Some years ago, I went to have my eyes checked and was told by my optometrist that I needed corrective lenses. It was a sobering, humbling reminder that my body is slowly wearing out. It was for me, what you might call, an “eye-opening moment!” The eye is a wondrous yet incredibly complex organ. Were you aware of that as you first opened your eyes this morning? Probably not. But the fact is that all of its parts have to function together for us to see.
To elaborate, the eye is directly connected to the brain by optic nerves. It moves by six muscles attached around the eyeball. Light rays entering the eye are focused by the cornea and lens which forms an image on the retina. The retina itself contains millions of light sensitive cells which convert that image to nerve impulses. Those impulses are transmitted by the optic nerves of each eye to the brain. The brain then processes that information as one coordinated image. This is happening to most of us all day and we think nothing about it. Yet, when you stop and think about it, and begin to realize what is going on for us to see, well, it is nothing short of amazing. Every day you and I experience the miracle of sight. But we do not think of it as a miracle because we take it for granted. Those who lose their sight know how wonderful eyesight really is.
While our vision usually starts out strong when we are young, it gradually weakens over time. In fact, it is one of the first things “to go” in our bodies. It is usually the first sign for teenagers that they are not invincible. This realization often begins when you get your first set of glasses. Then sometime later you may get bifocals, and then trifocals! The doctor may say that you are nearsighted, or farsighted or something like that. I had this weird experience after I was ordained as a Presbyterian pastor. Pastors generally read a lot and sometimes all of that reading necessitates a visit to the eye-doctor. That’s what happened to me when I was told I needed bifocals. “Bifocals!” I protested in my mind, “that’s for really old people!” And then he got more specific. He said that I had “presbyopia.” When I heard him say the word I wondered, “what is this, a Presbyterian disease or something?!” But no, presbyopia simply means “old eyes.” The bottom line was: I needed a new set of lenses and since I had a different prescriptions for each eye, I needed two different lenses so that I could see straight.
When we become followers of Jesus Christ, you might say we get a new set of lenses so that we can see straight. You could say that the Scriptures themselves are our new lenses. As we read the Bible we begin to see things with a Biblical worldview, through the lenses of the Bible’s big themes, such as—creation, fall, redemption, consummation. Today I’d like to speak with you about another set of lenses that we get when we start to mature as a Christian. In fact, you might say it is the preeminent set of lenses given to us. I’m thinking specifically of the cross and resurrection of Christ. These are two lenses through which we must look if we are to see straight as Christians. Looking at life through these lenses help us to see clearly. You can think of them in terms of glasses or contact lenses. I wear both. Either way I need these two lenses.
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, Paul, the apostle of Christ, summarizes the gospel that he preached. This is how he describes it:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.
A very early Christian tradition
Let’s begin with a few general observations about this passage of Scripture. Verses 1-3 tell us that he is reminding his Corinthian audience of the gospel—good news that is tremendously important. This is what he preached to them. This is what the Corinthians received from him. It transformed them. It is saving them. And he implores them to hold fast to it.
These verses also tell us that Paul was not making this stuff up. He did not invent this gospel. Rather, he received it from others. Which means that this gospel is very old. It was there from the beginning. Paul here links himself with a very early Christian tradition that was passed on to him. The verbs he uses are actually technical terms for receiving and transmitting tradition. Many scholars believe that the following verses summarize an early creed of the church. Now think of it, 1 Corinthians is generally thought to have been written between 53-55AD. The death of Jesus took place between 30-33 AD. Which means there are about 20 years between this letter and the events of crucifixion and resurrection. When Paul says he received this tradition, that means it was established earlier than that. And if it was an early creed or an established tradition, then that it takes us back within years of the original event. In other words, we are not talking about something that was made up much later by Constantine or a vote of others at the Council of Nicaea of 325 AD, (as was said by Dan Brown in his popular 2003 novel The DaVinci Code, and others like him). We are not talking about something that evolved over centuries or even decades. Rather we are talking about something that was right there near the beginning. Not only are the death of resurrection of Christ established tradition, but Paul goes on to tell us that there were many eye-witnesses of these events, and a good number of them are probably still alive who could confirm it.
