Gilbert West, born in 1703, and George Lyttleton (Lord Lyttleton), born in 1709, were friends who met at Oxford University in the 1740s (about two decades after John and Charles Wesley had attended the same university). They were highly regarded for their scholarship and leadership in English society and politics.
While at Oxford, Gilbert West and George Lyttleton decided to disprove Christianity. They decided that if they could disprove that two historical claims of the New Testament did not occur, then Christianity would collapse. The claims they set out to disprove were the Resurrection of Jesus and the Conversion of Paul.
Lyttelton set out to prove that Paul (Saul of Tarsus) was never really converted to Christianity, and West intended to demonstrate that Jesus never really rose from the dead. Each planned to do a painstaking job, taking a year to establish the case. They went to work.
After a year, at the completion of their manuscripts, they met to discuss their respective efforts. History says their conversation went something like this:
Lyttleton: I have a confession to make. I found the evidence so strong, that I have written my work proving the Conversion of Paul.
West: I am glad you have made this confession, for I have found the evidence so strong for the Resurrection of Jesus, that I have been compelled to write proving its truth.
They both had concluded that Christianity was true, and they became faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Gilbert West eventually published his work as a book in 1747, Observations on the History and Evidence of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So I read two passages today. The first reading is John 20.1-10:
Now on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene went early, while it was still dark, to the tomb, and saw the stone taken away from the tomb. Therefore she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have laid him!”
Therefore Peter and the other disciple went out, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran together. The other disciple outran Peter, and came to the tomb first. Stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths lying, yet he didn’t enter in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and entered into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying, and the cloth that had been on His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself. So then the other disciple who came first to the tomb also entered in, and he saw and believed. For as yet they didn’t know the Scripture, that He must rise from the dead. So the disciples went away again to their own homes.
The second reading is Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 3:8-10:
Yes most certainly, and I count all things to be a loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord, for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and count them nothing but refuse, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own, that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him, and the power of his resurrection.
With the exception of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem that we celebrated on Palm Sunday and the public trial that Governor Pilate gives Jesus that probably occurred sometime in the late morning of what we call Good Friday, nobody except the small circle of friends and followers that had remained with Jesus knew what was happening. The Last Supper, the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the arrest, the trial before the Sanhedrin, the torture, the crucifixion, and even the Resurrection in the Gospel accounts are restricted to that small group – and it seems an ever shrinking group – of friends and followers of Jesus.
There was no announcement of funeral services or visitation in the Jerusalem Times. The media did not attend the crucifixion there are no government records of the trial. Almost nobody knew it had happened.
The same is true of the Resurrection. A woman reports the tomb to be empty. She tells two of the men who run to see the tomb, find signs that indicate something has happened, and come to no definite conclusion other than the tomb is empty.
By the evening of the day when the empty tomb was discovered there is a nervous and suspicious group of about ten or fifteen who knew Jesus debating just what had happened behind locked doors. Almost nobody knew what had happened.
But soon there is the realization that something great had happened; and this realization began to dawn in the hearts of each of those in that small room that evening. They began to see the tremendous implications of what God had done in raising Jesus from the dead.
This growing awareness may have been sparked in their minds and hearts by a question that would’ve been similar to the one that Paul asks a few years later in one of his sermons recorded in the Book of Acts: “Why does it seem incredible to you that God has raised the dead?”
It came to them that this Resurrection was something which only God could do, and which God did.
Survival for ourselves and our circle of family and friends is an important consideration for everyone. Even those who do not recognize that God exists would agree that some sort of survival in this life and beyond is a good thing.
Yet, what is survival, even eternal survival, if God is not in it? You see for me at least unending life is not of any great value on its own. Either a constant repetition of the same, or a moving through different existences, or being sucked into some sort of universal force does not really appeal to me.
Either one of those three options sound like a working definition of Hell – if I am aware of what is happening. If I am not aware, then it is meaningless.
What makes eternal life worth it and meaningful is that God is in it and doing it. That God raised Jesus means that what Jesus said and did are of eternal worth and meaning. One of the great gifts of the resurrection for me is the assurance that in Jesus Christ we have unchanging values and principles for life.
Jesus Christ is the foundation for life; and that is a comfort to know when the world and life seems to be in such turmoil.
Philips Brooks was an Episcopal pastor, born in 1835 and dying in 1893. Popularly he is known as the writer of the Christmas Carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” He said this: “Things are shaking. Let them shake. And let us see what remains when the shaking is done.”
So in the Resurrection one thing that the disciples came to realize was that in Jesus Christ there were values and principles and morals on which to build life. Let things shake. Jesus Christ remains.
There was another discovery that the disciples came to know in the Resurrection. Their discovery was that there is a goal or a destination beyond this life. There is a hope that exceeds the limits of this world.
