Tuesday, April 24, 2007

You put him to death, but God raised him from the dead

As our Forty Day series on the Resurrection continues, I will need to apologize for moving quite beyond the narratives of that particular period. Although I find this period of time incredibly interesting, the focus of this series is on the significance of Christ's resurrection, not a particular stretch of time. The Forty Days when the risen Jesus walked and talked with his disciples is thus the occasion, not the subject-matter, of our series. Thus last week we jumped back to the raising of Lazarus. This week we will jump forward to the content of apostolic preaching in Acts.

The Book of Acts is full of sermons. This is part of what makes Acts notoriously difficult to preach through: it's hard to preach a sermon on a sermon. One is tempted to just read (or better yet memorize) Peter's dense yet convicting Pentecost sermon (Acts 2), Simon's retelling of the whole Old Testament before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7), or Paul's erudite engagement with the intellectuals on Mars Hill (Acts 17).

But instead of treating these as isolated sermons, one could also read them synoptically in order to identify common patterns of preaching in early Christianity as portrayed by Luke. One of the most striking parallels between the vast majority of these sermons is their shared climactic phrase: you/they put Jesus to death, but God raised him from the dead.

Here are a few examples:

"... you put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead ..." (Acts 2:23-24)

"You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead." (Acts 3:15)

"... Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead ..." (Acts 4:10)

"The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree." (Acts 5:30)

"They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day..." (Acts 10:39-40)

"When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead." (Acts 13:29-30)

As my italics indicate, the key word here is "but." This little words sets in contrast the false ending of Good Friday and points to the surprise ending of Easter Sunday. According to the sermons in Acts, the move from crucifixion to resurrection is a move from a human act to a divine act. It is a climactic reversal, a twist in the story. What we humans have done, God himself has undone. The tension is not released but heightened by the death of Jesus. The resolution of the story comes with God's resurrection of Jesus. The gospel story does not end with the sigh of the cross. The gospel story ends with God breathing life in the dead Jesus. Only after the story reaches its climax in the resurrection of Christ do the apostolic preachers offer a word of repentance, forgiveness and hope.

What implications does this "but" have for our preaching and teaching of the gospel?

(1) Beware of premature alleviation. Early apostolic preaching calls into question our practice of moving straight from talk of Christ's death to talk of repentance, forgiveness and hope. This kind of Easter-hopping is a bad habit. We certainly must not neglect the cross in favor of a shallow overcomer spirit. But such shallowness would not be the good news of Easter, for a resurrection story requires a death story. The surprise ending of the story of Jesus must not be forgotten.

(2) The importance of witnesses. As these sermons show, the resurrection is a discreet act of God in time. This act was witnessed by God's chosen apostles, who have passed this message to the world. The passing on of this witness is the continuing mission of the church. This means that the content of our message is not first and foremost what God is like, but what God has done. The center of our message is that God did such and such a thing at such and such a time and at such and such a place. We have heard about these events. We should never stop speaking about these events.

(3) Who's the boss? Why is the resurrection so significant? Why do the apostles move straight from "but God raised him from the dead" to "repent and be baptized"? Because by raising Jesus from the dead, God has put him in the position as judge over the whole world. We can no longer relegate God's authority to the Jews. Nor can we pretend to reckon with some general concept of God. We must reckon with the God of Israel through his Son Jesus Christ, for this particular God and this God alone has entered time to overcome the most universal problem of all: death. The one who has overcome death is thus the one we must face upon our death. He is seated at the right hand of the Father and will come again to judge the living and the dead. This is good news, because it will be one of us who will judge us. This is good news, because he has invited us to become his brothers and thereby become adopted sons and daughters of God. This is good news, because the one who will judge us is the one who prays for our forgiveness, including our murder of him.

