THE CONTEMPORARY CHRIST
By Pastor Glenn Pease
A mother said to the toy salesman, "Isn't this a rather complicated toy for a small child?" The salesman responded, "This madam is an educational toy. It is especially designed to help a child adjust to living in the world of today. No matter which way he puts it together, it will be wrong." This might seem to be an overly pessimistic view of modern life, but the fact is, in spite of all the advances man has made, they have gained no more happiness, but possibly even less because of all the tension that goes with modern living.
There seems to be no great purpose behind it all, and no great goal toward which man moves. Progress is an end in itself, and all that is assumed to be progress is built on a very uncertain foundation. The lack of a unifying principle has left modern man in confusion. We know more than ever, but for what end? We have more than ever, but for what purpose? What good are improved means if one has not established improved ends? What good is it that we can move faster than ever if we don't know where we are going?
Theodore Gill has said, "We have studied our poor paradoxical, chaotic society, and analyzed it, and graphed it, and put it down on charts and missed the point completely. We have made of life a bridge without ends: A laughable thing that starts nowhere and doesn't go anywhere, and so does nothing in between." We live in an activist society where everyone is going like mad and working like mad, but where few ever stop and ask themselves why? Activity without a goal or purpose is futility. Men fear to ask the question why, for it scares them. Why always gets into the realm of the ultimate, and a secular society does not care about the ultimate. The Christian, however, cannot be content on that level. The poet has described what is going on in our secular society.
Many the voices, in print and sound,
Flinging their self-serving "How's" around:
How to succeed and how to be clever,
How to provide without future endeavor,
How one's resources to multiply,
How to live fully-but never a Why.
Lord, give us voices to help us know
The why and the whither of ways we go;
Voices that give to our life more meaning,
Voices to solace whatever life's gleaning,
Dependable voices, relaying thy word,
Above life's confusion and strife to be heard.
That prayer has already been answered. The Apostle Paul has been just such a voice through all the ages to give Christians a unifying principle for life. That principle is the fact of, and the awareness of, the reality of the Risen Redeemer. That which gives all of life and doctrine meaning is the Resurrection. The fact that Jesus is alive and is a contemporary Christ is the foundation on which we build. Jesus is not a once upon a time Savior, but He is a contemporary Savior. All history is unified in Christ, for He was, He is, and He shall ever be. When people lose the awareness of this reality they lose that which makes Christianity unique and distinct from all other religions.
In Ralph Turnbull's book, The Pathway To The Cross, he tells the story of a Moslem who said to a Christian, "We Moslem's have one thing you Christians do not have. When we go to Medina we find a coffin and know that Mohammed lived because his body is in the coffin. But when you Christians go to Jerusalem you find nothing but an empty tomb." "Thank you," said the Christian. "What you say is absolutely true, and that makes the eternal difference. We find in Jerusalem an empty tomb because our Lord lives and we serve a risen Christ."
If Jesus was still in the tomb, and not a living contemporary, then however, great a man and teacher He was, He is of no more value to us than any other dead man. Any religion will do if the best only gets you to the grave. If death ended the life of Christ and the cross was the last chapter in His story, then we might just as well be pagans, or godless altogether, and join those who live without purpose or hope. There is no unifying principle that can make life meaningful unless it goes beyond the grave. If death ends all, then all is ultimately meaningless. Browning cried out in a passionate passage-
If this be all
And other life awaits us not-for one
I say tis a poor cheat, a stupid bungle,
A wretched failure. I, for one, protest
Against it, and I hurl it back with scorn.
If death is the end, the toy salesman was right, and the best kind of toy to teach children to adjust to life is the one that is wrong no matter how you put it together, for no matter how you put it together, nothing is right if death is darkness without light. But why dwell on it, and why introduce such depressing thoughts into our minds? Why linger around the edges of the negative when there is the great field of the positive to explore? Most sermons on Easter morning will deal with the positives and the proofs of the resurrection, but our approach by way of the negative is not only the legitimate and biblical, but can be equally as powerful in producing conviction. Paul believed in the power of negative thinking as well as positive thinking.
