To See and Believe
An Easter Homily
What is the meaning of life? Why are we all here? I don’t just mean here in this church on Easter Sunday, but here in the world? The dominant secular culture today will tell you that you have to decide that for yourself; that you have to make your own meaning — which sounds nice; unless you take it seriously and start to think about it for any length of time, for to say we have to create our own meaning is the same as saying life doesn’t have any meaning at all. That’s why we have to create it, because there is no intrinsic meaning, no purpose to our existence, other than whatever you think up in your head; so you’re free to ascribe to your life whatever meaning you want. Whatever makes you happy, right?
The idea that life means whatever we want it to mean stems from a materialist philosophy that denies the existence of any metaphysical, spiritual reality. In other words, the only real things are things we can see, touch, taste, hear and smell. Things we can measure. In this world view, we are all here because over the course of billions of years, random atoms and elements have come together and reacted with one another in such a way that you and I have come to be. Life arose because of a series of accidental chemical reactions. And when we die all these chemical processes will end and you and I will end. We will disappear into oblivion. The only “good news” of secular materialism is at least we won’t know we’re in oblivion because there won’t be any “us.” And this is no real loss because there was never really any “us” to begin with. There is no such thing as a metaphysical person; what we call consciousness and personality are just illusions created by physical processes in the brain. So yes, ascribe any meaning you want to your life, because it doesn’t really matter in the end.
That’s one story you can believe. But there is another.
There is no reason to believe the universe lacks meaning. It is quite presumptuous to assume that what we can see and measure are the only things that exist. It is entirely rational to peer into your microscope or gaze into your telescope and see order and design and purpose at the smallest and largest scales. You can discover wonder in the universe if you have eyes open to see it. You can climb to the top of a mountain and look across the landscape, you can watch the sun set over the hills and the light play across the clouds in an array of color and recognize that beauty as a work of art, and wonder who the Artist might be. You can recognize the work of the same Artist when you look at the face of a newborn baby. Maybe you can even recognize it in the mirror. You are a work of art. Who designed you? And why? You can ask the question, “What is the meaning of my life?” and know that the answer to that question is not something you imagine for yourself, but something greater than yourself, something real, something you can discover and be amazed by.
You can choose to look at the world in this way. It is no less plausible than secular materialism — in fact it is much more likely. Because secular materialism is incapable of answering the biggest question which is why there should be anything at all. The universe can’t create itself. It has a Creator. And that means you have a Creator. And that means you are intentional. You have a purpose. The good news of this world view is that you are wanted and loved. That also happens to be the good news proclaimed by Christ.
What we profess in our faith is that God created the universe, not because he needed to, but because he is good. In that universe of wonder, God created certain beings that were not merely animal, vegetable or mineral, but people — creatures made in his own image, with immortal spirits capable of knowing and loving; and he gave us this capacity not only to know and love the world he had made, but to know and love him just as he knows and loves each one of us. In other words we were made for our own sake, to be in friendship with God.
But something happened. Early on in our existence that friendship with God was broken. We used the freedom God gave us to turn away from Him. That’s the risk God took by making us free. We had to be free to love him, but that freedom also allows us to hate him, or worse, to ignore him. Sin entered into the world and with it came death, because sin separates us from the source of our life. It makes us less like God, less like the people we were made to be. We lose ourselves in sin and begin to fade away. We forget who we are.
But God, for his part, never stops loving us. He sees the condition into which we have fallen and in his justice and his mercy he goes about setting things right. Without God we were lost, wandering in the wilderness, but he found us. He revealed himself to us and began to form a people for himself. He established a covenant with Abraham. He gave his law to Moses. He spoke to us through the prophets. He chose a particular people, the people of Israel, to mold after his own mind and heart, and said “I will make this people my own.” He revealed himself to them not just as their Creator but as their Father, and instilled in them the hope of a Messiah, an Anointed One, who would come and set things right. Why these people among all others? Because in the fullness of time, when all the conditions of history were just what they needed to be, God himself would enter into the world among these chosen people. Emmanuel, which means God-with-us, was born to a virgin in a small town named Bethlehem; and he was given the name Jesus, which means “Savior.”
The Greeks used the word Logos, which means “the Word,” to describe the rational force behind all of existence, and John, who was Jesus’ beloved disciple, used the same word to describe his Master when he wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race” (Jn 1:1-4).
This Word, this life, this light shining in the darkness, came to his own people and his own people rejected him. Why? Because they were blinded by sin. Sin makes us stupid. Jesus walked among them, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, calling for repentance and preaching mercy and forgiveness, all the while saying, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” And for this they said, he must die.
But he took their abuse, as Isaiah prophesied that he must. He, the almighty God, in the form of man, allowed himself to be accused, arrested, tortured, mocked and spat upon, stripped of his garments and his dignity, and nailed to a cross. And as we did this to our God — as he allowed us to do this to him — he said, “Father, forgive them.”
The Word of God died on that cross. This is a great mystery. God cannot die. God is the source of all life, the primordial reality underpinning all of existence. There is no force greater than God that could act upon him. But God humbled himself to become one of us. As a man, he was vulnerable. He could suffer. He could be tired, cold and hungry. He could feel the lashes on his back and the thorns piercing his scalp, the nails being driven through his wrists. So God truly died on that cross. Why? Jesus himself tells us: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend.” God became one of us to lay down his life for us, to show us the greatness of his love. Because despite the many ways we reject him, he calls us his friends. That’s how much our God loves us.
So the immortal and eternal God died on that cross. This is a paradox that we cannot wrap our minds around. But that’s OK, because it stands to reason that God’s ways would be unfathomable to us. What we do know is that something happened to death on that day, when the Author of Life passed through its dark gates.
Jesus died on a Friday, which was the day of preparation for the sabbath. Because no work could be done on the sabbath, his body was prepared quickly and laid in the tomb. Those who loved him were not able to anoint his precious body the way they would have liked. So on the day after the sabbath, that is, Sunday, Mary Magdalene, who loved Jesus very much, came back to the tomb very early in the morning with oils to finish the anointing. But she discovered something that rocked her to the core. The stone covering the entrance had been rolled back. The tomb itself was empty.
She thought what any of us would have thought. Someone has stolen his body. After all the trauma of the past few days, this was just adding insult to injury. Her heart must have broken even more than it already was. In tears, she ran to Peter and John and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb and we don’t know where they put him.” Peter and John ran to check it out. And what they found there didn’t look like a grave robbery. Instead they found the burial cloths that had covered his face and his body neatly folded up and laid to the side, like someone had carefully made their bed after waking up from sleep.
John writes that at that moment, he saw and believed. In the days that followed, Jesus would appear to his disciples multiple times and teach them many things before ascending forty days later to be with his Father in heaven. He said he was going to prepare a place for us. The testimony of the disciples who witnessed the resurrection is recorded in the gospels, and most of them would go on to endure a death like Christ’s for their belief. They did so happily, confident in their faith that death was not the end; knowing that Christ had conquered death, that if we die with Christ we will also rise with Christ on that final day of consummation, when the purpose of the universe and the meaning of our lives will be revealed, that blessed day when we will be fully known and fully loved.
That’s also a story you can believe. It’s the best kind of story because it’s a true story, not written in a book but written in the pages of history. It’s a love story about you and me and God. In this story we discover the meaning of our life, which is to know, love and serve the God who made the universe. But even more than that, we discover the good news that God knows, loves, and serves us, too. We can shut our eyes to that truth and refuse to see the beauty in front of us. Or, like John, we can gaze into the empty tomb with open eyes, and we can see and believe.