What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Introduction: A Confession
I want to begin with a confession this morning. The confession is this: I have a very strong nostalgic attachment to the word "existentialism."
My Nostalgic Attachment to the Word "Existentialism"
The reason I say it's a nostalgic attachment is because it was part of the air that we adolescents breathed in the 1960s—along with Vietnam and the Beatles and Sonny and Cher and Peter, Paul, and Mary and the Mamas and the Papas and Dylan Thomas and John F. Kennedy and Civil Rights and Martin Luther King and John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost and Carl Sandberg and Neil Armstrong and Hippies and Haight Ashbury and LSD and Jesus People and Cassius Clay and C.S. Lewis and the death of God. To mention a few things that we breathed in those days.
I turned 14 in 1960 and I turned 24 in 1970. Those are pretty tumultuous years in a young man's life—14 to 24. Puberty, pimples, high school, college, marriage, seminary—it all happened in the sixties. And pervading the air we breathed in the sixties was this almost undefinable thing "existentialism."
Not the Godless, Hopeless Worldview Itself
As a full-blown worldview it was godless and hopeless. Albert Camus put it in the drama of the absurd, and Jean Paul Sartre put it in novels, and Martin Heidegger put it in huge books on philosophy. There is no God. There is no final ultimate meaning to life or to the universe. There is no fixed value or standard to live by. There is only raw existence and radical, rootless freedom. Life is absurd.
Meaning isn't shaped by any given essence in here or out there. It is created out of nothingness individually, moment by moment by whatever you do with your existence—hence the name "existentialism." What's real is what you make real by the use you make of your existence.
But the Spirit of Those Days
But in the sixties that hopeless, empty worldview had not yet produced the orgies of sexual license in the seventies or the avalanche of self-ism in the eighties. In the sixties there were still some pretty strong winds of moral vision blowing. We could still sing, "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind. The answer is blowin' in the wind."
And for thousands of us we heard the answer in the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God, who lived and loved like nobody had ever lived before or since; who chose suffering and death to bear the sins of others; who rose from the dead to give hope beyond the futility of this life; and who fills his people with his Spirit today to help them live the way he did and bring them to everlasting life and joy.
Some of us heard this answer in the books of C.S. Lewis, some in the echoes of Søren Kierkegaard, some from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, some in the voice of Martin Luther King, some from a thousand unknown kids with long hair and beads and sandals and a Bible somewhere between San Francisco and Kabul, Afghanistan.
And one thing these messengers had in common was the spirit of existentialism—not the hopeless worldview, but the spirit of radical, passionate existence—the spirit that life without passion and risk and commitment is phony—no matter how objective and real it is, no matter how provable and certain and orderly it is—life is phony if we don't throw ourselves into it with passion and risk.
Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, and Lewis
Kierkegaard threw all his existential weight against the dead orthodoxy of the church of Denmark where faith was simply a yawning yes, yes to creeds and baptisms and confirmations and ceremonies. I remember reading his book Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, and feeling like I was on top of a high mountain with no clouds. Chad Walsh called it shock therapy.
Bonhoeffer led the confessing church in Germany against the compromises with the Third Reich and paid with the cost of his life. So thousands of us read his books, The Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison, with a sense of existential passion that we felt for few other books.
And even C.S. Lewis, speaking from the very center of the literary establishment at Cambridge, had the aroma of existentialism when he said things like, "The salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world."1
Scars and Strengths Arising from These Experiences
My confession is that I grew from a boy to a man in the atmosphere of existentialism—in an atmosphere that said, "If you are going to play games with your religion, or if you are going to play games with your academic career, don't play them around me. Because the only faith I admire is a real, heartfelt, risk-taking, life-changing, existential faith. And the only academic labors I admire are ones that are driven by a passion for truth and love and God and eternal life.
I really mean it when I say this is a confession. Because I am at least partly aware of the sinful downside of growing up in this atmosphere of existentialism. For one thing, I am not very patient with status quo Christianity—when people in the name of Christ use their money and their vocations and leisure pretty much like the rest of the world. But impatience is not a virtue. The anger I feel at sham and hypocrisy too easily swallows up compassion for the weak and patience for people in process. There is no point in a pastor trying to hide these things. That's where I struggle and that is where you need to pray. There are scars, as well as strengths, left from the sixties.
But now what in the world does all this have to do with Easter Sunday morning and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead? I'll try to show you.
Four Breathtaking Facts About the Resurrection
I see four breathtaking facts about resurrection from the dead in this text. And we are not talking here about reincarnation or about escape from the body or about ghosts or spirits or anything like that. We are talking about Christ's body and soul and spirit as a unified whole person coming out of the grave and some day his people following him in exactly the same way.
