How many of us have heard this Easter sermon: “Jesus was crucified for our sins. His body was raised by God from the dead as a sign and assurance to us that our souls will live forever in heaven, with God and with all of our departed loved ones”?
Or this one: “The really important thing about Jesus’ resurrection is not that his body was actually raised from the dead; what is really important is that the risen Christ be risen for us in our hearts, and that His Love, Compassion, Generosity and Forgiveness live on in us”?
Both are lovely, reassuring, oft-repeated Easter sermons.
But, in my view, neither are really faithful to what the scripture says about the resurrection.
I am preaching Sunday, but I confess that I am having a very difficult time deciding what to say in my allotted time. In a real sense, our Christian proclamation should be about the significance of God’s resurrection of Jesus EVERY Sunday. That was certainly the center of the proclamation of Paul and of the early church. So I intend to preach about the resurrection and its significance for a number of Sundays. But I am still having a hard time deciding where to begin the journey. I have immersed myself in readings about the resurrection for the last three weeks. I am surprised how much I have learned about what the New Testament says, and does not say, about it.
Here’s where I intend to start Sunday (at least for now):
In his First Letter to the Corinthian church, Paul wrote:
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of
the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in
vain… 17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19If for
this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
Let’s be clear. The resurrection that Paul was speaking about was not just a spiritual one. The resurrection Paul describes was bodily as well. It was God’s transformation and, in a sense, resuscitation of Jesus’ mangled, cut, broken, lifeless, DEAD body. It was God’s raising of that transformed body, Jesus’ leaving the tomb, and Jesus’ encountering a number of his followers, even eating with them. The resurrection that was central to Paul and the early church was not merely one in which Jesus’ spirit or soul lived on, was present to us and in us, and went on to be with God, opening the same possibility for you and I. The tomb, as all of the gospel accounts attest, was empty of Jesus’ body.
Let’s also be honest. There are many fine people and devout Christians in Christendom and in our own church who just do not believe that Jesus’ resurrection was a bodily one. Many people receiving this email will likely fit this description. (I am really not being at all critical here. Again, I am just trying to be accurate and honest.) Perhaps this is because many of us just cannot believe that any dead body can be resurrected, cannot believe that the natural world, which includes alive and dead bodies, can work that way. For the first 1600 years or so of the Christian proclamation, it was accepted almost uniformly that the tomb was empty because Jesus’ was a bodily resurrection, and that this bodily resurrection was critical to a correct understanding of the truth about God and Jesus. But since the European Enlightenment, this affirmation has been questioned by many, though our oft repeated Apostle’s Creed still includes: “I believe in….the resurrection of the body,…” Yet, some have argued that the traditional belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection was rooted in an outmoded world view, and that we modern people now know better than to believe in a bodily resurrection. Some have argued that the early Christians were only speaking mythically or symbolically or metaphorically in describing a bodily resurrection–that Paul and the authors of the New Testament books did not themselves mean that this ACTUALLY, PHYSICALLY, HISTORICALLY happened. Some have argued that this was a case of people–whose hopes had been crushed by Jesus’ crucifixion—who had a powerful, collective experience of Jesus’ living Spirit and a powerful, collective conviction that God had not allowed Jesus’ cause and Jesus’ love to be destroyed, and that these subjective experiences projected into a sense of an objective event, of an actual, historical bodily resurrection. Some have said that Paul and the gospel writers were merely claiming that what they read as prophecy in the Old Testament had actually occurred, or that they wanted Jesus’ resurrection so intensely that they deceived themselves into thinking that it had actually occurred. And some have even said cynically that the disciples were lying about the resurrection–to save face and build themselves up.
In our present time and place, there are many theological “conservatives” who are judgmental about those who do not believe that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, and many theological “liberals” who are just as judgmental about those who do believe this. To some “conservatives,” the “liberals” lack the true content of faith and are misleading people into thinking you can be a Christian without believing in the bodily resurrection. And to some “liberals,” the “conservatives” are just…I don’t know…stupid, and are throwing up unwarranted barriers to accepting what is essential to being a Christian and living out a Christian life. (I could have sugarcoated that a bit, but why start now.)
Well, brothers and sisters, it seems clear from a reading of Paul’s letters that things aren’t much different now than they were in Paul’s day when it comes to belief in the bodily resurrection. “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” Clearly, there were many in the church of Corinth who could not believe that Jesus’ dead body was raised by God to a new bodily life, because they did not believe that such a thing could ever happen to anyone. (Archaeologists have found that during Jesus’ and Paul’s time in the Roman Empire, a very popular tombstone epitaph was: “I was not. I was. I am not.” Meaning: “I did not exist before I was born. I existed for a only short time. But now I am dead and so I no longer exist.”) At the same time, the writings of the time show that very many Gentiles and Jews already believed that the soul or spirit of an individual lived forever after the physical body died. But…neither Jew nor Gentile in Jesus’ and Paul’s time believed that God would resurrect a single dead body, as was proclaimed about Jesus. This so-called mythical world view of that time did not exist as to that. This proclamation of Jesus’ bodily resurrection was a shocking barrier to conversion to Christianity for many. It was harder, not easier, to accept back then than it is now, because it didn’t have 2000 years of tradition behind it. The disciples and followers of Jesus just did not expect Jesus to be resurrected. The accounts in the gospels and in Paul show how totally bumfuzzled everyone was who encountered the risen Christ. The earliest, orally-transmitted accounts of the empty tomb and the encounters with the risen Jesus were from women, and there was a terrible bias against the testimony of women in that time. After the resurrection, Jesus was proclaimed by his few remaining followers as the Messiah, as revealed by his bodily resurrection. But before this shocking and unprecedented event, everyone expected that the Messiah would purify the Temple in Jerusalem, drive the Pagans out of the Holy Land and establish God’s justice and peace on earth. In short, they expected that the Messiah would be the conqueror. No one expected that the Messiah would be crucified. But some bewildering, shocking event occurred in history that was the source of all these new and unprecedented affirmations, and that led to the worship of Jesus on Sunday, not the usual worship day from Friday night to Saturday night, because this “event” occurred on Sunday.
What was this bewildering, unexpected, unprecedented event? The gospel writers and Paul say, in the face of much skepticism and controversy, that it was God’s bodily resurrection of Jesus.
I confess that I do believe that Jesus was bodily raised by God. I am certainly not judgmental about those who do not believe it, but I do indeed believe it myself. One reason I do is that, to me, the truth of this historical account is by far–by far– the best explanation for why this was proclaimed so uniformly in the early church and why lives were so transformed. But the main reason I can and do believe this is, I think, the main reason that Paul could and did believe it. (And that main reason was not that Jesus once “appeared” to Paul, which he certainly has not to me.) That main reason is “hope.” Paul needed “hope”—hope for much, much more than just the eternal life of his or any individual soul. You and I need that hope as well. And “hope” knows what the mind can never “know.” This hope is where you and I meet the risen Christ and are transformed into new creations ourselves.
So what I want us to start with on Sunday is just what it is that Paul says we can hope for–because of God’s bodily resurrection of Jesus. As well as what hope we lose when we are not graced with that belief.
Your brother in Christ, Brooks
Rev. Brooks Harrington
Methodist Justice Ministry of First United Methodist Church, Fort Worth
750 West 5th Street
Fort Worth, Texas 76102
“Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy.” Proverbs 31: 8-9