Sermon: The X Factor
Scripture: John 20:19-30
Date: April 30, 2017
The other day I overheard the conversation of a couple of young people about their algebra homework. It seemed they were having a real struggle with it. And I wanted to say to them. It’s okay. You don’t have to be good at algebra to be a success in life, to assure them that there was life after algebra. I know. Because I am an algebra survivor. Now in high school, Algebra was no problem. I had Mrs. Hockensmith for both Algebra I and Algebra II. Now I am confident that in her day, Mrs. Hockensmith had been a fine algebra teacher. But when I had her, she was just a bit beyond her prime. I always suspected that when she looked at us, in her mind, she saw a fifth-grade class, rather than high school students. And she taught us like we were fifth graders. Consequently, I got good grades, but I really didn’t get Algebra. And so, when I got to college and had to take Algebra, it was a completely different story. Now in Algebra we would be given these story problems like: “Jimmy gets in his car in New York at 8:00 A.M. and travels for 500 miles until he arrived at his destination at 8:00 P.M. Solve for X where X equals Mile Per Hour.” I think my problem was that I had a fundamental issue with the whole concept. I mean what difference did it make? What difference did Miles Per Hour make when you already knew where you left from, where you were going and when you arrived? And then I also had a problem with reducing fractions. Where X was the lowest common denominator. You know the problem 6/8=x/4. Solve for x. In my non-mathematical mind, 6/8 was just as descriptive to me as 3/4. Poor Mrs. Hockinsmith. I wonder if it was a coincidence that she retired the same year I had her for Algebra 2. Algebra was all about trying to find the X factor. Trying to reduce equations to the lowest common denominator. Looking back on my three years of Algebra, I realize that all of those formulas have left me over the years, but the concept of reducing life to the X factor, the lowest common denominator has remained. Perhaps that concept alone made those three years of algebra agony worthwhile. In fact, the more complicated life becomes (and I don’t know about you but I frequently find life to be very complicated), the more I find myself trying to find that X factor. And certainly, I find that true of faith.
I often hear people say that faith is a simple matter. But I don’t find it to be that way. There is so much of it that is beyond any previous experience. I find the story of Jesus to be a very complicated matter. Consider for a moment. Thousands of years before Jesus was born, prophets were talking about His life, often in striking detail. And then there is the miraculous conception and birth. That’s hard to really get your head around. And there are the miracles which challenge our understanding of the ways of the world. Coming to establish the church, yet, in essence, rejecting the church as it was. Crucified by the very people He came to save. And then Resurrection. There doesn’t seem to be anything simple about Jesus to me. And yet when we share His story, the challenge we face is putting it in understandable terms. And where do we start. Well, I think we start with the lowest common denominator. We solve for X.
I don’t know if there is any correlation between this need to solve for X and the fact that one of the earliest symbols that Jesus followers used to identify themselves was an X. It was a part of the Chi Rho (show picture) which were the first two Greek letters in Christ. Especially in times of persecution, when the followers would need to gather in secret, they would place an X on the door to where they were going to meet to let people know. The early church knew what the X meant. They knew what it meant to solve for X.
So perhaps the faith equation can best be expressed as Jesus plus X= new life. And as people of faith we are to solve for X. So how does all that we know of Jesus add up? What is the X factor of faith?
