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.