When they wrote about it later, as did John in his first letter, they did so without really a care for the details. John wrote, “Beloved, we are now the children of God. It does not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that when he (Jesus) appears we shall be like him.”
In the Resurrection of Jesus they saw the beginnings of their own new life which comes to all through faith in him.
Three Sundays ago I referenced Arthur John Gossip, the Scottish preacher, born in 1873 and died in 1954. Gossip was the chaplain for the Glasgow Highlanders (a regiment of the British Army) who served on the front lines in World War I. He writes how during the war he would sit in the muck and mud of a foxhole, and as he crouched there in fatigue, his mind would run back to Scotland and the soft heather and blue lakes, the wide sky and the craggy mountains, and most of all to the voices of his dear home. The mud and fatigue were real, but his home was even more so. He knew that the lakes and lands and voices of Scotland were really home. That was where his life was; and though war separated him for a moment now and then; he was sustained always by the life he knew to be his.
I think that the disciples discovered this as well. They knew from the Resurrection where their home really was.
But to miss this final idea would really be to miss everything. Jesus came announcing their Resurrection and ours. In the Gospel of John he says, “Because I live, you shall live also.”
Now I know there are some – maybe not here, but in the world – who would say that all of this faith is just something to help us avoid the inevitable or to make it easier on us. They would say that it is a sign of weakness.
But I would say something else quite the opposite. What was it that took that small group out of that room from behind locked doors? What was it that made them risk everything, including life?
Was it something they could use to fool others or fool themselves? Was it an intriguing perspective, or one of many valid philosophies?
My only answer is: “Why does it seem incredible to you that God has raised the dead?”
And if God is in it, it has a purpose for you. Come to know Jesus and the power of his Resurrection.
On the next day a great multitude had come to the feast. When they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they took the branches of the palm trees, and went out to meet Him, and cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!”
Jesus, having found a young donkey, sat on it. As it is written, “Don’t be afraid, daughter of Zion. Behold, your King comes, sitting on a donkey’s colt.”
His disciples didn’t understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written about Him, and that they had done these things to Him. The multitude therefore that was with Him when He called Lazarus out of the tomb, and raised him from the dead, was testifying about it. For this cause also the multitude went and met Him, because they heard that he had done this sign. The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, “See how you accomplish nothing. Behold, the world has gone after him.”
In all of the movements or even eras of history there is a specific event that brings into focus the truth of that particular movement, or cause, or development, or era. It may be an event that captures the spirit of a movement or a particular part of a battle that is the turning point of a war.
There are many changing streams, countless confusing issues, and numerous intertwining happenings in history; but that one moment will contain the truth as to what a particular movement means and where it will end. Perhaps I need some examples at this point.
I think of Joshua Chamberlain in command of that depleted regiment of volunteers from Maine who were assigned to what should have been a quiet sector on the left flank of the Union line on July 2, 1863 - a place called "Little Round Top." As the battle developed the Confederate attack kept searching for the flank to turn and found Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Volunteers. Again and again Confederates attacked and were thrown back. Finally, Chamberlain’s men ran out of ammunition – completely. If the flank was turned the Union army would collapse. What was he to do?
In one of the most daring and important decisions in the history of the United States, Col. Chamberlain ordered his soldiers to fix bayonets and charge. The Confederate charge was stopped on that day; but the audacious charge at Little Round Top not only save the day for the Union army; it turned the battle, known as Gettysburg; it stopped Gen. Robert E Lee’s attempt to sweep North and capture Washington, DC; and end the Civil War with a Confederate victory.
Then there was John Peter Zenger, who was arrested in the colony of New York in 1722 for printing editorials criticizing the Royal Governor. Serious charges were brought, but against strong political pressure the jury found him “not guilty.”
There would be many fights, battles, and defeats ahead; but this scene almost 300 years ago showed what was to be and the importance of the principle of Freedom of Speech.
Then there was a scene in Pisa, Italy where a man with the euphonious name of Galilei Galileo observed the sky and came to a marvelous conclusion – the earth moved around the sun. He was charged with heresy. His trial lasted six months. Finally, broken and persecuted he bowed and recanted: “I reject my former heresy. I now declare and swear that the earth does not move around the sun.”
As he was led exhausted and trembling from the courtroom, he stopped. He straightened himself and shouted, “The earth does move!”
In that brief moment there was truth; and there was a symbol of all the great discoveries of humanity to come.
Then a final example: There was one German monk on trial for his criticisms of the corruption of the Church. Representatives of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Bishop of Rome questioned him and accused him. Great nobles sat in judgment. At the end of his trial he was given an evening to ponder his future. The next morning they brought him before his judges, and ask him to recant. Martin Luther responded, “Here I stand. I can do no more.”
From this statement came a religious awakening that swept Europe and America and eventually the world.
