University Congregational Church
Feb. 15, 2015
“Tough Theological Questions: What is Resurrection?”
Luke 24: 36-49
Next Sunday, we are beginning the Lenten season – it is the 40 days plus Sundays before Easter. Lent is typically a reflective season and we will be exploring a different kind of prayer each week. “Places and Prayers” is our theme. During the sermon time I will be exploring the significant “places” mentioned in our Bible. And each of you is invited to take a prayer pebble to use for your personal reflection. Put it in your pocket or purse – on your bed stand or desk. The word or words on your prayer pebble are meant to resonate with you as you meditate and pray during this season. I would be interested in hearing your stories about how these prayer pebbles added a new dimension to your spiritual life.
Over the years I have been a minister, I have heard dozens of stories from parishioners who have felt as if they had a visit or message from someone they loved who had died. Just this week, my uncle, whose young adult daughter died in January, posted a picture on Facebook of the lake where they scattered her ashes. There above the water was a sundoggle – that translucent circle rainbow. My uncle felt that this daughter Jennifer was hovering over that sacred place where they scattered her remains. It was hauntingly beautiful.
(nod at Burt Tims) Today ends our sermon series on “tough theological questions”. We’ve talked about suffering, salvation, God, prayer, and God’s action in the world. Today we are going to explore resurrection:
- What is it? Is it “physical and bodily” or “spiritual and mystical”
- What does it mean that Jesus was resurrected?
- Can we experience resurrection?
Our traditional word tells this story in Luke 24 (2 person reading):
“While they were saying all this, Jesus appeared to them and said, “Peace be with you.” They thought they were seeing a ghost and were scared half to death. “Don’t be upset, and don’t let all these doubting questions take over. Look at my hands; look at my feet—it’s really me. Touch me. Look me over from head to toe. A ghost doesn’t have muscle and bone like this.” As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. They still couldn’t believe what they were seeing. It was too much; it seemed too good to be true.
“Do you have any food here?” They gave him a piece of leftover fish they had cooked. He took it and ate it right before their eyes.
“Everything I told you while I was with you comes to this: All the things written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms have to be fulfilled.”
He went on to open their understanding of the Word of God, showing them how to read their Bibles this way. “You can see now how it is written that the Messiah suffers, rises from the dead on the third day, and then a total life-change through the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed in his name to all nations—starting from here, from Jerusalem! You’re the first to hear and see it. You’re the witnesses. What comes next is very important: I am sending what my Father promised to you, so stay here in the city until he arrives, until you’re equipped with power from on high.”
A standing discussion at seminaries today is a theological and practical question: when asked by a search committee or a church member about the bodily resurrection of Jesus, what do I say? While Christians are willing to think critically about the virgin birth and healing miracles, the resurrection remains for many the one non-negotiable doctrine. The problem is that if you actually read the Bible, it does not support a literal bodily resurrection of Jesus.
Paul, who wrote his letters before the gospels were written, tells us nothing of the third day after Jesus died. Evidently having been asked how a body is raised, Paul bursts out in response with “You fool!” before he explains that “it is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” He does, however, proclaim that the events of Easter change the trajectory of human possibility.
The earliest gospel writer, Mark, ends his gospel with an empty tomb. That’s it. No angels, no soldiers, and no Jesus appearances. Later, redactors added in other endings to Mark’s gospel, but in the footnotes you will find that these were added much later and not in the text at the beginning.
Matthew and Luke wrote conflicting accounts of Jesus after his death. In modern English, the common meaning of physical and bodily means flesh, molecular, and protoplasmic, it doesn’t make sense that Jesus was resurrected in this way. The gospels make that clear:
- The risen Jesus appears in a locked room
- He journeys with two of his followers for several hours and they do not recognize him. When they do recognize him, he vanishes
- He appears in both Jerusalem and Galilee.
- He appears to Paul in a brilliant light.
These texts are not about Jesus being restored to his previous life. If he was, he would eventually die again. Furthermore, how can the risen and living Jesus be all around us and with us, present everywhere, if he was resurrected in a physical body?
But something happened in the days following the crucifixion that emboldened the motley crew of disciples into missionaries who were willing to die for their convictions. There was something about these experiences that led to the second meaning of Easter in the Bible: not only that Jesus lives, that he is a figure of the present and not just of the past, but that he is one who has the qualities of God.
I would suggest that the meaning of resurrection of Jesus is not about what happens to the body. As Marcus Borg said, “The point of resurrection is that Jesus continues to be known… that the tomb couldn’t hold him… and that he is loose in the world. He’s still recruiting for the kingdom of God.”
If we don’t limit resurrection to a miraculous event that happened to Jesus’ body long ago, we are free to think of resurrection as a call to new life.
Consider the details of Jesus’ burial a metaphor. The reality of our human condition is that we can become entombed by our attitudes, circumstances, or life choices. Metaphorical “rocks” are everywhere – disappoint insecurity, shame, or addiction. Sometimes we are sealed into tombs by these rocks – we feel stuck and hopeless. Our eyes adjust to the darkness of these tombs. These rocks stand in the way of the transforming presence of God. Until we are freed from that which entombs us, we cannot fully know the joy and freedom of hopeful living.
In his book A Year to Live: How to live this year as if it were your last, counselor Steven Levine put his experience with hospice patients to the test. His daily encounters with those who had been given a terminal diagnosis revealed to him people with transformed lives. Their perspective on life changed, their priorities were re-ordered, and many of the circumstances and choices that had crippled them before their diagnosis evaporated into new life. So, Levine set a date for his own death and lived as if he would die on that day. His book is his radical experiment to get a glimpse of that transformation for himself. In so doing, he gave himself permission to address his unfinished business and enter into a new and vibrant relationship with life. He gained a new appreciation for the need to live each moment mindfully, as if it were all that was left. “Living the Questions”
Life is precious. It’s to be shared with generosity. The gospels are clear about this. What should also be clear is that resurrection isn’t just limited to the experience of Jesus or to however we understand a life after death, but in passing from death to life here and now. The message of resurrection and of Easter hope is that we can live fully in this life, giving of ourselves, and risking for love’s sake. When we do, we are resurrected with Jesus.
Professor and theologian Walter Wink wrote of this: “… standing foursquare in the midst of a broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, we see the invisible, calling to it to come, behaving as if it is on the way, sustained by elements of it that have come already, within and among us. In those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness, self-worship or when groups or communities or even, rarely, whole nations glimpse the light of the transcendent in their midst, there the New Creation has come upon us. The world for one brief moment is resurrected. The beyond shines in our midst…”
I believe that resurrection is a credible and meaningful principle for our living. Like Jesus, we may become more than even we imagined.