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!

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: