Prayer of the Day: O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages…”
John Updike on the Resurrection of Jesus
Modern American mainline Protestants like me are embarrassed by miracles. Often we fall all over ourselves trying to assure our detractors that we don’t really believe in them anymore and that one need not accept them in order to be Christian. We seem always to be asking, “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” That is actually the title of a book written by Martin Thielen. The book evolved from Thielen’s friendship with a self-identified atheist who, over time, became increasingly open to faith and finally posed the question that became the title. The first half of Thielen’s book identifies ten notions that Christians do not need to accept. These include the claim that God causes cancer, that the theory of evolution must be rejected, that women must be subject to men and that God is indifferent to ecology. If these notions were all that stood between atheists and faith in Jesus, then the scandal of the gospel would be just a PR problem. The church has bad actors and bad theologians in her midst who have muddled the message. If we can just make the atheist understand who Jesus really is and what he is really about, the atheist will recognize that we don’t confess the god s/he has rejected. Conversion is just a few conversations away.
To be fair, Thielen’s book does an admirable job of dispelling inaccurate notions about Christianity and clarifying what is central to Christian teaching for those harboring hostility toward the church. Similarly, Marcus Borg, a teacher and theologian I greatly respect and who died this last year, argued in one of his books that Christianity is losing members and influence because its preaching and teaching are mired in antiquated language and a world view that no longer makes sense to Twenty-First Century people. There is a good deal of truth in what Borg and Thielen have to say. The Bible’s cosmology is impossible to reconcile with the universe we have come to understand through the discoveries of the various sciences. If being Christian requires us to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to all that science has taught us, then its detractors rightly contend that faith is untenable for anyone with a brain.
But does the answer lie in reducing biblical language to mere metaphors that do not challenge our understanding of the way things are or coax our imagination into the realm of the seemingly impossible? Professor Borg seems to think so. “Heaven” and “eternal life” are two of the concepts Borg finds unintelligible to modern thought. They are therefore in need of harmonization with our Twenty-first Century world view. Words like “heaven” and “eternal life” must be interpreted metaphorically as God’s hopeful outlook for humanity’s future as a whole rather than promises of individual immortality. Borg declares that he has no need for the promise of personal resurrection from death and that “We die into God…that is all I need to know.” Speaking Christian, Borg, Marcus, (c. 2011 by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.) p. 201.
Is that really enough, though? One of the characters in John Updike’s very first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, felt much the same way as Professor Borg on the matter of eternal life. Updike’s story takes place in a state run home for the destitute elderly overseen by prefect Stephen Conner. Conner is a product of the New Deal. He believes in the inevitability of human progress through social evolution and the perfection of governmental institutions. Conner becomes engaged in a conversation among the residents about the afterlife. He shares his vision of “heaven on earth” formed in a future society where illness is overcome by advanced medicine; pollution eliminated through harnessing of atomic power; and oppression defeated through the spread of democracy. Mrs. Mortis, one of the residents, asks him whether this heaven on earth will come soon enough for her to see it. Conner responds: “Not personally perhaps. But for your children, your grandchildren.”
“But not for ourselves?”
“No.” The word hung huge in the living room, the “o” a hole that let in the cold of the void.
“Well, then,” Mrs. Mortis spryly said, “to hell with it.”
Updike, John, The Poorhouse Fair, (c. 1958 by John Updike, pub. by Random House, Inc.)
I side with Mrs. Mortis over against Professor Borg and Mr. Conner. So, it seems, does Saint Paul who declares that “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” I Corinthians 15:19. It seems Jesus’ declaration that God is God of the living and that all live to him (Mark 12:26-27) can only mean that “dying into God,” is at the same time being “united with Jesus in a resurrection like his.” Romans 6:5. The New Testament promise of eternal life includes the assurance that all who live under God’s reign in this age beneath the sign of the cross will share in its consummation in the age to come. That means bodily existence in a renewed and reconciled world. What does that look like? The New Testament gives us neither the specificity my literalist friends require, nor the neat rational fit with our modern scientific sensibilities that my more liberal friends seem to need.