Here are the four facts: 1) Verse 4: "Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father." 2) Verse 9: "Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him." 3) Verse 8: "We have died with Christ"—those who trust in Christ are united with him (Colossians 2:12; Galatians 3:26). When we trust Christ, we are identified with him so that what happened to him, happens to us. Our faith is expressed in baptism: we are buried with him in baptism (v. 2); we died with him. 4) Verse 5: "If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his." We too shall rise. And we will rise like him—never to die again. Death has no dominion over us.
- Christ rose from the dead.
- Christ will never die again. He reigns triumphant over death.
- Through faith we are united to Christ and die in him.
- We shall rise like he rose and live with him forever.
As I have read over those stunning facts for weeks, the biblical realist in me said, "There are some really good arguments to give on Sunday morning for why you all should believe these four things." And then the existentialist in me said, "Yes, but a sermon is very short, and what if they hear those arguments and say, 'That's an interesting religion. Thanks for a stimulating sermon. Now off to Easter Sunday dinner'?"
And I felt a tremendous longing that this morning be an existential encounter with these realities rather than a merely intellectual awareness of them. There's that word again and why it matters so much this morning.
An Existential Encounter with Truth
The difference is this. Suppose you are sitting in your kitchen listening to the news one evening just before supper and you hear on the radio that last year in Minnesota 30 children playing near the street were killed by motorists. You hear it and you may wince and say, "What a tragedy. That must be hard for those parents." Then you go on to the next news item.
But then suddenly the front door bursts open and your 12 year-old son comes screaming into the house with the news that your nine year-old son has just been hit by a car that swerved over the curb and cut him down on the sidewalk. Now this piece of news is different.
The first piece of news was true. You didn't doubt it. There was good evidence for it. It could probably be proved. But now here was a piece of news that goes to the core of your being. It shakes you. Everything in you comes alive to this reality that it's your son. It touches your existence. It will change everything in your life. It will break your heart. It will shatter things in you more deeply than you have ever been touched.
As I read these four great facts: Christ is risen from the dead; Christ will never die again; I have died with Christ; and I shall be raised like him to live with him forever—when I read those again and again, I longed for you who are here today not to hear them as merely provable reports of some religious claims, but as the cry of your child bursting through the door. "It has to do with you! This is your death and your life and your hope."
The Story of Levi-Yitzhak
And I remembered the story I read recently about a Ukrainian rabbi, Levi-Yitzhak. He was confronted by an atheist philosopher who rattled off a list of arguments against the existence of God thinking that the rabbi would take up the intellectual challenge, which he could have easily done. But the rabbi did it differently than the philosopher expected. He simply looked him directly in the eye and said gently, "And what if, after all, it were true that God exists? Tell me, and what if it were true?"
By the grace of God that became an existential moment for the philosopher. He was shaken. These words troubled him more than all the arguments he had heard. He came to feel for the first time how vulnerable and accountable he was before the living God. There was no more time for playing intellectual games. His whole world was turned on end and he was opened to the truth and was persuaded and became a believer.
What If It's True?
So that's what I want to ask you this morning: What if it's true that Christ rose from the dead; that he will never die again and death has no dominion over him so that he is the Lord of the universe; that by faith we are united to him in his death and rise with him to live forever? What if it is true—not just like radio facts out there somewhere, but like the truth as heard in the mouth of a screaming child that suddenly, in a moment, changes everything?
Let me just get you started from the Bible:
If it's true, . . .
- . . . the power of death is broken, and the root of bondage, the fear of death is severed, and we can be freed;
- . . . you don't need to get to the top in order to get to be a success;
- . . . you don't need to run away from trouble and live in fear that he who has the most toys wins;
- . . . you can rejoice in persecution for righteousness' sake for great is your reward in heaven;
- . . . every loss you endured for the kingdom will be made up to you a thousand-fold;
- . . . there is no ultimate risk in the cause of truth and love; nothing can defeat you;
- . . . the decay of your body is prelude to glory;
- . . . you will be made completely whole with no impurity and no struggle with lust or greed or covetousness or fear or inferiority or cowardice or painful memories or paralyzing shame;
- . . . there will be no mourning or crying or tears or pain for the former things will pass away;
- . . . swords will be turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and war will be no more;
- . . . every injustice will be rectified and every evil will be recompensed and every wrong made right;
- . . . and those who are in Christ will rise with him never to die again, and God will be our God and we will be his people, and the glory of the Lord will be our light and our joy forever.
The witness of God in Scripture, the witness of all the martyrs and all the people of God for two thousand years, is that these things are indeed so.2 Let your response be a life of faith and love and joy and praise.
C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967, p. 10. ↩
For my effort to show the good reasons that you can accept these claims as true see Appendix 2, "Is the Bible a Reliable Guide to Lasting Joy?" in Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, Portland: Multnomah Press, 1986, pp. 239–250. ↩