His life for me, to me, and through me
Pastor Rick Warren, lead pastor of Saddleback Church in the Los Angeles area and the author of The Purpose Driven Life, together with his wife, Kay, went through a devastating loss when their twenty-seven-year-old son Matthew took his own life after battling depression and mental illness for years.
About a year after this tragedy, Rick said, “I’ve often been asked, ‘How have you made it? How have you kept going in your pain?’ And I’ve often replied, ‘The answer is Easter.’
“You see, the death and the burial and the resurrection of Jesus happened over three days. Friday was the day of suffering and pain and agony. Saturday was the day of doubt and confusion and misery. But Easter – that Sunday – was the day of hope and joy and victory.
And here’s the fact of life: you will face these three days over and over and over in your lifetime. And when you do, you’ll find yourself asking – as I did – three fundamental questions. Number one, ‘What do I do in my days of pain?’ Two, ‘How do I get through my days of doubt and confusion?’ Three, ‘How do I get to the days of joy and victory?’
“The answer is Easter. The answer … is Easter.”
Anyone had any days of suffering and pain and agony lately? What about days of doubt and confusion? We’re living through a really weird, confusing time right now, and it seems to me that the primary emotions we are experiencing are fear and frustration. Some of us are afraid of getting sick, or of someone we love getting sick. Some of us are afraid of this quarantine lasting longer than we can stand. Some of us are afraid that we’re losing some of the liberties that we hold so dear in this country. Some of us are frustrated, thinking that our government and everyone else is overreacting, and the rest of us are frustrated that some people still seem to be underreacting. And maybe there’s someone watching today who is actually sick with Covid 19, or who has a friend or family member with the virus. That brings with it a whole new level of fear and frustration, along with very real pain and suffering.
I do think it’s safe to say that many of us, maybe even most of us, are getting close to our limit as far as having our movement and activities restricted. So today, during this really weird time, on this really weird Easter, I want to wrestle with this question: What does Easter have to say about all of this. How does Easter change how we view not just the frustrating and frightening days we’re living in now, but all of the confusing and terrifying times we’ll face in this life? In what sense is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth “good news.”
That’s what the word “gospel” means. That’s the word we use to translate the Greek word Euangelion. It means literally “the joy news.” J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, says there’s a kind of story … that brings us unbelievable joy … He says these stories always have a certain kernel to them. There’s always some incredibly hopeless situation, and victory is snatched out of the jaws of defeat. But how? Always through someone who comes in, and whose weakness turns out to be strength, someone whose defeat turns out to be a victory. He says it’s those kinds of stories that just seem to bring us joy. He called them eucatastrophes.
Eucatastrophe. It means the joyful catastrophe. The tragedy that turns out to be a triumph. The sacrifice that turns out to bring joy. He said, however, there’s a Eucatastrophe of the eucatastrophes. There is a Story in all of the stories. He believes there’s a bass string to the human heart, and those stories can kind of make it reverberate a little bit but can’t pluck it.
He says the gospel story is the only story that will pluck that string so the whole heart never stops reverberating and vibrating with joy. The reason it will reverberate is … this is the reality to which all of the other stories point. It happened. It really happened. There really is a hero who defeats the villain. There really is Jesus. The word gospel means the joy news.[i] So in what way is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus good news, joy news? A lot of times on Easter us pastors, we do a lot of defending the validity of the resurrection in our sermons, but we don’t talk as much about what it all means for us as 21st Century members of the human race. That’s what I want to do this morning. I want to look at what it all means for us.
Pastor and teacher James Bryan Smith describes this good news about Jesus in this way: Jesus gave his life for me, so that he could give his life to me, so that he could live his life through me. What a powerful statement. I love it. I want to use his statement as a kind of a camera lens through which we will hopefully capture some of the beauty and the goodness and the truth of what God has done for us in Christ. So lets start with the first phrase: Jesus gave his life for me. I want you to say those words with me, wherever you are, doesn’t matter who you’re with. I want you to say these words out loud with me. The words are “Jesus gave his life for me.” Are you ready? Here we go: Jesus gave his life for me.
