Tag Archives: Resurrection

Foreshadowing

This is a sermon I preached in chapel today.

I stood in the driveway on a cold, dark morning with tears streaming down my cheeks.  My grandparents had come to visit us for Christmas and now they were leaving.  They were returning home.  I don’t remember the exact words my grandmother said to me in that moment, but I remember they had something to do with not being able to come back if she didn’t leave.   And of looking forward to future visits.  Still, at age three or four, this was one of my most painful experiences.  Even now, I still remember that feel of a broken heart mixed with the taste of salty tears.  Whatever reasons my grandparents had for leaving didn’t seem good enough to soothe the pain.  More than thirty years later, I admit that I still have a terrible time saying goodbye.  Often, no matter how we rationalize them, goodbyes just don’t seem fair.  Even when we know that goodbyes are necessary and even when they are for good reasons and bright futures, goodbyes are still mixed with pain and sadness.  And if we grow to know very many people at all in this world, we will say many goodbyes that seem ill-timed and far too premature.

So perhaps the words of Jesus sound every bit as troublesome to us as they did to his disciples.  Jesus asserts that, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Mother, because the Mother is greater than I.”  Jesus says this after he admonished them not to let their hearts be troubled and not to be afraid.  But really, this is part of a long conversation that Jesus has been having with the disciples.  At the end of chapter thirteen, Jesus stated that he was going somewhere where the disciples couldn’t follow him now, but that they should continue to love one another.  Peter does not want to accept this and declares that he would even lay down his life for Jesus.  Jesus replies with that famous prediction that Peter will deny him three times.  Then Jesus continues on and tells the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled and that he’s going to prepare a place for them.  Jesus assures them that if he’s going to prepare them a place, then surely it means he must be coming back.  Then Jesus says that the disciples know the way to the place where he is going.  At this point Thomas, doubting Thomas says, “Lord we don’t know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  Jesus answers Thomas with those famous words about being the way, the truth, and the life and no one coming to the Father except through him.  Philip then in his frustration, pleads, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”  Jesus then goes on to tell Philip that, “whoever has seen me has seen the Mother.”  Then Jesus continues on, encouraging the disciples to keep his commandments and promises them the Holy Spirit.  Then Jesus assures them that he isn’t leaving them orphans, but will come back.  So then Judas – no not that Judas, asks Jesus why he only reveals himself to the disciples and not to everyone in the world.  And it is the answer to this other Judas’s question that we just heard as our morning gospel.

Is this passage really about Jesus putting limits on how much we can hope?  Is Jesus saying to this other Judas that just maybe his heart for this world is two sizes too big?  Is this the passage in which Jesus says, “well Peter, let’s be honest, we all have good intentions, but intentions only stay intentions.  Well Thomas, I’m the password to Heaven and that’s really what I’m all about.  Didn’t you know that?  And Philip, why are you so anxious to see God when I’ve been here all along?  Hasn’t this been enough?  And Judas, I only love those who love me back.  Furthermore, I don’t understand why y’all are so upset that I’m leaving.  You should be happy for me because I’m going to see God.  The main reason I’m telling you all of this is so that when it comes to pass, you’ll remember that I told you so.” 

 Maybe we don’t all automatically approach this text with such cynicism.  But if some of us do, who can blame us?  We have learned early on in life not to get our hopes up too much.  We have been schooled in the reality that things do not always or even usually turn out as good as we plan.  We brace ourselves that the job market is bleak and that we might not get the career we study so hard for.  We learn that eventually our grandparents have said their last goodbye and that they aren’t coming back.  We’ve learned that sometimes we don’t even get to say goodbye to some beloved friends.  So is it possible that just maybe the disciples’ questions are filled with the fear that they got their hopes up too high when they decided to leave everything and follow Jesus?  Maybe they’re afraid that loving Jesus isn’t going to turn out any better for them than all those other times that they have loved and lost.  After all, such words about having to go away seem unfair and unjust when they come from a young man in the prime of his life.  They sound like the sort of words said in hospital waiting rooms.  This is what Jesus is saying to them after all: He is telling them that he is going to die. 

