On the Eighth Day…

Sermon on John 20:19-30 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about childhood is how dangerous it can be.  It is mystifying.  Even though children are surrounded by people who care for them and tuck them in at night and hold their hands as they cross the street, even though parents and teachers constantly tell kids to slow down or remind them not to run with scissors or holler at them to “STOP!” as they chase errant soccer balls into the street, children get bumped and bruised and scraped and cut all the time!  There is nothing that is more terrifyingly entertaining to watch than a little girl running as fast as she can down a hallway and splaying out on the floor as she loses her balance.  The amazing thing is that this is a typical experience.  There are some little boys who fall so frequently that they don’t know that they are actually supposed to have skin on their knees.  And it’s not as if there is some vast conspiracy of parental negligence; part of being a kid is getting a little bruised and battered.  Those various owies and boo-boos are, in some ways, the marks of a child’s development, symbols of the fact that kids are growing into their bodies, finding their center of gravity, learning that hot things are hot and sharp things are sharp.  Those skinned knees of our students and daughters and sons are reminders to us that even when we get a little bruised by life, there is hope for growth and renewal.  Those wounds remind us that there is always hope for another day.

There are few people in Holy Scripture who understand that there is always hope for another day as well as Thomas.  Today, as we do every second Sunday of Easter, we hear the familiar story of Thomas and his doubt.  This story is so familiar that we can almost rehearse it in our sleep.  Jesus appears among the disciples (except for Thomas) after his Resurrection, wishing them peace and breathing the Holy Spirit upon them.  Thomas returns after Jesus departs, and the other disciples excitedly tell him that they have seen the Lord.  Thomas refuses to believe it and says “Unless I put my fingers in the wounds of his hands and place my hand in his pierced side, I will not believe.”  About a week later, Jesus returns, but this time Thomas is there.  Thomas is invited to place his fingers in the wounds of Jesus, and Thomas falls down in worship, saying “My Lord and my God.”  It seems like a very simple formula: Jesus appears among the disciples, Thomas doubts that he appeared and demands proof; Jesus appears again, and Thomas believes.  Thomas seems to be the hero of a skeptical age, a proto-agnostic who refuses to believe in the supernatural unless he is offered definitive proof.  Thomas seems to show us that we are right to be obsessed with certainty and to demand proof at every turn.

Apart from being overly simplistic, this interpretation misses the point that underlies this story.  In order to understand the true meaning behind this passage, we need to remember who Thomas is.  Most of the disciples in John’s gospel have bit parts; they’re either completely silent, a kind of apostolic window-dressing, or they’re given one line that moves the story along.  John is far more concerned with what Jesus has to say; you could be forgiven for thinking that John calls Jesus Word made flesh because he never stops talking.  Jesus, in other words, always drives the story in John’s gospel.  Unlike most of the other disciples, however, Thomas has an integral part of the narrative.  Not only is there the story we read today, Thomas is also the one who gives Jesus the opportunity to say “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  More importantly, Thomas plays a critical role back in chapter 11, just before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  Jesus announces to the disciples that he needs to go to Judea and see his friend Lazarus who has fallen asleep.  The disciples are incredulous.  “You can’t be serious Jesus!  Don’t you remember?  They just tried to kill you in Judea!  Why on earth would you go back?”  It was a reasonable question, one borne from fearful practicality: if you can avoid being killed, why wouldn’t you avail yourself of that opportunity?  But even as the other disciples warn Jesus of the danger, possibly resolving to stay behind as Jesus marches on to his death, the one whom we so callously call “Doubting Thomas” says “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  Before anyone else, Thomas proclaimed that he was willing to die with Jesus.  Before anyone else, Thomas affirmed his total trust in the Word made flesh.  Thomas demonstrated the kind of faithfulness that Jesus expects of all his disciples; Thomas showed us what it truly means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

But here’s the thing.  Given Thomas’ faithfulness, given his willingness to die with Jesus, we would expect him to be right there as Jesus walked the way of the cross.  We would expect Thomas to clamor to be crucified in the place of Jesus.  But like all of the other disciples, Thomas abandons Jesus.  Like all of the other disciples, Thomas runs and hides, afraid even to watch as Jesus is crucified.  Instead of showing us the ideal path toward discipleship, Thomas shows us the very depths of unfaithfulness.  Instead of keeping his promises, Thomas shows us how easy it is for human beings to fail.  Instead of following Jesus to death, Thomas denies that Jesus is part of his life.  Thomas’ questioning of the Resurrection, Thomas’ demand for proof is tied to his own painful awareness of his failure, of his unfaithfulness, of his denial of Jesus.  Thomas simply cannot believe that Jesus would have kept his promise that we would be raised from the dead after his disciples, after the world had so thoroughly abandoned and rejected him.  And so Thomas doesn’t simply demand to see Jesus.  Thomas does not say “Unless I see Jesus in this room, I will not believe.”  Thomas asks to put his fingers in the wounds that he and his fellow disciples had been complicit in inflicting.  Thomas asks to see his Lord’s wounded hands so that he could know that it was indeed the same Jesus whom he had rejected.  And Jesus does not use his wounds to condemn his disciples.  He does not point to his hands and say “You did this to me!”  Instead, the wounds of Jesus are redemptive; they are symbols of the fact that in spite of our unfaithfulness, in spite of our willingness to reject Jesus, he keeps his promises to us.  The wounds of Jesus are reminders that there is always hope for renewal.