Paul wrote I Cor. before the Gospels were written, and he takes an extremely negative approach. He compels us to face the consequences of what would be if Christ was not a living Lord. He follows this line of thinking right to the most horrible conclusions, and he demonstrates that everything stands or falls with the reality of the resurrection. Without it Christians have no unifying principle. All of our activities and beliefs are as meaningless as those of the godless who work so hard for they know not what, and who speeds so fast toward they know not where. Christianity is only another cog in the complex wheel of contemporary confusion is Christ is not a contemporary companion, who is delivering us, guarding us, and giving meaning and purpose to our lives.
A first century Christ will not do for 21st century Christians. The modern Christian needs a modern Christ. The living Christian of today needs a living Lord of today. I trust that our study of Paul's logic here will make us all more aware of the reality that Jesus Christ is our contemporary and not just a person of the past. Too many people think of Jesus just as an historical person only. The difference in the two views is the difference between victorious Christian living and the timid fearful life of uncertainty.
I read a story that illustrates the difference. A traveler going on foot through the woods of Canada came to a river that he had to cross. He was not acquainted with that area, and it being early in the winter, he did not know how thick the ice was. Therefore, with extreme caution he got down on his knees and crawled slowly across the ice. When he arrived on the opposite bank he sat down with a sigh of relief, for it had been awful strain on his nerves. As he sat there he looked back across the river and saw a man coming toward the ice with a team of horses pulling a sleigh filled with wood. When he reached the banks he drove his team across the ice and up the other bank into the woods. The man on the bank blushed, but he was so grateful he had not been caught in the middle of the river on his knees when that better informed woodsmen had thundered across. Too many Christians are crawling through life because they are uncertain about the foundation they have in the risen Christ.
Paul makes it clear that the resurrection is not just a fact, but it is the fundamental fact that gives meaning to all other facts. We must be sure of this foundation or nothing else will be adequate to give life stability and purpose. It doesn't make any difference if you believe the incarnation or the redemption from sin purchased on the cross, for it all crumbles into shifting sand if the solid rock foundation of the resurrection is removed. Paul is so strong on this because some were denying that the dead could rise. That is what Paul says in verse 12. it seems inconceivable to us that a Christian would deny the resurrection of the dead, but this is because we are not aware of the distinction between immortality and resurrection. These Christians believed in immortality and life beyond the grave in the way the Greeks did, but they had rejected or not understood the unique Christian doctrine of the resurrection.
Christianity did not introduce the idea of immortality into history. This had been believed in by men from the beginning. The Greeks in the New Testament believed in the immortality of the soul. The soul would escape from the prison of the body at death and continue in some vague existence of neither joy or sorrow. The Old Testament view, except for a few isolated cases, does not rise much above this gloomy level. Christ brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel. He revealed it to be not just of the soul but of the whole man through the resurrection from the dead. When God made man he made him body and spirit, and he said it was good. Man is not fully man unless he is body and spirit united. If death wins the body and keeps it forever, then death destroys man and leaves him only partially redeemed at best. Jesus, however, is a Savior of the whole man, and so the resurrection from death is a unique and distinct revelation of the Gospel of Christ.
Some Corinthian Christians, not aware how serious it was to ignore or reject this distinct revelation in Christ, went on believing the old concept of immortality of the soul. Paul writes to show them what the consequences are. He says in verse 13 that the first thing that follows from the denial of the dead rising is that Christ did not rise, for He was dead, and if the dead do not rise, it follows that He is not risen. And if Jesus is not risen, Paul goes on to say, I have nothing to preach, and you have nothing in which to believe. If you take the resurrection out of your theology, you might just as well take the filament out of your light bulbs, or the sun out of your solar system. When it goes, all else goes with it. As Hayes said, "You cannot cut down the tree and still harvest it's fruit. You cannot put out a light and still walk in its illumination."
All of Christianity rests on the foundation of the resurrection. Either Christ is alive and is a contemporary, or Christianity has no good news. There is nothing worth preaching if Christ has not conquered death. It would have been better had the disciples of Christ gone back to fishing and considered the cross the tragic end of the greatest of men, but still one who could do no more than others to give us hope. It is only empty and vain babbling to talk of atonement and forgiveness of sin if the grave is the end. One just as well die un-forgiven as for forgiven if the grave is the end of the line. We sing, "In the cross of Christ I glory," but that is only because of the rest of the story. Good Friday would be bad Friday without Easter. There was no glorying in the cross until it was seen through the empty tomb. The story is only gory, and there is no hope of glory if Calvary is the last page in the book.
