The findings of the recent British Social Attitudes Survey on religion reveal a marked decline in religious affiliation in Britain today. For the first time, more people identify themselves as being of ‘no religion’ (53%) than those who profess an affiliation to a particular religion. Only 15% of adults in Britain now regard themselves as Anglicans, whereas in 2000 half the population identified themselves with the Church of England. The decline in living faith in Britain is in marked contrast to the situation in the majority world, where Christianity is growing strongly.
Some of those who identify themselves as being of ’no religion’ do, however, have some faith. For example, one in five of them a say they believe in life after death. This shows that, even if we opt out of formal religion, which can be less than inspiring, we cannot avoid the fundamental questions posed by our life in this world. Very few are committed atheists. Someone I know attended the funeral service of man who was an atheist. Nothing was said. The family sat at the front of the crematorium for a short time then stood by the coffin briefly before leaving. For an atheist death is the end, there is nothing to say.
Christians are followers of Jesus who died on a cross and rose from the dead on the third day. The apostles were eye-witnesses of the resurrection. Seeing the resurrected Jesus transformed them and they fearlessly proclaimed the good news about him everywhere they went. The early Christians were so committed to Jesus that they were prepared to suffer persecution for their faith in him and even to die for him. It is like that for some Christians today. For them, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
The apostle Paul wrote about the hope the resurrection of Jesus inspires, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. For Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet. And the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
The glorious message of Easter is “The Lord has risen!” The resurrection of Jesus transformed the men and women who had followed him. His death on the cross had devastated them. Their hopes had crashed. None of them was expecting Jesus to rise from the dead, even though he had often told them that he would be killed and on the third day would rise again. Early in the morning of the third day, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to mourn and weep. To her amazement she found the stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty. She assumed someone had stolen the body until Jesus appeared to her and spoke to her by name.
All the Gospels describe the struggle Jesus’ disciples had to accept the fact that he had been raised from the dead. When the women told the apostles they had seen the Lord they did not believe them. Peter and John saw the empty tomb, but were not convinced the Lord had risen.
When the other disciples told Thomas they had seen the Lord, he said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Later Jesus appeared to Thomas and said, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
What a difference it makes when we stop doubting and believe the testimony of the eye witnesses who saw the resurrected Jesus! His resurrection gives hope to all who live in a world where death is a daily reality. We must all die, and many live in the fear of death. Recently some of our good friends have died. At their funeral services there has been both sadness and joy because, although we miss them very much, we know they are in heaven with Jesus. We have sung, “No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of life; life is naught without thee; aid us in our strife; make us more than conquerors, through thy deathless love: bring us safe through Jordan to thy home above. Thine be the glory, risen conquering Son, endless is the vict’ry, thou o’er death hast won.”
Last Sunday Christians around the world remembered the coming of the Holy Spirit. On the last night Jesus was with his disciples he told them that, although he was leaving them to go to the cross, he would send the Holy Spirit to them. He said, “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Helper to be with you for ever – the Spirit of truth.” Six weeks later, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came on the Apostles and they proclaimed the good news of Jesus to a great crowd gathered in Jerusalem. That day 3000 people became followers of Jesus.
The coming of the Holy Spirit transformed the Apostles. After the death of Jesus they were in despair and it seemed extremely unlikely that they would change the world. However, when Jesus rose from the dead and then sent the Holy Spirit the Apostles were wonderfully empowered. Despite constant persecution from religious people and from the Romans, Christianity grew and spread to every part of the Empire.
The power of the Holy Spirit was also seen 1904-05 Revival in Wales, which spread to England, Scotland and North America. It was a time of great social change. The churches were in decline and there was a growing indifference to religion. Through the preaching of men like Evan Roberts the Holy Spirit transformed the lives of many people. It is estimated that in one year more than 100,000 people became Christians and joined the chapels in Wales alone.
The Holy Spirit can change anyone, even those who are totally opposed to Jesus. One young man who was converted during the revival was Conolwyn Pugh. He was making a name for himself as a cornet player, but his family were always at the revival meetings. One night, after a very successful concert, he came home to an empty house. All the family were at the chapel. He was angry and decided to go to the chapel and tell his family and the people what he thought of them. The chapel was packed, but he managed to find a seat. As he listened to the preacher the Holy Spirit convicted him of his sin. He went to the front of the chapel seeking salvation. That night he became a Christian and was a changed man. He became a minister of the Gospel and served in a church in Chicago. Today, all around the world, the Holy Spirit is still changing lives.