Rising From the Dead?

It’s Easter. Yellow bunnies, eggs, roast lamb and time off work. Great stuff. But what about that other thing? You know, God dying and all that?

In hugely secular Denmark, Easter is still the one time of year when Christianity does seem to gather some general interest, if only for the traditions. There are still people who may call themselves ‘spiritual’ or claim to believe in ‘Christian values’, whatever they are; but how many modern-day Northern Europeans believe literally in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on Sunday morning?

Does that really matter, you may ask? Can we not share the Christian message of love and peace without necessarily having to subscribe to a belief in a supernatural phenomenon that cannot be explained by rationally thinking people?

But that’s the whole point. It’s not supposed to be something we can explain. Even in the accounts from two thousand years ago, there was widespread disbelief. The closest followers of this man had given up hope. The first witnesses of the risen Christ were those with the lowest credibility at the time: women. The movement that Jesus had arguably started had died with him. What followed – the Christian church – was built solely on the belief that Jesus had in fact conquered death. Incredible, yes, but reality nonetheless.

Paul says: “If the dead aren’t raised, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless.” (1 Corinthians 15:16-17)

If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then there is no hope that we will be able to do so ourselves as humans. Without that hope, Christianity is moot. Without the hope of resurrection, the church is a bunch of traditions built on a lie, and not worth our time. There can be no church, no faith, without the resurrection.

If, however, we choose to grasp in faith that which we cannot explain rationally, then Easter morning carries a promise of hope that is without comparison. With all our advances and scientific revolutions, we are still no closer to conquering death. And nobody seriously believes that it is within our means to do so.

What happened on that morning two thousand years ago is still as unique, crazy and unbelievable today as it was then. I have chosen to believe, against the odds, in the hope that it is really true.

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The Worst Story Ever Told

While the art of telling stories is hard to master, the basic syntax is surprisingly simple. The large majority of books and movies follow some variation on a standard template. Very simply put, it goes like this:

Harmony – harmony threatened/lost – hero enters – hero overcomes trials – harmony restored.

We like stories like this. Why? Because we like the idea that good will prevail in the end. We can identify with the loss of harmony and the trials, but we so want to believe in the Hollywood ending. We want to sing with Bob Marley: Everything’s gonna be alright.

But it doesn’t always turn out that way, does it? Real life is not Hollywood. And sometimes the happy ending is lost. It becomes even worse if we see the hero, but he fails to overcome the trials. We get our hopes up, only to be let down. When you’re neck-deep in the trials, do you really know how the ending will be? The more dramatic the story, the less faith on the part of the hero.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo did give up hope before the end, and only by Sam’s assistance did he conquer and succeed. What if Sam hadn’t been with him? What if Frodo had failed his task and was captured by Sauron? No one would have been alive to tell the story (unless you speak Orcish).

The hero can be a person, but it can also be an idea. Take spring. Very appropriately, the hope of spring came early this year, with days of 18 degrees even in March. We Danes love speaking about the weather, seeing it as a major accomplishment simply surviving yet another winter. But what happened? Our hopes were ruined, and now we’re back to sub-zero night temperatures, and white flurries in April. What if spring never came?

Then take the aptly named Arab Spring of last year. Suddenly, it seemed, people from all over the Middle East were swept away by waves of hope: hope of freedom and prosperity. Governments have been overthrown in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. But what about the hopes of the people of Syria? Their country is still not free, and some estimates count 12,000 deaths to date in the uprising.

Not that far away, a similar story played out a number of years ago. An oppressed people in a Middle Eastern state, longing for freedom, yearning for redress after centuries of pain and disappointment. A new hero enters the stage, and many people believe that this time it’s for real. Finally, the Arab Spring had come (or was it Jewish?).

But the hero doesn’t win. He is misunderstood, and then he is betrayed and killed by his own people. The very people he came to save. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” one of his few followers says in despair while walking the long, hard road back to where he came from. No Hollywood ending. No hope. This was anything but a Good Friday.

Thank God for Prime Rib

I got to reading Romans 14 last night. And this chapter might as well have been titled something like “Paul’s 2nd letter to the Adventists”. For it focuses on what to eat and what not to eat; an issue that – although not at the centre of Adventist theology – has had a profound impact on our identity. Sadly, one might add, as Tvesok has done.

Consider these passages from The Message version:

“For instance, a person who has been around for a while might well be convinced that he can eat anything on the table, while another, with a different background, might assume all Christians should be vegetarians and eat accordingly. But since both are guests at Christ’s table, wouldn’t it be terribly rude if they fell to criticizing what the other ate or didn’t eat? God, after all, invited them both to the table.