Dispelling misunderstandings about the Christian faith is a worthy undertaking. So also are efforts to express our biblical faith in fresh and compelling ways. I doubt, however, that reducing the imponderables in the Bible and the Creeds to metaphors brings atheists or any of the rest of us closer to faith in Jesus. Having less to believe might seem to make faith a lot easier. But faith is not supposed to get any easier. The truth is, the more you learn about the God of the Bible and what that God demands of you, the more you are called upon to believe. The deeper you are drawn into the mystery of God, the more problematic your life in this world becomes. The more the mind of Christ is formed within you, the deeper the contradictions between what you see and what you believe. If you follow Jesus to the end, you will be reduced to walking by faith and not by sight. II Corinthians 5:7. Perhaps we moderns have gotten things backwards with our insistence on understanding what we are called upon to believe. Maybe Augustine had it right when he taught us that we must believe in order to understand.
Here is the complete poem by John Updike cited in part above:
Seven Stanzas at Easter
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
Source, Updike, John, Collected Poems, (c. 1993 by John Updike, pub. by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.). John Updike (1932-2009) was a prolific American author and poet. He grew up in Shillington, Pennsylvania. His early poems and fiction are grounded in the gritty industrial and cultural environment of the rust belt. His awards include the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the American Book Award for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for both fiction and criticism. You can learn more about John Updike and read more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Unfortunately, the context is not discernible from the section of text we have in this lesson. Peter’s sermon here is part of a larger narrative in which the disciple is confronted with his prejudices, smallness of heart and the grand sweep of God’s good news in Jesus that reaches across national borders and ethnic divides to include all who respond to that news in faith. On another day, I might preach a sermon on what I believe to be one of the most damaging idolatries of our age, namely, nationalism. One way to ask the question “Who is your God?” is to ask “What are you willing to die for?” I find it very telling that in this country many of us will proudly send our children to die in our nation’s wars, but often object to taking them out of a sports program for church on Sunday. I recently heard a Christian preacher declare at a civil ceremony, “We may be Christians, we may be Jews or we may be Muslims. But the important thing is, whatever our religious differences might be, we are all Americans.” Understand that nobody believes more firmly than I do that disciples of Jesus should live peacefully with everyone of every faith. I also have a profound respect and appreciation for the cultural and religious contributions of faithful Jews and Muslims to American society. But is it really the case that our commitment to the United States of America is deeper and more fundamental than our baptism into Jesus Christ? If God shows no partiality among nations, how can we? Do I love my country? Of course! There is nowhere else I would rather live than in the United States of America. But I love Jesus and his church more. So if and when it comes to choosing between duty to country and loyalty to Jesus, “We must obey God rather than human authority.” Acts 5:29.
As I said, though, that sermon is for another day. The focus of this lesson is necessarily dictated by its placement in the liturgical calendar. This is Easter, the queen of seasons. So I am looking at this text today through the lens of the resurrection of Jesus. Notice that in this sermon Peter welds the faithful life of Jesus to his death. Jesus died precisely because the life he lived led him into conflict with the powers that be. Moreover, he died a shameful death; the death of a criminal. Yet God raised Jesus from death. Understand the emphasis here. The remarkable thing is not that God raised Jesus from death, but that God raised Jesus from death. Unlike us moderns who struggle with the very concept of resurrection, the people of Jesus’ day had no doubt that God could raise a person from death. A miraculous resurrection would not have strained credibility in the ancient world. What proved to be such a scandal and cause of incredulity for the gospel message was the claim that God would bestow such a favor on a man whose life and career had ended in failure and shame. If you accept the proposition that God raised the one who spent his life associating with sinners, the unclean, the sick and the outcast only to die naked on an implement of torture, then you have to reconsider everything you think you know about God and divine power and salvation. The nature of God’s reign over creation is not demonstrated by the fact that God raised the dead, but by who God raised from the dead. If God had raised Augustus Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, General Patten or President Kennedy we could then go on believing in a God who reigns more or less like any other human ruler-but with more clout. God, however, raised Jesus whose life was spent serving the least of all people and who was put to death under the laws of the empire. God is not Caesar on steroids. God is Jesus, the crucified one.
