Sunday, April 12, 2009

resurrection sermon (it looks long...)


CNN ran a crazy story this year about resurrection. Ria Ramkissoon, a member of the One Mind Ministries cult, was the mother of a 1yr old boy who starved to death while under her care. She was tried and convicted for criminal negligence but – and here’s where it gets weird – she plea-bargained herself an acquittal if her son resurrected.

That’s right – she believes that her son will rise from the dead and when he does Ramkissoon has successfully ensured that she will be set free from prison.

The accommodating judge was careful to make one stipulation, though:
the child must actually come back to life in a literal, physical, bodily resurrection not just some metaphorical I’m-the-tupil-that-used-to-be-an-infant-boy sort of reincarnation.

Actual, physical, resurrection.

Who’s ever heard of such a thing?

Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow.

And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.

But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead, and indeed He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him. Behold, I have told you.”

So they went out quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring His disciples word.

And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, “Rejoice!” So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell My brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me.”

Now while they were going, behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened. When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, “Tell them, ‘His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will appease him and make you secure.” So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”


Jesus died.
He was buried.
He descended into Hell.
He rose again.

Jesus Christ came back from the dead –
not as a zombie or a vampire or some creature of Death
But in a new body, a resurrected body,
A body of evidence
A body of belief
A transphysical body that would satisfy
even the most stringent Maryland judge and jury.

This chapter focuses on the historical proof that the resurrection actually occurred. I do not intend much to discuss the meaning of the resurrection – that will be the focal point of every subsequent chapter – except to note that since it has happened and it is true then we can be assured (at the very least):

that Jesus’ claims to be God’s Son
and very God Himself
were true

and that God has not abandoned His project of humanity
or plan of salvation for this world.

There is, of course, some dispute about the resurrection. The controversy isn’t that Christ simply disappeared from within his stone tomb, but that he appeared over a dozen times to hundreds of people clustered in groups of varying size.

It isn’t about the body’s whereabouts,
but about Jesus’ activity in the world
as a real person after he was executed and buried.

Three days after Jesus’ was buried some very strange things began to happen. This strangeness was first noted by a collection of women who went to pay their respects to Jesus’ tomb…only to find it empty. Now, the reports in the Gospels differ slightly on the particulars (see ADDENDUM on the comparison of the resurrection accounts), but all of the Gospels sing the same basic song:

Joseph of Arimathea takes the body of Jesus,
puts it in a tomb,
the tomb is visited by a small group of women (followers of Jesus)
early on the Sunday morning after his execution,
and they find that the tomb is empty,
they see a vision of angels
declaring that Jesus has risen from the dead.

The inconsistencies that we see between the Gospel narratives lead to two conclusions.

First, since all the ill-fitting details are of secondary importance, we can still have great confidence in the historical worth of the evidence – the stories about the women visiting the tomb were, after all, written down by someone other than those women so its easy to understand how some minor details could get lost in translation (so to speak).

Second, since these inconsistencies exist, we can conclude that we’re dealing with multiple independent accounts of the same story – meaning, the Gospel writers weren’t just copying from each other here (otherwise the details would all line up perfectly), which indicates that the story of the empty tomb was widespread and accessible to those who did their journalistic research.

Don’t get stressed out about these secondary inconsistencies. No real historian would doubt the validity of the evidence just because of these little details.

For example, we have two competing, irreconcilable, and incompatible accounts of Hannibal crossing the Alps to sack Rome,
but no one doubts the truth of the fact
that the angry man and his elephants
blasted their way through the greatest Empire of antiquity.

One of the great proofs of Jesus’ resurrection concerns his actual grave site. When famous and inspirational people die, their graves are often venerated – think of Lenin, or Jim Morrison, or Napoleon, etc – but we have no evidence in 1st C Palestine for the veneration of Jesus’ tomb. It never became a shrine. None of his followers visited the grave after the resurrection because it had no interest for them. It was, after all, empty. Of course, empty graves are sometimes revered (like the flowering crosses family members leave on the side of the road where tragedy struck) but even Jesus’ empty grave was not revered. His followers simply understood that graves held no significance when it came to Christ. He was no longer dead.

Another interesting tidbit that points to the impact of the resurrection concerns the observation of the Sabbath. Up until the resurrection, the Jewish holy day was Saturday; but, once Jesus got out of the tomb on Sunday, Christians everywhere began to keep the first day of the week (rather than the last) as the day of corporate worship and the celebration of Christ’s victory over Death.

The most often cited proof of the resurrection, however, is the difference we see in the disciples. Peter, for example, showed himself to be a real coward by denying Christ at the crucifixion; but, something special happened to Peter and he changed his stripes – becoming a bold and provocative witness to the message of Jesus. Peter (as well as 10 of the other 11 disciples) was martyred for his faith, choosing to die upside down on a cross because he didn’t consider himself worthy to die in the exact manner of Jesus. Peter, and the other disciples, weren’t likely to run around and be martyred for something they’d made up – no, the resurrection was a fact and they acted upon it because they believed.

