THE WIDENING CIRCLE
Stephen M. Crotts
“…He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. Then He appeared to more than five hundred brethren 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.”
I Corinthains 15:4-8
Let’s suppose you toss a pebble into a quiet pool of water. What happens? There is a splash and immediately a series of concentric waves spread out wider until they lap against every shore. The great events of history have made their splash like that, and today we live among the ripples. At the time of the immediate splash the witnesses to the event may be few. But when history begins to mark the ripples as they reach every shore we realize just how great the event really was. Such was the case when the telephone was invented. Only Watson and Bell were acute witnesses, but the ripples have been felt in all our homes.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ made a big splash in history, but went little noticed at the time. A few women, a handful of apostles, a group of people in an out-of-the-way nation—they were the only ones to actually witness the resurrection. Yet the ripples of that event have washed against the shores of every land for nearly tow thousand years!
I have noticed a tendency among some moderns to consign the resurrection to the realm of a few. One young college student old me, “Christianity is for little old ladies, weak men with stained glass minds, and children who enjoy fantasy.” She saw the appeal of Christ as cutting a narrow swath through humanity, sort of like a format that passes through in a straight line disturbing some and ignoring others. Yet quite the opposite is true! The ripples of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection have spread out in every direction and found converts of every kind. Just look at the record!
The text tells us that Peter was a witness to the resurrection. He was a
fisherman, little educated, swaggering, impulsive, and given to fits of temper. And he experienced the ripples of Easter and believed.
Perhaps Peter’s modern day counterpart is country singer Johnny Cash. He is little educated. He learned how to play a guitar and drink whiskey in the Air
Force. And in 1956 a hit song of his own composition, “I Walk the Line” opened the door to world fame. But while professionally everything went right, personally everything went wrong. Music was to lead him up, while alcohol and drugs were to drag him down. Three times he was jailed for possession of drugs. He began to fumble and miss concerts. And it looked like Johnny Cash was finished.
But on Sunday, May 9, 1971, Cash was sitting in a small church just outside Nashville. For some months he’d been attending this church. And at the close of worship the pastor asked for any who wished to accept Christ to step forward. Suddenly Johnny Cash stood up and walked forward to kneel and pray. In his autobiography titled, The New Johnny Cash, he wrote, “I made a complete dedication of my life to Jesus Christ. I don’t have a career any more. What I now have is a ministry.”
The risen Christ came to Johnny Cash and Peter. He came amid their personal defeats and growing helplessness. Theirs was no intellectual struggle but a cry to be free from guilt and compulsive habits. And the risen Christ appeared even to them.
The text also tells us that the ripples of Easter encompassed the apostles, and
one of the apostles was a man named Thomas. Now Thomas was your average skeptic. He was loyal and sincere, but he was a doubter. I’m sure that if Thomas had been an American he’d have been from Missouri, the “Show Me” state! When Tom heard someone say, “Christ is risen,” it seemed to him an idle tale. “When a man is dead, he’s dead. I’ve always said that,” Thomas thought. But then came the ripples of Easter and wave after wave of convincing evidence left Tom kneeling at Christ’s feet saying, “My Lord and my God!’
Thomas’ modern day equivalent could be a man like Malcolm Muggeridge. This man, an Englishman, was a typical product of our highly intellectualized Western culture. A university lecturer, journalist, and news editor, he found fame and fortune. But gradually he began to realize that materialism was not enough. He began to search for something to fill the emptiness in his life. Money, clothes, travel, food, education—these just weren’t enough. He felt like he was made for more. So it was that Malcolm Muggeridge traveled to Israel with a camera team to film the story of Jesus for the British Broadcasting Company.
One day he and a friend walked the six miles between Jerusalem and Emmaus. And it was on that road while discussing Christianity with a friend that God made His approach to Malcolm’s life. And Malcolm met that approach with a simple yes of faith.
In his autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time, Muggeridge laments to God, “Somehow I missed you. You called to me and I didn’t answer. Oh, those empty
years, those empty words, that empty passion!” But now Malcolm Muggeridge is full. Christ has filled his aching void with peace. And Muggeridge testifies, “I believe Jesus Christ is alive now. He exists now as a person who can be reached. In some unique way the thought, the teaching, the person of this man are still here.” And so it is, as the text says, that Christ appeared last of all to one untimely born. Muggeridge didn’t see the actual splash, but he did experience the ripples of Easter. And it changed his life!
A GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL
The text also includes Matthew in the number of those who witnessed the
resurrection. He was one of “the twelve” mentioned in our text. Now Matthew was a government bureaucrat. He was a tax collector. He was accustomed to dealing with formality, with currency. And to him came the risen Christ. And Matthew believed.
Today, “as to one untimely born,” Christ has come to Chuck Colson. Himself a corrupt government official formerly on the Nixon White House staff, Colson was also a cut and dried personality. He wielded power, had status, but didn’t know Jesus Christ. Yet in God’s grace the ripples of Easter widened to include even him. His book, Born Again, tells how a friend shared the claims of Jesus Christ with him. It tells how Colson groped through tears and pride to discover the unconditional love of a Savior. Colson now works with prison reform and the Washington prayer group movement.
