Wrestling with Resurrection
For the six Sundays after Easter, called “Eastertide,” we’re going to be exploring Jesus’ resurrection. We’re going to look at the stories and sightings of the resurrected Christ in the New Testament, mainly in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
However, historically speaking, the earliest writing we have of the resurrection is from the hand of someone who came after Jesus, ironically enough: the Apostle Paul. The earliest person to sit down and write it all out--write about the experiences of those who saw the resurrected Jesus first hand, even if it wasn’t himself, was the Apostle Paul, not one of the twelve disciples.
I preached on Paul’s letter to the Philippians about a month ago, but let me give you a brief reminder of who Paul is. Paul was Saul. He was a Pharisee (a very well educated Jewish man) and persecuted the church heavily at its beginning when Peter and the disciples were trying to get their feet under them after Jesus’ final departure. Paul was so set against this new Jesus movement that the blood of some folks was on his hands.
Paul then had a very startling theophany experience where Jesus (after he had ascended back to God) came back to Paul in the middle of the Damascus road and made him blind. In his 3-day blindness he came to know and love Jesus. After that, Paul became arguably the single most effective spreader of Christianity in the Mediterranean area in the first century.
So why are we starting the conversation about resurrection of Jesus with someone who wasn’t in Jesus’ original community? Simply because Paul sat down and wrote it all out first--before folks wrote out Matthew, before Mark, Luke, or John. Paul’s pen hit the page first and we begin our journey looking at the resurrection with his account of the testimonies he heard from others and his own later experience with Jesus.
And Paul has quite a few things to say about Jesus and resurrection, especially in chapter 15 of his first letter to the Corinthians. We cannot read and talk about the whole chapter--we’d be here all day and 90% of us would still be thoroughly confused. So we’ll start for now with verses 1-19 and I’ll visit some other later verses when we get deeper into the sermon.
We’re also going to read from a version, a paraphrase, of the Bible that I’ve never read from with y’all. It’s Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of the Bible. Eugene Peterson, who died last fall, was a prolific writer, pastor, theologian, and mentor to many. His version is his version, but when reading Paul’s letters in the New Testament, I find him to be helpful. Paul can sometimes get a bit twisty and turny in his arguments. Eugene Peterson helps me, and hopefully you, keep up by using modern language and in all honesty, shorter sentences. If you want a run-on sentence, read Paul in the Greek.
So join me in reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, verses 1-19 as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson.
Listen now for a Word from God.
Friends, let me go over the Message with you one final time— this Message that I proclaimed and that you made your own; this Message on which you took your stand and by which your life has been saved. (I’m assuming, now, that your belief was the real thing and not a passing fancy, that you’re in this for good and holding fast.)
The first thing I did was place before you what was placed so emphatically before me: that the Messiah died for our sins, exactly as Scripture tells it; that he was buried; that he was raised from death on the third day, again exactly as Scripture says; that he presented himself alive to Peter, then to his closest followers, and later to more than five hundred of his followers all at the same time, most of them still around (although a few have since died); that he then spent time with James and the rest of those he commissioned to represent him; and that he finally presented himself alive to me. It was fitting that I bring up the rear. I don’t deserve to be included in that inner circle, as you well know, having spent all those early years trying my best to stamp God’s church right out of existence.
But because God was so gracious, so very generous, here I am. And I’m not about to let his grace go to waste. Haven’t I worked hard trying to do more than any of the others? Even then, my work didn’t amount to all that much. It was God giving me the work to do, God giving me the energy to do it. So whether you heard it from me or from those others, it’s all the same: We spoke God’s truth and you entrusted your lives.
Now, let me ask you something profound yet troubling. If you became believers because you trusted the proclamation that Christ is alive, risen from the dead, how can you let people say that there is no such thing as a resurrection? If there’s no resurrection, there’s no living Christ. And face it—if there’s no resurrection for Christ, everything we’ve told you is smoke and mirrors, and everything you’ve staked your life on is smoke and mirrors. Not only that, but we would be guilty of telling a string of barefaced lies about God, all these affidavits we passed on to you verifying that God raised up Christ—sheer fabrications, if there’s no resurrection.
