Sunday, April 20, 2014

Belief in the Resurrection (Easter 4/20/14)

Belief in the Resurrection
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 20, 2014
Easter Sunday

Matthew 28:16-20
The eleven disciples went to the mountain in Galilee where Jesus had told them to go.  And when they saw him, they paid him homage; but some were dubious.  And Jesus approached them and spoke these words: 

“All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.  You shall go and make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the son and the holy spirit.  Teach them to observe everything I commanded you.  I’ll be with you day in and day out, as you’ll see, until the culmination of the age.”

John 12:24
[Jesus said]:  Let me tell you this:  unless the kernel of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains a single seed, but if it dies, it produces a great harvest.

Peter Rollins
Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

Other Early Christian Voices
[Mary] said,
“I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to him, ‘Lord, I saw you today in a vision.’
He answered and said to me,
‘Blessed are you that you did not waver at seeing me.  For where the mind is, there is the treasure.’”
Gospel of Mary

Jesus said:
“If those who lead you proclaim to you:  ‘The realm is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will enter before you.  If they proclaim to you: ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will enter before you.  Rather, the realm is within you and outside of you.”
Gospel of Thomas

I am the mind and the rest
I am the learning from my search
And the discovery of those seeking me
The Thunder Perfect Mind

Judas said,
“Tell me, Master, what is the beginning of the way?”
He said,
“Love and goodness.  For if one of these had been among the archons, wickedness would have never come to be.”
Dialogue of the Savior

Let us be clear at the outset.  I believe in the resurrection.   Lest there happen to be any lingering doubts as to what I believe, let me assure you, I believe in the resurrection.  

Not only do I believe in the resurrection, I put my faith in the resurrection.  I trust in the resurrection.  I hope in the resurrection.   I proclaim the resurrection.   I am ashamed to admit that I cannot say that I always live the resurrection.  In fact, more often than I care to admit, I, like Peter Rollins, deny the resurrection.    To quote Peter:

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

Nonetheless, I do believe in the resurrection.   Even as I don’t always live it, I do believe it and am drawn back to it.   Even as I find it hard to hope at times, even as the gray shades of despair surround me, even as the grief and sorrow of loss is heavy, I do believe in life after brokenness.   I hope, trust, and try to live for it.  I believe in the resurrection.  Help my unbelief.

Bart Ehrman, religion scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has just published his latest book, How Jesus Became God.  I had a chance to interview him on Religion For Life.   You can hear that interview today on WETS at two p.m.     It will be on podcast next Thursday. 

Ehrman concludes that it was belief in the resurrection that propelled the Christian faith from its earliest days.   People believed in the resurrection of Jesus and that sustained the movement.   

In what exactly did they believe and why? 

To answer that question, I want to mention another book, Bernard Brandon Scott’s, The Trouble with Resurrection.    Brandon Scott visited our church a couple of years ago for a Jesus Seminar on the Road.  In his book, The Trouble With Resurrection, Scott traces the history and development of resurrection and belief in resurrection within the texts of the New Testament itself.  

Bottom line:  what was meant by resurrection was different for different people before, during and after the time of Jesus.    Not only that, but the meaning of resurrection and belief in resurrection has evolved in the 2000 years since the time of Jesus.    

The minister up the street from us today who is preaching at this very moment may have similar beliefs to mine about resurrection and some very different ones.  Those sitting in this room today may have both similar and different ideas surrounding belief in the resurrection.  

The resurrection is a powerful and living expression of faith.    It is a symbol that invites exploration and conversation.    One of the ways the church in its many expressions, unfortunately, in my view, has dealt with this diversity, is to make boundaries of acceptable definition.    The resurrection is defined in a certain way and those who do not believe in this certain way are not of the true church.   We hear in so many words:

You are not really a Christian. 
You do not really believe in the resurrection.   
If you want to be in the club, you need to believe this way. 

When I grew up listening to sermons in church, Easter was about the preacher telling us about the fact that Jesus rose from the tomb, bodily, “up from the grave he arose,” and if we didn’t believe that obvious, historical fact, we were not going to heaven.    I was and still am, skeptical.   

Those stories of the empty tomb that are found in the four gospels are late, that is they didn’t appear until at least 40 years after the death of Jesus and they differ significantly from one another.  For example, who was at the tomb first?  How many angels were there, or were they angels?   Did the women tell what they had seen or not?  