One of the curious things about this story is its chronology.  We might wonder why there is a week between the appearances of Jesus.  Unfortunately, this is a failure of our translation, because Greek does not say “a week later,” it says “on the eighth day.”  Remember how important the number seven is in the Jewish tradition.  According to the creation account in Genesis 1, God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh day.  The Jewish Law commands that the seventh day of every week should be a day of Sabbath rest.  The seventh day is the day of completeness, the day when creation reaches its fulfillment.  John’s mention of “the eighth day,” then, is supposed to unsettle us a little bit.  The normal trajectory is that the seventh day is followed by the first day: the week starts over again.  The normal course of creation continues; time marches on.  This reference to the eighth day clues us in to the fact that God is doing something new in the world.  We are not talking about the created universe as we know it anymore; we are talking about an entirely new creation.  Through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, God is transforming and renewing the world.  God is showing us that even our deepest unfaithfulness will be forgiven.

This is a hard message for us to accept.  The logic of the world we live in says that we must be held accountable for our misdeeds.  The logic of the world we live in says that the punishment must fit the crime.  The logic of the world we live in tells us to discard forgiveness in favor of vengeance.  At one point or another, all of us stand with Thomas and question the Resurrection, not necessarily because we do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead, but because we refuse to accept what the Resurrection means.  We refuse to accept the forgiveness we have been offered.  We refuse to acknowledge that God is ushering in a new creation.  We refuse to believe that God has kept and is keeping God’s promises.  The Resurrection, however, is not contingent upon our assent to it.  God is remaking the world whether we believe that he is or not.  A friend and mentor put it best, saying succinctly, “It is not we that question the Resurrection; it is the Resurrection that questions us.”  It is the Resurrection that questions our complacency as we sit idly by and allow others to care for those who are hungry and homeless in our community.  It is the Resurrection that questions our willingness to turn our backs on racial and economic injustice in our country.  It is the Resurrection that questions our decision to ignore what God is calling each and every one of us to do with our lives.  It is the Resurrection that questions our hopelessness, that questions our faithlessness by reminding us that on the eighth day, Christ showed us his wounds and fulfilled his promise to bring about a new creation.

Holy Saturday

“My soul waits for the LORD, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.” — Psalm 130:5

Today might be the most challenging day of the church year.  We have just experienced the drama of Holy Week: the jubilation of Palm Sunday, the tension of Maundy Thursday, and the despair of Good Friday.  We have worn our hearts on our sleeves as we walked the way of the cross with our Lord.  As emotionally draining as this week has been, however, at least we had something to do.  We have been able to respond to the events that were happening in Jesus’ final week; we have been able to react to Jesus’ experience of the cross.  On Holy Saturday, however, there is nothing for us to do but wait, and that may be the most uncomfortable thing of all. 

Recently, a national pizza chain has been advertising their “Hot and Ready” deal.  The conceit of the deal is that one can walk into a restaurant at dinnertime, hand the clerk five dollars, and immediately receive a pizza in return.  There’s no need to think about what one might like to order and there is no need to wait for the pizza to be prepared.  It is always ready.  Though it is somewhat surprising that people cannot wait the fifteen minutes required to bake a pizza, this “Hot and Ready” deal is emblematic of our collective attitude toward waiting: we are always ready for whatever comes next.  But Holy Saturday pushes against our natural inclination to get on with our lives; Holy Saturday encourages to wait.  Even in the Church, we often fail to engage in this discipline of waiting.  As I type these words, the altar guild is upstairs busily decorating the Church of the Heavenly Rest for Easter.  Some of the youth of the parish are “hiding” plastic eggs filled with candy on the church lawn in preparation for the hundreds of children who will descend upon us for the Easter Egg hunt in just a few minutes.  These are unquestionably important parts of our life as a community.  Yet Holy Saturday still calls us to wait.

