The Final Proof – Easter
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The Final Proof – Easter
Sermon Transcript by Rev. Ernest O’Neill
Probably the worst thing almost in the world is the uncertainty. When you think back to times when you wondered if you had the job or hadn’t, you remember often you felt, “Oh, I would even rather know that I hadn’t the job and at least I’d know where I was,” as the weeks past and you still weren’t sure whether you had got it or not. And if you think back to other situations, I think you’ll agree you’ve often found that boy the uncertainty is worse than almost it seems than bad news. I think mums and dads who have dear ones who are missing in Vietnam, I think they must often feel, “I’d really rather know that he was dead, or I’d rather know that he was in prison, or I’d rather know something for certain rather than be uncertain like this.”
And it is uncertainty is paralyzing isn’t it when you’re not sure of things? It almost makes it impossible for you to do anything. And brothers and sisters, that’s why Easter Sunday is so good for me personally because it is certain and sure. It has brought a certainty into my life that I just could not get from anywhere else. You know, it runs right through the whole thing. Runs through that lesson, you remember, that lesson that we read, that John 20. I was in difficulties with a lot of the stuff that I read in university in Ireland. Oh, we did a lot of Latin, and Greek, and ancient history and I remember reading old Cesar’s Gallic Wars, you know in Latin and this is the old school book, it brings back horrible memories to me, but here it is.
But even Cesar’s Gallic Wars I used to think, “Ah, everybody thinks of Cesar as a reliable man, a real historical figure, a real historian, undoubtedly this stuff is true (cid:9)that I’m reading.” And then I discovered that Cesar had written about 58 BC and the first manuscript we had of his work was 900 years later and I suddenly realized what my Latin teachers were presenting to me as absolutely reliable history was actually 900 years older than when it was originally written. And I realized of course, anybody could have gotten a hold of Cesar’s original manuscript and over a period of 900 years could have changed it.
And it seemed loved ones that it didn’t matter what book we suffered old Livy to and Livy you know is oh just an outstanding historian, Roman historian and he wrote about the same time really, as the other historians of imperial Rome. And then I discovered that Livy’s manuscript depended on a mere 20 manuscripts that had been discovered and that there were only 20 manuscripts of Livy’s history and many of them were only bits and pieces of manuscripts.
And it isn’t long brothers and sisters after you do some classical histories until you begin to realize how tentative and how uncertain is the manuscript evidence upon which they’re based. Plato’s Republic was written about 400 BC and the first manuscript we have of it is 900 years after Jesus was born. And it’s so with all of the historians of those times. The earliest manuscript is about 1300 years after the original history. That’s what troubled me about Mohammad, you look to the Koran and you said, “Ah, this is what Mohammad actually wrote.” No, you find that the oldest manuscript is a great deal later than when Mohammad wrote the Koran and many people, many, many people have added to it since until you can’t tell what Mohammad originally wrote.
The Hindu scriptures are worse, and so I wondered, you know, where is there certainty even as far as what has happened in the past? And do you know that behind John 20, there are five manuscripts, 10, 20, 30, 40, 100, 200, 400, 500? Even at 500 it would completely overwhelm any evidence we have for classical authors. There are 4,000 Greek manuscripts backing up John 20. That was so good for me
to know because I had been taught to evaluate historical evidence and I was always skeptical of it because of the lack of reinforcing manuscripts behind it. But John 20 dear ones, depends on 4,000 different Greek manuscripts. The earliest one for Plato was 1,300 years after he wrote the Republic. The earliest one for John was 125 AD. There’s a scrap of the gospel of John dated 125 AD in a manuscript in Manchester England. Just a matter of 30 or 40 years after John wrote the gospel.
So Easter Sunday has brought a lot of certainty to me about the person of Jesus as a historical figure. It used to be I wondered “Well, maybe Mohammad, well maybe Zoroaster, well maybe Buddha, and maybe Jesus.” Now brothers and sisters, purely on intellectual evidence of history none of them in my opinion hold a candle to the historicity of the figure of Jesus. If you question the existence of Jesus as he really was, you question the existence of every man that ever lived because the evidence for him is so much better. And so Easter Sunday has meant certainty for me about Jesus.