While those preachers of my childhood believed in the resurrection by attempting to believe literally in some harmonized version of the empty tomb narratives, I find all of that incredible and less than interesting.    To quote Brandon Scott:

The trouble with resurrection is that we have literalized it, narrowed and constricted it, turned it into a creedal belief and in the process have forfeited is great claim and hope.   P. 243

Bart Ehrman agrees that the empty tomb narratives are late.  What then was an earlier belief in the resurrection?   If it wasn’t an empty tomb, what did the early followers of Jesus experience?   Ehrman says that the earliest followers of Jesus after his death experienced visions of Jesus.  

He has a chapter to show that these types of visions are not uncommon.  Ehrman discusses a study conducted in 1991 of over 18,000 people.  Thirteen percent had claimed to have experienced a vivid vision.     Some who have lost loved ones will have visions of their loved one appearing to them.    Others will have visions of religious figures appearing to them.    Those visions are believed to be true.   They are believed by those who have them to be real.  Jesus, a revered religious figure who met an untimely death would likely be the source of visions of those who loved him.

For Ehrman’s point whether these visions pointed to an actual appearance by Jesus or whether the visions were self-generated because of the combination of grief and religious expectation, is not critical.  Those who had visions of Jesus appearing to them believed it.   That belief carried the Christian faith.    The point is belief in the resurrection.  

What was it about Jesus that caused people not only to have these visions, but for this faith in the resurrection of Jesus to catch fire?   There was belief in this time period and in this Jewish culture of a great revealing, an apocalypse, when God would make things right.  Those martyrs who had died while faithful to God, would be raised bodily and joined in a new kingdom of God.    This new kingdom of God would be a kingdom of justice and peace, and an honoring of the oppressed.   All other kings, such as Caesar, would be overthrown.

According to Bart Ehrman, and going back to Albert Schweitzer at the beginning of the 20th century, historical Jesus scholars think that Jesus believed this and believed that he himself was part of this apocalypse.   He thought he would have a role to play in this new kingdom of God that would come in a supernatural fashion.   

If Jesus is preaching this then dies at the hands of the Roman Empire, it is no wonder that his followers who believed in him and in his vision would have visions of this resurrection taking place.  

The writings of the Apostle Paul are filled with this apocalyptic imagery.     He saw Jesus as the first fruits of this apocalyptic resurrection that he thought would be completed in Paul’s own lifetime.     

The dominant view of historical Jesus studies today is this:  Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who was believed to have been raised from the dead as a sign of God’s kingdom coming in power on this Earth.     It was believed that all the martyrs would be raised, too, as well as the faithful living at the time.   The historical Jesus believed this message.  He preached it.  When he died, the message was applied to him, and preached by those who had visions of him alive.  

As time wore on, this belief had to evolve because the end did not come.   The kingdom of God did not break in.   Resurrection hope modified and was placed out and beyond.   The resurrection was changed from God’s justice fully realized on Earth to life after death in Heaven. 

Here we are in 2014.   We are light years away from a first century world.   We no longer conceive of a flat earth created a few thousand years ago with the planets, sun and stars circling us.   We no longer think of things and people as supernaturally charged, that is, a world filled with angels and demons who inflict diseases and bring rains and natural disasters and put kings in power and remove others.     
We live in a very different time and place.   Yet here I am, having said all of this, still saying, “I believe in the resurrection.”   What do I mean?  No I do not affirm first century apocalyptic thinking, or in a supernaturally charged universe, or that anyone ever, including Jesus, has risen literally from the dead.   Yet I do believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

Other scholars, such as Dominic Crossan and Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, who while a minority voice among historical Jesus scholars, offer a compelling vision.  They are not as convinced that Jesus was as apocalyptic as all that.   The apocalyptic message was before him and after him, but not his.  They suggest that he was a wisdom teacher and that his parables offer a glimpse of his vision.  They think Jesus believed that the kingdom of God was not coming violently, suddenly, or supernaturally, but gradually as we participate in it.   

The kingdom of God was peace through justice, not through violence.  As we care for neighbor, love enemies, work for economic justice, resist violence with love, tell the truth, side with the oppressed, then we participate in human flourishing.    We participate and embody what Jesus called the kingdom of God.   We practice resurrection.  There is no easy fix.   God will not fix it for us.  The kingdom of God is within and among you.    Be it.