If you eat meat, eat it to the glory of God and thank God for the prime rib; if you’re a vegetarian, eat vegetables to the glory of God and thank God for broccoli.

If you confuse others by making a big issue over what they eat or don’t eat, you’re no longer a companion with them in love, are you? These, remember, are persons for whom Christ died. Would you risk sending them to hell over an item in their diet? Don’t you dare let a piece of God-blessed food become an occasion of soul-poisoning!” (Romans 14:2-4,6,15-16, Msg)

Some would no doubt be quick to point out that Paul is not talking about clean and unclean meats here, that he would not even regard unclean meats as food, and thus they are not part of this picture. Perhaps. But that is not the point – no, Paul is not talking about clean/unclean, he isn’t even talking about food per se, he’s talking about accepting other points of view than your own and embracing fellow Christians in spite of differing opinions.

“So let’s agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. Help others with encouraging words; don’t drag them down by finding fault. You’re certainly not going to permit an argument over what is served or not served at supper to wreck God’s work among you, are you?” (Romans 14:19, Msg)

There are many Christian churches, and none will agree on every single issue. There are many Christians, and none will agree on every single issue. The question is, do you focus on the issues where you disagree, or on those where you agree? I say, let God do the judging.

The People that Walked in Darkness

In many ways Denmark is a nice place to live. Winter is not one of them, however. For the last many weeks, it seems, the sun has set before 4 p.m., and risen whenever it feels like it – that amounts to perhpaps once or twice a week.

So Christmas is a welcome celebration. Certain obscure theological purists object: Jesus was born in spring, not in winter, so celebrating his birth at midwinter is a heathen tradition. So what? Christ coming into this world is more of a turning point than winter solstice will ever be. Combining the two was a stroke of genius by whoever did it. Elijah says it clearly in this well-known passage:

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; and the that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” (Elijah 9:1)

This passage is also a well-known Aria in Händel’s Messiah, which I heard tonight with my extended family. The choir Camerata in their annual performance in Copenhagen’s Holmens Kirke – probably the best in town, and this year was no exception.

Christmas is finally here. Jesus has been born, and light is returning to the world (including Denmark). It is time to celebrate both. Happy holidays!

The Camel and the Needle’s Eye, Revisited

A well-known passage in the gospel is that of the man who asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (The whole passage is recorded in Luke 18:18-27) Jesus’ first answer is “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

But we often focus on the next part: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, etc …'” The guy claims he keeps the commandments, so Jesus challenges him: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” And the man becomes sad and leaves. So Jesus delivers the punch-line: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Except this is not the punch-line. Our remembering the picture may be because of its memorability. But stopping the story here gives us a flawed version of the gospel, as I see it. I speculate that if the man had, in fact, sold everything he owned and given it to the poor, Jesus would still have met him with the reply: it’s not enough.

The point of the story is not that we have to sell everything or else we won’t get into heaven. The point of the story comes in verses 26-27. The onlookers asked Jesus: “Who can then be saved?” and he replied: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” That is the punch-line. Remember in verse 19, he said, “No one is good except God alone.”

We are saved, not by our good deeds, but by the grace of God. No matter how hard we try keeping the commandments, giving everything to the poor we will always fall short in our own endeavor. Fortunately, we don’t have to earn credit with God. We must only trust Jesus and let him do what is impossible with men, but possible with God.

Setting the Agenda

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33)

How easy it is to forget this! As Christians, we are taught to put our faith in God, and always seek His blessings on our lives. But do we really appreciate the fullness of the command Jesus gives us here?

The key word is ‘first’. Saying “Lord, I plan to do this—please bless my plans” is not putting Him first. Saying “Lord, I want to seek your will, and I want your will to be like this” is not putting Him first. It’s hard to let go—because doing so would be a leap of faith. What guarantee do we get that trusting God is the best thing to do? The only guarantee is the words and actions of Jesus. And that ought to be enough. By looking at the cross, any doubt about His intentions should fade. There can be no greater love than that which we witness at Calvary.

This is the man I wish to follow. Do I always do it? No—for I am human, and I fail, and my faith is also only human. I long for living in a relationship with Jesus where I trust him completely and put Him first in my life.

Lord, help me to seek first your kingdom. Help me to have faith in you and trust your guidance. I want to live my life according to your will, not mine. I want to follow your agenda, not mine. Hold on to me, as I try to hold on to you. Let your promises come to life in me by your Spirit. Amen.