Any thoughts?
Are there other interesting patterns you've observed in the sermons from Acts?
Am I right to emphasize the contrast within this climactic statement?
What other implications can be drawn from the emphasis on resurrection in these sermons?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"I am the Resurrection and the Life"

As some perceptive readers have certainly noticed, I have begun a series of posts on the resurrection. I decided that this year I am going to give as much attention to the 40 days of Easter as I usually do the 40 days of Lent. Actually, these 40 days have more direct biblical warrant, as Luke indicates that the risen Jesus spent 40 days with his disciples between his resurrection and ascension. These 40 days seem a ripe time to reflect on the significance of resurrection for Jesus, for the church, and for the world.

We began with the meaning of resurrection for Jesus -- the only place to start and the touchpoint to which we must return again and again. We then asked after the implications of Jesus' resurrection for our own future hope. This week I want to push these implications further, asking what Christ's resurrection means for us today. What are the present implications of Jesus' resurrection?

There is no better text to turn to in reflecting on this question than John 11.

In John 11, we see Christ's resurrection power breaking in to the present existence of his disciple and friend Lazarus. And this in-breaking comes in explicit contrast to the expectations of Jesus' disciples and friends.

On one side, Thomas says that the disciples should go with Jesus to Bethany in order to die with him. He does not see this trip as one which brings life to the dead, but as one which brings death to the living. Yet Thomas nobly and loyally goes anyway. Jesus does not rebuke Thomas; but, as we shall see, his attitude is incomplete. Thomas is an instance of action without hope: he rightly is willing to die for Jesus, but he does not see the life Jesus gives. In his focus on the present, the future is blurred.

On another side, Martha is frustrated that Jesus withheld his healing power from Lazarus by coming four days late. She believes that Jesus has healing power (hence her frustrations). She even declares that she still believes despite this disappointing incident (v. 22). When Jesus offers the hope of resurrection, she quickly puts this hope in a distant last day. Jesus does not rebuke Martha; but, as we shall see, her attitude is incomplete. Martha is an instance of hope without action: she rightly puts her hope in the final resurrection, but she does not see that resurrection is also present reality. In her focus on the future, the present is blurred.

These contrasting expectations set in sharp relief Jesus' statement: "I am the resurrection and the life." Jesus does not narrow his focus only on present action. Nor does Jesus defer all hopes to some future end. In him present and future meet as he proclaims himself as the resurrection and the life. Resurrection is not only something that happens to Jesus; it is also his possession. Life and death are under his authority. And so matters of life and death need not follow a predetermined temporal pattern. They are his to give and take away. With Jesus, resurrection can break in. With Jesus, there is life to be partaken of even now.

The implication for our lives is that Jesus offers life not only after death but in the face of death. The resurrection of Jesus brings future hope -- that must not be set aside. But it also brings present power. There is an active life now that can be lived in light of the eternal life promised to us then. We must avoid the tendency to choose between these two, as we are often pressured to do. Resurrection life is a present tense property of the Risen One whom we serve. And so we are called to live full lives as a gift from him. We are called to support life wherever it is threatened in the name of the one who raised the dead. We are called to live with those who are dying as witnesses to the life of the one who died but rose again.

Any thoughts?
In what ways to we slip into a focus on the future without the present or vice versa?
Which tendency do you lean towards?
What other implications of Jesus' present tense possession of resurrection life might there be?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Vote Drulogion!

Travis started a Top Theology Blogs list at UnSpun. If you wanna give this blog some e-affirmation, check it out and vote drulogion! Also, you can find some quality blogs worth reading.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What are resurrected bodies like? (I Cor 15)

The resurrection of Jesus is not only good news for him but also good news for us. With the news of Jesus' resurrection from the dead comes the promise of our resurrection. This is not merely a vague hope for an afterlife. It is a future promise established on a past history: God raised Jesus from the dead as the first fruits of our resurrection. Trust is build up over time; in Jesus Christ, God has taken the time to build up trust in his resurrecting power. But since our hope rests on what happened to Jesus, talk of our future life after death cannot proceed by means of mere speculation. When it comes to resurrected bodies, we have something to go on: the risen body of Jesus.

So, based on what we know about the risen Jesus, what are resurrected bodies like?