When we hear the last few verses of the Passion narrative, it’s tempting to imagine that they are insignificant.  After all, the most important event has occured; Jesus has died on the cross.  The details of Jesus’ burial, however, make an extraordinarily important statement.  All of the gospel accounts tell us that after the crucifixion, Jesus’ followers returned to their homes to observe the Sabbath.  After the death of the person they believed to be the Messiah, after it seemed that God’s promises to them remained unfulfilled, Jesus’ disciples follow the commandment to rest on the seventh day.  Even in the face of overwhelming disappointment and despair, Jesus’ disciples continue to trust in God’s faithfulness.  Even when the hope of resurrection and new life is nowhere to be seen, Jesus’ disciples abide by the covenant and spend their Sabbath waiting.  They do not know what they are waiting for, but the do know that God is faithful to those who wait.  In the darkest moments of our lives, we are challenged to remember the God is faithful even when we cannot imagine how we can be delivered from our distress.  Even in the apparent absence of our Lord, we are challenged to trust God’s faithfulness and wait.

“I wait for the LORD; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope.” — Psalm 130:4

Father Funston offers an extraordinary Good Friday meditation.


Offered to the people of Grace Episcopal Cathedral, Topeka, KS

Good Friday 2012

12:10pm & 7:00pm

Sermon Audio Found on Cathedral Website

Come with me on a journey.  Come with me through the gates of Jerusalem.  The palm fronds, on the ground for five days now, have dried out and have crumbled to dust.  Each gust of wind blows the palm dust away.  Ghosts of the recent celebration.

Come with me through the Temple, past the moneychangers who have reestablished their tables, still shaking their heads at that weirdness earlier in the week.

Come with me outside the Temple, where the air is charged with the residual energy of large crowds come to hear a new teacher.  It’s empty now; only a few people rush by on their way home from the market.

Come with me into a non-descript house, to an Upper Room where the remnants of a ritual…

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Good Friday

We have been preparing for this moment for weeks:

The moment when we would bear witness to the Passion of our Lord.
The moment that we would listen to Jesus’ plaintive cries at Gethsemane.
The moment that we would watch helplessly as he is handed over to Pilate.
The moment that the cries of “Crucify him!” would ring in our ears.
The moment that we would see the cross being dragged through the dirt.
The moment that we would smell the sour wine mixed with myrrh.
The moment we would be present to the death of God.

We have been preparing for this moment for weeks.  We have adopted Lenten disciplines in order to make room for God in our lives.  We have been reminded of our mortality in the solemn liturgy of Ash Wednesday.  We have participated in regular worship, where we have heard God’s call to repentance.  We have waved palms to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem, and we have been present as Jesus gave himself to us in the Body and Blood of the Eucharist.  On this blog, Saint Paul has reminded us that the cross is at the center of our life together, even though it seems like a foolish stumbling block.

We have been preparing for this moment for weeks, and yet the crucifixion still shakes us to the core of our being.  I think that we are so shaken because on some level, even though the crucifixion was an event that occurred 2000 years ago, we realize that we are somehow complicit in the death of Jesus.  We are inclined to blame Pilate and the crowds, but the reality is that the guilt of the crowds is our guilt.

John’s gospel tells us that when Pilate presents Jesus to the crowds, they shriek “Away with him!  Away with him!  Crucify him!”  The crowds find Jesus’ presence so repugnant that they want him taken out of their sight; they don’t want to deal with him anymore: they want to push him away.  In the next moment, when Pilate asked “the Jews” whether he should crucify their king, the crowd responds by saying “We have no King but Caesar!”  They could have just as easily said “this man is not our king,” but in a moment of painful irony the crowd swears its allegiance to the Roman emperor.  Remember that in John’s gospel, the Passion takes place during Passover, and so that night, those who had gathered before Pilate to hand Jesus over to death, those who had claimed that Caesar was their king, would gather together for a ritual meal to celebrate their redemption from slavery in Egypt.  At this Passover seder, they would ask questions, eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs, and sing many hymns, including “We have no King but you.”  When “the Jews” come face to face with Jesus, they push him away to the point that they deny their very identity.  The crowds are so eager to condemn Jesus death that they forget that God is their King.

It would be easy for us to say that this is something that we would never do: “We would never push Jesus away; we would never deny God’s claim on us.”  Yet we forget God’s kingship every time we turn away from suffering and forget those who are in need:

Every time we forget about those who are imprisoned in the throes of addiction, we push Jesus away.
Every time we forget that there are people who hated and mistrusted because of the color of their skin, we push Jesus away.
Every time we forget about those whose bodies are riddled with cancer, we push Jesus away.
Every time we forget about the fragility of our world and wantonly ignore those who will come after us, we push Jesus away.
Every time we forget about those who are oppressed and have no right to self-determination, we push Jesus away.
Every time we forget about those who are crippled by mental illness, we push Jesus away.

Nevertheless, Jesus continues to reach out in love to us.  Even as he dies on the cross, Jesus offers no words of condemnation, only words of love.  And so on Good Friday, we are called to realize our complicity in our Lord’s death.  On Good Friday, we are called to embrace and affirm our identity as God’s people.  On Good Friday, we are called to reach out our hands to those who are need of God’s love, just as Christ stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross.  On Good Friday, we are called to remember that we have no king but the crucified God.


