Living the Resurrection

Acts 4: 32-37

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

2nd Sunday of Easter/ 23rd April 2006

Friends, Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  This is the conviction that gave birth to the church.  This is the belief around which the church gathers; it grounds us with purpose and meaning.  It is the certainty of this event that commissions the church to action in the world.  Everything hinges upon resurrection.  As Paul said, if Christ has not been raised we Christians should be pitied the most, having lost all integrity living our lives based on a hollow myth or a hoax (See 1 Corinthians 15:14).

“But how do we know?” you might be wondering.  We can’t turn to historical verification, we have no proof.  We cannot recreate the scenario in a laboratory to study and analyze it.  Dead bodies, dead bodies that have been dead for three days, do not come back to life.  And he was dead, body and spirit, dead-as-a-door-knob dead.  We can’t replicate resurrection and then determine whether it is in the realm of possibility.   Some might say we can’t prove it, so we take it on faith, that’s what faith is for.  It’s a leap.  But not so fast – just because you believe something to be true doesn’t mean it is true.  Sometimes what we say is true is little more than opinion and just because it’s your opinion that Jesus was raised from the grave does not make it so.   “But we have faith that it’s true,” you might respond.  That’s not good enough.  In his book, Bad Thoughts: A Guide to Clear Thinking, Jamie Whyte, former lecturer in philosophy at Cambridge, is proficient at cutting through the muddled reasoning of many Christians.  He writes, “Declarations of faith are generally self-defeating.  Someone will claim this status only for those opinions he cannot defend.  No one ever declares his shoe size a matter of faith…The moment someone declares some opinion to be a matter of faith,” he argues, “you know what to think of it.”[1]  Where’s the verification?

When Luke wrote his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, he took a different approach altogether.  He did not engage in philosophical debate and reasoning, offering proof.  He didn’t ask people to believe without some demonstration that what he recounts here was and is true.  The proof of the resurrection is not found in deductive reasoning but through the witness of lives transformed by the resurrected one.  Luke did not call people to believe in an event or an occurrence, he didn’t want people to merely assent to an idea, he wants people to see the presence of the Risen One, now, in the world, to discover him, to meet him, to encounter him in prayer and in trust by following where he leads; and to meet Jesus in the stories of women and men and children whose lives have been transformed by the Risen One, who have been changed.  It’s about the experience and giving testimony to it.  It’s as if we’re in a world court where the resurrection itself is on trial and the church is called in as an expert witness.  You’re in the witness chair and you’re asked, “How do you know the resurrection is true?” What would you say in its defense?  And you say, “Let me tell you where I have seen the Lord.”

This became clear to me when I was in college and read these words by the German theologian, Paul Tillich (1886-1965).  They struck a chord in my heart and mind and have stayed with me ever since.  Speaking of the Christian life, he wrote, “We want only to communicate with you an experience that we have had that here and there in the world and now and again in ourselves is a New Creation, usually hidden, but sometimes manifest, and certainly manifest in Jesus who is called the Christ.”[2]  He’s talking about resurrection life, what Paul calls the “New Creation” (2 Corinthians 5), and John called being “born again” (John 3) by God.  It’s resurrection.  An experience of God’s grace that changed the world and continues to change people’s lives when they encounter it or are struck by it or open themselves to experience it.  I believe with all my heart that something changed that first Easter morning and we are witnesses to it.  What continues to baffle historians and sociologists is how the church lasted its first decade.   There’s no rational reason why it survived.  Why did the early Christians endure such persecution and marginalization?  How were they able to separate themselves from the prevailing values and moralities of the culture, living in a different way based on freedom and forgiveness?  How were they able to extend so much love and compassion and concern, especially for the strangers, when everyone else thought they were ludicrous?  It’s because, I think, then and as now, the experience of resurrection causes us to do new things, become different people, make sacrifices for the sake of the calling.  It’s this experience, this encounter with resurrection that sets us off on the road less traveled, which, as Robert Frost (1874-1963) knew, makes all the difference.[3]  They were faithful to each other, in response to the one who was faithful even to death on a cross. 

That’s what I love about the book of Acts, we are given a glimpse into what the early church was like and it informs how the church lives today.  Just in these few verses alone in chapter four, we see how they lived together in community, strangers becoming friends, united in heart and soul.  They pooled their resources and held for them for the good of all.  They didn’t hold back their personal resources for their own gain.  Luke tells us the apostles “gave their testimony to the resurrection to the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”  What is that testimony?  The way they were living their lives.  There was not a needy person among them.  They each gave as they were able, out of the abundance of their possessions for the common good.  Some owned property and sold it for the community, others sold their homes.  They brought their gifts and placed them at the center of the community and distributed to each as any had need.  We’re told of a man who sold a field, brought the money to his community and laid it at the apostles’ feet.  They gave him a new name – Barnabas:  “son of encouragement.”

Zany acts?  Foolishness?  Maybe just a little too enthusiastic, too religious?  Or maybe this is what the resurrection does in people – it’s an end to business as usual; we set aside our personal hopes and aspirations and give our lives to Christ in new ways, this one who has given us everything.  This is a demonstration of the sacrifices Christians make for the sake of the ministry of Jesus ChristMinistry requires sacrifice.  A ministry propelled into existence on that Easter morning.  Ministry always requires such sacrifices, and they are joyfully made in grateful response to God’s abundant grace.

This ministry – not my ministry or Dorothy’s ministry – our ministry, our work together, our service together is now entering a significant time in our history with our Growing in God’s Grace Campaign.  This is a defining moment in the history of this church.  How and what we achieve here will have a profound, lasting impression on the future of this ministry.  This morning we begin a four-week period of prayer and discovery, as we seek God’s will for our lives, as we discern what commitment, what sacrifices we will make to God’s ministry on this corner of the kingdom.   We know the need - $1 million dollars.  We know what needs to be done.  The fact sheet, the information meetings and the information packets you received there, the marvelous DVD, the beautiful brochure that you should have received this week in the mail are all clear about the scope and purpose of this campaign.  And I hope in your prayerful reading of these materials you sense the spirit of the campaign.  What you need to know, if you don’t already, is that the theme, the emphasis, and the wonderful logo of a tree coming into bloom were all developed by your leadership team.  All the publications were designed and produced by your leadership team.  This is the church’s work, not the work of outside professionals, growing up from within us, organic to us.  All that we have done to this point is rooted and grounded in the thoughts and convictions of this congregation.  Right from the beginning we have been immersed in prayer.  Did you know there is a prayer team praying the grounds, walking from corner to corner of our property every Sunday asking God to bless this effort and that we together will be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit within us, that we might open ourselves up in a new way to God’s will for our lives? 

Why all the prayer?  Because what we’re engaged in is not fundraising – but doing God’s work, and that’s how God’s work is accomplished, through prayer.  Perhaps you have already determined what you can or cannot give to this campaign.  But I would like you to hold off on making a firm decision until after we’ve moved through these four weeks together.  Read through the daily devotional guide (given out at the information meetings).  As you leave this morning, ushers will be passing out campaign magnets; these are prayer reminders.  Put them on your fridge as a prompt to pray for what God would have you give to this ministry.  We want your response to be grounded in a firm sense of God’s purpose and joy for your life, motivated not by obligation, but by gratefulness and joy.   Foremost, I want to encourage you to think of your commitment not as a financial decision but as a Spirit-led decision with financial implications.   Listen for what God places in your heart.

I firmly stand behind what I wrote in the brochure – I am absolutely confident that our campaign will open new opportunities for this congregation.  We will be able to broaden our ministries, increase support to mission, and establish a firmer financial base for capital needs in the future.  Is this a stretch for us?  Absolutely.  Is it impossible?  That depends upon your experience of God.  I can tell you we have already received two lead gifts totaling $100,000, decisions made after considerable prayer, discernment and a willingness to make sacrifices.  I believe grace compels and equips us to do extraordinary things because that’s what grace requires.

It’s been said that God loves us as we are, but much too much to leave us there.[4]  God loves this church much too much to leave us where we are, and where we need to go, and where I believe God wants to take us requires a stretch, requires sacrifice, requires great commitment, and it requires greater trust in God’s ability and willingness to provide for us.  William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (1928-2006), who died during Holy Week, truly one of the great preachers and prophets of the church, put it simply, “God is the source of life; [which means] it is self-destructive to put our trust elsewhere.  If giving causes more pain than pleasure, it is not our money but our faith that is insufficient.”[5] 

This brings us back full circle to the resurrection.  What’s the foundation of your faith?  What’s your experience?  Is Christ risen or not?  My prayer is that that this campaign will allow us to strengthen our testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  For great grace, I believe, is upon us all.

[1] Jamie Whyte, Bad Thoughts:  A Guide to Clear Thinking (London: Corvo, 2003), 27.

[2] Paul Tillich, in the sermon, “The New Being,” The New Being, (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), 18.

[3] Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken (1916)”

[4] Attributed to William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Credo, Foreword by James Carroll (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 132.

[5] Coffin, 128.