Paul asks himself this question in I Corinthians 15. It was likely being asked by the Corinthians themselves. After making it clear that the truth of the gospel hangs on the resurrection of Jesus, Paul asks after the meaning of this claim. What does resurrection do to bodies?

It is in this context that Paul makes his famous claim that resurrected bodies on spiritual bodies. Resurrection is no mere continuation of natural embodiment. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom. The natural must put on or become spiritual. Resurrection is a spiritual reality. Jesus has been raised spiritually. We will be raised spiritually.

Does this mean that Paul rejects bodily resurrection?

I do not think so. Bodily resurrection and spiritual resurrection are not mutually exclusive. To treat them as such is to read Paul's comments here out of context, importing our own meaning of "spiritual" that contradicts the gist of the passage. There are three things I would like to point out that ought to prevent us from pitting spiritual resurrection against bodily resurrection.

(1) The Logic of First fruits. In this passage, Paul repeatedly states that the resurrection of Jesus is the first fruits of our resurrection. The logic of first fruits entails a strong similarity between Jesus' resurrection and ours. Since Jesus' resurrection takes place in time ("on the third day") and space ("from the grave"), we every reason to think that our resurrection will be temporal and spatial. Will our interaction with time and space be greatly altered? Yes. But will we still be embodied creatures? Yes. The logic of first fruits implies whatever "spiritual" means, it does not mean non-bodily.

(2) Use of Parallelism. When the meaning of a word is contested, it is a good idea to check for parallelism which may provide clues. Just such parallels appear in this passage. The contrast between natural and spiritual bodies does not hang isolated, but is accompanied by three other contrasts: perishable/imperishable (v. 42b), dishonor/glory (v. 43a), weakness/power (v. 43b). I suggest that whatever "spiritual" means in the passage, it primarily has to do with describing an imperishable, glorious and powerful body. Such adjectives imply a radical transformation of our bodies, but not necessarily the setting aside of bodily life.

(3) Putting the Spirit back in Spiritual. Lastly, I would suggest that the language of "spiritual" not be pre-determined by our understanding of "spirit" in contrast to "nature," but rather be linked definitively to the Holy Spirit (a.k.a., the third person of the trinity). As Paul says in numerous places, it is by his Spirit that God raised Jesus from the dead. The Spirit is linked to God's act of resurrection. Perhaps "spiritual" bodies are bodies whose life is no longer temporarily sustained by the cause-and-effect system of nature, but eternally sustained by the Holy Spirit who indwells them as God's very presence and power.

In light of these points, I would argue that the spiritual character of the resurrection does not set aside the body, but is a gift given to our bodies. Resurrection surpasses yet includes bodily life.

Any thoughts?
What can we really say about our future in Christ?
Do these points help clarify the sense of "spiritual" bodies?
What are the implications for present life in the body if our bodies will be raised?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

He is Risen

Even in the relatively free-form worship of my local congregation, there's at least one liturgical habit we've picked up that I'll hear this Easter Sunday:

Call: He is risen.

Response: He is risen indeed!

He is risen. I love this phrase, not only because it is a biblically-based and ecumenically-received statement of praise, but also because it is loaded with theological meaning. Attention to the details of this simple statement can serve to unpack the meaning and significance of Easter. Let's attend to each word in this phrase to see what lessons we can learn and what mistakes we can avoid.

He is risen.

The first thing to note is who is risen: it is none other than Jesus Christ. He is risen, not someone else. The one who is found walking and talking with his disciples in Jerusalem is the one and the same Jesus who had walked and talked with them in his years of ministry in Galilee. Although he has undergone a radical transformation of his being, he is still one and the same Jesus Christ. There is continuity of identity even in the midst of the surprising discontinuity of resurrected flesh from ordinary flesh. This continuity of identity is emphasized in the New Testament Easter narratives. Jesus repeatedly offers signs that he is who he is. The implication for us is that Easter is first and foremost about Jesus before its about anyone else.