In John’s Gospel (10:17-18) Jesus says “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
One of the questions people ask is, “Why was Jesus crucified?” At the time he was crucified, the religious leaders had been trying to get rid of him for quite a while. A little later in this same chapter, down in V. 33, they tried to stone him to death. Now they didn’t then, but they had stones in their hands and were ready, and they said to Jesus, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” In human terms, the Jews wanted Jesus crucified because they saw him as a blasphemer, he was claiming to be God, and they sold it to their Roman overlords as, “Hey, this guy is claiming to be King of the Jews,” and that’s a direct affront to Caesar and Rome’s authority and sovereignty. Yes, there was a specific human reason why Jesus was crucified. But the truth is, they could only crucify him if he himself allowed it to happen. Early in Luke’s Gospel (4:29-30), the people in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth were incredibly upset with Jesus, and they ran him out of town to the edge of a cliff, and they wanted to shove him over the edge. They were full of rage, again, because he claimed to be able to do things that only God could do, and they were ready to kill him. But Luke tells us that for absolutely no reason at all, Jesus passed “through their midst, he went away.” They wanted to kill him. They were ready to kill him. But they didn’t. He just walked through the angry crowd and went to the next city. No one harmed him.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Matthew 26:53 tells us that when the leaders came to arrest him, one of Jesus’ disciples drew his sword and cut off the ear of one of the men arresting him, and he turned to him and said, “Put your sword back into its place … Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” The armies of heaven stood at the ready, ready to rescue the eternal Son if he called. But no call came. Jesus was crucified, claiming to be God, because he allowed himself to be crucified. And he did that in order to reconcile us to God. So God is no longer dealing with us on the basis of our sins. He is dealing with us on the basis of Christ’s death on our behalf. In Ephesians 1:7, St. Paul says “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”
Years ago, in Chicago residents saw a newscast about a big Vietnam veterans’ parade in their city. Part of the commemoration was a mobile version of the Vietnam Wall. Like the original, it bore the names of all the soldiers who had died in Vietnam. Hybels said one newscaster asked a vet why he had come all the way to Chicago to visit this memorial and to participate in the parade. The soldier looked straight into the face of the reporter and with tears flowing down his face said, “Because of this man right here.” As the soldier talked, he was pointing to the name of a friend that was etched in the wall. He traced the letters of his friend’s name in the wall. The soldier continued to answer the reporter by saying, “This man right here gave his life for me. He gave his life for me.” As the news clip ended, the sobbing soldier let the tears flow as he stood there tracing the name of his friend with his finger.
It was hard for that man to get his heart and mind around the sacrifice of his friend, so he kept retracing his friend’s name. We have that problem, too. There is, of course, someone who gave his life for me. I don’t want to grow dull to Jesus’ death for me, but I do.
But even if we don’t grow dull to the truth that Jesus gave his life FOR me, most of us stop there, but that isn’t the end of the good news. Jesus gave his life FOR me SO THAT he can give his life TO me. Say that out loud with me. Are you ready? Jesus gave his life for me so that he can give his life to me. In Romans 8:11, St. Paul says “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” Many of us view faith in Christ as a kind of spiritual insurance policy. We think it’s about going to heaven when we die, but other than going to church every once in a while, or even regularly, it doesn’t have all that much to do with this life. And that’s a tragedy! The life, death, and resurrection of Christ is JUST AS MUCH about getting heaven, the Kingdom of God, into us now as it is getting us into heaven when we die.
Not only does Christ’s death and resurrection allow us to be forgiven for all of our sin, past, present, and future, it also fills us with the Spirit of Christ NOW. In Galatians 2:20, Paul says “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” The Spirit of Christ is alive in me! We aren’t just cleansed from the penalty of our sin, we are filled with something new. God’s Spirit of life! Say this with me out loud: The Spirit of Christ is alive in me! Isn’t that incredible.
This past week, I took a bunch of mason jars into the church. It’s ok. No one else was here and I needed to sign some checks so that we can keep paying our bills. Thanks for your ongoing financial support, by the way. Anyway, we had tons of these jars but we aren’t canning stuff anymore. Between the kids and the animals here on the farm and our jobs, we just don’t have the time to do it anymore. Some years we don’t even have time to plant a garden! But Bob and Pat Lewallen, who attend Christ Church, love to can. They make all kinds of jellies and preserves and jams and stuff. So I brought them to the church so Bob and Pat can take them home when this quarantine is all over.
