Do you know how many Sundays there are in the Season of Easter? There are seven. Frankly, I was surprised at this number when I re-educated myself yesterday. Through my five years of preaching every Sunday as pastor of a neighborhood church, and through the years of preaching at least every other Sunday in DiscipleChurch, I don’t believe I have ever spent the seven Sundays of the Season of Easter preaching about the resurrection. And, I don’t believe I’ve ever personally heard, in all my years as a lay person and clergy person in the church, any preacher devote that many sermons to the resurrection during this or any other season.
I am not sure that we United Methodists are that comfortable with really analyzing and subjecting to scrutiny our own views on the subject. Before the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, almost all Christians accepted on faith that the stories of the resurrection in the four Gospels were based in historical fact, that the tomb was empty and that the bodily resurrection of Jesus really did happen. This was just as it was accepted back then that Jesus actually, bodily walked on water, actually healed cripples and lepers, actually raised people from the dead and actually stilled storms—that the gospel stories were actually and factually true. But post-Enlightenment, nothing is to be accepted just on faith. We must be able to touch it and quantify it in order to accept it. It must be reoccurring in the creation, in accordance with the laws of nature. Perhaps THE assumption born with the Enlightenment and accepted widely today is that physical events just do not ever occur in this creation as a result of the intervention of an outside force that breaks the usual “laws” of nature—events like walking on water, healing cripples and lepers with a word and a touch, stilling a storm and raising people from physical death. Not even one time. Can’t happen. Ever. Nope. Covering my ears now. “Nanananana.”
So what the Enlightenment has left us, and even this is threatened, is a faith that an outside spiritual force can intervene and change our hearts, minds and attitudes. Thus, there are some Christians in Western countries (U.S., Europe, etc.) who believe that all we can legitimately pray for is for God to provide us or others with the emotional or psychological strength to bear up in hardship or to act as we should or the wisdom to know what to do. And there are those who believe that even this is expecting too much.
Following the assumptions born of the Enlightenment, many Christian theologians, led perhaps by a brilliant man named Rudolph Bultmann, challenged the “historicity” of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He wanted to “demythologize” the scripture. The resurrection of a dead body as described in the four gospels…well, it didn’t actually happen because such a thing just doesn’t happen in creation. It can’t because…it doesn’t and never has. Once a body dies, it stays dead. No exceptions. Not one. But the issue then became, “What do we then do with the gospel stories about the empty tomb and the raised–though transformed–body of Jesus?” Since these Christian theologians start with a bedrock, unassailable (to them) assumption, based upon repeated experience over thousands and thousands of human life, that dead bodies stay dead and even decompose, they have to find a way to discount the factual bases of the stories.
Some modern Christian theologians said and say that these Easter stories are merely metaphoric and were not even intended by the writers to be taken factually and historically. Some say that the stories were written within a mythic world view that the writers knew was not factually based. Some say that the so-called witnesses to the resurrection experienced, in their grief and disappointment and gullibility, nothing more than collective spiritual visions. Some try to reduce the resurrection to a merely spiritual and not a physical resurrection (which is, according to the language and culture of the time, not a “resurrection” at all). Some say these stories were intended merely to establish the authority within the early Church of the successors to different characters in the stories, and are not to be taken factually. Some even said and say that the stories were just made up retrospectively to fit a particular theology. But given their Enlightenment assumption that dead bodies just cannot regain life–ever, not once–they have to explain away any factual bases behind the stories somehow. And given the Enlightenment assumption, an explanation forbidden to them is that the body of Jesus really was raised by the Creator.
Maybe one reason we talk so little about this, with the result that most of us really don’t know what we believe about the bodily resurrection and why we believe it, is that the discussion would be unsettling and divisive. “Lord, just get my soul to heaven when I suffer my own physical death. I don’t care what happened to Jesus’ body when he died.”
So we slip into confining “resurrection” to immediate, recognizable, useful things…like restoration of a relationship through forgiveness, or to transformation of our own lost, “dead” lives.
But…I am convinced that the heart-felt, to-the-marrow, hair-on-fire convictions of a small group of people that Jesus was actually, factually, historically, physically, bodily resurrected by God, and that they had actually, factually, historically, physically, bodily seen and even touched that resurrected body, are the reasons that the Jesus Way didn’t die out quickly, and the reasons we are talking about all this today. So my bedrock assumption is that SOMETHING astonishing happened which had never happened before and hasn’t happened since, even if I am so very limited in determining exactly what that was (just as the witnesses were so very limited by their own astonishment and shock at the time.) So I guess that another bedrock assumption of mine is that the Creator can intervene into the physical life of the creation one time, to do something new and astounding and unique. Just like, ahem, our post-Enlightenment scientists conclude that the creation itself, through the means of the onetime only “big bang,” was produced by a single unprecedented event that cannot be explained by the normal, reoccurring laws of nature.
So this Sunday we are going to start to consider what the Easter stories themselves have to say about what the all agree was a onetime only, astounding, unprecedented event.
And maybe then you will be able to face what you actually believe about the Easter event, and why you believe it.
And now…to spellcheck and back to court. Quickly.