How Easter Explodes a Religious Myth

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 centre 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.

Jesus, Some Greeks, and Your Agenda

As Jesus enters Jerusalem he is faced by many people who want much from him. There are the crowds shouting 

Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
the King of Israel (John 12:13 )

They were waving palm branches, often a symbol of victory in ancient times, but in the hands of Jews living in a land occupied by the Romans, a symbol of a coming victory, and therefore symbol of rebellion. That is what they want and expect from this miracle working Jesus, the leading of a rebellion to kick the Romans out.

The Pharisees also want something from Jesus:

The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.’” (John 12:19)

They already do not like Jesus for his blasphemous teachings and religiously incorrect acts. Now they are worried that things will become too exciting and the Romans will come and shut the city down. They want Jesus to disappear, or at least be quiet. If only he would just teach some nice things and do some nice miracles, at the proper times of course, so not on the Sabbath, then everything will be okay. How some things never change as many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, would prefer a quiet unoffending Jesus.

Then there are the Greeks who come to see Jesus:

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus. 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. (John 12:20-22)

What do they want from Jesus apart from the opportunity to meet him? We don’t know, we are not told. And we do not hear about the Greeks ever again. They almost seem to stick out in John 12 like sore thumbs, as if they have nothing to do with Jesus entering into Jerusalem on His way to the cross. Indeed it once bothered me that Jesus “answered” Andrew and Phillip but then seemed to go on teaching without really responding to the Greeks at all. That was my misunderstanding. As we read on we do find out what Jesus wants Phillip and Andrew to tell the inquisitive Greeks. In fact, while the crowds and the Pharisees are looking to get something from Jesus, in responding to the Greeks Jesus makes known what God wants for them, and from them.  Let us see what he has to say;

“Jesus answered them [Phillip and Andrew], ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’” (John 12:23 )

In referring to himself as the “Son of Man” Jesus is taking us back to Daniel 7 where Daniel has a vision of four beasts, each representing an empire marked by inhumane leadership. But then,

13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14 NIV italics mine)

In this vision the oppressive kingdoms of the world are replaced by the good and Godly Kingdom of the Son of Man. The Good News coming through Israel and through this one Jew, Jesus, is Good News for all the world. Tell the Greeks that. This is a blessing the Lord has in store for them.

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)

Jesus is about to declare that he will be killed. His death will bear much fruit, it will bring many blessings worldwide. Tell the Greeks that. Through his death Jesus will bear much fruit, so much in fact that all the world will be invited to eat of it.

Whoever serves me, the Father will honour (John 12:26 )

The “whoever” is very important here. It is not “God’s set-apart people, the Jews who serve me,” it is not “people from a certain ethnic and/or religious background who serve me.” It is “whoever serves me, the Father will honour.” Tell the Greeks that. The opportunity is coming for them to know the blessing of being honoured by God.

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. (John 12:31)

We normally think of judgement in negative terms, but the judgement of the oppressors of the world and the driving out of Satan, the current ruler of this world, is a good thing for all the world. Tell the Greeks that. Jesus has come not to rid Jerusalem of Romans, but to rid all the the world of evil.

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (John 12:32-33)

Death by crucifixion was in view here and we therefore have an admission by Jesus that the Romans, the very people the crowds are hoping Jesus will kick out of the land, will see to it that he dies. The startling bit is that having been killed Jesus “will draw all people” to Himself. Yes, all people, even the Romans who crucified him. Yes, all people, even the Jewish religious leaders who led him to Pilate.  Yes, all people, even the crowds who misunderstood him. Yes, all people, including the Greeks who were asking to see him. Tell the Greeks that. Let them know God has a plan of salvation for them. Jesus has entered into Jerusalem so that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News of God’s love, can go out to all the world.

These are the things that God wants for the Greeks. These are the things God wants for you.

But Jesus also speaks about what God wants from the Greeks:

24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour. (John 12:24-26)

Dying to self. Bearing fruit. Changed priorities. Serving and following Jesus. Tell the Greeks these are the things God is wanting from them. Don’t tell them to become observant Jews. Tell them to centre their lives on Jesus. That is what God wants from them. That is what God wants from you.

