On the Other Hand: Body Positive Resurrection

This is the sermon I preached at First Church of Christ Simsbury on May 5, 2019.

John 20:19-25; Acts 9:1-6

The other day I came across this story from a likely-forgotten, forty-year-old movie, The Frisco Kid. Staring a young Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford, the movie opens in a Jewish Rabbinical School in Poland. Despite being ranked 87th in his class of 88, the Chief Rabbi appoints Wilder to become the rabbi for a small Jewish community in mid-19th century San Francisco. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Wilder misses the ship to San Francisco and so begins a long misadventure across the country. He is soon robbed of all his money, and falls in with a lovable rogue played by Harrison Ford.

The relevant scene unfolds when Wilder and Ford are captured by a tribe of Native Americans. Impressed by Wilder’s willingness to die for the Torah he carries. the chief asks him if “his God” can make it rain. The chief explains that despite performing all their native rituals, it has not rained for months and his people are hurting.

Wilder insists that God could make it rain, but doesn’t, because, well, making rain on demand is just not what God does. With each inquiry and attempt to respond, the chief and Wilder get more and more frustrated with each other.

Here Wilder could be me or Rev. Kev responding to one of your questions about why God doesn’t bring an end to suffering,

Exasperated, he explains, “He gives you strength when you are suffering; he gives you compassion when all you feel is hatred; he gives you courage when you are searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness. But he does NOT. MAKE. RAIN!”

Then, CRASH! BOOM! BANG! Thunder shakes the teepee, and the rain pours down.

Wilder cocks his head, looks up with a twinkle in his eye and just the hint of a smile, and quips, “On the other hand…”

So perhaps Wilder’s rabbi seems an unlikely place to begin a sermon about resurrection, but the chief’s question, “Can God make it rain on demand?” and the question this morning’s sermon asks, “Was Jesus physically resurrected from the dead?” are both asking whether God must obey the laws of nature. Everything we know, leads us to answer yes, God operates within an accepted framework of logic, science and history. Yet both questions invite another response born of hope and faith, “On the other hand…”

Our Sunday morning Bible study group is reflecting on two articles, a point-counter point, or on the one hand – on the other hand, exchange about the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

There are two main ways to understand the resurrection of Jesus.

The first approach suggests that the resurrection serves as a metaphor that gives meaning to our lives. According to this understanding, the disciples experienced something profound, indeed life-changing following Jesus’s death, but there was no physical resurrection of Jesus’ body. That, says this school of thought, would be impossible, like God making it rain on demand. This belief in resurrection as metaphor is common in mainline Protestant churches like ours.

The other, more traditional, belief is that Jesus was physically, bodily raised from the dead. Jesus’ body was dead, then it was alive.

In one article, the President of Union Theological Seminary, Serene Jones, is asked, Do you think of Easter as a literal flesh‐and‐blood resurrection?

She responds:

The empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed. What happens on Easter is the triumph of love in the midst of suffering. Isn’t that reason for hope?

At the heart of faith is mystery. The God of Easter is vulnerable and is connected to the world in profound ways that don’t involve manipulating the world but constantly inviting us into love, justice, mercy.

For me, the message of Easter says Jones, is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there.

Jones articulately represents the resurrection of Jesus as a symbol or metaphor for the triumph of love over pain. Can you hear Gene Wilder’s rabbi here? A God from whom we may draw strength in response to suffering, but certainly not a God that would defy the laws of nature to make it rain on demand, or raise the dead.

Then CRASH! BOOM! BANG! On the other hand…

Morgan Guyton, the Director of the Methodist campus ministry for Tulane and Loyola Universities in New Orleans, responds to Jones and her presentation of resurrection as a metaphor.

According to Guyton, one grasps onto a belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus out of a death-defying hope born of abject and ongoing suffering. Resurrection is not something to believe in because it’s reasonable. It’s something you believe in because you can’t bear the thought of it not being possible.

Jesus’ physical resurrection matters, says Guyton, “if you have a need for history and biology to be utterly disrupted by something completely, inexplicably discontinuous with how things have always been.”

Resurrection matters on a whole different level, he says, to a Tutsi woman whose whole family was massacred by the Hutu during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, or a man who spends most of his life in prison after being falsely convicted for a crime because of racism, or a Palestinian family whose olive orchard and 100-plus year old farmhouse are bulldozed by the Israeli army. If God can actually reach into space and time in order to vindicate Jesus for his unjust death by raising him from the dead, then despite the impossible hopelessness of our sinful world… despite the impossible hopelessness of our sinful world, God has the power to vindicate the victims of injustice and tragic life circumstances in a similar way, whatever that will look like.

Jews suffered through thousands of years of slavery, exile and occupation. Is it any wonder that Thomas at first doubts Jesus’ resurrection? He wasn’t just doubting the miracle itself, but was doubting that his own future could be fundamentally different than that of his ancestors.

Strength when you are suffering? Of course. Compassion in response to hatred? Certainly. But…

BOOM! CRASH! On the other hand… Resurrection!

