April 20th, 2014

Sometimes we have to see to believe.

Matthew 28:1-10

April 20, 2014

Brother Ron from Pakistan

Next Sunday will be our 18th consecutive Holy Humor Sunday, which we observe to celebrate God’s last laugh on the devil when he raised Jesus from the dead.  None was as memorable as the year I started the service with the beard intact I had worn for 30 years, slipped out and shaved it during the service, and reappeared in different clothing with my hair slicked back and a clean-shaven face bronzed with makeup to look like I was from South Asia.

Most people in our congregation know I spent my early years in Pakistan with my missionary parents and four siblings.  So in my best Pakistani-English accent (and my best isn’t all that great after 45 years away), I told the congregation,

Salaam-walekum.  I’m Pastor Thompson’s twin brother from Pakistan.  You may wonder why he has not spoken of me before.  When the family left Pakistan in 1968, there was mother, father, and six children.  But they had money only to buy seven tickets on the plane.  So they said, since Robert and Ronald are twins, if we leave Ronald behind, the family will still be complete.  Sort of like having two identical watches, you know.  You don’t need both if they are the same.

The sermon that day was on Doubting Thomas, and I tried to convince the congregation to “stop doubting and believe” that the person standing in front of them really was my long-lost twin brother who had remained in Pakistan all those years.  By the way, next week for Holy Humor Sunday, Brother Ron from Pakistan is going to return.  He wants to tell you more of his story.

I bring him up for a different reason today, though.  What I remember that day after the service was not so much the conversation about whether I really have a twin brother who remained in Pakistan.  What I remember was that people didn’t believe the guy with the shaved face was really Pastor Bob.  My daughters, who knew what was going to happen and participated in the service, thought I had pulled one over on them and brought in their Uncle Jim from Chicago.  I was still using that fake Pakistani accent after the service and one person said, “You’re going to have to talk normally or I’m not going to believe you’re Bob.”  People who missed the service and heard about it made a special trip to the church to see for themselves that I had really shaved the beard. Sometimes we have to see to believe.

In Matthew 28, an angel met two Marys who had come to grieve Jesus’ death and invited them inside the tomb.  He said, “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.” Then he added, “Come and see.” Pastor Bill said this week, “This is a sermon where you have to paint a picture.”  This is a sermon for your eyes.  Come and see.

My discipline during Lent this year was two hours of silence each week.  Let go of the to-do list.  No laptop.  No TV.  No cell phone.  No napping.  Not even a Bible, because for me, that often gets me “working” again – thinking about the next sermon.  I just wanted to rest, think, pray, and listen.  Most of the time I was outdoors or in an environment where there was little visual stimulation.  One of those hours I spent in here, into the sanctuary.  I soon found that my senses, especially the visual, were simulated wildly.  So much so, in fact, that I started to wonder if that hour should “count” as my hour of silence.  Then I realized in “listening” the Spirit was giving me my Easter sermon.

Every time you enter this place, you are invited to “come and see,” specifically to come and see visual evidence and reminders of the resurrection.  Let me show you what I mean.  We will focus mostly on the front stained glass window.

The garden scene

The most obvious place to “come and see” the resurrection is front and center in this sanctuary (see end of sermon manuscript).  The window depicts Jesus emerging from the tomb.  Had I designed the window, I’m not sure I would put a halo around him or dressed him in bright red or given him a cross-shaped staff.  I do sort of like the “parade wave” with his left hand.  “Hey world, I’m back!”

Below Jesus’ feet, to his right and to his left, are the two Roman soldiers, in a deep sleep.  This part of the Easter story is unique to Matthew among the four gospels.  None of the others mention soldiers at the tomb.  This is evidence that the resurrection really happened.  Let me explain what I mean.

This is not the only difference among the accounts.  Matthew begins by speaking of “dawn on the first day of the week” (1).    John says Mary Magdalene came while it was still dark.  Mark specifically says the sun had already risen.

