A Sermon Preached on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014
in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Catskill, NY, by the Rector, The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding
Did God really raise Jesus Christ bodily from the dead? This is the most profound question a person can ask. Answer this question with the yes of faith and it tells us who God is, who Jesus is, who we are and what will become of us and of the whole cosmos, the whole created order. Answer this question with a yes and we know how we should live because we know where we are going and how we are to get there. Answer this question with a yes and we know how we can face the evil without, the sin within and suffering and death because we know definitively that none of these things has the last word.
First, we must be sure we understand what resurrection means. Resurrection is a word from Biblical Judaism and it has a very specific meaning. Resurrection means the restoration of a full human life in such a way that the person raised from the dead can do everything that a currently living person can do and especially that the raised person can enjoy the blessings of living in the blessed community of the Kingdom of God. We say in the Apostles Creed that we believe in the Resurrection of the Body. To believe in the resurrection of the body, first the body of the Lord and then our bodies is a bit redundant. Resurrection means body. God had promised Israel that He would send a Messiah, a saviour who would rescue Israel from its Gentile oppressors and establish God’s Kingdom where the will of God would be done on earth as it is in heaven. This would be the Kingdom of Shalom, of perfect peace with God and between people and even this Shalom would extend to the natural order and the Lion and Lamb would lie down together.
What about those who died before the Messiah came and the Kingdom was established. Some Jews not all, the Pharisees and not the Sadducees came to believe that the righteous dead would be bodily resurrected so that they could participate in the Kingdom. Would God really be a God of long suffering love and justice otherwise? The Messiah would defeat the enemies of Israel and the dead would be raised. The resurrection was not about the spirit surviving the death of the body but about the souls of the righteous being given a new body and a new life in a new Kingdom. The cultured pagans, the Greeks and the Romans did not believe in resurrection though they had various ideas about life after death which ranged from you die and that is it to the survival of some aspect or dimension of the person such as the soul or the spirit. In some of their literature the spirits of the dead wish they could have a body but know they cannot and in some of their literature the spirits of the dead don’t want a body because they believe the body a burden to the spirit. In all cases this world is a world that is completely and irrevocably condemned to corruption and decay.
The Jews were quite clear in order to be a full member of a perfect community of peace and love you need a body. You need a way to love and to be loved. The body is the way we relate to one another and it is the means by which we express love. The body is the means through which we express adoration and worship of God (this is why churches need to be places of worship and liturgy and not just talking shops) and the body is the means through which we offer each other loving service. A human being without a body is not a full human being. You would be just a shadow of your former self which is what a lot of the ancients called dead people, shades. When the saviour came to establish the Kingdom which would have no end, the righteous would get bodies. Some of them thought of this in a fairly crude way which would have to be corrected in light of the Lord’s risen body but they were very clear that the pagan alternatives were not adequate to the promises that God had made to His people in the scriptures.
To say that Jesus has been raised from the dead is to say that the God who made the world has acted decisively to remake it in the death and resurrection of the Lord and that the new age, the age of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Shalom, the age of the resurrection is appearing, and that death will have no more dominion and that God’s faithful people will be getting new bodies so that they can participate fully in the new creation. St. John in his exile has a vision: one like the Lamb of God sitting on the throne of heaven says, “behold I make all things new.” (Rev. 21:5) God had said something similar through the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament in a prophecy about the coming salvation of God, “Behold I do a new thing, do you not perceive it.” (Isaiah 43:19)
One of the early Church Fathers, Peter Chrysologus says, “Pray, brothers, that the angel would descend now and roll away all the hardness of our hearts and open up our closed senses and declare to our minds that Christ has risen, for just as the heart in which Christ lives and reigns is heaven, so also the heart in which Christ remains dead and buried is a grave.”( Sermons 75.4)
That Jesus Christ has been raised bodily from the dead is exactly what the scriptures do say. The tomb is empty, the rock is rolled away not to let him out but so that we can know that God has raised Jesus and in doing so has revealed him to be Son of God and Saviour of the world, the one through whom God has vanquished all the enemies of our human nature, sin, evil and the last enemy of all is death.
The resurrection of the body challenges our imagination. It challenged the imagination of those in the ancient world as well. The Resurrection is hard to imagine because it is a uniquely, unique event. The only equivalent is the original creation of the world out of nothing by God in the beginning. The scientist can investigate that event and its consequences but cannot get behind it. Similarly, the historian can investigate the event of the Resurrection. What do the stories of the empty tomb and the appearances add up to? How dependable are these witnesses? Why if you were making this up in the ancient world and wanted it to have any kind of chance would you make the original witnesses women unless it happened that way? What is the sort of experience that could turn cowering deserters into these men of whom the Book of Acts says, “these men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.” But you can’t get behind the event of whom in the nature of the case only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the witness. None of the Gospel writers tell of it. They tell of the empty tomb and the risen Lord with the marks of the crucifixion still upon him, whom they handled and who ate and drank with them and who appeared and disappeared at will. They tell also of His promise that after a while He would appear to them no longer in this way but be with them always through the power of the Spirit until the end of the age. And we proclaim it still that the Lord lives and makes Himself known to us when we gather two or three in His name and in the breaking of the bread. It is the same Lord whom the Father raised from the tomb and who appeared to His disciples.
It is hard to imagine this resurrection body that is as real as the bodies we have now, which takes up space but which also transcends the limits of this mortal body. It is relatively easy to imagine old and familiar things and relatively hard to imagine new things. The resurrection first of Jesus, then of us and then the resurrection and restoration of the whole cosmos is the uniquely new thing that God is doing in Jesus Christ the Lord. Just because it is hard to imagine doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It was notoriously hard to imagine how light could be particle and wave at the same time but it turns out to be true. St. Paul compares the pre-resurrection body to the resurrection body as a seed compares to the fully formed plant. Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption, sown mortal, raised immortal. (1 Cor. 15:42)
The bodily Resurrection of Jesus is the absolute center of the Christian faith. We are not saved by a ghostly saviour for a ghostly future but by a real saviour for a real future. We will not be less than we are now but more and can lean into that more even now in the power of the Spirit.
St. Paul says that if Christ be not raised then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain and that if Christ is not raised we are still dead in our sins. But if it is true that God has raised Jesus bodily from the dead then God is who He says He is, a God of love and justice and who hates nothing He has made and will not suffer it to see destruction and Jesus is who He says He is, the Son of God who was tempted in every way as we are and did not sin and who having defeated by a sacrifice of love on the cross all the enemies of our human nature offers us a share in His risen life that as He is so we might be also. We know where we are going, we are on our way to be new people in a new community in a new creation. Even now the power of that new creation which is the power of Risen Lord and of His Spirit is at work in us and among us making us fit for the life of the world which is coming. We know how to live. We are to live in this old age as witnesses of the age that is coming. We know what will become of us and of the good creation which St. Irenaeus called the whole handwork of God. We know that if we cling to Him who is the Resurrection and Life that the sin within and the evil without will be finally defeated and have no more room in the new world where there is no more sighing nor death but only life everlasting where the Risen Lord, the lamb who sits upon the throne shall reign forever and ever and of His Kingdom there shall be no end. Amen.