Sunday, April 26, 2009

Too Good To Be True?

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter
RCL, Year B: Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

Listen to the sermon here.

“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is!”

We’ve all heard and perhaps used that phrase. It can express skepticism or even pessimism, but also prudent caution. A daughter telling her mother about her wonderful new boyfriend might hear it in her mom’s response: “Be careful, dear. He sounds just a little too perfect.” And if you got the e-mail I recently received saying that you’ve been selected for a cash prize of 2 million euros in the Powerball draw held on April 10, don’t respond to it. It’s definitely too good to be true.

Even in the New Testament we can find skepticism and prudent caution. It pops up several times in response to hearing the news of Jesus’ resurrection and even to seeing the risen Jesus in person. We heard it last week from John’s Gospel, when Thomas refuses to believe when his cohorts tell him “We have seen the Lord!” (cf. Jn 20:25, NRSV). We read it in Matthew’s Gospel, when the risen Jesus claims all authority in heaven and on earth and commissions his followers to baptize and make disciples of all nations, only to be told that “some doubted” (Mt 28:17, NRSV). And when the women who discover the empty tomb tell the other male disciples that Jesus has been raised, Luke tells us that “this story of theirs seemed pure nonsense, and they did not believe them” (Lk 24:11, NJB).

Skepticism and disbelief: we see it again in today’s Gospel reading from Luke as Jesus appears to the eleven and their companions. Initially, Luke tells us that they were “startled and terrified” to see Jesus (Lk 24:37, NRSV). Who wouldn’t be rattled to encounter someone that they knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, had really died? This simply cannot be. It must be a ghost! In spite of Jesus’ efforts to reassure them that he’s a real, flesh-and-bones person, skepticism remains. I’m struck by how the Revised English Bible translates the disciples’ response: “They were still incredulous, still astounded, for it seemed too good to be true” (Luke 24:41).

That response becomes all the more understandable when we consider what resurrection is really all about. Resurrection is not about the resuscitation of an almost-dead person (as though Jesus didn’t really die on the cross). Resurrection does not refer to an apparition or a vision of someone who has died, as though, in their grief, the disciples thought they saw someone who’s not really there. Nor is resurrection a merely “spiritual” or “experiential” phenomenon, as though it means that an otherwise dead Jesus lives on in the hearts and minds of the disciples as an empowering memory.

Taken in its biblical and historical context, resurrection means bodily life after bodily death. And that challenges everything we think we know about the world and how it works. Just as the discovery that the earth revolves around the sun displaces humanity from the center of the universe, Jesus raised from the dead displaces human reason as the supreme authority and sufficient arbiter of truth. That was true even in the pre-modern, pre-scientific world of 1st Century Palestine. Nobody, including especially Jesus’ disciples, was expecting anything like this to happen. It’s not a matter of rocket science, but of universally available common sense. Dead people stay dead. Dead bodies decay. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and that’s it. End of story. And everyone has always known this.

Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, for instance, death was considered all powerful.[1] There was no answer to death. Whether you were one of Homer’s shades who wished you could have a new body but couldn’t, or a philosopher like Plato who thought being a disembodied soul was the best way to spend eternity, the route to the underworld was a one-way street. Nobody came back to life with a body. And so, for the ancient Greeks and Romans, the very idea of resurrection was ridiculous.

Even within the spectrum of Jewish belief available in Jesus’ day, resurrection – bodily life again after bodily death – was believed to be a future event, something that would happen at the end of time on the last great day when God raised the dead for judgment, giving them new bodies and renewing the world. It’s not something that happens to anybody before then. To say otherwise – and especially about a Jewish peasant crucified as a criminal by the State – was preposterous at best, and a blasphemy against orthodox teaching at worst.

And yet, that’s precisely what the earliest Christians said had happened to Jesus. It was no metaphor. On the contrary, they claimed that it had really happened. God had raised Jesus from the dead as a whole, embodied person. Not only was the tomb empty, but people had also seen Jesus alive after his death. And so we get the New Testament’s insistence on the physical, bodily reality of the risen Jesus.

Viewed through this New Testament lens, the resurrection is a divine revolution that overturns commonsense, explodes the myth of the omnicompetence of human reason, and disarms tyrants of their ultimate weapon: death. No wonder the “powers that be” over the past 2,000 years have tried to either eradicate or domesticate this revolutionary claim of the Gospel. But the fact that the resurrection so deeply conflicts with basic human experience has also made it difficult for many who are otherwise sympathetic to accept it. Construing the significance of Jesus within the limits of reason alone remains a tantalizing temptation. But the claim that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead and that this really happened in history – that it wasn’t just a subjective experience or grief-driven mistake – is not an optional addition to the Christian faith. On the contrary, it’s the claim that lies at the very heart of the Christian faith.