It used to be in the old days when I read about him only in the New Testament I thought, “Oh well, maybe so. Maybe he really lived and maybe it was just a bunch of people who were interested in forwarding the cause that made up the Bible.” And then you know, I discovered that really a man like Pliny whom I read in college in Ireland had actually a letter that he wrote about the Christians and he was actually asking the emperor how to deal with them because they met together to eat bread and drink wine.
I discovered that another fella Tacitus who was really one of the most reliable historians of imperial Roman. He wrote this about Jesus, “Actually the author of that name Christians was Christ who in the name of Tiberius suffered punishment under his procurator Pontius Pilate. It was just good, you know, to begin to realize that this man Jesus was sure historical, as sure and historical as any figure that ever lived. And that was really good.
Another reason why Easter Sunday brings such certainty for me is that I did try to get peace, a sense of oneness with the world around me, and with people through other methods other than Jesus. I tried, probably like some of you have tried, the whole business of cosmic consciousness. Wordsworth explains it in one of his poems. You remember he says, “And I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts. A sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused whose dwelling is the light of setting suns and the blue sky, and in the mind of man.” And he talks about that sense of oneness that the spiritualist says you can get with nature and with the world around you. And I tried that for a while.
One of the killers is it’s so periodic, it’s so uncertain. One moment you think you’ve got it but it seems almost to depend on separation from the people around you rather than closeness to the people around you. It never seemed to bring continual peace. The people would write about cosmic consciousness but it never seemed to be a constant thing in the midst of trouble and difficulty. It never seemed to be something that was independent of your emotions, it seemed to always be a very tentative thing that you grasped at times when you were by a certain lake, or when you were reading a certain poem. It was uncertain. It was something that came and went.
Jesus has just been so sure, you know. He’s just been able to bring a peace because he was alive. And he was alive all the time whether you felt he was alive or not. It was an actual fact that he had destroyed death and that he was alive. It was a continual kind of peace. I tried the old business that a lot of us tried to get rid of guilt, try to work your way out of it, try to be good, try to be as good as your parents want you to be, or as good as all your friends want you to be, or
as good as your peers expect you to be. You tried to eliminate the guilt and you know what happens, you’re moral up to a point and then you fail and you just bring more guilt upon yourself. Far from working away the guilt that you’ve already had, you bring more guilt upon yourself because you failed to live up to your standards.
The business of eternity, I often wondered, “How could you be sure there was anything after this life? How could you really be sure?” And fiddled around with that reincarnation business but when will you ever stop being recycled? You’ll come back okay, the next time as a cow. If you’re a good cow maybe you’ll come back as a bird next time, but when do you stop? Ah, terrible uncertainty you know. Reincarnation sounds so good but it’s like an impersonal sea of loneliness that you out on, isn’t it? It just seems to have so little certainty in it and so little personablness in it.
And that’s why Easter Sunday has been so good for me because it’s been so good to see that here was a man who went through death and came back to tell us what it was like on the other side. Mohammad didn’t do that, Zoroaster didn’t do that, none of them even claimed to have gone through death and come back. They died and that was it. You could find their body, you could identify it, you could say, “This is Mohammad’s body.” This man Jesus disappeared off the earth, they could never find his body. He went through death and he came back and over a period of 40 days he appeared on 13 different occasions and explained, “Listen, it is as I said it was. You can trust me.”
It’s so good to have Jesus, who had gone through death and could assure us what was on the other side. It was so good to have a man who wouldn’t be like Mohammad, who would say, “Now, if you obey all these laws perhaps the Creator of the world will be gracious to you.” It was so good to have a man who was saying, “Look, you deserve to die for all those things. You were put in me and my Father crucified you in me and destroyed you in me, and so he has nothing against you. Now I’m going to go through death to show you that and I’m going to come back to tell you how he feels about you.” Oh, it was so good to have a man that had actually done that, that died and came back and said, “Now, it happened as I said, didn’t it?”