Maundy Thursday

A few weeks ago, the clergy and administrator at the Church of the Heavenly Rest met with representatives of the altar guild to discuss the logistics of our Maundy Thursday service.  I expected the meeting to last around 20 minutes; it took an hour and half.  The meeting was long, not (only) due to our collective propensity to ramble, but because the Maundy Thursday service is particularly complex.  Feet need to be washed (in a rite traditionally known as the pedilavium, literally “foot wash”), so the members of the altar guild have to be ready with basins, pitchers of water, and stacks of towels.  The altar needs to be stripped, so acolytes have to be assigned to remove our various liturgical accoutrements from the nave.  The Sacrament needs to be processed to the altar of repose, so we have to figure out where to put the Body and Blood of the Lord in the meantime.  As our heads swirled with these liturgical minutiae, I wondered whether it really had to be so difficult.  Why does Maundy Thursday always feel so awkward?

On one level, Maundy Thursday feels awkward because it is awkward.  Logistical challenges aside, it seems that the Maundy Thursday liturgy is designed to make us a little uncomfortable.  In 21st century American culture, we don’t typically allow people to touch our feet, especially in the early days of spring before we’ve had an opportunity to make them pretty for sandal season.  Yet the central rite of Maundy Thursday involves exposing an intimate part of ourselves to a relative stranger.  And in many ways, this uncomfortable moment doesn’t serve any practical purpose.  As one of my seminary colleagues has pointed out, washing feet on Maundy Thursday doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anymore.  In the first century, footwashing was an important gesture of hospitality.  People wore sandals and walked everywhere on dusty roads.  When hosts (or their servants) took the calloused, dirty feet of their guests in their hands and washed them, they were saying, “You’re done walking for a while; sit down and be at ease: you are welcome here.”  In our world, this doesn’t make any sense.  Most of us drive cars to our destinations, and even those of us who walk don’t walk particularly far.  Moreover, sidewalks are not nearly as dusty as ancient roads.  In other words, Maundy Thursday is that day that we do this incredibly awkward thing that serves no practical purpose and whose symbolic meaning has been all but forgotten.  It might seem that we should abandon the pedilavium in favor of some other gesture of hospitality: maybe we could offer cups of coffee or shoe shines (if we want to stay in the area of the feet). 

Part of the beauty of Maundy Thursday, however, is its awkwardness.  The fact that Maundy Thursday contains a rite that we do not perform any other day of the year highlights the radical nature of the other rite whose institution we observe and celebrate on Maundy Thursday: the Eucharist.  When we celebrate the Eucharist week in and week out, it’s easy to forget the incredible claim that we make when we share in the Lord’s supper.  As Paul observes in 1 Corinthians 11 (from which we will read tonight), the Eucharist is fundamentally a proclamation of our Lord’s death.  The Eucharist is an acknowledgement of the immutable fact that God chose to bring about our redemption through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.  Moreover, the Eucharist is an acknowledgment of the fact that we have done nothing to deserve the redemption brought about by our Lord’s Passion.  This is why, when we celebrate Holy Communion, we remember that the Lord’s supper was instituted “on the night Jesus was betrayed.”  Jesus knew that he was going to be betrayed by all of his closest friends: Judas handed him over to death, Peter denied knowing him, and all of the other disciples deserted Jesus and fled (Jesus predicts every one of these events in the gospel accounts).  Nevertheless, Jesus gave himself to us.  By holding up a piece of bread and saying “This is my body,” Jesus surrenders himself, hands himself over in order to nullify our betrayal.  By giving himself freely to death on a cross, Jesus implicitly forgives our betrayal even before we are able to betray him.  Jesus shows us the true meaning of love by sacrificing his very life so that sin would lose its power over us.  The awkward uniqueness of Maundy Thursday reminds us that in the Eucharist, Jesus Christ gives himself to us even though we were willing to betray him.

Most liturgical theologians agree that “Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum (commandment), a reference to Jesus’ statement in John 15:12: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  This might seem to be a relatively simple commandment, but the reality is that Jesus loved us to the point of laying down his life for his friends.  Jesus’ commandment calls each and every one of us to love sacrificially.  We are called to think of others before we think of ourselves.  How are you loving sacrificially in your community?  How are you giving yourself to others?  I invite you to use this Maundy Thursday to reflect on how you might follow Jesus’ commandment and show God’s immense love to the world.