Working class people, doubters, government officials—the gospel has
claimed all sorts. But what about intellectuals?
In the text St. Paul mentions his own encounter with Christ. An extremely
well educated man, Paul was a zealous Jew. He considered the Christian faith to be utter nonsense, rubbish—and he diligently persecuted the church. But then on the road to Damascus the ripples of Easter swept over Paul and the risen Christ and claimed another soul.
Paul’s modern counterpart, himself, as was Paul, untimely born, is C.S. Lewis. A literary genius, a professor at Oxford University, Lewis was an atheist. To him all religion was a worn superstition clouding men’s minds. But quite against his inclinations C.S. Lewis was led on a long intellectual journey that took him to Jesus. In his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, Lewis says, “You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I do earnestly desire not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that
night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” And so it was that, to one untimely born, Christ appeared to C.S. Lewis.
A SOCIAL OUTCAST
Is Easter just for little old ladies, men with stained glass minds, and children
who love fantasy? No! The evidence proves strongly otherwise! Blue collar workers, doubters, government officials, even intellectuals have encountered the risen Christ and embrace Him by faith.. The resurrection has not cut a narrow swath through history; it has, rather, like concentric circles spread out in all directions to wash on every shore!
The text tells us that Mary Magdalene was a witness to the resurrection. She was one of the 500. In fact, she was the first to witness this greatest splash in history! Now, Mary had been a prostitute before she met Christ. She had been possessed by demons, and was what some today might call a social misfit, an outcast. Yes even to her did Christ come.
I suppose if you were to look for Mary’s equal in today’s world you could do no better than Mildred G. Sisk. Most of you elders will remember her as “Axis Sally,” a woman who, like Tokyo Rose, tried to lesson the will to fight of the American armed forces in World War II by radio propaganda. If in 1945 someone had told you that God loved traitorous Axis Sally, that He was seeking her as a shepherd seeks his sheep, wouldn’t you have scoffed saying, “That’s just preacher talk!”? Yet “Axis Sally,” who spent twelve years in prison, has become a Catholic convert and now teaches music in a Columbus, Ohio, convent.
CROWD OF 500
The text says that the resurrection was not done in a corner. In broad
daylight Jesus appeared to over 500 people of all abilities, backgrounds, mind sets, and ethic origins. When Paul wrote this text the inference was, “look, the resurrection is no hoax! 500 people saw the splash! Most of them are still living. If you don’t believe me, go talk to them!”
I could go on giving you story after story that bears testimony to the fact that Christ is risen, that Jesus Christ is a living power in the world today. History is filled with testimony like this. Only the names and places are different.
I could tell you of playboys like Augustine who have met Christ. I could tell you about Roman Emperor Constantine and former President Jimmy Carter, both Christian converts. On and on I can go. Pop singer B.J. Thomas, novelist Leo Tolstoy, poet T.S. Elliot, musician George F. Handel, lawyer John Calvin, athlete Roger Stauback, black gang leaders Tom Skinner and Eldridge Cleaver, scientists like George Washington Carver, and Soviet exiles like Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Some events in history make their splash and send out ripples in every direction. But those ripples grow fainter and fainter as time wears on until the pool I still again. Yet for Christ the reverse is true. Instead of growing fainter and fainter Easter’s endless story grows with intensity as wave after wave of the good news spreads over all the earth.
Will you let me ask you a personal question? Can you repeat St. Paul’s words, “In the end Christ appeared even to me”? Some of you have come here wanting to believe in the resurrection. You hope it’s true. You agree it’s a nice story. I’m sure you even think about it quite a bit! But the question still remains: Are you convinced? Do you believe? Has Christ as to one untimely born appeared even unto you for salvation?
There is a popular movie classic called Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It is a science fiction tale of a human encounter with a flying saucer. The story line has it that the first kind of encounter with aliens is to see them. The second kind of encounter is physical evidence. And the third kind is to actually touch! That’s what we have here in Christendom. Over 500 people actually saw the resurrected Jesus. That’s a sighting, a first encounter. We have the physical evidence of the empty tomb and more. That’s a second kind of encounter. And as the ripples of Easter circle outward you can have a close encounter of the third kind. Yes, the resurrected Jesus can actually be encountered, touched, experienced by faith! And we need that!
Wherever the ripples of Easter have found you this Easter morning, let me ask you very sincerely: Has the resurrected Jesus appeared last of all to you? Have you had a close encounter with the risen Lord? Have you followed the ripples back to the center which is the resurrection of Christ? With Mary at the open tomb, with Thomas as he examined the wounds of the risen Jesus, with Peter as he encountered Christ on the seashore, and with a host of other witnesses throughout history, we can encounter the risen Lord and exclaim by faith, “My Lord and my God!” And it is precisely that response that makes us Christian.
(Rev. Stephen M. Crotts, April 4, 1999)