Sunday, May 4, 2014

Do You Believe in the Physical Resurrection of Christ?

The question shouldn’t be that difficult. Life and death, after all, is serious business. At the very beginning of my Christian life I was abruptly confronted with the “problem” of the resurrection. I had gone to a college age group at a large downtown Baptist Church in Toronto, Canada. In the middle of the meeting the Youth Minister came into the room and announced his amazing discovery: Jesus wasn’t resurrected physically; he was only resurrected spiritually.

I had never thought about the resurrection before that moment, but somehow his declaration didn’t measure up even with my subjective experience of Jesus as my Saviour and Lord. Jesus was too real to me for that to be true. That launched me into my first serious bible study and I immersed myself in the biblical records of the resurrection of Jesus. It was immediately clear that the apostles believed that Jesus was physically resurrected. They saw him, touched him, handled him, and he stood in their midst and ate fish and wild honey.  

Some years later at seminary we were taught that Jesus didn’t rise physically from the dead, but after his death his gathered disciples had an experience of his presence and in their excitement read back into the gospel accounts all the stories of the resurrection, and all of the miracles. Our professor led a Lenten series in one of the local parishes. The rector of the parish told me with great distress that the professor’s teaching on the subject of the resurrection had destroyed the faith of a woman dying of cancer. What we believe and what we teach can have serious repercussions.

After graduation I accepted a call as a curate in a parish near Boston, Massachusetts. There was a story circling around in the parish that was quite refreshing. The previous rector, a Father Lou, had a custom of having talk back sessions in coffee hour after his sermons. In a recent Easter sermon he held forth the brilliant but not exactly novel idea that Christ wasn’t resurrected physically, but only spiritually. The parish drunk, Homer, could hardly wait to ask a most pressing question: “Father Lou! Father Lou! If Jesus wasn’t resurrected physically how did Thomas stick his finger in the wounds?” The end result was that the Easter testimony to the resurrection of Christ came from the parish drunk of blessed memory.

Once more around the barn; I was a young priest in my first church, and as junior man in our Clericus I was stuck with organizing the deanery meetings. In our deanery we had staff from the diocesan office in Boston, and clergy from the churches in and around Cambridge. On the Monday before Easter ten or twelve of us sat around a long table. We had decided to study together, on a once a month basis, the lections for the upcoming Sunday. The rector of a large Cambridge parish started the discussion by saying that he tended to believe in the resurrection but couldn’t get excited enough to preach about it. From there the discussion flowed swiftly down a slippery slope until it reached the Canon to the Ordinary who sat directly across the table from me. With great seriousness he confessed that the closer he got to death the less he believed in the resurrection.

The discussion limped around the end of the table and finally got to me. What I said in effect was that once I had been dead in alcoholism and that I had been raised to sobriety and newness of life, and as a result I had no doubt in God’s ability to raise Christ Jesus from the dead. Now I know that arguing from experience to theology is not good theological method, but sometimes where theology won’t do, testimony might. With that the Canon to the Ordinary leaned across the table and said, “You’re young. You’ll learn!” That was the first and last of our deanery clergy bible studies. After all what’s the point? If Christ is not raised from the dead we are of all men most pointless.

What is the problem posed by the physical resurrection of Jesus the Christ? Humanism is the current theological plague. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines humanism as, “a system of values and beliefs that is based on the idea that people are basically good and that problems can be solved using reason instead of religion.” Once you open the door to the resurrection, you logically open the door to all miracles. Once you open the door to the resurrection, man and his works can no longer be at the center of religion. Instead God and his works are at the center where he should be. The religion of “I can do it myself” is banished, and there are many who will be offended if we suggest that Christianity is God centered, and Christ centered, and not man centered. The poet Alexander Pope angrily exclaims, “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man.”

In contrast, as Christians, we actually believe what has been believed always, everywhere, and by all. We Christians actually believe that Christ rose physically from the dead. We believe that Christianity is God centered and Christ centered, and that if you would understand humankind, understand humankind as the creation of God. Believing this rests on a serious theological understanding that is at the core of Christian faith.

John Donne, the great metaphysical poet and sometime Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, preached a sermon on Easter Day 1623 that is quite helpful in getting at the core of the issue. What Donne stressed was the proper understanding of the relationship between the soul and the body. He said, “Never go about to separate the thoughts of the heart, from its context, from the fellowship of the body.” “All that the soul does, it does in, and with, and by the body.” “The body is washed in baptism, but it is that the soul might be made clean.” “The body is anointed, that the soul might be consecrated.” “The body is signed with the Cross, that the soul might be armed against temptations.” “The body receives the body of Christ, that the soul might partake of his merits.” “These two, Body, and Soul, cannot be separated for ever,” because in earthly life they are united in all that they do.

Christ became incarnate, enfleshed in a human body. Christ suffered in that body, died, and was buried, and in that body he rose again physically from the dead. Christ is born in the flesh that our humanity with him might be crucified, die, and rise again; that our humanity, our human fleshly nature in all its physicality might be taken up into God. It is our flesh as well as his that must after all die and be raised again.

To tear apart the soul and the body is the old heresy of dualism. Christ’s body, as well as his soul, has eternal value. Once God the Son is incarnate in the flesh, the flesh cannot be discarded as irrelevant to the soul; nor does Christ discard his body in the resurrection. While it is fashionable, and to some extent practical, to talk about body and soul as two separate entities they are in fact a present and eternal unity. To separate them is to make nonsense of the Incarnation as well as of the Resurrection. Let me present you with the key question of St. Paul, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? . . . if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:12, 14).

What is at stake is not only the physical resurrection of Christ, but also your own physical resurrection in the age to come.  Do you believe in eternal life? Do you believe that in eternal life you float around as an ethereal disembodied spirit? Or do you believe in the physical resurrection of Christ, and your own eventual physical resurrection in the kingdom yet to come? The question shouldn’t be that difficult. Life and death, after all, is serious business.