Shalom Mennonite Congregation—May 15, 2011
Daniel 12:1-4; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 24:1-12
[All the sermons in this series]
I was a teenager when I first became a Christian. As western Oregon was pretty unchurched, I didn’t grow up with any peer pressure to be religious. So, in many ways I was a blank slate as far as faith goes when I first walked into Elkton Bible Baptist Church with my friend David.
It’s interesting to me as I look back because the driving force for me was a desire to understand, to get help with my questions, to move towards discerning truth. And I happened into a church which had the basic stance—“the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” We’ll answer each of your questions, but just one time. I was treated with kindness, but certainly not encouraged to keep asking questions.
And I was taught a bunch of things as true without really being given too many reasons why. So, as a result, when I went to college and by my junior year started getting pretty serious about the whys and wherefores of my faith, a whole bunch of beliefs quickly dropped by the wayside—no more rapture and Great Tribulation doctrine, no more creationism, no more inerrant Bible, no more substitutionary atonement.
But for some reason, one of the really big beliefs, the resurrection of Jesus, remained pretty much unscathed for quite some time. Like so many other beliefs, it was simply presented to me as factual, not open to negotiation, absolutely necessary—but don’t ask why, don’t ask what it’s based on, that is, don’t question it.
And, unlike the rapture, creation/evolution, and the perfection of the Bible, I didn’t mind not questioning the resurrection. But it seems to me that theological beliefs are kind of like a slot machine—different ones come up at different times. And, for various reasons, about eight years ago or so, the resurrection came up for me. So I started really thinking about it, and realized that, indeed, there are lots of questions….
I want to talk about a couple of the questions I started to examine—but first, I’d like to hear a bit from you. Think about it while I read three core resurrection texts from the Bible. What are your resurrection questions? What questions do you have about this theme—or what questions does it trigger for you about other aspects of your faith?
The first passage is the only place in the entire Old Testament that seems to have a clear affirmation of the idea of dead people being raised to life.
Daniel 12:1-4: At that time Michael, the great prince, protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky; those who lead many to righteousness, shine like the stars forever and ever.
The Apostle Paul goes into the most detail about the resurrection in 1 Cortinthians.
1 Corinthians 15:1-11: I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all he appeared also to me. I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been in vain.
And here is the story from Luke’s Gospel:
Luke 24:1-12—On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to the apostles an idle tale, and they did not believe what they heard. But Peter did get up and ran to the tomb and looked in. He saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed.
So, what are your questions about the story of Jesus’ resurrection?…
What I discovered when I read how scholars approach Jesus’ resurrection is that there is a big focus on historical facts. Basically, they debate what should be believed about what actually happened in history. They sift through the evidence and try to make sense of what we can know in light of modern ways of looking at the world.
One big issue centers on belief: What must one believe about Jesus’ resurrection in order to be a Christian. Do you have to believe that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead in order to be saved? Can you be Christian without belief in a literal resurrection?
It’s kind of like another sort of question—do you have to believe in heaven to go there? Or, is a failure to believe in a literal, eternal hell a guarantee that you will end up there?
Well, I’m not convinced that belief in the sheer historical fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection should be an essential for Christianity. I mean, it’s not that I consider myself a historical skeptic. I don’t agree with a lot of modernists that current standards for historical verifiability force us to reject the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. I do not think the resurrection could not have happened as reported in the New Testament (that is, to say it positively, I do think the resurrection could have happened—in fact, I personally think something real did happen).
But I think there is room for a lot of diversity and lot of uncertainty here, in relation to historical issues. The New Testament itself seems most interested to present the resurrection as a call to action for people who already want to follow Jesus. More so than as a proof to skeptics of God’s overwhelming power.
The risen Jesus appears only to his followers, not to what we could call the “general public.” The challenge he brings is something like this, he says: okay now you have seen just how far the Powers that be will go to crush our peacemaking movement, just how far the Powers will go to silence my message of mercy and compassion all the way down. They will, indeed, commit murder.
But now you know, the risen Jesus insists, just as you see me standing here, just as you touch my side, now you know that the violence of the Powers cannot defeat my love. And because you know this, go out and let the world know that my love wins, that the Powers cannot stop it.
At its heart, the message of Jesus’ resurrection is a message of God’s thoroughgoing peaceableness. Jesus wins, not through fighting back, but by remaining consistently pacifist all the way. It’s not like there’s some point here where God says, enough, we have finally come to the last resort and a little violence will be necessary. No. God’s victory is totally due to love’s perseverance.
I’ve been reading two books lately that could not be more different from one another. One is called The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People by Jonathan Schell. The other is Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter Liethart. Whenever I read a book I disagree with as much as I do this Defending Constantine book, I need to have something I like to read alongside to keep me from doing violence to the bad book.
Defending Constantine, as the title tells us, is an effort to present the Roman Empire’s first Christian emperor as a great hero of faith. Early on Liethart discusses those people who criticize Constantine for being bad for Christianity—his main villain is my teacher John Howard Yoder. Then he insists that Constantine was indeed a tremendous Christian; the evidence for Constantine as exemplary Christian, though, is mainly his great power, his decisive victory, his willingness to crush his enemies. And he did it all in the name of Jesus, empowered by the Christian God.
This seems to me to be the kind of thinking that sees Jesus’ resurrection as something like the return of the warrior God of Joshua. Rather than looking at the Bible and the story of faith since then through the lens of Jesus’ own life and teaching, this is really just another way of setting Jesus’ way aside. Sure, Jesus did suffer and die, but that was only so God could then step in and crush God’s enemies by displaying overwhelming power—and, when the time was right, this overwhelming power could be harnessed by God’s servant Constantine in order to take over the reins of the world’s greatest empire. And Constantine sets the pattern for later Christian empires.