Matthew 28:1 mentions two women who came to the tomb that Sunday morning – Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” (probably the same Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, who had anointed Jesus’ feet).  Mark names a third who came with them: Salome.  John names only one – Mary Magdalene – and records a conversation between Jesus and her that is omitted by the other three gospels.

Only Matthew records the “violent earthquake” on Easter Sunday morning in verse 2.  If it was that strong, why did Mark, Luke, and John not mention it?

Matthew speaks of “an angel of the Lord” (2) whose “appearance was like lightning , and his clothes were white as snow” (3).  Mark says it was “a young man,” and he was sitting inside the tomb.  Luke mentions “two men in dazzling apparel.”  John doesn’t mention any angels or young men at all.

And as I said, Matthew is also the only one to mention the soldiers.  He says at the end of chapter 27 they were placed there at the request of the chief priests and Pharisees who apparently took more seriously than Jesus’ own disciples his promise to rise from the dead after three days.  You would think the soldiers would have been disciplined or killed for falling asleep on such a critical mission, but instead the chief priests and the elders bribed them to say that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body.  But again, only Matthew records that story (11-15).

What do we do with these differing accounts?  We can, as some interpreters do, try to harmonize them and explain how each account could be true.  For example, if the women didn’t all arrive at the same time, then some got to the tomb before dark and some after.  Both account are true.  We can do the opposite, as some skeptics do, see these inconsistencies as evidence of fabrication.  They made it up, and they can’t get their facts straight.  I see them, as most Christians do, as evidence of what really happened that day – that Jesus rose from the dead.

If all the accounts read precisely the same way, we would say – and with good cause – the gospel writers collaborated.  If an attorney put four different witnesses on the stand to describe a highly unusual event, and they all recounted exactly the same sequence and quoted the same speeches word for word, we would see their detailed precision as evidence that they agreed in advance how to tell the story.  But if their personalities came through and their details differed but the core of the story remained the same, we would say, “These are independent witnesses to the same event, and the core of the story is intact.”  Each Gospel includes a stone rolled away, an empty tomb, and physical appearances of a human being these followers had seen die and be buried.

If you would like to investigate further the evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus, I recommend the newly published autobiography of Nabeel Qureshi, raised in a devout Muslim family by first generation immigrants from Pakistan.  Qureshi, at great personal cost, investigated thoroughly all his objections to Christianity, confessed his faith in Christ, and is now an evangelist with Ravi Zacharias ministries.  Another resource is J. Warner Wallace, who was a vocal atheist and cold case detective.  He applied his “cold case” methods and reasoning to the Bible’s claims about Jesus’ resurrection and concluded Jesus is alive.  Or just check in with our resident apologist, Chris Van Allsburg, who leads the Ratio Christi ministry at Lenoir Rhyne University.

The Life

It wasn’t just the obvious depiction of the resurrection that caught my eye that quiet hour, however.  This sanctuary is full of life.  What the angel says to the women in verses 5-7 is startling.  He begins, “Don’t be afraid.”  That’s a common instruction from heavenly visitors to people in the Bible.  The root word actually means flight.    I can picture when people saw angels their first instinct was to get away ASAP.  The angel says, “Don’t run.”

“I know you are looking for Jesus,” he adds.  “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.  Come and see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee.  There you will see him” (5-7, emphasis added).  The word “see” is more than just your senses.  It means to perceive, experience, discern.  But it starts with literally seeing.

The angel was inviting them to see life.  They had assumed that all they would see that day at the tomb was death. We sometimes forget this encounter took place in a garden.  This is one reason I wanted you to see the stained glass window up close.  The artists who created this image wanted you to see life – not just in Jesus, but all around him.  To Jesus’ right (our left) are what I assume are roses.  To his left is a vine.  Above his head and below are either ferns or some other kind of vegetation.  Below him is a little pool of water with lilies growing in it.  Our sanctuary stained glass includes other vegetation as well.  There is the messianic rose and the fleur-de-lis at the bottom of each window in the nave.  In the medallions at the top you’ll find grass on your right and an Easter lily on your left.  In the transept windows there are vines.  This sanctuary brings life to life when you look around.