Paul’s conversion powerfully demonstrates the promise of resurrection to bring a radically new life-giving future out of a past consumed with suffering and death.  Paul persecuted, tortured, imprisoned and murdered Jesus’ followers in the name of God. Until one day he was knocked to the ground and encountered the risen Christ. And BANG! From that point forward he would become the greatest promoter of resurrection the world has ever known.

I find myself at an interesting intersection between Jones and Guyton, between Thomas and Paul, between metaphor and the physical resurrection.

Thirty years ago, I walked into a UCC church and never left. The single most important thing that prompted me to stay was the permission I was given to understand resurrection as a metaphor. If not for that, I think it unlikely that I would be standing in the pulpit this morning. To this day, this understanding of story, symbol and metaphor has been profoundly meaningful to my faith and essential to my call to ministry. Metaphors allow us to interpret scripture in ever expanding ways, and I will never stop using metaphor in my preaching and teaching.

That said, I have come to believe that our world needs something more than metaphors of spring flowers and butterflies.

My father believed in progress, that things are forever getting better. I used to think that was true. Now, I’m not so sure.

I believe we need more than strength in the face of suffering, we need an end to suffering. I believe we need more than compassion in response to hatred, we need an end to hatred. The theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes that hope is a belief in a radically discontinuous future that isn’t simply the logical continuation of the past. We need a clean break. We need resurrection.

So, I will take every opportunity to proclaim resurrection,

not just the metaphorical, power of love over hate, strength in response to suffering, kind of resurrection,

but the honest to goodness, real life, shucky-darn, Jesus, who was deader than dead, gets up and walks out of the tomb,

CRASH!

Poverty, racism, sexism and homophobia are eradicated.

BOOM!

Addiction and mental illness are defeated.

BANG!

Cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and AIDS are cured.

On the other hand…

Domestic violence, genocide, and war are no more,

and Creation is restored.

Christ is Risen!

That’s the resurrection I’m talkin’ about.

That’s the resurrection I need.

And that’s the resurrection I proclaim!

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If Justice, Then Resurrection

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on February 17, 2019.

Jeremiah 17:5-10, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20

I was recently talking to one of our members, Karen Callahan, who is the supervisor of nurses in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, at Hartford Hospital, She was sharing love-filled, but heart breaking stories of some of the newborns they treat there. Some of course, are premature, and spend a few weeks or a month in the NICU, then return home to live happily ever after. But others suffer from an incurable condition, or experience a complication in birth, that means their life will be short and painful. These little ones suffer in their short lives, and of course there are no words to describe the pain the parents experience in losing their child.

I thought of these little babies when I read the First Corinthians passage which is about the hope for the dead found in the resurrection of Christ. Paul’s talk of resurrection may sound strange to some, but let’s take a closer look at what he means.

 

A couple weeks ago, another one of our members, Mario Chiappetti, shared a New York Times article about a minister in the United Church of Canada, Rev. Greta Bosper, who identifies herself as an atheist. She rejects the idea of God as a supernatural being, instead emphasizing living a life of love, justice and compassion. A fascinating email exchange between Mario, Rev. Kev, Mark Scully, and I followed, in which we shared thoughts about what beliefs are essential to being a Christian.

Initially, of course, atheism, popularly understood as not believing in God, would seem to be incompatible with Christianity. But in our email exchange, we took a closer look at the meaning of a-theism. Theism is a belief in a divine being that acts directly in human lives. So a-theism, means to not believe in such a theistic God. Atheism, as understood this way, doesn’t rule out other understandings of God, for example, as divine mystery, or as the power of a transcendent and unconditional love. It turns out, there are even Christian atheists who, like the Canadian pastor, commit to follow Jesus without accepting the supernatural aspects of God.

My criticism of the Canadian minister is less for what she believes, but because that as a pastor I try not to emphasize my own beliefs, but to leave room for a range of beliefs among members of the congregation. I worry, that by asserting her own beliefs so strongly, she discourages the membership and participation of those who think or believe differently.

Here at First Church, we have both theists and those that reject the supernatural qualities of God.

There are also those who dismiss the supernatural parts of Jesus’ story, His virgin birth, the miracles he performs, and his bodily resurrection, Like the Canadian minister, these Christians seek to follow the example of Jesus, by feeding the hungry, seeking justice for the most vulnerable, trying to practice unconditional love, even for enemies, and forgiving seven times seven.

Recognizing that spiritual journeys last a lifetime, and are ever evolving, I ask new members to simply “live with Jesus at the center of their lives,” this allows space for those who embrace Christ’s divinity, and those that seek to live by the example of Jesus.

I do think there are fair questions to ask of those whose most significant connection to Jesus is as an example of how to live.

First, what makes Jesus’ example unique? After all, we typically follow the examples of many people in our lives, admired historical figures, our parents or grandparents, a beloved teacher or coach, or a mentor.