Christ is risen: that’s the claim that ties the diverse writings of the New Testament together into a unified whole. Christ is risen: that’s the claim that inspired the early Christians to challenge the Lordship of Caesar with the Lordship of Jesus, even when it meant facing down lions and gladiators armed with nothing more than love. Christ is risen: that’s the claim that has fed the Church with hope, keeping her alive during times of hardship and persecution, empowering otherwise ordinary men, women, and children to choose imprisonment, torture and even death rather than renounce Jesus as Lord and Savior. Christ is risen: that’s the claim we celebrate during the Great 50 Days of Easter and in the liturgy for Holy Eucharist on every Sunday of the year, and that’s the claim on which the truth of the Christian faith stands or falls. And if it’s really true, if God really did raise Jesus to bodily life again after bodily death, then death is no longer a one-way street and the ancient Jewish hope for God’s restoration of a broken world is unfolding to fulfillment.

Writing about the significance of our Lord’s resurrection, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says:

When we celebrate Easter, we are really standing in the middle of a second ‘Big Bang’, a tumultuous surge of divine energy as fiery and intense as the very beginning of the universe.[2]
The resurrection unleashes the power of God’s divine energy into a broken world to heal and restore, putting things right and making all things new. This is why the apostle Paul describes the resurrection of Jesus as the beginning of “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17) and the risen Jesus as the “first fruits” of this new creation (1 Cor 15:20). It’s a creation continuous in many ways with the world as we now know it. That’s why, in the post-resurrection Gospel accounts, Jesus walks, talks, and eats. You can reach out and touch him. He’s not a ghost. He’s a real flesh-and-bones person. But this new creation God has started by raising Jesus also differs from the world as we now know it, sometimes in unexpected and startling ways. And so the Gospel writers portray Jesus’ resurrected body as a transformed body. It’s a body no longer subject to sickness, death, and decay. And it’s a body that serves as a harbinger for God’s intention to ultimately redeem all of creation.

One Episcopalian puts it like this:

When Jesus rose from the dead, he was the first installment of what would come at the last great Day. We who took to him will be raised, in bodies fit for all eternity and with spirits that trust him completely and joyfully. And the whole physical creation will also be raised and restored. The book of Revelation speaks of a ‘new heaven and a new earth,’ one that is no longer sullied by sin and deformed by death. The resurrection of Jesus is a foretaste and a guarantee that all this earth, so wonderful even in its fallen state, will not be wasted or left behind.[3]

The resurrection is not pie-in-the-sky escapism, nor is it about going to heaven when we die for an eternity of disembodied bliss. The resurrection of Jesus Christ as a fully embodied person is just as much about this world as the next. It’s about justice and transformation. It’s about God’s determination to set the world to rights. It’s about “the reaffirmation of the universe of space, time and matter.”[4] The resurrection is a sign of just how much God loves, not just our souls, but also our bodies, and also trees, animals, sun, moon, and stars, and all of creation. The resurrection gives us the assurance that not even the power of death can thwart God’s desire that there be life in abundance. And the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a reality that opens “every moment of our history … to a future of healing and promise.”[5]

The resurrection of Jesus Christ to bodily life after bodily death may sound too good to be true. But the same God who is greater than death and decay is greater than our doubts and skepticism, and also a God who invites us to trust a truth so incredibly good that it quite literally changes everything.

And so we are bold to say:

Alleluia. Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia.

[1] For views on life after death among ancient Greeks & Romans, ancient Judaism, and early Christianity, I’m drawing on N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008), pp. 35-51.

[2] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 95.

[3] The Rev. Charles Sutton, “He Rose Again,” The Anglican Digest 51/2 (Easter A.D. 2009), p. 12.

[4] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003), p. 729.

[5] Williams, op. cit., p. 96.


Anonymous said...

Well Done Brother.


Bryan Owen said...

Thanks, man.

In an interesting contrast to this sermon, one of our parishioners attended All Saints' Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA on Easter Sunday, the church where Ed Bacon is the rector. Apparently, Ed prefaced his Easter sermon by assuring his hearers that it doesn't matter whether or you not you believe in the resurrection.


Bryan Owen said...

Actually, it wasn't a preface to Bacon's sermon, but a central point made after a lengthy illustration. According to Bacon, the significance of the resurrection is not about whether or not the tomb was empty or that Jesus was literally (i.e., hysically) raised from the dead. Rather, it's about the triumph of the way of kindness and love.

Watch the sermon here.

Cheryl said...

Big Bang resurrection - great way to put it, Jesus alive again in a transformed, physical body, and we look forward to the same transformation. On with the expansion of the new creation!

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks, Cheryl.

And on with the expansion of the new creation, indeed!