Please don’t miss this point. According to Paul and this early Christian tradition, the foundation of this gospel includes two pivotal events—the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is what Paul goes on to describe in verses 3-8. At the heart of the Christian faith is not what God does to me or in me, but what God has done objectively in history in the death and resurrection of Christ. That is, the gospel includes the message of the cross and resurrection. Or as Paul writes, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,” and “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (15:3, 4). In other words, the cross and resurrection are the two summits of the one gospel. For you Coloradans, think of them as Greys and Torreys. (For outlanders, these are two 14ers, that is, they are mountains with 14,000 ft peaks, that are right next to each other. If you are trying to climb Colorado 14ers, you usually climb these two together. You can “bag” two in one day). Or, to return to my original analogy, think of them as two lenses. Paul wants the Corinthian Christians to see by this set of lenses. And since we believe this is not only Paul’s words, but God’s Word, we can say that God wants us to see straight with these two lenses.
But do we? I sometimes wonder. So often when difficulties come into our lives we become unhinged. We panic. We lose our bearings. This is a sign of weak vision. When life’s curve balls come at us, what happens to your vision? What do you do when personal disruptions shake your life?
We all know the college years are “supposed to be” idyllic, but that is often not how things actually work out. Consider some of the things that have happened in the lives of our students this year. Some of you have experienced the sudden loss of a parent or family member and it’s disrupted your studies. Others have had a major medical crisis which seemed to have come from out of the blue. Some of your parents have lost their jobs. Or family financial issues put your CCU career on risk. Some of you have had roommate issues that you did not count on. Others have had a relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend fall apart. Some have had the disappointment of a job not coming through—summer plans have fallen apart. When those things happen, what happens to your vision?
And what do you do when the disruption is more far reaching? What happens to your vision when our world is disrupted? When I originally gave this sermon, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris had just burned. The world was in shock. This was not just the loss of an historic, 800-year-old building. This was an iconic symbol of Western civilization and French nationalism. That same week we commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. Such events turned people’s worlds upside down. As I write out this sermon manuscript a year later, we are in the midst of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. Who saw this coming? It has disrupted everything. In fact, from where I sit, we are not even able to see all the ramifications yet, but we know they will be huge.
Each year, Holy Week reminds us of two other disruptions. It reminds us of the world rejecting the Son of God and madly doing away with him by crucifying him.
Yet it also reminds us of the disruption of resurrection, when the earth shook, and death’s power was broken, and Christ was raised bodily from the tomb. Year after year, we come back to these basic events of the gospel. Christ died for our sins, he was raised on the third day—crucifixion and resurrection. They are not just historical events, they are also two lenses given to us by God so that we can properly process all these disruptions and see straight.
The lens of the cross
Think with me about the lens of the cross. The cross, of course, is at the heart of the gospel. Paul writes, “Christ died for our sins … and he was buried.” He didn’t die for his sins, he died for our sins, because something was radically wrong with us. Paul also says, “He was buried,” which is a confirmation that Jesus really died. The cross reminds us of all kinds of things. It reminds us of the holiness of God. It reminds us of his just judgment of sin. It reminds us of our rebellion and brokenness. It reminds us of the world’s rebellion and brokenness. It reminds us of life under the curse and the reality of death. It reminds us that some people hate the light, they hate what is good.
The cross also reminds us of our desperate need for a savior. It reminds us of God’s merciful provision in providing a substitute. For this was a substitutionary atonement where Jesus took the wrath that we deserved and absorbed it in himself. He was the propitiation for our sins. The cross further reminds us of the cost of following Jesus as one of his disciples. We are to take up our crosses daily, which means we are to die daily to our old life and follow him.
The cross is the first lens that God gives us. Are you looking through this lens? Is it firmly in place? If not, go ahead and put it in. Make sure it’s there, that it’s a part of your prescription for correct vision to see clearly.
I vividly remember the day of the Columbine shooting. I was senior pastor at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church, and I happened to live near Columbine High School. Immediately after I learned of the shooting, I decided to drive over and volunteer as a crisis counselor that afternoon. It was a terrible and long day. That evening when I arrived at home, I received a call from the office of then-Governor Bill Owens. His assistant press secretary attended our church, which I didn’t know about. When I spoke with her that night she said, “We’re looking for a pastor to be at the Columbine school for a CNN interview very early in the morning, 5:00 AM and I can’t find anybody willing to do that. Would you come on and talk about a pastoral response for students who are going through the crisis?” I reluctantly said “yes.”
Here’s what shocked the nation about the Columbine shooting. Lots of people said it could never happen here, because this is Columbine High School, in the beautiful foothills of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. I remember the cover of Time Magazine from that following week. The caption read, “The monsters next door. What made them do it?” Many people basically pointed their fingers at “those two boys, those monsters.” “They’re the problem,” they said. And I remember thinking, “It’s actually more than that,” because what drove those two kids is in all of us. It’s the problem of our own sin nature which shows itself in all kinds of dysfunctions, hatreds, and cruel acts. In my view, it’s as old as Cain and Abel. Mix that up with estrangement from parents, media violence, etc., and there is potential for great evil. That’s what’s going on, I thought. Columbine confronted us with our own wretchedness, just like the cross confronts us with our sinfulness and the need for a savior.