Let me suggest to you that that is the problem which is confronting the Disciples in John’s description of the hours following the resurrection of Jesus. It just doesn’t add up. They are still gathered together in fear in the Upper Room. Behind locked doors. I wonder if they were locked to protect them from the Romans and the Jews, or were they locked against the possibility that the women were right and that Jesus was alive. Were they afraid of His judgement after they had deserted Him and denied Him when he had needed them the most? Surely, they were no better than Judas, and his fate had been death. Is that what awaited them if it was true that Jesus was alive? How could they make sense of all of this? And the reality was that they could not make sense of it, because they had not yet solved for X. Because you see, they were familiar with the concept of a Messiah that died. Their history was full of them. People who rose to prominence, brought great hope to the people, sometimes people like Judas Maccabees who led a revolution that at least temporarily ended in self rule for Israel less than 100 years before Jesus. He even ended up on Jewish coins, an honor usually afforded to Gods or Kings. Or like John the Baptist (show picture) who proposed a completely new understanding of faith based on repentance and Baptism. Did you know that some of Jesus’ disciples had been disciples of John before he was put to death? But those “messiahs” always ended up dying. Along the way, they had offended enough people that those enemies eventually banded together and put an end to the messiah. And then the people waited for the next Messiah to come. Such had been the case with Jesus. So, they understood a Messiah who died. The common denominator for a Jewish Messiah was death. And so, in time, all of this would blow over. A new threat would arise. The authorities would lose interest in them and they could go back to their boats and fish. And they would remember a good man, crucified. It would end there, just as it always did. Unless the women were right. Unless Jesus was alive again. They understood a Messiah who died, but they could not comprehend a Messiah who came back to life. That kind of Messiah was not likely to let them go back to their nets and old ways of life. A resurrected Messiah was beyond the boundaries of their faith. A resurrected Messiah would live on. You see, Resurrection is the X factor that separates Christianity from Judaism and all other faiths. Because Christ refused to stay in the grave, new life came into the world. In Algebraic terms – Jesus plus resurrection=new life. Resurrection is the X factor. You see, crucifixion made Jesus a martyr (and there are always martyrs for just about any cause), but it was the fact of His resurrection that made Him different then all the rest. Resurrection made Him Lord and Savior of all. And so, 2000 years later we just don’t recall a good man who was willing to die for what he believed and taught, we celebrate a living Lord. Resurrection is the difference, the X factor, not just for Jesus, but for us. He stepped into the midst of the confused and frightened Disciples as the resurrected Lord offering them peace where there was only turmoil, joy where there had been such intense sorrow, proof where there was doubt, and hope and faith. And when we solve for X, He does the same for us.
Consider the story of two very prominent persons:
The year was 1889. Dwight L. Moody was an acclaimed evangelist and Robert Ingersoll was a famous lawyer, orator and politician.
The two men had many similarities. Both had been raised in Christian homes. Both were powerful speakers – drawing huge crowds when they spoke. But there was one major difference between them – their view of God.
Ingersoll was an agnostic. He did not believe in the eternal, but stressed the importance of living only in the here and now. He made light of the Bible, saying that it was a “fable, a sham and a lie.” Moody, of course, had different convictions. He dedicated his life to presenting the resurrected Lord to dying people. He embraced the Bible as the hope for humanity. He left behind a legacy of faith, institutions of education and churches and changed lives. Two men, similar in many ways. But yet Moody‘s name and influence lives on while Ingersoll has faded into obscurity.
According to one writer: “The impact of their decisions is seen most clearly in the way they died. Ingersoll died suddenly. The news of his death stunned his family. His body was kept at home for several days because his wife was reluctant to part with it. It was eventually removed for the sake of the family‘s health.
Ingersoll‘s remains were cremated, and the public response to his passing was altogether dismal. For a man who put all his hopes on the world, death was tragic and came without the consolation of hope. Moody‘s legacy was different. On December 22, 1899, Moody awoke to his last winter dawn. Having grown increasingly weak during the night, he began to speak in slow measured words. ‘Earth recedes, heaven opens before me!’ His son, who was nearby, hurried across the room to his father’s side. ‘Father, you are dreaming,’ he said.
‘No, this is no dream,’ Moody said, ‘It is beautiful. If this is death, it is sweet. God is calling me, and I must go. Don‘t call me back.’ Moments later the great evangelist died. . . There was no despair. Loved ones gathered to sing praise to God at a triumphant home-going service. And they recalled the words that Moody had spoken earlier that year: ‘Someday you will read in the papers that Moody is dead. Don‘t you believe a word of it. At that moment, I shall be more alive than I am now. I was born in the flesh in 1837, I was born of the spirit in 1855. That which is born of the flesh may die. That which is born of the Spirit shall live forever.‘
How did Moody know? He had solved for X. He had lived his life in the presence of the Living, Resurrected Lord. Look what John tells us. Sometimes in the excitement of the post resurrection appearance we miss this. But he tells us that Jesus said to the Disciples “Peace to you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In a sense this was the first Pentecost. And that’s what Moody meant when he spoke of those born of the Spirit would never die. That’s the X factor of our faith. The peace that Jesus spoke of was not one of peace as defined by the world. From this point on the Disciples will lead anything but peaceful lives. Most all who gathered in that room would know the sting of the whip, some more than once, and would die violent deaths, but because of the resurrection they would do so with the peace and assurance that they would live forever. The X factor. It was the fact of resurrection that transformed them. And not only them, but it blew the doors off the Upper Room and the whole world through 200 centuries was transformed. Will Willison, I think comes close to capturing the awesome power of the resurrection to transform when he says:
Easter is the supreme act of God in which God, determined to have creation back, overturns the power of death and evil. Easter is that great loving act in which God reaches out to get us back, to get back what belongs to Him.