Corinthian Epilogue

We have finished with our journey through 1 Corinthians.  The final chapter of the letter represents a denouement: Paul encourages the community to put aside money for the church in Jerusalem, announces that he an Timothy are planning to visit Corinth, and lets the Corinthians know that Apollos won’t be able to visit anytime soon.  Paul concludes with final greetings from the churches in Asia and the house church of Prisca and Aquila.  The final greetings include some of the themes that Paul has stressed throughout the letter: he encourages the Corinthians to let all that they do “be done in love” and ends by proclaiming “marana tha,” an Aramaic turn of phrase that means “Our Lord, come!”  Throughout the letter, Paul has emphasized the centrality of love within the new creation that is being brought into being by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; his encouragement of love and his prayer for the coming of the Lord in the final verses of the letter highlight the importance of these themes to life in the Christian community.

Though many of my reflections on this letter come from my work in seminary, I am indebted to Richard Hays’ excellent commentary on 1 Corinthians, a book that got us through some of the thorniest questions that arose in the text.  I recommend it to anyone who is interested in reading more about this letter.  If you’d like a book that is slightly more accessible, I’d recommend N.T. Wright’s commentary from his “New Testament for Everyone” series.  Thank you for your interest in Paul’s theology.  Stay tuned for posts about the final three days of Holy Week.

The Impotence of Death

1 Corinthians 15:50-58

Throughout this chapter, Paul has made an effort to explain that the resurrection of the dead is not something that fits within our human expectations of the world.  The Corinthian assumption was that the Resurrection was impossible and unpalatable: why on earth would we want to be raised to the life that we currently live?  Paul, however, makes it clear through his response that the Resurrection of the dead is not about mere resuscitation; the Resurrection is about transformation.  Our bodies will be changed from something perishable that is sown in dishonor to something imperishable that is raised in glory.  The Corinthians could not conceive of this world or their bodies intersecting with the eternal, because they could not understand that the Resurrection was ultimately about our bodies being given an utterly new life.  They could not see that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ had ushered in an entirely new creation.

In his summary statement, Paul acknowledges the Corinthian objection that our mortal flesh cannot intersect with the eternal: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”  Nevertheless, we who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ will inherit the imperishable kingdom of God.  Paul himself admits that this is a “mystery:” something formerly hidden about the nature of God that has been disclosed through the Christ event.  The trumpet, the traditional sign of the day of the Lord, will sound and the dead will be raised with imperishable bodies; we will all be changed.  Paul says this a necessity; when the creation is made new through Christ’s return (known as the parousia, from the Greek for “presence”), we must be given imperishable bodies and “put on immortality.”  Once we have done this, the power of death will be completely nullified.  Paul uses Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14 to make this point.  In the verse from Hosea, the speaker is taunting death from a safe vantage point: “Where is your sting, O death!?  I am safe from you and you cannot hurt me!”  Paul, in other words, is lampooning death, which can only be done from a position of safety.  Death no longer has any power over us; sin has been laid to waste and we have been freed from the law through the cross of Jesus Christ.  (Though Paul does not elaborate upon the relationship between sin, death, and the law, they are intertwined in Pauline theology.  The law is the power of sin because it makes us aware of our sinfulness and our inability to overcome our sinful nature.  While the law is not bad in itself, Paul does not believe that it frees us from sin; only the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ can do that).  The power of death has been defeated, and Paul gives thanks to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Incidentally, a phrase similar to this appears in several other places in Paul’s letters (cf. Romans 7:25), so it may have been familiar to his congregations.  As this letter was read, we might imagine the entire community reciting these familiar words that give thanks for what God has done in Jesus Christ.

The final verse of this chapter might seem anticlimactic after the rousing and elevated tone of Paul’s concluding paragraph.  After expounding upon the centrality of the Resurrection, however, it is important for Paul to remind the Corinthians that it is only through the Resurrection that their hope and their faith are not “in vain.”  Moreover, in the words of Richard Hays, Paul wants to make the point that the Resurrection is the foundation for faithful action in the world.  It is impossible for the Corinthians to be the community Paul calls them to be throughout this letter if they do not trust in the Resurrection of the dead.  In other words, this final verse brings Paul’s argument full circle; the Christian community derives its unity from a common faith in Christ’s resurrection, the redemption of our bodies, and the ultimate defeat of death.

“What do we find God ‘doing about’ this business of sin and evil?  God did not abolish the fact of evil; He transformed it.  He did not stop the Crucifixion; He rose from the dead.” — Dorothy Sayers

It’s hard to read this passage without hearing the thrilling baritone aria that Handel places toward the end of the Messiah.  Handel’s music not only captures the unbridled joy associated with the Resurrection, it also always signals a change in the piece.  Whenever the soloist begins to sing “Behold, I tell you a mystery,” there is invariably a subtle shift in the performance.  The audience sits up a little straighter and the choir gets ready to sing the final chorus.  This shift may occur because the piece is almost over, but I like to think that singing about the Resurrection has a transformative effect on those gathered for the performance.  Something about the central mystery of the Christian faith encourages us to listen more closely and prepare for a change.