I don’t know I probably did what you did, at least in high school or college days. I tried to destroy the thing. I tried to destroy the whole fact of the resurrection because I couldn’t believe that you could get this kind of certainty about life, and eternity, and peace, and freedom from guilt and so I attacked the thing as probably most of you have done, and attacked those two main facts, you know, the resurrection depends on the two main facts: the empty tomb; and the appearances. And I ran through the usual arguments against the empty tomb. You know it, even when we’re faced with this history we’re incredible people, aren’t we, even though we have better history for this event than for any other in the world, we’ll be utterly unhistorical and we’ll say, “Well, perhaps it could have happened some other way.”
Which is an utterly unhistorical and unscientific attitude to take but we try to do it and I did it. “Well, maybe the Romans stole the body. Maybe they stole the body.” And then I thought, “Well, they were stupid if they stole the body and didn’t then produce it and say, ‘Look, here he is. Your supernatural Savior, here he is. He’s really dead.'” And then I thought, “Well, maybe the disciples were conmen, maybe they were just pulling a trick on the whole of the universe so they could become leaders of a great new religion. Maybe they stole the body.” And then I thought, you know, of those followers, and those disciples walking into lion arenas with their children by their hands and doing it not because they taught what Jesus taught but because they taught that Jesus was alive. Can you imagine even one of them walking into a lion arena to be destroyed with his children and his wife knowing all the time in this own mind that they had actually stolen the body and had
hidden it? It’s impossible, you just wouldn’t do it.
It’s an ethical impossibility, to die for something that you really know is alive. People have died for things that they thought were true but they really did think they were true. Hitler ran himself into that trouble because he thought those things were true. There are men who died for what they think to be true but no man or woman will die for what they know to be untrue. They’ll eventually be pushed to tell the truth when it comes to death.
And I tried the other things, he swooned. Jesus swooned, the idea that he was just fainting from the wounds and he wasn’t really dead, and that he got up after he was put in the tomb. And it’s just impossible when you begin to examine what would have had to happen. First of all, the Roman soldiers who were experts at ensuring physical death, they didn’t even bother to break his legs they were so sure he was dead. They simply put a spear through his side and out of it came water and blood. And they decided, “We won’t even break his legs, that man is certainly dead.” Then they put him in the tomb, and put the heavy stone across it, and bound him with those grave clothes, and with the spices. And then he would be bleeding presumably, all of that time and then he would have to spend the night, or two nights in the tomb, and he would have to get up the next day, take off the grave clothes, and have the strength in his body to push back the stone, and then brothers and sisters, to travel miles, miles over Palestine to appear on 13 different occasions to different people at different times.
Oh, you know, without a 707, Jesus couldn’t have made some of those distances. I began to see that the arguments I was using as a college skeptic were actually harder to believe than the resurrection itself. I began to get myself involved in such tangled illogicalities that I began to see, look it would be easier – history is easier to accept than the things you’re inventing. And that’s what many of us come up with.
We did a lot of psychology in seminary and so I tried to apply the old laws of hallucinations to the appearances. “Well, maybe he didn’t really appear. Maybe these people just thought he appeared. Maybe they just imagined it.” And then began to apply the laws of hallucinations. There are certain laws, you know, that govern hallucinations. One of them is you have to be of a very imaginative and nervous kind of personality. And I looked at big Peter and thought, “Well, not exactly,” or old cynical Paul, you know, “Not exactly imaginative nervous individuals,” or the rest of the fishermen.
And another law is it has to be a subjective experience. A hallucination must be something that just you experience you see like a mum whose son was killed in the war and she would want to see him, and so she would see him herself. And of course I saw that Jesus appeared to all the disciples in the upper room that he appeared to the women in the garden, that he appeared to two disciples in the garden, then he appeared to about 500 people at one time. It wasn’t a subjective experience at all.
Another law of hallucination is you must want to see the person. The mother must want to see the son coming back. It’s a result of wishful thinking. And you read about the disciples and you remember, there were two of them walking along the road that goes to Emmaus and Jesus came alongside them, asked them why they were looking so sad, and they didn’t say, “Oh, we are expecting Jesus to come back. We want him to come back.” They said, “Oh, we thought that this man from Nazareth was the one who would redeem Israel. We thought he would arise from the dead but he hasn’t.” And the whole attitude of the disciples was one of fear and disappointment. They bombarded themselves in
the upper room because they felt that they had believed a lie and that the thing was not true. They were past hoping for Jesus to come back.