As Jesus enters Jerusalem there are a lot of people wanting a lot of things from him. We often talk about Jesus entering into our hearts. Perhaps we do the same thing as the crowds, saying something like “Now that you are here, let me tell you what I want.” What if we were the Greeks in John chapter 12? Do we come to Jesus with an agenda, with a list of what we want? Or do we come with a blank sheet and pen in hand ready and waiting to hear what God wants for us, and what God wants from us?

(All scriptures are taken from the NRSV unless otherwise stated)

The Gospel of John and the Religion Salesman

How do we know that John, the writer of the Gospel of John, is not a “religion salesman?” People in sales have a very important function but we all have experience of someone who has tried very hard to sell us something we do not need, or something that does not even work. How do we know that John isn’t that kind of salesman? How do we know he is not trying to sell us on some new fabricated-from-thin-air religion? After all, there is a plethora of books and blogs written by “Jesus experts” who would tell us that indeed Christianity and the Jesus of Christianity is a human invention.

John’s sales pitch starts early. The Gospel of John begins with what is probably the most startling introduction in all of literature:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-4,14)

The startling nature of these verses may be lost on the Christian reader who has come to love these words and the Lord they point to. But imagine you are one of the early readers of this book, you have heard something about Jesus and have picked up John’s Gospel in order to be introduced more fully to him. John tells us that you start, not with the birth of Jesus, but long before, in fact before Creation. Right from the get go you may well find all this to be blasphemous if you are Jewish, or utter foolishness if you are not. As you read John’s Gospel the claims John makes about Jesus, what he said and did, do not get any less extraordinary. There is no doubt that John is seeking to introduce us to someone who is extraordinary. In fact he is introducing us to God the Son who is risen from the dead. But why should we buy it? Why should we believe John? How do we know he is genuine in his testimony about Jesus and not some religion salesman selling a bogus product?

Those of us who are Christian will appeal to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of Scripture. God is not going to reveal Himself in Jesus to one generation only for the memory of Jesus to be distorted for the generations to come. But even those of us who are not Christian have good reason to weigh carefully the words of John before trashing him as a mere salesman of religion. Take, for example, these words of John:

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

There is so much theology presented in this verse that we often fail to notice a simple truth: “we have seen his glory.” We, as in, “I, John, have seen personally and am an eyewitness to the things I am writing,” and we, as in, “I am not the only one, there are other eyewitnesses that you can check what I am saying with.” This is eyewitness testimony. Further, the final words of the book:

20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them . . . This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:20-25)

These reinforce that the writer was someone who was right in the middle of the life and ministry of Jesus, someone seeing and hearing all that is going on, someone who was close to Jesus. This friend of Jesus is identified in early Christian records as being John the apostle, the same John that wrote the following:

1 We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3 we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)

While the Christian can appeal to the work of the Holy Spirit, both in the writing and the reading of Scripture, we can also appeal to historical documents. The Biblical Gospels were not written long after the events they describe by people far from them in time and place as many people erroneously believe. Two of them were written by men who rubbed shoulders constantly with eyewitnesses, Mark being a companion to Peter, and Luke often being a companion of, and mixing in many of the same circles as, Paul. The other two Gospels were written by eyewitnesses themselves, Matthew Levi the tax collector, and John the “beloved disciple.” Though taking different perspectives and emphasizing different things, all four agree as to who Jesus is. But did these men make up a new religion to sell to anyone who would hear?

It has been said (I think by J. Warner Wallace?) that people who tell lies, who engage in fraudulent activity, are doing so in order to get a) money, b) sex, or c) power. The Gospel writers were not getting rich, but getting into danger. Being Christ followers the Gospel writers would have kept to the strict sexual ethics they record Jesus as affirming, so sex would not be a motivating factor. As for power, persecution was more the norm. These were men willing to die for the truth of what they were sharing about Jesus. These men were willing to pick up a cross and follow. No salesman trying to sell a product he knows is bogus will do that.

Who would you rather listen to? The “Jesus experts” of our day, the people who 2000 years after the events would like you to buy their books? Or John, who was right in the middle of the events he relates, who was an intimate friend of Jesus whom he describes, who devoted his life and was willing to give his life for the truth he was sharing? Who is the religion salesman here really?

What do the people trying to sell you books want you to know about Jesus? All manner of quite diverse theories, but what they hold in common is that you do not need to care about Jesus. What does John want you to know about Jesus? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) John wants you to know that Jesus cares about you.

(All references are taken from the NRSV. All emphasis are mine)