The bottom line for Liethart, it turns out, is an affirmation of the United States as at least potentially the current Christian empire. Big surprise. Liethart’s American heroes are people like Ronald Reagan and General David Petraeus.
Jonathan Schell, in The Unconquerable World, has a very different kind of resurrection in mind. He discusses the American Civil Rights movement, the resistance to Soviet tyranny in Poland and Czechoslovakia, the South African battle against apartheid, and India’s campaign to end Britain’s colonial domination. Each of these movements met with mixed success, but in each case the effective power dynamics were the opposite of Constantinian top-down violence-centered power.
Vaclav Havel and others in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 80s experienced many setbacks—prison, repression, silencing—and a genuine resurrection as the tyrants went down in face not of massive violence but in face of steadfast, largely nonviolent resistance that conquered through the denial of consent. When enough people said, you are no longer our government, the tyrants went down.
One of the most powerful cases of this kind of resurrection was Nelson Mandela in South Africa. He emerged after decades of imprisonment and torture as a remarkably whole, powerful, and inspirational leader. Mandela’s courage and steadfast humane-ness enabled a political transformation very different from the bloodbath almost all the so-called experts predicted.
Well, theologically, there is a terrible irony here. The self-professed Christian writer looks for top-down power. Resurrection as underwriting a “Christian empire.” The secular writer is the one who perceives the same kind of power that Jesus embodied in his life and teaching—the power borne from self-suffering rather than causing others to suffer, the power that empowers others rather than the power that dominates others. And through these secular eyes we see portrayed a very different kind of resurrection, resurrection that emphasizes that love and genuine human solidarity cannot be conquered.
Schell’s story includes numerous people who did not live to see their kind of power win the day. Benigno Aquino in the Philippines, who returned from exile fully expecting that he might well sacrifice his life, as he did. But a sacrifice that led directly to the people-power fueled overthrowing of the tyrant. Steven Biko, a nonviolent community organizer in South Africa whose murder inspired opponents of apartheid around the world to heighten their resistance and ultimately bring that system down. Bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador whose violent death did not immediately lead to political change, but who now stands as one of his nation’s greatest heroes and an inspiration to its successful pro-democracy forces that in time did move into national leadership.
One of the great stories of this kind of resurrection happened on a much smaller scale. Franz Jagerstatter was a devout Catholic in Austria in the late 1930s. After Nazi Germany took over his country, Jagerstatter was called up to report for military service. Though his church leaders urged him to cooperate, he simply could not go against the message of the gospel. He said no. And he was executed. And there he rested, an unknown hero of faith for another generation, until his story was uncovered, “resurrected,” by an American researcher. Now Jagerstatter’s “solitary witness” has and continues to inspire countless fellow-disciples looking for encouragement in their own lives of resistance to tyranny.
So to me the question that is most interesting about Jesus’ resurrection is this—what does it mean? Especially, what does it mean for how we approach life now as people who would walk with him?
And this is how I begin to answer that question. Jesus’ resurrection is a message to the world. Jesus’ resurrection points us to his words. Jesus’ resurrection points us to his actions. Jesus’ resurrection tells us that “love your enemy,” that “do not lord it over others but be a servant to all,” that “forgive seventy times seven,” that “love your neighbor as yourself,” these are not exceptions to the more fundamental rule of life as nasty, brutish, and short; these are not exceptions to the more fundamental rule of nature as red in tooth and claw.
No. Jesus’ resurrection is a message to the world: what you see in Jesus is what you see in the Maker of the Universe. What you see in Jesus is the stuff out of which your humanity has been fashioned. What you see in Jesus is your destiny, to be embodied beginning right now.
Despite what you see around you. Despite the brokenness. Despite the lust for domination. Despite the heartlessness.
God means this message to encourage those who receive it, so we may see Jesus’ way at the way, truth, and life, the way to God, the way we show God to others. Even in face of resistance to that way. Even in face of the need to take up the cross in face of that resistance.
It seems to me that Christianity has all too often gotten things almost exactly backwards. We start with a Constantinian world, a world of top-down authority, a world of eye-for-an-eye, the “real world” where self-defense, deference to wealth and status, just war, and necessary selfishness are normal. In such a world, Jesus’ resurrection is seen as crazy, a miracle, something that goes totally against the grain. In such a world, the most that this resurrection can do is provide a ticket out, a ticket to an otherworldly heaven. Really, in such a world, it’s much harder to believe in Jesus’ way of life as our standard than to believe in God directly intervening this one time to bring Jesus back from the dead and then take him back to heaven where he can safely serve as our personal savior, not as our model for political life.
But what if we live in a world where what actually is most natural, most normal, closest to our true nature, is the path of the good Samaritan and the path of the father who welcomes his prodigal son back into his arms without condition? What if we live in a world where we actually are born for friendship and compassion?
Then, Jesus’ resurrection as a message of vindication of his way seems pretty easy to accept. Of course in such a world God does not desert the ones who resist tyranny and domination with welcome and kindness. All we need are eyes to see, and a willingness to take a few steps to walk alongside this one who the Powers indeed cannot conquer.
I believe in the clarity of the Scriptures that state Jesus materially, “bodily,” rose from the dead. These Scriptures were not “a later addition” as German “idealist” and Jesuits have alleged. There is no hard evidence to support their allegation. But there is hard evidence from archaeology to support the Scriptures. What this means is there is a Christianity and therefore a hope to get on the right side of God’s Law which all men in Adam have broken.
My reasoning is based on the gift of faith in the object Christ Jesus and not on my whimsical questions which desire to “comprehend” God.