Some have raised a flimsy objection to the validity of the first eye-witnesses to the resurrected Christ, claiming that they were “unreliable.”

This is true.

The first witnesses were considered unreliable by Romans and Jews alike…because they were women. Women were not allowed to testify in court, and their witness was summarily dismissed. In my mind, the fact that the Gospels kept their story straight – that it was these “unreliable” women that first experienced the resurrected Jesus – is precisely what makes the accounts so reliable. If the Gospel writes wanted to make their case air-tight in the 1st Century, they would have abandoned the testimony of these women and gone with the testimony of John or Peter. Instead, the writers willingly endured scrutiny because they were compelled to tell the truth of what actually happened.

Incidentally, here is a quick list of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances as recorded in the New Testament, to help you better process the information I’m relying on:

• to Mary Magdalene, JOHN 20.10-18
• to the other women, MATTHEW 28.8-10
• to Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus, LUKE 24.13-32
• to eleven disciples and others, LUKE 24.33-49
• to ten apostles and others (though, without Thomas), JOHN 20.19-23
• to Thomas and the other apostles, JOHN 20.26-30
• to seven apostles, JOHN 21.1-14
• to the disciples, MATTHEW 28.16-20
• to the apostles before his ascension, LUKE 24 + ACTS 1

There are additional references throughout the Book of Acts to other appearances of Jesus:

• Peter mentions these in ACTS 2.32, 3.15, and 10.41
• Paul mentions these in ACTS 13.31

Paul also mentions in 1 Corinthians 15.6 that on one occasion there were over 500 witnesses to the resurrected Christ, many of whom were still alive to verify this statement.

All told, if you were to line up the eyewitnesses at a trial and allow them each to be cross-examined for 15min about what they saw, you would have 129 hours of testimony.

The weight of this testimony has affected the American people (despite the widely held belief that only nutjobs and cakesniffers give it any credence).
For example, a 2000 poll conducted by Newsweek (see ADDENDUM) asked the question: do you believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead after dying on the Cross? Of those who answered, 88% of those who claimed to be Christians said “yes,” while 32% who claimed no faith at all answered “yes” as well. While that first number may seem discouraging, I actually find the 32% of “non-believers” to be stellar.


Because it shows that people are willing to believe
that a powerful God can –
and will –
act powerfully
that resurrection power is not so far fetched for deity as for Dateline
that the supernatural realm is real in ways we cannot yet fully appreciate
and we ought to tread lightly
whenever we encounter the possibility
that metaphysics and physics may collide.

Resurrection, by the way, has very little to do with Heaven (which does come as a surprise for many religious folks). We’ll talk about Heaven more later on, but for now let me simply state that bodily resurrection isn’t about going to Heaven when you die – as Bishop N.T. Wright has so helpfully reminded us through his scholarship over the last 20 years.

Resurrection is about coming out the other side of Death. It is the fundamental defeat of death, involving a four-stage process: life, death, life in the presence of God for a time, and then physical, bodily resurrection into new life.

Not life after death,
but life after life after death.
Bishop N.T. Wright

When my good friend Randy died this past Christmas, I had a difficult time reconciling the Theology of the Resurrection with my own feelings of loss. Certainly, I believed that Christ has conquered death – and I was fine to acknowledge that death comes to us all and had come now, too early though, to Randy – however I was definitely NOT fine emotionally. I was sad. I was disappointed that God hadn’t healed him. I remain disappointed. Having witnessed a sampling of miracles in my short life, I was eager for one more – for him, for his children, for Beth and his family, for Westwinds, for America, for 2008, for the internet, for my own sense of certainty in God’s present-day capacity to save… but it didn’t happen.

I’m not entirely sure, after living with cancer for two years, that Randy shared my ultimate disappointment. He held onto St. Paul’s words: to live is Christ, to die is gain.

He went well into the presence of God.

Reflecting often, as I have, on the death of Randy Shafer in light of the Death of Christ Jesus, it has come to me that the absolute defeat of Death isn’t really about undoing death at all. The opposite of death, after all, is not un-death but Life.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is about the fullest experience of life (now and again later). We must all embrace life fully and with the hope that what we do in this life matters now (and will, still, then). Randy and I both enjoy the same promise – that the work we did together in this world is not wasted, and that we will be doing this work together again in this world as it collides with Heaven in a new way later on.

I’ve found great comfort in that, and also a challenge to persist in my small efforts to heal the world.

What so many people – Christians in particular – seem to get wrong is that the resurrection is not some bit of Bible-nerdiness to be studied and memorized, it is a call to live differently. It is a mission statement. It is a prophetic critique of the world-as-it-is and a prophetic call for the kingdom of God to be present on earth as it is in heaven.