Another law of hallucinations is that the person – the hallucination will take place in a certain place and will continue over a great period of time. And of course, Jesus’ appearances took place in different places, different houses, on the seashore at one time and it took place over 40 days and then ceased. And bit-by-bit I was kind of driven to see it didn’t matter how you argued on this, the historical evidence was so strong for the resurrection and the illogical explanations of it were so ridiculous that the only thing really was to accept that this was the most certain fact in the whole of the universe.
And oh brothers and sisters, it’s so good to know that in the midst of all kinds of doubt and uncertainties in our world and in our society, this thing is solid. This is solid empirical evidence. And really loved ones, that’s it. This Jesus did rise from the dead and on historical evidence or on philosophical evidence you cannot reject that. And really loved ones, to be honest with you, what we’re all faced with in this theater is either acting on our belief or refusing to act on our belief. That’s it, you know.
It’s just extremely hard for a brother and sister here in this theater to disprove Jesus’ resurrection. It really is loved ones. It’s a hard one to disprove and so what most of us are faced with is we’re either living as if this man is alive or we’re living as if he isn’t alive. That’s really it, you know. And honestly, most historians, even the dear fellas like Aldous Huxley who refused to be Christian, most historians or philosophers will say, “The evidence is overwhelming, this man did rise from the dead.” And they’ll say the only reason they’re living as if he didn’t rise from the dead is they want to live that way.
Now brothers and sisters, that’s really with us you see, because you can have all the certainty in the world externally but the only time certainty comes into your own life is when you align your life with reality. So really I’d ask you, do you live as if this man Jesus really is the Son of the person who made you, who made your hands, and made your arms? And do you live as if this Jesus is right beside you not only when the bank account is low but also when you’re about to criticize someone. Not only when the car payment is due and you can’t make it but also when you feel you want to be angry with your wife or with your children. In other words, do you live according to the fact that this Jesus is beside you ever moment of the day?
Really loved ones, that’s only living according to reality because the fact of Jesus’ presence here in this theater this morning is as reliable as the scientific proof we have for air and for the safety off breathing it. It really is. And just as you breathe this air in because you know it’s safe, really I’m saying to you would you not live according to the other reality that this Jesus is right beside you. That those words are really true, “Lo, I am with you always,” and that he is right there.
Would you think a wee bit about it in regard to our own lives, those moments at home when you just get utterly irritable with each other? Well this Jesus is right there seeing that. The other time when you get all worried and anxious about the future, and about what kind of job you’re going to get, this Jesus is right there. That’s a fact. If he destroyed death ones he can go and come whenever he pleases and that means he’s with you all the time and with me and that’s a great certainty, you know. And that’s why Easter is so good for me because it brings a certain certainty about God and the creation of the world and about what’s going to happen to me and that’s really
So we don’t need all the lilies really, all we need is that person and he’s the one that makes Easter, makes every Sunday and Easter Sunday. You may say, “Well, I mean I agree with you. Logically I can’t oppose you but it isn’t real in my life.” Then I only know one way brothers and sisters, you start living that way. Don’t make a whole song about it, don’t think you have to make all kinds of church membership decisions, just start living that way. Live remembering that Jesus is right beside you and that he’s the son of the person who made you and that he’s alive with you in every situation. Just begin living that way and you’ll be able to check at lunch time. Especially, if someone drops the ketchup on your new dress, you’ll be able to tell at that point. But that’s it, it’s a realistic thing loved ones, it’s not a philosophical religious thing, it’s a real thing. You either live this way or you don’t and that shows whether you believe it or whether you don’t really. Let us pray.
Dear Father, thank you for such a sure fact that stands philosophical and historical examination. Thank you Father, for absolute certainty about yourself through this person Jesus. Thank you Jesus that you are alive today. Thank you that you see each one of us at this moment. Thank you that you know us. Thank you that you do never leave us. Whatever the circumstances we’re in you never do leave us. You’re right there all the time. Thank you that you can take us through death and bring us out alive. Thank you Lord Jesus, for being real, for being alive. Amen.