If corpses can’t be raised, then Christ wasn’t, because he was indeed dead. And if Christ weren’t raised, then all you’re doing is wandering about in the dark, as lost as ever. It’s even worse for those who died hoping in Christ and resurrection, because they’re already in their graves. If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years, we’re a pretty sorry lot. But the truth is that Christ has been raised up, the first in a long legacy of those who are going to leave the cemeteries.
For a very, very long time people have been wrestling with the resurrection. Did it really happen? If it did, what does it mean? Is resurrection just for Jesus? What about us? Is Jesus merely brought back to life in his followers or in their memories, not in his actual self or body? What happens if they find a body some day? What does that mean for our faith? Is it really worth messing around with a faith that is built on something as nonsensical as resurrection?
I was acutely aware of our own theological diversity here at Ormewood Church while writing this sermon this week. Some of you wouldn’t think twice about claiming the bodily resurrection of Jesus, while some of you embrace it’s metaphorical or spiritual meaning--Jesus rose in our hearts and that’s all you’re willing to claim. This Sunday (and the rest of this series) will prove quite the challenge for our preachers, me not excluded.
But it appears we are in good company, on the theological internet this week there has been a great debate “raging” among theologians about the resurrection. I’m not sure how many of you read The New York Times, but an Opinion Columnist, Nicholas Kristof, has been hosting occasional conversations about Christianity. For Easter Sunday last week, he published a recent interview with Serene Jones, minister, theologian, and president of Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Guess how he begins? “To start,” Kristof says, “do you think of Easter as a literal flesh-and-blood resurrection? I have problems with that.”
THAT was Kristof’s first question. If you listened to the scripture we just read it is basically the question that Paul is engaging in the letter to the church in Corinth. “What about this resurrection? Is it literal? Can someone actually come back to life? What happened? Can I come back to life too? Paint me a picture. Help me understand it. Break it down for me because I either don’t get it or I don’t believe it or like Kristof “I have problems with that.”
There apparently is nothing new under the sun, but some questions are worth the 2,000 years of wrestling.
So Paul starts our wrestling with resurrection way back in the first century with a church in the city of Corinth, a thriving city at a crossroads on major trading routes. Being a trade city means that there is lots of diversity--religiously, morally, and behaviorally. And the church in Corinth reflects this broader phenomena of the city. The bulkiest of letters that we have of Paul’s are to this church in Corinth. They needed help, guidance, mentoring, conflict resolutions, and explanations, A LOT OF THEM.
And resurrection features prominently in the First Letter he wrote to them--in fact, the whole of chapter 15 is dedicated to wrestling with resurrection and its implications.
“Friends,” Paul says in the portion we read this morning, “let’s go over this one. more. time: resurrection is the real deal. I’ve told you that, the witnesses told you that, our scriptures point to that. Our faith is contingent on the hope of resurrection, of the resurrected Christ. Death and resurrection. Not only this, the resurrection is extended to us all. The cemeteries are not our final resting place. Because Christ is alive, we too will not perish--so listen up!” That’s verses 1-19 in my own summary. That’s what we read today.
Paul goes on in chapter 15 to outline what he thinks resurrection actually is and means. For Paul it means God’s power doesn’t stop “at the cemetery gates.” The hope of resurrection is what drives him everyday to risk his neck in the dangerous work of spreading this fledgling movement. It’s also why he and everyone else should live holy lives, respecting and caring for their bodies and others because these are the gifts of God to us, now and, because of resurrection, forever.