Thy will be done
Thy kingdom come
On earth as it is in Heaven
Jesus, in the Lord’s Prayer

The resurrection declares that Jesus really is God’s Son
That Jesus really is the Messiah,
the Savior the world has been waiting for
That Jesus really is Lord of Life and conqueror of Death
That Jesus is the One in whom
the One True God has made Himself known
and personally present in the world,
who has descended into our suffering –
the suffering we have caused,
that He has permitted,
that He now shares,
and over which He now triumphs
And Jesus does all of this while in skin
While enfleshed
While incarnated as the same kind of human as you and I are
The human made in God’s Image
The Image which has been perfected in Christ Jesus

The resurrection happened to one man, Jesus Christ,
but that one man acted as a representative for all the world
He was Israel’s Messiah
He is our Savior
And that means that the resurrection has,
in principle,
happened in and to us all.

The resurrection is a Life-giving act on the part of YHWH
The One True God
Who raised up Christ
Who always had the power to give Life and take it away
And now – after eons of waiting – the One God
Had acted to keep His word
The Word of Life
In accordance with His ancient promise.

He comes back to judge those who judged Him
To reverse the role of criminal and court
And to remind the world that this perpetual love of Death cannot continue
That Life is available
And all who oppose it will fall.

Now, this idea of a coming judgment might sound harsh at first – but consider through the scriptures judgment is considered a good thing. Our world is full of evil – dictators, and sexual predators, and poverty, and famine – and it needs someone to fix it. Jesus comes as a Judge to fix the world.

Hence our title: Dying for a Fix.

He comes to Judge the world, to set all that’s wrong back to rights, and to restore the Peace of God to every corner of the Earth and in every human heart. The prototypical vision for this justice is found in ISAIAH 11:

There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.
The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him,
The Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The Spirit of counsel and might,
The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.

His delight is in the fear of the LORD,
And He shall not judge by the sight of His eyes,
Nor decide by the hearing of His ears;
But with righteousness He shall judge the poor,
And decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth,
And with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of His loins,
And faithfulness the belt of His waist.

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
Their young ones shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole,
And the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den.

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
As the waters cover the sea.

What a spectacle of justice – a dazzling and beautiful future hope!

But I digress. I want to get back to the historicity of the resurrection by refocusing on a couple of key things. First, it has always fascinated me that the resurrection actually happened and that there is proof for it. Though it’s tough to believe – after all, people typically stay dead – and though many smart people have sought to argue otherwise, all of the evidence available to us from both Christian and secular sources points towards resurrection. We’ll get into that more in a minute.

Second, it surprises me to learn that no one really expected Jesus to rise from the dead. The Hebrew expectations for a Messiah certainly did NOT include resurrection because resurrection necessitated death, which would have indicated utter failure. Neither did their beliefs about the resurrection coincide with what happened to Jesus – they expected a general resurrection at the end of time, not an individual resurrection in the middle of it. Neither did Jesus’ disciples fully understand him when he spoke prophetically about his death and resurrection – scripture seems to indicate that they just didn’t get it. Again, we’ll take more about this later on (and much more about the Jewish concept of resurrection in subsequent chapters), but I was very surprised at precisely how uncommon a belief resurrection truly was in the ancient world.

Lastly, I’m struck that the resurrection of Jesus means infinitely more than just Jesus being God’s son (which he was), and very God Himself (which he was), and that his teachings and miracles were valid (which they were)…briefly,
the resurrection means that God’s plan to heal the world has been put into effect,
that we are able and responsible to cooperate with him in that plan,
and that the remarkable power of the Spirit is alive in us
and working to accomplish that plan through us.

I know that – no matter how compelling a case may have been made – it is hard to accept that Jesus actually got up from his grave. After all, in real life people just don’t do that… but we must remember that this is exactly how people would have felt in the first century – nobody believed in literal, physical, bodily resurrection then any more than we do now. The only way anyone came to believe in it was by letting the evidence speak to them and by making up their own minds based on the weight of that evidence.

Faith cannot be forced,
But unfaith can be challenged.
Bishop N.T. Wright

In order to believe that it’s even possible for Jesus to have been raised from the dead requires us to shift our entire perspective on the world. It requires us to swap out a worldview that leans on science and rationalism and measurable, repeatable, processes…for a worldview that acknowledges there is more to this life than what we can see with our nude eyes or measure in our remarkable laboratories.

This world is an onion, and we must be willing to accept that there are layers beneath what we think we know about that which is impossible.

After all, if it is possible that there is a God, then it’s no problem at all to believe that God is powerful enough to interrupt history and raise Christ from the dead.

I know that this is, scientifically, a difficult pill to swallow…like trying to choke down a yak…but we are not dealing with a scientific issue. We are dealing with an historical one. Science deals with things that can be repeated, under the right conditions, through controlled experimentation. History is full of unthinkable things that have happened once and once only.

Scientifically the resurrection is untenable. Historically it is sound.

If you choose to look at the evidence as a scientist you may never believe.

If you choose to look at the evidence as historical proof,
I have no doubt that you will.

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