We are desperate and need someone to save us from ourselves and from God’s just judgment. We need someone to intervene, and the cross tells us that someone has. God sent his son to die for us and for our sins.
The cross not only reminds us of the reality of God’s judgment and salvation, it also reminds us of the reality of suffering in this broken world. All of us will soon know the reality of suffering. If you live long enough, you’re going to suffer. If you follow Jesus long enough, you’re going to suffer. That is another reason why we need the lens of the cross because it reminds us of these hard but important realities.
Thankfully the cross also reminds us that God understands our suffering. He has been there. When trouble comes, we sometimes cry out, “God, how could you let this happen to me? God, don’t you understand what I am going through?” The Bible reminds us that he does understand. He has experienced the worst of it. He sent his Son who was betrayed, who found no justice in the court system, who was denied by his friends, deserted, mocked, abused, hated, denounced, humiliated, stripped naked, flogged, brutalized, but in a way that infinitely exceeds anything we will ever know. Worst of all, he mysteriously experienced the absence of his Father as he bore the sins of the world taking hell for us. The cross reminds us that God has been there. There is no suffering we can bear that he does not know from the inside. Yet he can place his redemptive hand on any suffering we experience and work through it, bringing good out of it.
I’m wondering, is that lens firmly in place in your eye? Do you look at life through the lens of the cross of Christ? If that lens is not in place, you will be shocked by the difficult disruptions of life. You’ll be thrown off course. You won’t be able to process it rightly. You won’t be able to stand firm in times of trouble. If that lens is in place, however, you will be able to withstand the troubles that will pummel you.
Do you have that lens firmly in place?
The Lens of the Resurrection
There is a second lens that we need to look through: the lens of the resurrection. Our text says that Christ “was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive …” (1 Cor. 15:4-6). Then he appeared to James, Jesus’ half-brother, who would’ve been a great skeptic. Then, finally, he appeared to Paul as well.
Do you have the corrective lens of the resurrection firmly in place? The resurrection reminds us of many important truths, just as the cross does. It reminds us that the cross was an effective sacrifice for sin. It reminds us that death is not the final word. It reminds us that there’s victory over evil, and there’s power that comes from on high. It reminds us that there’s hope even when we fail.
Think about this for a minute. When Jesus rose from the dead, it vindicated all his claims. He was declared to be the Son of God with power. It was a declaration that Christ’s atoning work on the cross was a sufficient payment for our sin. Our sin debt was paid in full. Redemption was accomplished. Reconciliation is now possible. We can be justified in God’s sight because the righteous Jesus has paid it all.
The resurrection means that death doesn’t have the final word. How good is that? Death, sin, and the powers of hell met their match in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was impossible for death to hold him. Evil does not win. Best of all, the resurrection means Jesus is still around. Isn’t that good news? When we pray, he’s there to talk to. When we worship, we can really worship knowing that he’s with us. The resurrection means new beginnings are possible. New things can be raised up from ashes. Large stones in our life can be rolled away. The resurrection means that I have a future hope. If something happens to me tomorrow, and I drop over dead, if I get the virus and it’s one of those worst case scenarios, I still have a glorious future in Jesus Christ. Why? Because his resurrection guarantees my resurrection. There is life beyond the grave! Jesus is the firstborn of the dead, but there will be more to follow.
Does your vision include resurrection? Do you have that lens firmly in place?
Getting Out of Balance and Operating With Only One Lens
Sadly, I find that many Christians only operate with one lens! Consequently, we easily get out of balance. Our vision is distorted. It happens in many different ways. Allow me to give three examples from church history.
On the one hand, I’ve seen a lot of what I call “cross-only Christians.” They emphasize the cross often to the exclusion of the resurrection. It is not that they disbelieve in resurrection, they just don’t emphasize it. As a consequence, they tend to be joyless. They don’t live in the good news. Sometimes, they’re overly pessimistic. They celebrate Good Friday, but in their hearts, they never quite make it to Easter. There’s no victory. This actually happened in the early church with some Christians who chose to celebrate Easter on the date of the Jewish Passover because Jesus was crucified at Passover. For them a theology of crucifixion and suffering became the center of the Easter liturgy, not a theology of hope.