Now, imagine that Pat walks into the kitchen one day and Bob is standing there boiling hundreds of these little mason jars to clean them really good. And every countertop in the kitchen is covered with boiled and cleaned mason jars. But when Pat looks around, she doesn’t see any fruit prepared for canning. So she asks Bob, “What in heaven’s name are you doing?” And he answers, “I’m cleaning the mason jars.” So she asks the logical next question: “Well, are you going to put anything in them? I don’t see any fruit.” And Bob answers, “Nope. I’m just cleaning them.” Pat would think that Bob had lost his mind! But if he said, “Yep, I’m getting them all ready for peach preserves and strawberry jelly” it would make sense, wouldn’t it? Christ gave his life for me, and in doing that, he cleanses me. But he gave his life for me SO THAT he could give his life TO me. He fills us with his Spirit, giving us the power to live a different kind of life, his life, on earth right here, right now. We are cleansed in order to be filled.
And we are filled for a reason. Christ gave his life for me so that he could give his life to me AND life his life THROUGH me. Say that out loud with me. Christ gave his life for me so that he could give his life to me and live his life through me. Galatians 2:20 goes on to say, “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The life I NOW live. That says something, doesn’t it. It says that the life I live NOW is different than the life I lived before I started following Jesus. And that life, that new life, is lived in partnership with the Spirit of God at work in my life. The Spirit of Christ in me begins to live the life of Christ through me. And my life changes. Does it become perfect? No. Do I suddenly stop sinning? No. Am I ever able to completely defeat sin in this life? No. But my sin is forgiven and the Spirit of God alive and at work in me changes the way I live, the way I love, the way I relate to others, the way I do what I do. So I am growing, developing, being shaped a little bit more into the image of Christ. Christ’s transforming, changing, growing work in me won’t be finished until the Kingdom of God comes in it’s fullness, but it is alive and well in me now, and God continues to chip away at the things he wants to remove, and to add to my life things I have been lacking.
Now, like I said before, many of us stop with “Christ gave his life for me.” And that’s a tragedy, because that’s not where the good news ends. Christ didn’t give his life so that you could go to church and try not to cuss. If that’s what following Christ is to you, you’re missing the point. In John 10:10, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Life. Real life. Abundant life? And what is the abundant life? Well, it isn’t necessarily health and wealth and all of what we consider to be the good things in life. But it is REAL life. It is a life that matters. That makes a difference. It is a life empowered by and lived in partnership with the Spirit of Christ alive in you.
In a Wall Street Journal article, George Weigel gives a combination history lesson and apologetic for the Resurrection:
There is no accounting for the rise of Christianity without weighing the revolutionary effect on those nobodies of what they called “the Resurrection.” They encountered one whom they embraced as the Risen Lord, whom they first knew as the itinerant Jewish rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, and who died an agonizing and shameful death on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem.
As N.T. Wright … makes clear, that first generation answered the question of why they were Christians with a straightforward answer: because Jesus was raised from the dead …. As they worked that out, their thinking about a lot of things changed profoundly.
The article mentions some of the positive secular outcomes brought to the ancient world through Christianity:
A new dignity given to woman in contrast to the classical culture.
A self-denying healthcare provided to plague sufferers.
A focus on family health and growth.
A remarkable change in worship from the Sabbath to Sunday
A willingness to embrace death as martyrs—because they knew that death did not have the final word in the human story.
Living as if they knew the outcome of history itself.
Weigel suggests that it’s only through, what he calls the Easter Effect, that these changes make sense. The social changes that followed Good Friday occur only if they actually believed in the resurrection of Jesus.[ii]
[i] Tim Keller sermon on “The Joy of Jesus” from the Series: The Fruit of the Spirit—The Character of Christ, (May 3, 1998)
[ii] George Weigel, “The Easter Effect and How it Changed the World,” The Wall Street Journal (3-30-18)