Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Feast of the Victory of Our God

I was asked to speak on the Resurrection in sacrament meeting this week. The following is the talk I gave:

Good morning, brothers and sisters. I wish to speak to you this morning about the wonderful doctrine of the resurrection. In doing so, I will rely on the words of scripture, and I invite you to follow along with me if you so desire as I read the words of prophets of God. We all know the story of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and empty tomb, and most of us have visited a tomb or two in this city that purports to be the place where Christ was buried and rose again the third day. I wonder, though, if we have taken time to ponder the weighty significance of the resurrection for the plan of salvation and for each of us.

We know that because Christ rose from the dead, each of us will also be restored from death to life, and, as Alma put it, "even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame. " (Alma 40:23) This part of the Atonement is a free gift that will come upon all men regardless of their actions, and because of its universal nature, sometimes we tend to take this gift for granted. But the early Apostles were obsessed with talking about it. The Resurrection was not just part of their theology--it was at the center! Every sermon they gave centered on the Resurrection. Every page in the book of Acts has some reference to this event. I can understand their excitement. Nothing like this had ever happened before. It was so important that, as the first chapter of Acts tells us, the apostles were ordained not just to be special witnesses of Christ, but specifically to be special witnesses of the resurrection of Christ (Acts 1:21-22).

Joseph Smith emphasized the importance of the resurrection when he said, “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it” (History of the Church, 3:30). In other words, everything else having to do with our religion--tithing, food storage, eternal families, missionary work, the word of wisdom--all these things are of secondary importance when we consider the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The question we must ask ourselves is: Why is the resurrection of Jesus Christ so important? Where would we be without the resurrection?

Jacob answered this question in 2 Nephi 9. Beginning in verse 8, he taught, speaking specifically of the resurrection,

8 O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! For behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more.
9 And our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself; …

Why would we become devils, and angels to a devil if it were not for the resurrection? Why would we not live in heaven eternally as spirits? Why is it that we cannot return to our Heavenly Father without our resurrected bodies? One reason, certainly, is that our Father in Heaven has a body and Satan does not, and in order to become like Him we too must have a body, and without a body we are like Satan in that respect. But I think this answer does not fully capture the hopelessness expressed by Jacob at the prospect of being eternally without a body, devils, and angels to a devil. Why, then, is the resurrection so important?

The answer that I find most convincing is the one set forth by Paul in his monumental discourse on the resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul discusses faith in Christ, which in his mind hinges on one crucial question--Was Christ resurrected or not? He declares the foundational importance of the resurrection, saying,

12 Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is
no resurrection of the dead?
13 But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen:
14 And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
15 Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he
raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.
16 For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised:

Peter just said the same thing four different ways--essentially, that there is no resurrection of the dead, that means that Christ wasn’t resurrected. This seems very self-explanatory. Why is it so important that Paul repeated it? Well, one reason he gives is that if the doctrine of resurrection isn’t true, then he and his fellow preachers are teaching a false doctrine. This is a problem, of course, but not an insurmountable problem. The real problem is, as Paul explains in verse 17,

17 And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.
18 Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.

In other words, if Christ was not resurrected, we are still under the burden of sin, not just the burden of death. How could that be? Let me suggest that perhaps it has something to do with whether or not the Lord has kept his end of the covenant that Moroni calls “the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins” (Moroni 10:33). That is, the resurrection is proof of the power of Christ and therefore proof of the atonement, and the lack of a resurrection is so disastrous because if Christ was not resurrected, as He said He would be, then He did not suffer for our sins, as He said He would, and therefore, we all remain under the curse of a broken law.* As Paul puts it,

19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.

And indeed, if Christ was not resurrected and did not atone for us, then we will be eternally most miserable.

But Christ’s triumphant emergence from the tomb that Easter morning was proof positive that He was who He said He was, that He had overcome both death and hell, that He could give His disciples the power to overcome both mortality and evil, that is, both the blood and the sin of this wicked generation.

With this foundation, Paul then joyfully proclaims,

20 But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
21 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
…[and then, quoting Psalms,]
55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
57 …thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

This concept of victory through Jesus Christ is one I found illustrated particularly well when I attended church services at another Christian church in the Old City. At the beginning of the service, the congregation sang a beautiful hymn that read, “This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia!” The song identified a key principle that we sometimes forget--the purpose of sacrament meeting is to celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and death. Truly it is the feast of the victory of our God.

We celebrate this victory primarily by partaking of the sacrament, a symbol of the body and blood of Christ. In studying the sacrament, I have come to love this two-part symbol, and I believe that it is the perfect symbol of the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. If you examine the sacrament prayers carefully, you will notice that the water or wine represents “the blood of thy Son, which was shed for them.” The bread, as the sacrament prayer puts it, represents “the body of thy Son,” but the prayer contains no phrase to parallel the phrase “which was shed for them.” Growing up, I used to think that if the phrase was completed, it would read, “in remembrance of the body of thy Son, which was broken for them…or which died for them.”

However, upon further study, I learned that the bread of the sacrament represents something far more joyous. In 3 Nephi 18:6-7, the Lord teaches the Nephites about the ordinance of the sacrament, and then commands them to perform the ordinance in His absence, saying, “And this shall ye always observe to do, even as I have done, even as I have broken bread and blessed it and given it unto you. And this shall ye do in remembrance of my body, which I have shown unto you.” The Savior taught that the bread of the sacrament was taken in remembrance of His body, but not just ANY body--specifically the body “which I have shown unto you,” and the body He had shown them was His resurrected body--not the body that was torn and bleeding and broken, but the body that was alive, that appeared in glory, the body of a man who had conquered death, the body of a resurrected God.

Thus the sacrament becomes a symbol of both parts of the Atonement--the water a symbol of the death of Christ, the blood that poured from Him as He conquered sin, and the bread a symbol of the resurrection of Christ, of the glorified and resurrected body that He took with Him from the tomb as He conquered death. The two-part sacrament is the ultimate expression of the Atonement of Christ, who said without contradiction, “I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father” (D&C 110:4). The disciples on the road to Emmaus had Jesus walk with them all day but did not recognize him. It was not until that evening as he blessed and broke bread with them, that they recognized Him, and later testified “how he was known of them in breaking of bread” (Luke 24:35). Brothers and sisters, I testify that the Lord can also be known of us in the breaking of the bread of the sacrament, as we participate in this, the feast of the victory of our God over death and hell. I know that the testimony of the apostles and prophets is true--that Jesus Christ died, was buried, rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven. I know that because His Atonement gives Him victory over sin and death, I can one day return to live in the presence of my Savior and my Heavenly Parents.



* I first got this idea from a teacher whose name I have forgotten. He and the Spirit deserve the credit for it.

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