This also carried into the medieval church where it became a rationale for excessive asceticism. One sometimes sees this still played out in Latin America where Jesus is the dying hero, depicted with gruesome realism in the stations of the cross, but you don’t get any sense that he’s risen from the dead. You see it again in mainline Protestant rationalism, where they often reject a bodily resurrection, which means, all they have left is a crucified, dead Jesus who somehow inspires faith. They have an example of sacrifice, but there is no power. It’s pretty hopeless.
Just as there are what I call “cross-only Christians,” I’ve also met a number of what I’ll call “resurrection-only Christians.” Have you met them? I mean, it’s the opposite thing with them: resurrection without the cross, Easter without Good Friday.
This was evidenced by some in the early church by Christians who moved away from tying Easter with Passover, but instead kept Easter on Sunday, because Jesus rose on a Sunday. Consequently, they emphasized a theology of resurrection, liberation and hope, but did not have much of a theology of suffering.
Martin Luther encountered this in the late medieval church. He contrasted those who have a “theology of glory” without a “theology of the cross.” Theologians of glory boast of human glory and strength; they do not take sin seriously or see the value of suffering, let alone realize that God is at work in our suffering. They prefer strength to weakness and glory to the cross and overall tend to minimize the difficult, painful things of life while maximizing victory. Theologians of the cross on the other hand do not sugarcoat the hard realities of sin, brokenness and redemptive suffering. They understand that God often achieves his purposes in unexpected ways, preferring to work through weakness rather than strength.
For it was through the humility of the cross that he accomplished his greatest work.
Resurrection-only Christians are evident in today’s world as well. It shows itself in today’s church when we expect to win all our battles, to find all the answers, to find total success, to live happily ever after now in this world. We think we’re entitled to our “best life now,” but when trouble comes along, we are thrown off course and don’t know what to do, because we have only one lens in place. Our vision is distorted. We run to Easter Sunday and have no time for Good Friday.
I’ve even seen this in young seminary students preparing to go into a pastoral ministry. Some of them think, “I’m going to be the next Tim Keller or Francis Chan,” but they don’t realize the suffering involved in ministry. They tend to be “resurrection-only Christians.” In theological terms, they have an over-realized eschatology. They expect things immediately that will only come after much sacrifice and hardship. They want the return and reign of Christ now but have no room for tribulation. They are a lot like Peter. When Jesus told Peter that he must suffer and die, what did Peter say? He said, “No way, Lord. You can’t do that. That’s not part of the picture here.” Originally, Peter had no room for a cross. Jesus replied, “Get behind me, Satan.”
Getting Our Sight back
Our problem is that we so easily get out of balance. We tend to be “cross-only Christians” or “resurrection-only Christians.” The key to getting our sight back, though, is to look through both corrective lenses along the lines that Paul described in 1 Corinthians 15.
We must hold them together. The cross and resurrection are two parts of one gospel. We need the cross. We need the resurrection. They are inseparably linked in the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. To conceive of Christ without one or the other is to distort his identity and mission. Of himself, Paul prayed “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him I his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10, 11).
Do you have both lenses in place?
When you have the cross and the resurrection as your two lenses, you have both biblical realism and biblical hope. There’s a realism, what John Stott called a “sober-minded biblical realism,” yet there is also a firm and fixed hope on what is to come.
It’s amazing what these lenses can do for the sight of a Christian today. My hope and prayer is that this Holy Week, instead of just running right to Easter, you would slow it down and take time to be in God’s Word and walk through the week with Jesus. Read a book about the work of Christ to deepen your faith and understanding of the work of Christ. Read a devotional that takes you to Mount Calvary and the garden tomb. Go to services at your church.
Let me again take you back to where we began, with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He said, this is the gospel which you received and in which you stand, and by which you are being saved. Now, hold fast to it. That’s God’s word to you: “Hold it fast.” Correct your vision.
Hear these words one more time, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”
What God has joined together, do not separate.
Father God, we do thank you for your goodness, and we thank you for the gospel, which is our hope. We thank you for the gift of your Son, and so, as we go through this important week, Great Week, Passion Week, Holy Week, help us to fix our minds on these great redemptive events, and let them be an anchor for our soul.
Let them be as corrective lenses for our eyes, so that, as life happens, that we have a deep Christ-centered stability and hold fast to the gospel. And now, Lord, would you please bless our students. Would you keep them. Would you make your face shine upon them and be gracious to them? I ask these things in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And all God’s people said-AMEN.