At the end of the day, I cannot say with certainty if the historical Jesus was apocalyptic or not.     I do believe that the notion that God is going to come and fix things, especially destroy our enemies, is an unhealthy notion, and unfortunately, it is a popular one among many religious people today, particularly among the monotheistic religions.    It seems that many of these believers would like to help God, particularly with with the part about destroying enemies. 

My faith, my trust, my belief, and my hope in Jesus and in the resurrection of Jesus, is not in visions of him being alive as a person.  Nor is it a belief in some kind of apocalyptic end.   Nor is it in heaven after I die, although I am game for that should it be in the cards.

My belief in the resurrection is a bit more earthy but at the same time more ambitious than those visions.    I believe in the ongoing life of the vision that Jesus had, not in a vision about Jesus. 

What was Jesus’ vision?   I think it is found in his teachings.   His vision was a vision of enemies finding a common humanity and compassion for one another.  As Jesus said:

“Love your enemies.  Pray for them.”

It was a vision of Earth and its bounty being shared.  As Jesus said:

“Give the shirt off your back.”
“Give to everyone who begs from you.”

It was a vision of forgiveness and reconciliation.  As the Father in Jesus’ parable told the older brother:

“My child, you are always at my side.  Everything that’s mine is yours.  But we just had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and now is found.”  

It was a vision of peace by being the first to lay down arms.  As Jesus said:

“Turn the other cheek.”
“Do not resist evil with evil.” 

It was a vision that he enacted by consorting with those called sinners, by practicing an open table, by welcoming children into his midst. 

It was a vision of celebration as expressed in his parables of the woman who found her lost coin then spent it on having a party with the neighbors, or the shepherd who found the lost sheep and invited the countryside to join him in his joy, and it was seen in the accusation by the pious against Jesus that he was “a glutton and a drunkard” for his willingness to eat and drink and to do so with anyone.

I believe in the resurrection.   I believe that his vision survived his death and lives today.

I believe in the healing of Jesus.    I believe that while the stories of Jesus’ miracles are not literally factual, they do serve to remember his legacy of healing and compassion toward those whose lives were broken in mind, body, and spirit.    Whose life is not broken in some way?   

Not only do the words and deeds of Jesus make me a believer in resurrection, I see the resurrection happening around me when I dare to open my eyes.     

I see it everyday in every new color, smell, and sneeze of Spring.    Nature’s renewal, its yearly death and rebirth is the resurrection.  

I see it in the courageous call for justice and equality for sexual and gender minorities.   I wear this rainbow stole today as a sign of resurrection.  I will wear it in anticipation of this summer’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church when the church will have the opportunity to affirm the resurrection by recognizing the loving relationships of our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender sisters, brothers, daughters, and sons and take concrete steps toward equality.

I see it in the advocacy of so many people everyday for the cause of justice and human flourishing and for the care of our Earth home.   I see it in resistance to economic and political forces that operate from greed, fear and injustice.   I see it in the courageous actions of love.   

I see the resurrection in the actions of people individually and collectively in this congregation.   Think of the various passions and visions that people have for a just world, for a sustainable relationship between humans and Earth, for peace, for an end to hunger and thirst, for an end to violence in the home and in between nations.

I see and I believe in resurrection. 

It has been nearly a year and ten months since we lost Zach.  For me, I see resurrection in the possibility, at times it is only a glimpse, but it is a glimpse and as such faith that our lives will rebuild and that we will find a way to honor and remember and integrate Zach’s memory and spirit in a way that enhances our flourishing and that of others.   

Resurrection isn’t loud, brash, and absolute.  It is more like a bud just turning on the tree.  It is a whisper of warm southern air on a cold day.    It is nonetheless real.  It is the possibility, a little more real than at this time even last year, that that shattered stained glass window of my life might be rebuilt.    No rush.  No insistence.   But a possibility that resurrection and God’s kingdom is present.    

Resurrection is the hope that our brokenness and our woundedness, all of us are all that, is not the last word about us.   In pain’s midst, resurrection is a gentle but firm response.  Its sign is joy, a surprising joy that reflects the depth of life, that comes at times in spite of ourselves, and is coming.    It is a deep breath in which we say,

It is well with my soul.  

That I believe.


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