Then he starts engaging the technical questions of resurrection: Eugene Peterson asks the questions like this, “show me how resurrection works. Give me a diagram, a picture. What does this ‘resurrection body’ look like?” If Eugene Peterson was fluent in emojis he would have selected the shrugging shoulder one. “It’s a mystery” Paul says--not the kind of thing appropriate for diagrams. And so, like other mysteries, Paul tackles it in metaphors:
Paul offers the metaphor of gardening. A seed, before it dies and goes in the ground, does not look like the thing it will become. “What we plant in the soil and what grows out of it don’t look anything alike.” A tomato seed doesn’t look like a tomato. And so it is with the resurrection of the body: “We’re currently looking around at pre-resurrection ‘seeds’--who can imagine what the resurrection ‘plants’ will be like!”
Paul goes on articulating this further--we’re having an earthly experience now with a decomposing body--but Christ has risen with a new body and because of that we also will have a body, that can defy these things, can defy the decomposing flesh.
Paul calls it a spiritual body, but I don’t think he means what the Greeks mean when they separate the body and the soul, or the gnostics who find bodies an evil binding and the soul a free and pure form. That binary of existence of either body or soul--no, Paul is not talking of that. We will have a spiritual body he says, both spirit and body. And if you read it in the NRSV or better yet the Greek, Paul is still tossing out terms and metaphors and ways of articulating something impossible to articulate. It’s a body, but it is not bound to our mortality--because if Jesus came back with our body, it would just decay again. But Jesus was here among us, so it has to be physical in SOME way. It’s a heavenly existence, even here on earth. It’s a mystery.
But it is, believes Paul, so deeply, a mystery worth spending your life pursuing. For him, even dying for.
Fast forward 2,000 years later. Why is this conversation of resurrection still open, still fruitful, still being talked over, fought about, and wrestled with? Serene Jones, Barbara Brown Taylor, Richard Rohr, James Martin, even Jenelle Holmes, we are still talking about the empty tomb. We all have our own reasons for keeping this resurrection faith alive, for proclaiming this revelation over and over and over again.
For the Corinthians, death and resurrection was a foolishness that gave them wisdom. It was a stumbling block turned cornerstone. It was the little metaphorical crucifixions and resurrections they saw in their own communities as they learned to live together in Christ’s love. It was the hope that death, in all its finality in the first century Roman empire, was not actually final.
For Paul more broadly (and spread across his other letters), the resurrection marked the start of a new age, the beginning of new creation, it was the paradigm for the model Christian existence of death to the old self and life to the new self. Paul thought Christ’s resurrection was a sort of prequel to everyone’s new life, a giant announcement that death and decay was not our story--resurrection and life was!
And why are we still talking about resurrection? Because we know too well the darkness of the tomb. We know the ways of death and empire and betrayal and have seen them replicated from 33AD to 2019 and we are hungry for something more, we are, like CS Lewis talks about, aware of a hunger for something more--but what?
We wrestle with resurrection still because our “Pauls” of our community are sitting here shouting (most likely typing) about how resurrection is the way of God and the way of God’s world. They are finding metaphors that help us grasp this great mystery that we have been wrestling with every century since that man walked out.
We hear Richard Rohr proclaim the resurrection through Christ’s suffering as we suffer, through reminding us that Jesus says, “If I can trust it, so can you!”
We hear Barbara Brown Taylor declare that resurrection is the surprising nature of God and we WANT to be surprised: with a reversal of fortunes, a rebuttal to death, a “no” to sin and a “yes” to love.
We hear Eugene Peterson ache alongside Paul as he helps us imagine standing by the empty tomb looking into it and refusing to believe this cemetery and our cemeteries are truly the conclusion to this adventure.
We hear Serene Jones talk about the empty tomb as the proclamation that love is more profound and powerful than death or life. It is a “no” to the crucifixion and death and a “yes” to love’s overwhelming power.
And in this Eastertide we will set our posture towards a resurrected Christ because we see the world around us and are willing to stake our lives that God loves it so much God will save it too, body, soul, spirit and all that is heaven and all that is earth.