Luke (who also wrote the Book of Acts) makes a point of letting his audience know through Peter’s sermon that Jesus ate and drank with his disciples after the resurrection. Vs. 41. Eating and drinking is a big part of Jesus’ ministry (and the whole Bible for that matter). Jesus fed crowds of hungry people. He broke bread both in dens of iniquity among notorious sinners and in the homes of respected religious leaders. His last meal with his disciples forms the heart of the church’s worship. The consummation of God’s reign is frequently described by Jesus as a banquet. Though food is a rich metaphor in Jesus’ teaching and ministry, it is never just that. Starvation resulting from barbaric inequality was a brutal fact of life for the world in which Jesus lived. 97% of the wealth was owned or controlled by 5% of the population leaving the remaining 95% of the population to survive on the remaining 3%. This stark reality is the subject matter addressed in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Luke 16:19-31.
This psalm contains many verses that are quoted or alluded to in the New Testament. Because the psalmist switches from singular to plural, addressing God at one point, the assembled worshipers at another while some passages seem to be addressed by God to the psalmist, many Old Testament scholars believe this hymn to be a compilation of several different works. Verse 14, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation,” is nearly identical to Exodus 15:2 which, in turn, is taken from the Song of Moses celebrating Israel’s salvation from Egypt’s armies at the Red Sea. Exodus 15:1-18. Whether the psalm commemorates the victory of one of Judah’s kings in battle or a procession bearing the Ark of the Covenant into the temple and regardless of when it reached its final form, fragments of this hymn have ancient roots in Israel’s worship pre-dating the Babylonian Exile.
The Exodus clearly stands at the heart of Israel’s worship and history. It was the paradigm for God’s saving acts. As we have seen throughout Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), God’s victory for Israel at the Red Sea and God’s guidance and protection as Israel made her way through the wilderness to the promised land provided a rich supply of images for prophets seeking to encourage the people in their darkest hours. Not surprisingly, then, Luke refers to Jesus’ passion in Jerusalem as his “Exodus.” See Luke 9:28-36. The context given for the last supper in Matthew, Mark and Luke is the Passover meal commemorating the Exodus. So the selection of this psalm for use in celebrating the Easter Eucharist is appropriate.
This text is but one small part of Paul’s extended discussion of the resurrection throughout the whole of I Corinthians 15. I encourage you to read it in its entirety. Here Paul makes the very important point that Jesus’ resurrection is not simply his own, but the beginning of a general resurrection of the dead in which all believers participate even now. Jesus is the “first fruits” of the dead whose resurrection follows. The end comes when Christ “delivers up the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and every power.” Vs. 24. This is precisely the claim that ultimately got disciples of Jesus into big trouble with the Roman Empire. As far as Caesar was concerned, there was only one kingdom and that was Rome. Suggesting that there might be another kingdom to which allegiance was owed could get you nailed to a cross. Asserting that all other kingdoms, including Rome, must finally be brought under the reign of such other kingdom was a direct shot across the imperial bow. These letters of Paul were considered subversive material in the First Century and would be equally so in the Twenty-first Century-if we really paid attention to what Paul is saying.
A word or two should be said about the destruction of death. This is not a distant hope to be fulfilled only in the indefinite future. Death is destroyed even now-if we understand that it is not the last word. I must say that one of the greatest disappointments I have experienced throughout my life in the church is our inordinate fear death. I cannot honestly say that I have found in the church any less denial of death, inability to discuss death or acceptance of death than in the public at large. Now I am not suggesting that death should be treated lightly or that anxiety about dying is unnatural or suggests a lack of faith. But I do believe that disciples of Jesus ought to know how to die. Like all other disciplines, the art of dying well is learned and practiced in a community of faith. The church should be a place where a person can discuss the deterioration of health, life threatening sickness and the effects of chronic pain in comfort and without awkwardness. We should all be assured that no one of us has to die alone. People in hospice should be comforted by visitors who read psalms to them, pray over them or simply sit at their bedside. A disciple’s funeral should be in the sanctuary where s/he worshiped. The casket should stand in the presence of the baptismal font and be surrounded by the symbols of faith. The Lord’s Supper should be celebrated as a testament both to our resurrection hope and the communion of saints that even now transcends the grave. The church should then accompany the casket to the cemetery where the body is placed in the earth like a seed awaiting the life giving Spring of the resurrection. None of this makes death pleasant. But, as Paul tells us, it can take the sting out of it. I Corinthians 15:54-58.