That’s a peacock above Jesus’ head.  It’s a symbol of the resurrection because every time the peacock loses its feathers it grows a new batch that are even more brilliant.  There’s also a dove pictured in the front stained glass, and sheep in the back.

But it’s not the details I’m after.  It’s life.  Life is the handprint of God.  I realize I’m not much of a scientist, but if you’re interested in reading books about science and faith consider Lee Strobel’s The Case for a Creator or the writings of Gerald Schroeder, an Orthodox Jew with a degree from MIT.  Read Francis Collins’s The Language of God.  Collins started his journey of life as an agnostic, but his journey toward mapping the human genome project also drove him to believe in God and in the Bible.

Joe Condeelis, a member of our congregation, is a computer animator who often works on projects related to intelligent design.  My sermon manuscript includes a link to a fascinating animation Joe created on ATP Synthase, which is a “high tech micromolecular power generator inside your body.”  The proteins work just like a drive shaft and rotor in a mechanical engine.[1]

I’ve been out to Hawaii where our son lives, and I sort of get how over hundreds of millions of years the natural forces God put into play could form the Hawaiian Islands or even the Rockies and Himalayas and continents without direct divine intervention.  But for the life of me (pun intended), I cannot get my mind around the idea that the biological requirements for life or the development of species and especially of the human species could ever have come to be without a Creator.

Every blade of grass, every flower petal, every peacock feather, every newborn baby, every living cell is evidence for God.  Being in this place is an invitation to “come and see” life.  If God can create life, I see no reason he can’t breathe life into the body of Jesus on the third day.  “He has risen, just as he said.  Come and see.”


When the Holy Spirit invited me during that hour of quiet to “come and see” all the visual aids that point to Easter in this place, he wasn’t done.  There are far too many to point out or explain, including Greek initials that represent God and Jesus, stars and fountains and crowns.  But let me point your attention again to the front window.  To each side of Jesus, you see the twelve shields of the apostles, with symbols representing some aspect of their life from the Bible or Christian tradition.

  • Andrew.  The X-shaped cross represents how Andrew died.
  • James the Great.  The pilgrim hat and staff represent his missionary travels.
  • Peter.  Jesus gave him “the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”
  • Jude.  The clubs remind us he was beaten to death for his faith in Jesus.
  • Thomas.  A carpenter’s square represents his work building churches in India.
  • Paul.  He “fought the good fight” and died by the sword.
  • Philip.  He brought the little boy with five loaves and two fish to Jesus.
  • Bartholomew.  These are flaying knives.  He was skinned alive as a martyr.
  • Matthias.  Tradition says he was crucified in Ethiopia, then beheaded.
  • John.  The serpent in the chalice represents an attempted poisoning.
  • Simon.  His cross symbolizes missionary journeys.
  • James the Less.  The tradition is that when he was 96, he was thrown from the Temple Mount by the Pharisees.  Then his head was cut off with a saw.

They are among the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.  When the angel met the women on the morning of Jesus’ resurrection, they ran to find the disciples, filled with a mix of joy and fear only women can blend (8).  Men can only feel one thing at a time, you know – if that much.  Jesus met the women and said “What a happy day, y’all!”  The NIV says, “Greetings!” and it was a common greeting.  But literally this word is the plural form of a command to “Rejoice!”  I bet he threw that hand up in the parade wave.

They fell at his feet to worship him.  Jesus repeated what the angel had said, “Don’t run!  (Do not be afraid.)  Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (10).  Those women went and told the men.  The disciples then invested their lives spreading out to tell the world.  Many of them died not only martyr’s deaths but tortured deaths for bearing witness that they had seen the risen Christ.  If this whole day had been an illusion or a deception, would they have allowed themselves to be crucified or skinned alive or thrown off the temple mount?  Somebody would have squealed, “It isn’t true!  We made it up!”