There is, unquestionably, much death in this world.  Every day around the world, children die from starvation and treatable diseases.  Every day, soldiers fight and die in dangerous and unfamiliar places.  Every day, people die under oppressive regimes that trample their right to self-determination.  Every day, teenagers are gunned down for “suspiciously” walking through a neighborhood.  Every day, men and women die with their bodies riddled with cancer.  In the face of all this death, it is easy for us to despair.  It is easy to throw up our hands and withdraw from the world, so that we do not have to get hurt.  This, however, would not be faithful to the gospel.  The central mystery of our faith is that even though death is a part of our daily experience of life, death has no power over us.  Even though we live in a world that is broken by human division, we can trust that God is transforming the world and bringing about a new creation where we will be in unity with one another.  God never promised that suffering and death would not be a part of our lives, but God did promise that suffering and death have lost all their power through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As Dorothy Sayers put it, God did not stop the crucifixion; he rose from the dead.  Part of our call as Christians is to enter into community with one another, to participate in the Resurrection by loving wastefully and understanding that we are connected to everyone in creation by the grace of God in Christ.  As we approach these final days of Holy Week, I invite you to remember that through his sufferings, Christ has ensured that our sufferings have no power over us.  And I invite you to think of Easter as that baritone aria at the end of Messiah, a signal that a change is coming.  Death has no more dominion; we are being remade.


Redemption in Whole, not Part

1 Corinthians 15:29-50

Having made a logical argument for the reality of the general Resurrection, Paul turns to several practical examples to illustrate his point.  He begins by asking what those who receive baptism on behalf of the dead are doing if there is no Resurrection.  This is perplexing, mostly because there is no other reference to vicarious baptism in the New Testament.  Indeed, it’s not even consistent with Paul’s theology of baptism, which assumes a decision on the part of the person being baptized.  If we lay aside the fact that vicarious baptism seems to be a practice unique to the Corinthian community (and one that seems a little strange to us), then Paul’s point about the Resurrection is very clear: why on earth would you baptize someone on behalf of the dead if the dead are not raised?

Paul’s next example is much more resonant.  If there is no Resurrection of the dead, why would Christians risk their lives for the sake of the gospel?  Paul asserts that he dies every day; he risks his health and safety to make the good news of Jesus Christ known to the world.  Mere human hope would not have animated him to “fight the wild animals of Ephesus” (probably a metaphor), nor would it have caused him to be so concerned with the moral character of the Christian community.  If there is no Resurrection, then the Epicureans have it right: “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”  As if he were afraid that the Corinthians may have embraced this philosophy, Paul immediately enjoins the community to sober up and sin no more by quoting the Greek poet Menander.  He goes on to observe that “some people,” presumably those who have poor morals, have no knowledge of God.  Though Paul is saying this in order to “shame” the Corinthians, he is also making the important claim that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have made it possible to “sin no more.”  Paul’s injunction to the Corinthians would not have made any sense if Christ hadn’t destroyed the power of sin and death.  Paul elaborates upon this more in the letter to the Romans, but the most important effect of Christ’s Resurrection is the fact that it has made death powerless.

After offering some practical examples, Paul begins to address perhaps the most difficult question associated with the Resurrection of the dead.  He notes that someone might ask how the dead are raised; what might their body look like when they are raised from the dead?  Paul immediately dismisses this speculation as foolish, but it’s not a stupid question.  Indeed, theologians have spent centuries trying to figure out what the resurrected body might look like.  Paul, however, returns to the point we discussed yesterday: Resurrection is about transformation, and so the resurrected body will not look like anything that we can imagine.  Though the apostle’s example of a seed being sown in the ground represents a fundamental and typically first-century misunderstanding of horticulture (any farmer can tell you that seeds do not die before they germinate), the essence of his argument remains the same: the plant that sprouts looks nothing like the seed that is planted.  When a farmer sows, he does not sow “the body that is to be,” but something that on the surface bears little resemblance to what will eventually sprout.  Paul affirms that God gives each seed a body as God has chosen, even though the seed is different from the resulting plant.  Paul recalls the theme of diversity that he hammered home a few chapters before by noting that everything in creation is composed of different kinds of flesh;  even heavenly bodies are endowed with different “glories.”