If Jesus is a crucified Christ and not a contemporary Christ, Paul says that faith in him is an empty hope. No matter how marvelous the teaching of Christ, or how challenging and comforting his ideas, they are all empty if death conquered Him. Faith is only as valuable and powerful as its object. If I have faith that John Brown will meet me at noon, but there is no such person, my faith is vain and will be totally ineffective. Faith not based on fact is fantasy. Unless the resurrection of Christ is a fact faith in Him and his ability to deliver from death is as vain as faith in Peter Cotton tail to do the same. Paul is saying that unless the resurrection is a real historical fact our emphasis on the real meaning of Easter is on the same level with the significance of rabbits and eggs.
Paul goes on and says that if the resurrection is not true, he has been a false prophet misrepresenting God, and Christians are still in their sins. Those who had died in Christ have perished, and Christians are the most pathetic, pitifully deceived creatures on the face of the earth. There is no need to expound at length on these dark consequences. The impression could hardly be made stronger. If Christ is not a living contemporary, there is not a single value in the whole of Christianity. No one could go further than Paul in painting a picture of such pessimistic and gloomy consequences of a denial of the resurrection. You are not suppose to put all of your eggs in one basket, but Paul does it, and it is the Easter basket that he chooses. Paul reduces all of the issues to one simple question-is Jesus alive? There is only one door, and if it opens, it opens into a vast world of eternal truth. If it will not open, we are locked in to a small dark room without light or hope.
Henry Barstow wrote,
If Easter be not true,
Then faith must mount on broken wing,
Then hope no more immortal spring,
Then love must lose her mighty urge,
Life proved a phantom, death a dirge,
If Easter be not true.
But it is true and Christ is risen!
And mortal spirit from its prison
Of sin and death with Him may rise!
Worthwhile the struggle, sure the prize,
Since Easter, yes, is true!
Christianity it not complicated at all. it is a simple matter of believing in the living Christ who conquered death. If that is true, then all else he taught and did is true, and you can rely on Him as your hope, for He is the Door, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is your all in all, for if Easter is true, Jesus is everything. If Easter is not true, Jesus is nothing. The resurrection is an absolute, and all other truth is relative to this reality. The resurrection is the Rock on which our redemption stands or falls. That is why Easter is the most popular day of the year for church attendance, for it is the message that people need most to hear.
A soldier wounded in World War II laid out on the field until he fell into unconsciousness. It was on Good Friday, and when he regained consciousness he was in a hospital on Easter. He said to the chaplain, "Chaplain, you can stand anything on Good Friday when you are certain of Easter Day." The contemporary Christ was his unifying principle that gave purpose to all of life, and it enabled him to face anything with assurance. This is the Gospel that the church is to give the modern world. Johnstone G. Patrick wrote, "The Gospel which the church is preaching to the world every Easter is not an embalmed memory of something that lit up the screen of the past... It is the offer of an up-too-the-minute fellowship with a living Person, risen and radiant, vital and victorious."
John Donne said that we are conceived in a closed prison in our mother's womb. When we are born we are set free, but only into a larger prison, for we are still bound to the flesh as we march toward the tomb. It is only as we are born from the tomb in resurrection that we are finally free, and enter into the full liberty of children of God. If you eliminate this last hope, you cut us off from the greatest hope God has ever given to man, and that is the hope of being free forever to be fully what God intended us to be. Death did something terrible to Jesus, but Easter is the good news that Jesus did something wonderful to death. He conquered it and transformed it into a means by which we enter into a higher level relationship to God. That is why after beatings, stoning and imprisonment Paul could shout, "Rejoice in the Lord always."
The Messiah was being rendered by a choir of 4000 voices. Just before the Hallelujah Chorus there was complete silence. Then suddenly the base section sounded out, "He shall reign forever and ever." The altos lifted it a little higher, "Forever and ever!" The tenors lifted it still higher, "Forever and ever!" Then a soloist broke in, "How long shall He reign?" And one thousand sopranos responded in unison, "Forever and ever!" Then the entire chorus of 4000 burst forth with, "Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah." That is the meaning of Easter. It is joy in your heart and a song on your tongue because Jesus is alive forever and is a contemporary Christ.
A Christian toy maker ought to produce an educational toy that helps a child learn the message of Easter. It would be a toy that no matter how it is put together comes out right. This is the vital hope of every person who confesses with their mouth and believes in their heart that Jesus is a contemporary Christ.