I point out those shields not to leave the story at a bunch of dead guys.  They are witnesses.  Their witness passed from generation to generation.  They climbed mountains, crossed oceans, penetrated borders, and adjusted to new cultures until the gospel finally came to you.  They were witnesses, and now you are witnesses.  When we say, “Come and see” that Jesus is risen, the best evidence of all is you.  It is the church – not a building with stained glass but the living, breathing church of God.  The church has survived wars and plagues and ideologies and atheists.  A recent issue of Christianity Today notes that the legacy of 19th century Christian missionaries, sometimes considered by those outside the faith as racist, imperialist proselytizers, was actually a measurable increase of democracy, education, health, and economic growth.  The church of Jesus Christ continues to change the world two millennia after those first apostles fanned out across their known world with news of the risen Christ.

They tell us the number of active Christians and believers is dropping in America.  That’s happened before, and it will happen again, but there are still 2 billion-plus people in this world who name Jesus as their hope of eternal life.  Most of you in this room are among them.  Come and see…you!

Next week we will receive over 40 members into this church family.  One’s a single Mom who got married at age 16 to someone who abused her.  She knows how far her life has wandered from God, and she will be baptized because she’s come to know Jesus and wants a fresh start for herself and her children.  Four other new members will be baptized today or next week.  But even for those who are not being baptized, I keep hearing over and over the stories of God’s grace changing lives.  An immigrant from Kenya said she almost gave up and went home until Debrah Plasman and some other women met her at Panera, where she was working part-time.  The body of Christ at Corinth gave her hope – plus a couch, a bed, and a TV for her family.  Mental illness is a theme in this new members class – not that they are mentally ill, but they have grieved with family members and loved ones suffering from schizophrenia, depression, even committing suicide – and they have survived.  These individuals and families have survived divorce, cancer (even among their children), job loss, marital abuse, addictions, and cult entrapment.  One is a recovering agnostic.  They are spiritual survivors who have turned toward God and toward the church.  The risen Lord is still changing lives!

Body of Christ

But how can we declare our hope in a God of life when a Malaysian jetliner is lost on the sea floor, a dozen or more sherpas were buried under an avalanche, a boatload of South Korean teenagers died this week trapped in a ferry, and a young Dad we know has a 10-month-old to raise alone because his wife, who was healthy 10 days ago, caught the flu?  How can we believe in life when there is so much death?

There is one more powerful symbol of resurrection in this sanctuary.  It is the most common symbol by far.  It’s the cross.   It’s also the largest symbol in the room.  Do you know where the largest cross is in the sanctuary?  You’re sitting in it.  A Gothic sanctuary is constructed in the shape of a cross.

“Well,” you say, “the cross is not a symbol of life.  It’s a symbol of death.”  Listen, if that’s all there were to the cross, I would agree with you.  When you are looking for hope, you don’t look at the cross on Good Friday or a cold body in the tomb on Saturday.  You come to the garden on Sunday morning.

in Protestant churches, the cross is always empty.  There’s no body on it.  That’s the difference between a cross and a crucifix.  The body of Christ is not at that cross.  We are the body of Christ!  There’s a hand.  Here are two ears.  There are feet.  Here’s a heart.

One of those new members told me yesterday her brother’s suicide several years ago changed everything for her.  She went back to school and became a counselor.  She wants her life and her words to tune in to people’s wounds.  She wants her manner to attract broken people to life and hope through Christ.

Does your life pass on the faith in this risen Christ to others?  Do they see a changed life – how you respond to success or failure, prosperity or need, gain or grief, brokenness and sin?  Do your words point people to Jesus?  Most of you are here because somebody, somewhere passed the news of this risen Lord Jesus who brings life out of death to the next generation, the next country, the next door neighbor – and lived the Gospel with a life of integrity and holiness.  Will your life pass on this faith to yet others so that those who have never heard and those who haven’t even been born will find the hope and joy and meaning and healing that you have discovered in Christ?  This news is not just for you to “come and see.”  It is for you to “go and tell.”  Amen.

[1] Joe also recommends a couple of other video links to his work on intelligent design.  Click here for “Expelled – Cell Complexity Animation.” Click here for a video on “The Bacterial Flagellum.”

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