By mentioning the diversities of flesh and heavenly bodies, Paul makes it clear that there are kinds of matter that are distinct from one another in the created universe.  In the same way, there is a distinction between the natural body and the resurrected body.  That which is sown is perishable, but that which is raised is imperishable.  Moreover, that which is sown in weakness will be raised in power (cf. the reference to God’s weakness in 1:25).  It’s important to grasp the next portion of Paul’s meditation on the resurrected body.  As Paul frames it, we received our physical nature through Adam, but we will receive a spiritual body from the last Adam, who is Jesus Christ.  For Paul, Adam and Christ bracket the entire scope of humanity; our physical existence came through Adam, but we will participate in the divine life through Jesus Christ.  Christ, in other words, is the final word in human history; Christ will remake our perishable physical nature into something imperishable and spiritual.  It’s important to observe what Paul does not say about the Resurrection.  Paul makes no reference to the soul; he does not claim that some eternal kernel within us will survive and be brought to heaven.  Indeed, this would be inconsistent with his argument; no part of the body we currently have will be untransformed.  Rather, Paul claims that our entire selves, bodies and all will be remade so that our physical nature will be changed and we will “bear the image of the man of heaven.”  This is why Paul refers to Christ as the “last Adam:” God has remade us through Jesus Christ in order that Christ might become the new ancestor of humanity.

“Nothing, not even what is lowest and most bestial, will not be raised again if it submits to death.” — C.S. Lewis

Last year, I had the great privilege of working on a Master’s thesis about the intersection between the theologies of Paul and Rowan Williams.  While it was a wonderfully enriching academic experience, I got to the point where I was the most annoying person at lunch.  This was not because my friends and colleagues did not want to hear about my work; it was because I had the tendency to quote Paul at the slightest provocation.  In the most extreme case, I quoted the apostle when I went to the post office to ship a package.  When the clerk asked me if the package contained anything perishable, my response was “what is sown is perishable, but what is raised is imperishable.”  Though she didn’t get the reference, she smiled and proceeded to calculate the rate to ship the package (she was used to seminarians acting strange).

On one level, I was trying to be funny when I quoted 1 Corinthians 15:42 at the post office.  On another deeper level, however, I was unintentionally highlighting one of the most challenging aspects of the gospel.  Many Christians, particularly those who are most vocal in our culture, portray the Resurrection as some kind of divine rescue operation; those who are righteous will be scooped up and carried to a heavenly country where they will be fitted for wings and a halo.  Others seem to indicate that the only part of our being that will survive for eternity is an immortal soul, something that is distinct and ultimately separate from our bodies.  In some ways, these are images that comfort us.  They give us a vision of the Resurrection that is untainted with the challenge of other people or those parts of ourselves that limit us or make us uncomfortable.  In other words, they try to make sense of the Resurrection using human standards.  But these images are not consistent with the theology of the Resurrection.  As Christians, we believe that we will be raised with our entire redeemed bodies, even those parts of our bodies that we regard as low and bestial in this life.  Yesterday, we noted that the Resurrection is not a divine escape clause, but a transformation of our very selves.  Today, we are affirming that the Resurrection does not change just one particular part of us, but transforms our entire bodies.  Resurrection does not remove us from creation; it is the means by which creation is made new.  Our bodies may not be recognizable in the Resurrection (just look at the Resurrection appearances of Jesus in the gospels; no one recognized him until he made himself known), but our whole self and the whole world will be redeemed.  This is critically important: though we were weak in this life, we will be made strong.  Though we were plagued by illness in this life, we will be filled with health and wholeness.  Though this world was susceptible to the power of sin and death, this very same world will be remade into a place where death shall have no more dominion.

Resurrection and Transformation

1 Corinthians 15:12-28

In the previous passage, Paul established the fundamental confession of the Christian faith: Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised, all in accordance with the scriptural and prophetic witness.  Paul, presupposing that the Corinthians assume this to be the essential Christian proclamation, is incredulous as he asks how some of the Corinthians can say that there is no resurrection of the dead.  To be clear, the Corinthians did not deny that Christ has been raised; rather, some members of the community did not believe that we would be raised from the dead in a general Resurrection.  As far as Paul is concerned, however, this latter claim is incompatible with the confession that Christ has been raised.  He illustrates his point with a step by step argument: if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then the Christian proclamation and the Church’s faith are both in vain.  Moreover, a denial of the resurrection of the dead is a misrepresentation (literally “a false witness”) of God himself; if there is no resurrection of the dead, then it is false to claim that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  Furthermore, Paul argues that Christ’s death cannot be saving without the Resurrection; if Christ has not been raised, we are still in our sins and our faith is futile.  If Christ has not been raised, then those who were “in Christ” when they died have utterly perished.  If Christ has not been raised, then the Christian hope is based on a lie and Christians are “most to be pitied.”  While Paul may seem to be overstating his argument, his rhetorical point is very clear: the “message about the cross” (1:18) is has no meaning if there is no Resurrection.

