November 11, 2007
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church
Fargo, North Dakota
We have to give the Sadducees credit. They were smooth and smart. They knew how to present a sly argument without being blatant. And they did believe that by bringing up the resurrection, they would show Jesus to be the fool and the charlatan.
For the Sadducees, the resurrection was a fairy tale. It was something gullible people hoped in. It was absurd and ridiculous.
And there are some Christians today who feel the same way about the resurrection. The fact is the Resurrection—and our belief in it—is very important. In some circles, belief in the Resurrection is a litmus test for one’s orthodoxy.
I know of a former parishioner who later joined the Eastern Orthodox Church over his belief in the Resurrection. He refused to receive Communion from priests and pastors he knew did not believe in the Resurrection. In fact, one of the first questions he would ask a new priest when he would meet them is: So what do you believe regarding the Resurrection? I luckily passed that test, but not without a good deal of spiritual searching and struggling.
The fact is, we still have Sadducees in our midst. I was reared, theologically, on thinkers who did not hold the Resurrection up very highly. The theologians who captured my imagination in my twenties were people like John Shelby Spong, the former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. One of the first books of his I read was called Resurrection: Myth or Reality? I don’t think I’m giving the end away by saying that Bishop Spong’s answer to that question was: Myth. Bishop Spong believed that there was no resurrection—rather that whatever resurrection one believed in was purely metaphorical. Yes, Jesus died on the cross. Yes, he lives on among those of who believe in him. But there was no bodily resurrection. In fact, in this book, Spong asserts his belief that Jesus’ body was probably taken down from the cross and given to the dogs to feed on. The tomb is empty, Spong said. Yes, but not because of any supernatural events. The tomb is empty and Jesus is not here because he was never there in the first place.
It was interesting to read these works of Bishop Spong and I still find them interesting. But I don’t necessarily believe them. I know that Jesus is resurrected. I know it because I have encounter him and continue to encounter him as resurrected over and over again in my life. I have encountered him in the people I have served alongside in the Church and in the world. I have encountered him at hospital bedsides, at funerals, at burials. I continue to encounter him whenever we gather together to hear him speak to us in His Word and to share his Body and his Blood here at the altar. And with each of those encounters, I know full well that because he is resurrected, I too will be resurrected with him. And that wherever the resurrected Lord is in the future, I will be there too.
This is what we believe as Christians. And if anyone says it is not important to believe in the resurrection, I say that it is. Whenever I hear people say that those basic beliefs many of us take for granted are not important—or are simply fairy tales we hold on to so we can continue on in a kind of trace-like hope, I find myself digging in my heels a bit.
The other night I was having supper with a Pastor friend from the United Church of Christ. The U.C.C. has often been referred to as Unitarian Considering Christ, because of the views of some of their pastors regarding such issues as the Trinity and the resurrection. He was telling me about a candidate for ordination he was interviewing who informed him that she did not believe in the Trinity—in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He had to inform her that despite whatever popular positions people had about the U.C.C., belief in the Triune God was essential.
I am of a similar opinion regarding churches like the ELCA and the Episcopal Church. As much as I like Bishop Spong and as much as I enjoy reading his works, I have a problem with someone who professes to be an Episcopal Christian saying that he does not believe in those essential tenets of that church. It is essential that we actually believe what we profess and what we pray.
Every Sunday we gather, we profess our faith in the words of the Creed. The Creed—whether the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed—is essential for understanding who are as Christians and what we believe. What we profess in those creeds is our belief in the Triune God. We believe in God, the Father, almighty. We believe in Jesus Christ, his only son our Lord. We believe in the Holy Spirit. And we profess our belief in the resurrection—and not only in Jesus’ resurrection, but in the resurrection of the body—our body—as well.
Now, does that mean, that I believe in a literal interpretation of that profession? Do I truly believe that one day, all the graves will be opened and the physical bodies we have buried will rise up to meet with our spirits in heaven, or do I believe that the seas will give up their dead? I think the imagery of that sort that we find in scripture is beautiful and helps us to wrap our minds around the resurrection. But I also believe that our understanding of such things allows for a certain freedom of movement.
I often use the image of jazz to explain what it is we believe. In jazz, there is a certain musical structure one has to abide by. There’s a frame work, shall we say. Within that framework, a jazz musician has the freedom to do many things. But they still have to stay within that basic framework.
I feel the same way about our faith as Christians. The Creeds give us that very basic framework. There are certain things we simply need to believe to be Christians. We need to believe in God as Trinity. Because we believe in the Trinity, we need to believe in the Incarnation—in the belief that Jesus is God in the flesh—true God and true Man. And because he is God in the flesh, we need to believe that Jesus, after he died on the Cross, was resurrected. And we need to believe that, because he died and was resurrected, we too, when we die, will be resurrected as well. There’s the framework.
When we start becoming too specific, we start losing something of the beauty of our faith. We lose the purity and the poetry of our faith. When we start trying to examine too closely how the resurrection will happen and when it will happen and how a pile of bones or cremated remains or a body destroyed in the sea can be resurrected into another body, we find ourselves derailed.
What we do know, however is that what the resurrection promises is a new body. We will be given new bodies unlike our present bodies. And these new bodies will reflect our new resurrected lives. The whole basis of what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel, in this discourse on marriage, is that the resurrection is not, as the great theologian Reginald Fuller, said, “a prolongation of our present life, but a new mode of existence.”
We will still be us, but we will be living on a different level—with a different understanding of what it means to be alive. Issues like marriage, will no longer be an issue. Now some of us might despair at that fact. We want to know that when we awake into the resurrected life, we will have our families there, our spouses and our loved ones. I have no doubt that our loved ones will be there, but it will be different. We will have a truly fulfilled and complete relationship with all of our loved ones, and also with those who we may not have loved. What this leads us to is, at the same time, a glimpse of the freedom that we will gain at the resurrection.
Just as some things such as marriage will no longer be an issue, all those other issue we are dealing with now in our lives and in the church will also no longer be with us. The issues that divide us as a church, as a community—issues of sexuality or differing religious views or race or culture, will all be done away with at the resurrection.
And these bodies too will be done away with as well. These bodies that will fail us and betray us—these bodies that will die on us and be buried and molder in the ground or be burned will no longer be a part of who we are anymore. We will be given, at the resurrection, in some way we cannot fully comprehend or fathom in this moment, new bodies, that will not fail us, that will not betray us, that will not die. We will, at the resurrection, be made whole and complete and perfect, in Christ, who is perfect.
The reason we know this is because the God we serve—the God we have gathered together to worship this morning, is not a God of the dying bodies we have with us now. The God we serve and worship is a God of the living. When Jesus identifies God as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, he is saying that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive and that their God is the God of the living—the God of us who, because of Christ, will not die.
So, Resurrection is important to us. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Resurrection is so important to us, despite what the Sadducees in our midst tell us. Resurrection is essential to our faith, because in it we have not only met and faced death , but because Jesus met and faced it first, because Jesus, by his resurrection, destroyed death and rose above it, we know that we will too. Death no longer has control over it. It longer has any power in our lives. The power and strength of death has been defeated in the resurrection. In the resurrection, we have the almost audacious ability to say, at the grave, that power-packed word of life: Alleluia.
So, ignore the Sadducees in our midst—those glitzy, smooth voices of supposed reason that lull us into believing that the resurrection is a fantasy. Resist any voices that wrestle that hope away from us. Because it is our faith in the resurrection that will truly sustain us in those moments of doubt and despair, in those moments when death and darkness seem to have won out, when our hope has waned. For our God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. Our God is a God of life. And only in life can we fully and truly serve God.