This is how I see Palm Sunday. Certainly, it is not the most important event of our faith. I leave that for Easter.
Palm Sunday celebrates the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. It begins his last week before He is crucified. In that event we may find the final outcome of God’s salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The triumphal entry is a pattern or a forerunner of the final victory of God.
The palms of this day first call on me to remember that truth – Eternal Truth – was not with Governor Pilate and the Roman Empire and its power. It was not with Caiaphas and his priests and their corrupted justice. It was not with Judas and his expediency. The Eternal Truth was in the palms and the shouts of hosanna (God saves) and focused on Jesus.
This day comes again and again as a part of the year-long liturgical calendar. This constant enntering of Jesus reminds me that He needs to enter in triumph my life and our lives together.
That day of entry into Jerusalem by Jesus shook things up. I like to say that as Christians our job is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Jesus shook things up when He entered Jerusalem.
I know that we like to think that things would be better if those people could somehow be shaken awake – whoever those people may be. I know that we think that way, because I do.
But the thing is that I get comfortable in my patterns, in my habits, in my security, and even in my faith. Maybe the shaking up should start with me. Well, there’s no “maybe” about it.
Palm Sunday – that event long ago – is the key or the symbol of the way things shall finally be - a glimpse: Jesus Christ glorify, triumphant, at the center. That is where God is taking history. That is where God is taking your life and mine. That is where God is taking His creation. Palm Sunday is a defining glimpse. Easter shall come; Christ shall come again. Certainly in between the Day of Palms and Easter there was betrayal, arrest, accusations, the trial, the torture, the denial, and death. But finally there is Easter and the resurrection and victory.
We can experience the same power in our own lives. We can see the same truth that was proclaimed on the Day of Palms. There is nothing that confronts us – no grief, no barrier, no sin – but that shall be resolved. It shall be resolved in the spirit of Jesus Christ. The triumphant Christ will bring us the comfort, the solution, and the redemption.
We may try to find other answers, or other ways of filling the emptiness in us. We may try to evade answering the invitation of God in Christ; or we may say “no.” Whatever our response is to God’s offer to each of us in Christ in a sense does not matter. Jesus Christ shall be triumphant; and if we do not turn to Him, then we will not find what we need for life.
Let me pause here to say that your response and my response to God’s offer of love and life in Jesus Christ does matter to God. What I mean when I say “our response does not matter,” is that Jesus shall be triumphant whether I go with him or not. God’s invitation to you and to me is to be a part of the triumph – a part of God’s victory that is already won. Palm Sunday is a symbol – a glimpse, a taste of what is to come in the future – the victory of God in Jesus Christ. It is not a prediction, it is a guarantee – a defining moment that tells us that evil is finished.
Then the last thing I would share is that the palms remind me that our faith – our relationship with God through our faith in Jesus Christ – is an adventure. Palm Sunday is a fleeting vision of what can be, and what shall be. It is therefore a challenge to me to make the spirit of that day a reality in my life and in the lives around me.
Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem was a great risk. Jesus knew the Temple authorities had decreed a death sentence for him. He knew his enemies were present in large numbers. He had no idea how the unpredictable crowd would receive Him. But here we find Him riding straightforward, publicly into Jerusalem – into the heart of where His opponents were.
Our faith is not a retreat. It is a frontal assault.
Jesus, when He was out in the provinces preaching, could be ignored by the authorities. Jesus in Galilee or Samaria was a small problem. But Jesus in Jerusalem in the middle of their affairs challenged their lives.
That is what speaks to me on this Day of Palms. Christianity is an adventure. There are hazards and risks. My faith does not call me to withdraw, or be silent, or even to get along. My faith calls me to confront, to shout, and even to disrupt. That is what Jesus did; and that is what those who followed Him also did on that day.
Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was a priest of the Church of England. During World War I he became a chaplain in the British Army. In 1917, he was awarded the Military Cross “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.”
Returning from the war, he did not fit well in the various parishes to which he was sent, so he was allowed to take the message of Christ into factories and slums. He died in 1929 at the age of 47 from an illness he contracted in one of his many campaigns into the impoverished sections of English cities.
He wrote poetry – much of which was discounted by critics. One poem in particular stands out. It is about the crucifixion of Jesus (Good Friday), but it fits with what I have said about Palm Sunday:
And, sitting down, they watched Him there,
The soldiers did;
There, while they played with dice,
He made His Sacrifice,
And died upon the Cross to rid
God’s world of sin.
He was a gambler too, my Christ,
He took His life and threw
It for a world redeemed.
And ere His agony was done,
And before the westering sun went down,
Crowning that day with its crimson crown,
He knew that He had won.
Virtual Church has just published Paul's Letter to the Church at Rome: Reflections for Preaching and Study by Dr. William W. Slider and Dr. John W. Slider. Please visit the BOOK PAGE for more information.