This emphasis on the identity of the risen one wards off the mistake of making resurrection about someone other than Jesus. For instance, we must be careful to not cheapen the meaning of resurrection by attributing it to any "rise" of faith, hope or love among human beings. This danger is especially present for preachers, who in our search for illustrations and analogies sometimes draw attention away from the risen Lord Jesus Christ. If not the rest of the year, at least on Easter we should be careful to remember that we are called to talk about Jesus.

By turning our attention to Jesus, we are reminded that the future hopes of humanity are now tied up with this one man. Christians don't believe in life after death; Christians believe in Christ, who has been risen from the dead and is Lord over death. Only by hoping in him may we hope for eternal life through him. Jesus is not just "the only way to heaven." Jesus is heaven. In him alone is found eternal life. And at Easter we do not proclaim resurrection in general but the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

He is risen.

A unique contribution of this liturgical phrase to theological discourse is its present tense verb. The equivalent biblical phrase is often found in the past tense: "he had risen." Now the past tense is definitive in this case: the resurrection of Christ is something that happened, an event in history, an event in the past. But the risen Christ is not trapped in the past! If so, that would undermine the significance of Easter. You see, Jesus was not raised from the dead only to die again. In his healing ministry, Jesus raised many to life who would later die. But the New Testament consistently proclaims that Jesus has been raised from the dead to never die again. And so he not only has risen, but he is risen. Thus the message of Easter contains the good news of the continuing presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This emphasis on the present tense is an important counter-weight to any fascination with proving the resurrection of Jesus. Whether or not the resurrection of Jesus can be or should be proved by historical reason is a discussion for another time. The question I want to raise concerns the rhetorical effect of such proofs. Could it be that the language of historical evidence tends to lock our attention on the past event and perhaps distract us from attending to the living Lord? I do not wish to prejudice the answer to this question, but merely to recommend careful consideration of potential unintended consequences in our mode of presenting the gospel.

An emphasis on the present tense, provided it is grounded in the singular identity of Jesus Christ, serves as a bridge to the "relevance" of the Easter message. If we treat Easter as a distant history that requires our hermeneutical and homiletical endeavors to bring it into the present, we have already undermined the Lordship of Christ made manifest at Easter. The relevance of Jesus is already established from his side, as he is the contemporary of each and the Lord of all. The question is our relevance to him. Is our identity wrapped up with his or not? That is the question. We must reckon with Jesus at Easter, because he is risen.

He is risen.

It is crucially importantly that the apostolic witnesses almost never say, "He is alive!" This, of course, would be an eminently true statement, and the word "life" plays an important role in the theology of the New Testament. But the consistent refrain is that Jesus is risen. What is the significance of this word choice? The language of "risen" Christ points back to the death of Christ: one is risen from something -- in this case, from the dead. Jesus Christ is risen as the crucified one. His death is not a mere ordeal through which he passed. Crucifixion is not a means to resurrection, or a stage along the way. No! The crucified one is risen. The humble one is exalted without leaving behind the marks of his humility. The Lamb is seated on the throne.

Jesus' resurrection from the dead is an important reminder to not use the triumph of Easter Sunday to obscure the significance of Good Friday. We might be tempted to think Jesus exchanged his cross for a crown, when in fact his crown of thorns was his coronation. On the cross Jesus Christ really did reconcile the world to God. On the cross Jesus Christ was lifted up. On the cross Jesus Christ finished his work. Does this make the resurrection an afterthought? Certainly not! For in the resurrection, Jesus Christ comes to us to bring the reconciliation achieved by his obedient life-unto-death into our lives. The reconciliation achieved in his death does not stay his private property but becomes his shared inheritance with us in his resurrection from the dead. This deep interconnection between crucifixion and resurrection must be kept in mind so that we avoid overemphasis in either direction.

Some preachers might complain that so many attend Easter services that are not involved in Good Friday services or some other cross-centered Holy Week event. Although this limited liturgical participation is a serious matter to be addressed, the fact is that the message of Easter contains within it the message of cross. He is risen, risen from the dead, risen from his death of the cross, which reconciles us to God. From this very particular and significant death, Jesus has been raised.

He is risen.

He is risen indeed.

Any thoughts?