come around you and support and encourage you, creating a loving environment where you can meet and be encouraged by the risen Jesus yourself.
But they can also do more. One important part of Holy Baptism that we often gloss over is the christening, or the naming, of the person being baptized. Perhaps we think it is redundant because that person has already been named days, months or years before. But in the sacred act of Holy Baptism, a person’s name takes on new meaning. On August 31, 1959, I transitioned from being James Robert Paulgaard, the colicky, quirky son of Purvis and Dawn Paulgaard, to being James Robert Paulgaard, beloved, forgiven child of God. Only our resurrection friends know our name as God does, (and our parents, siblings and church family can be included in our resurrection friends), only our resurrection friends love us when we are sinners and encourage us when we are saints, only our resurrection friends know the path toward the redemption and renewal that God has placed us on, only our resurrection friends can call us by our true name because only they know our true identity before God.
The challenge that I want to leave with you today is this: First, identify your resurrection friends. Make a list in your head of the people who really know you as God does and love like God does. If you can’t come up with any names, then start looking for people who could be your resurrection friends and build a relationship with them. Second, be a resurrection friend to others. You need the people around you, and you are needed by the people around you. And Jesus can help you to grow together. Amen.
(This sermon is based on the book Living the Resurrection by Eugene Peterson. This sermon was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on May 1, 2022. For more info, please go to wglc.org.)