Archaeological research has revealed that burial in First Century Palestine consisted of two steps. The body was placed into a shelf like compartment cut into stone. For the rural poor, these compartments were made in the soft rock of cliffs and hillsides. Families that could afford it purchased space in burial caves. These caverns occurred naturally or were excavated. They typically contained many such compartments. The body would be wrapped, anointed with spices to alleviate the stench of decay and placed in a compartment. Sometimes a slab of lime would be placed over the mouth of the compartment. After a period of years, the body would decay. When only the bones remained, these would be collected and placed in a large jar made of stone or clay called an “ossuary.” The name of the deceased would be inscribed on the jar which would then be placed in another part of the burial cave. Because the Sabbath began on Friday at sunset on the day of Jesus crucifixion, the women were unable to apply the customary spices to Jesus’ body until after Saturday. That explains why they came as early as possible on Sunday. This entire process and the archeological research through which it has come to us are discussed at length in a fascinating book jointly authored by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed entitled Excavating Jesus, (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., c. 2001).
The men appearing to the women at the tomb on Easter morning are introduced into the narrative with the words, “Behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel…” vs. 4. It may be that Luke is drawing a parallel here between the resurrection and the transfiguration story where we are told that, as Jesus was praying, “the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah who appeared in glory and spoke of his “departure” (literally, “exodus”). That great act of salvation Moses and Elijah foretold on the Mountain of Transfiguration has now come to pass in Jesus’ resurrection.
The two men repeat to the women the same message Jesus has been giving his disciples since Chapter 9 of Luke: “The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.” Vs. 7. It is hard to gage the extent to which the women understand this message which has eluded the rest of the disciples throughout the narrative. In the Gospel of Mark, the women flee from the tomb in terror without telling anyone about what they had seen. According to Luke, the women make their report to the rest of the disciples only to be met with skepticism. The gospel narrative then adds in the final verse (vs. 12) that Peter went out to the tomb, looked in, saw the linen burial wrappings and returned home puzzled over what had taken place. Some of the earliest New Testament manuscripts do not contain verse 12 and the old Revised Standard Version omits it from the text referencing it only in a footnote. Whether or not we include the verse, however, the narrative theme does not change. The empty tomb, even when augmented by the announcement of the two men in dazzling apparel, is not sufficient to evoke understanding, much less belief.
The women and, if we accept vs. 12 as part of the text, Peter are looking for Jesus in all the wrong places. They are seeking the living and resurrected one among the dead. It is hard to be too critical of them. The promise of resurrection is pretty radical and difficult to grasp. At my first council meeting at my first congregation someone asked me, “Pastor, what do you think we can do to get all of our former members to come back to church?” We took a good hour or more going through the membership directory to determine just who these “old members” were. At the end of this exercise, it was pretty clear that getting the old members back would require kidnapping expeditions into the Sunbelt or grave robbery. I then launched into my standard speech about how the days of Lutherans coming into the neighborhood looking for a church to join were over and that if we were going to grow, we would need to start doing what Jesus has always told us to do-make disciples of all nations. We would need to start deepening our own discipleship and sense of call so that we could reach our neighborhood with the gospel. This we could do because the resurrected Christ has promised to be with us until the end of the age. When I was finished, the same council member said, “OK, well that’s interesting. But I was really wondering what we could do to get some of our former members to come back.” At this point I would have been ripping my hair out if I had had any. But I learned a valuable lesson just the same. People tend not to hear until they are ready to hear. That means we have to move according to the Holy Spirit’s schedule faithfully witnessing to the good news of the resurrection until, by that gracious Spirit’s work, it finally sinks in.
The disciples finally will believe the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. They will discover that, while the days of having Jesus among them as their teacher in the time of his ministry are over, Jesus will still be with them in a more profoundly intimate way. Jesus will now lead his church through the outpouring of his Spirit. For that chapter, you need to read the Book of Acts. For now, though, the disciples remain too shell shocked from the crucifixion and the bitter memory of their failures to recognize that a new day is dawning.