We might wonder why.  It might seem that affirming the Resurrection of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with our Resurrection.  Jesus’ Resurrection could be the story of a hero who escaped the jaws of death, a story that is supposed to teach us to bear up in the face of adversity.  Indeed, this is the kind of story that the cultured and philosophically-oriented Corinthians might have expected.  Paul, however, recalls an illustration that he used in 9:10, suggesting that Christ is the “first fruits” of those who have died.  The Resurrection of Jesus must logically herald a more complete Resurrection of the dead.  It is important to understand Paul’s logic: if Christ is raised from the dead, but there is no general Resurrection, then the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is an isolated incident that only benefits him.  For Christ’s death and resurrection to have any meaning for us, therefore, Christ must be the “first fruits” of those who have fallen asleep.  If Christ’s death and resurrection are saving, then Christ must be the trailblazer, the one who gives us the blueprint for salvation, where we die to our sins and are raised to newness of life. 

Paul goes on to make the point that all die in Adam, so all must be made alive in Christ Jesus.  This verse has historically been used as a proof text the doctrine of original sin, the theological construct that suggests that our sinful nature was inherited from our ancestor Adam.  While Paul would not deny the pervasiveness of human sinfulness, he does not use the example of Adam’s disobedience to explain the mechanics of how human beings became sinful.  Paul mentions Adam because like Christ, he is a trailblazing figure: death came into the world through Adam, but Christ has made Resurrection possible. 

Paul continues by suggesting that like worship in the Christian community, Resurrection will occur “decently and in order.”  Christ is the first fruits; after his return those who “belong to Christ” will also be raised up.  Then comes “the end” (which can also be translated “the rest”), after which the kingdom of God will be ushered in.  The authorities of this world, including death, will be stripped of their power, and God will “put all things in subjection under his feet.”  Interestingly, Paul suggests that even the Son will be subjected to God the Father, so that “God may be all in all.”  Paul’s vision of the Resurrection is a moment when all of creation will be brought into unity with God.  He does not explain what this will look like, but he seems to imply that the kingdom of God is not something that human beings will be able to recognize easily.  All of our illusions of power and authority will fall by the wayside; Paul even suggests that the lordship of Jesus Christ will be folded into the unlimited majesty of God.  Everything in creation will be redeemed and become part of God’s eternity; what we know will cease to be as we abide in the unmediated presence of the living God.

“Some people probably think of the Resurrection as a desperate last moment expedient to save the Hero from a situation which had got out of the Author’s control.” — C.S. Lewis

Today’s gospel reading came from John 12, the scene where Jesus visits Mary, Martha, and Lazarus for dinner and Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with burial ointment.  I think that the most striking thing about this story is what happened immediately before: Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.  After that miraculous defiance of death, we might expect Lazarus to realize that he has a new lease on life and do things he never thought of doing.  John tells us, however, that Lazarus goes back to his daily life: he returns home and invites a friend over for dinner.  It’s odd in some respects, but I think that this story from John’s gospel might shed some light on the Corinthian confusion about the Resurrection.  When Lazarus is resuscitated, he returns to his life as if nothing had happened.  If we think of Resurrection in this way, we might wonder what the point is; why on earth would we want to be raised from the dead if we just have to go back to the daily grind of our existence?  The key difference, however, is that Lazarus was raised from the dead only to die again.  Lazarus was resuscitated and given the life that he once had, but Paul tells us that the ultimate Resurrection heralded by Jesus Christ transforms life as we know it.  Though we will see this in the coming days, Paul affirms that Resurrection is less about rescuing us from death and more about transformation.  Skeptics often perceive the Christian belief in the Resurrection as faith in a kind of magic.  C.S. Lewis summarizes the skeptical position well when he suggests that some might imagine that Christians believe that God rescued Jesus from the jaws of death as a last resort.  The substance of our faith, however, affirms that Resurrection was part of God’s vision to restore humanity in God’s image.  Resurrection is not about magical intervention, but about God’s transformation of our very selves.  I hope that we can keep this in mind as we prepare to celebrate the Resurrection.  As we walk the way of the cross this Holy Week, may we come to understand that Christ’s obedience to the point of death was not meant to restore us to the life that we have now, but has given us an opportunity to be completely transformed.

Palm Sunday

In some ways, Palm Sunday is one of the most difficult days of the church year.  Not only do we experience the jubilation of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, we also come face to face with the reality of the crucifixion.  Not only do we hail Jesus as our King, we are also indicted among those who cry for his execution.  In some ways, Palm Sunday is schizophrenic and confusing, but in a much deeper and more important way, it is the moment in the church year that we are forced to come face to face with the fickleness of human nature.  As we experience the highs and the lows of this day, we are reminded of the fact that we have fallen short of God’s will for us, that we are in desperate need of salvation.  As we walk the journey of the coming week, I pray that we will remember that everything that is about to happen was done for our life and for our salvation.  Everything that happened to Jesus this week happened because of God’s inimitable and incomprehensible love for the world.

“Sometimes they strew his way and his strong praises sing, resounding all the day ‘Hosannas’ to their King.  Then ‘Crucify!’ is all their breath, and for his death they thirst and cry.” — Samuel Crossman