While the disciples debated about whether they should leave the security of the upper room to go and see if the tomb was really empty, to search for Jesus, He came to them. One writer says: Easter is about Jesus coming to us, reaching out to us across the great abyss of death and telling us to be at peace. See me, touch me, feel my wounds, believe. And now that you have seen, go out and tell those who cannot see. Willimon goes on:
You cannot get from this ragtag gang of disheartened, disillusioned, fearful disciples crouching behind locked doors to the great apostles who preached, witnessed, suffered and died unless there is some unknown that intruded in among them (an X factor) that radically changed them and their world.
And what was that unknown. It was not the teachings of the three years. (In the terrible events of the past few days his words had faded from their consciousness.) It was not the miracles and the healings. (They meant nothing without the miracle worker.) It was not the cross. It was the horror of the cross that drove them into hiding in the first place. No, the unknown, the X factor, was resurrection. Because He lived, their faith lived. Because He would live forever, so would they.
And so, it is with you and I. Into the confusion and bewilderment and fear and even pain of our lives. When the darkness and shadows of the world threaten to close in upon us, the living Lord comes. “Peace to you. Not the kind of peace the world gives, but my peace which is forever. The peace of resurrection. New life out of the tombs of the old.” And when we solve for
X, when we get it – we proclaim, like Thomas, “My Lord and My God.“
Several years ago, Bob Carlisle, a contemporary Christian singer released a song called The Rest of All Time which I think captures that moment when we solve for X, when we finally get what Resurrection means for us:
I never needed anyone. Did all that I could not to be more. I not only closed the door, I hid my heart away. But your love found my hiding place. And I’ll give the rest of my life to you, from the depths of my soul. I give the best I can be for the rest of all time. Because of resurrection. Isn’t it time to stop hiding in fear? Thinking that you’re safe behind closed doors and hardened hearts. Isn’t it time to feel the breath of God’s Spirit on your soul? It’s the gift of Easter. The X factor that completes the equation. Jesus plus resurrection = new life for you.
Gary Habermus has spent his life trying to understand the resurrection of Jesus. He figures prominently in the movie “The Case for Christ” as one of the scholars that Lee Strobel consulted in trying to solve the X factor. But none of his scholarly work has the impact of his personal testimony when he writes:
In 1995 my wife, Debbie, had the flu. When it didn’t go away as quickly as it should have, we went to the hospital for tests. The first sentence I remember that the doctor uttered to Debbie was, “You’ve got some serious problems here. ”
My heart sank into my stomach. I had to sit down. Little did I know that my belief in Jesus‘ resurrection was about to be severely tested by the sting of pain and grief. Debbie was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Four months later, at the age of 43 years, she passed away just after we celebrated our twenty-third wedding anniversary. I had lost my best friend….
During Debbie’s suffering, I regularly took refuge in the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. It had been my major research area for 25 years, and I appreciated a student who asked, “What would you do now if Jesus hadn’t been raised from the dead?”
I knew that the resurrection had a historical, theoretical side, but I wasn’t fully aware of its practical power....
Jesus’ bodily resurrection occupies the very center of the Christian faith. After he died on the cross to pay for our sins, Jesus was raised from the dead. He appeared to many people in his physical body that was now immortal.
How did all this help me while Debbie was dying? I imagined what God might say to me in response to my questions about Debbie. He would ask me,
“Gary, did I raise my Son from the dead?”
“Of course, you did, Lord,” I would respond. “But why is Debbie dying?”
“Gary, did I raise my Son from the dead?” the question would come again. “Yes, Lord, but… “
“Gary, did I raise my Son from the dead?”
I imagined God repeating the same question until I got his point There was an answer to Debbie’s suffering, even if I didn’t know it. If Jesus has been raised, then I can trust that Debbie will be raised too.
It was sufficient to know that because of Jesus’ resurrection, and because Debbie and I belong to Jesus, then we will be together again-for all eternity!
That’s the X factor of our faith. Because Christ is raised you can have that kind of hope. Because Christ is raised you can have that assurance. Because Christ is raised, you can have that kind of eternity. This morning, this moment, give the rest of all time to Him and he’ll give you forever. Because of resurrection.