So it’s one thing to say we follow Jesus as an example. But is Jesus’ example unique, and if so, how?

Second, a reminder to those who seek to live by the example of Jesus, he willingly submitted himself to be tortured and killed for what he believed in.

If we are indeed putting the example of Jesus at the center of our lives, how far are we willing to follow him? To death? Or are we only going to choose those things to follow that seem safe?

And then, there is the matter of Christ’s resurrection. Can those who seek to follow Christ’s example simply choose to ignore what many consider to be essential to his story?

The church in Corinth is asking the same questions many of us ask, why can’t we just follow Jesus’s teaching to love one another? Do we really need to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead?

These questions about resurrection were not new, even in Paul’s day. In Jesus and Paul’s time, Judaism had been debating resurrection for centuries.

Belief in resurrection emerged out of centuries of abject physical suffering by Jews, from slavery in Egypt, to brutal wars including the slaughter or women and children, to the burning and looting of Jerusalem and exile in Babylon, to the persecution of Jews by the Roman Empire including mass crucifixions.

Faithful Jews asked a very reasonable question, if we believe in a just God who promises to deliver us from slavery and suffering, what about those we love who have suffered and died terrible, painful deaths? Where is the justice for them, not in the abstract, not in the afterlife, but as they experienced bodily harm, does not justice for them include restoration of their broken bodies? This is a compelling question.

Some of these Jewish rabbis answered this question in a powerful and meaningful way, with a belief, that at the end of time, the dead would be resurrected, their bodies restored and reunited with their souls.

But there was no consensus among ancient Jews. The gospels refer to two Jewish sects, Sadducees and Pharisees. Sadducees, did not believe in physical resurrection, Pharisees did. There is a story in gospel of Mark where Sadducees argue with Jesus against resurrection.

In response to the church he founded in Corinth, Paul doesn’t mince words.

If there is no resurrection, there is no hope. If there is no resurrection, then everything we thought we knew about God is a lie. If there is no resurrection, then all we have is this life, and the so-called gospel is not really “good news” at all.

Christ’s resurrection is non-negotiable. It has to be for Paul’s gospel to work. At the heart of this good news is the resurrection of Jesus. If God did not actually raise Jesus from the dead, then God is not stronger than death.

Just as it was for the Sadducees, just as it was for the church in Corinth, belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is hard to accept for many Christians today, even becoming a stumbling block to identifying as a Christian for some.

As a result, many contemporary Christians have come to understand the stories of Jesus’ resurrection – stories in which his followers are said to have interacted with, talked to, touched, and eaten with Jesus following his death on the cross – as metaphors for the truth that life triumphs over death, love wins out over hate.

On Easter, because the idea of bodily resurrection is so outrageous to some, we illustrate these truths with safer symbols of new life, tulips springing up after a hard winter, or a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. But the broken, lifeless body of Jesus, taken down from the cross and sealed in a tomb, physically returning to life, no, that’s just too much to accept.

As shocking as resurrection may seem, Paul poses a good question. If we believe that God is just, then God must be just in the flesh, in response to the suffering and death of real people, not just in the abstract, not just for tulips and butterflies and springtime. If God is not just to those who suffer and die, then God, says Paul, is not just.

Tortured lives and deaths like those experienced by ancient Jews still exist in our world today. There are obvious examples, like the Holocaust, Apartheid, or the Rwandan genocide, but even in the relative ease of our American lives, we watch loved ones, good, good people, suffer terribly.

I mentioned Karen Callahan’s experiences in the NICU at Hartford Hospital. Stories of tulips and butterflies hardly seem enough for the parent that just lost a child. We are fond of quoting Martin Luther King, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Well, those little ones in the NICU don’t have time to wait for that long arc of justice to reach them.

In response to such abject suffering, Jews asked, what would a truly just God do? Heal broken bodies and restore life, that’s what.

 

I think of those who live with Alzheimer’s and those who love them. How would a just God respond to their awful hardship and suffering? By healing broken bodies and restoring life.

I think of children who were separated from their parents crossing the U.S. border, and subsequently died in custody. How would a just God respond? By healing broken bodies and restoring life.

What would justice look like? The answer, the only answer, says Paul, is resurrection.

Paul’s experience of seeing the resurrected Christ changed his perspective on when and how God was renewing God’s creation. Paul’s hope for resurrection was no longer a distant future dream. God’s life-giving power had invaded the cosmos and conquered death by resurrecting Jesus. With this act, God declared certain victory over death. Through Christ’s resurrection, justice had been restored for all who suffer and die.

Paul is naming this. If we claim a God of justice, it is not enough to talk in metaphors, not enough to follow the example of Jesus. Death is not a metaphor, and justice in response to sin, suffering and death demands more than tulips and butterflies.

If we claim to believe in a just God, but don’t believe in resurrection, then Jesus just become one of many examples of a moral life.

If a God is truly just, then Jesus’ resurrection must be true.

What would it look like, what would it require, for you to claim and proclaim resurrection as good news?

 

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