This conversation continues for another two chapters.  Jesus talks about being the vine and tells the disciples that they must abide in him if they are to bear fruit.  Again, he tells them that must love one another.  Then he states that there is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for one’s friends.  He warns them of persecution and promises this Holy Spirit again.  Jesus then compares their pain about his leaving to the pain of giving birth.  Yes, it is painful, but new and splendid life is coming into this world.  Then Jesus prays to God for the disciples.  And all of this is just before they walk to that garden where Jesus is going to be betrayed.  If today’s scripture were a scene in a movie, it would fall in the middle of the hero’s speech before the final confrontation.  Surely, this is what the disciples are yearning for – that Jesus is helping them gather their strength to confront and overcome and to tell the forces of evil to back off. 

Paradoxically, Jesus has just told Peter that he can’t follow him – yet, while at the same time telling all of those gathered that they know the way to the place where he is going.  They know the way.  And the way is so excruciatingly painful that they cannot bear to see it.  If today’s scripture were a scene in a movie, it would also be that point in which we learned that everything had been so carefully foreshadowed and laid out.  No, not in some boring, trite, or predictable way.  It would be the plot twist that no one saw coming.  It would be the moment we were blown away and had everything about our worldview reshaped.  These words would be in the sort of scene in a clever movie that we would watch a second time, a third time, over and over, trying to pick up on all the well placed cues.  We would fall in love with the characters and see glimpses of their true selves all along as each moment of the film brought them closer to their destiny. 

So Jesus answers this other Judas’s big question about everyone else in the world with this simple statement that those who love him will keep his words.  Then Jesus says, “We will come to them and make our home with them.”  (The “We” being Jesus and God).  There is a famous saying about the humanity of Jesus.  Gregory of Nanzianzus declared, “That which has not been assumed has not been healed.”  In Jesus, God is one of us.  Through Jesus, God understands exactly what it is to be a human being.  And yet, this same Jesus also showed us the face of God.  He says the word we hear from him is not his, but the Mother who sent him.  Somehow, in the mystery of Christ, God and humanity are joined in a way that we can’t satisfactorily understand.  We can only say that Jesus is not less fully than God.  Neither is Jesus less than fully human.  Then we must leave it at that. 

Jesus has told the disciples that he is going to a place that they cannot yet go and that they already know where it is.  And so there are all these words about love and peace throughout.  “Those who love me will keep my word.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Mother, because the Mother is greater than I.” 

So if this were a movie and we were returning to watch in this pivotal scene over and over, we would have the memory of resurrection etched in our hearts.  We would realize that the reality of resurrection was foreshadowed in each healing and the miracle of Jesus.  We would remember that friend of Jesus, Lazarus, the one Jesus raised from the dead a mere three chapters earlier.  We might remember that when “Jesus wept,” those tears were shed for Lazarus.  And we would remember all those things because of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus tells the disciples that the Holy Spirit will teach them everything and remind them of all that he said to them.  John Calvin often said that scripture was the spectacles, the eye glasses, for correcting our vision to come to knowledge of both God and ourselves.  And yet, it is not just enough to read the words in the pages of the Bible.  It is the Holy Spirit who helps us understand these ancient and beautiful words.  Otherwise, it is so terribly easy to read them with all the hurt and disappointment and baggage that we’ve learned to carry.  Even though we stand before this text like a well known movie, we struggle to fully enter in, to follow Jesus down that way he prepares.  The way that seems too painful to see.  We must be reminded that Jesus embraced our humanity to the deepest level on the cross.  We must be reminded that Jesus went to the places that we cannot bear to look.  We must be reminded that Jesus went that scare us the most – and still Jesus promised a peace unlike any the world can give.  And we must be reminded each time that we stand before this holy text, and hear the hopes and longings of fellow human beings just like us, that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  We must be reminded that we live in a post-Easter world.  We must be reminded that in the midst of all our suffering, our weeping, our tears, and our anguish, that glimpses of resurrection are always being foreshadowed.

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What is Your Existential Crisis?

I write this post because of a story that a convert to Islam told my World Religions class when we visited his mosque.  Our professor always asked people how they came to pick their religion – whether it was because they grew up in it or converted.  This man had been an Evangelical Sunday school teacher and had read a book by Josh McDowell called Evidence that Demands a Verdict in hopes of being a better teacher.  He then decided that there was not enough evidence for him to accept the same verdict as Mr. McDowell.  Thus, he could no longer be a Christian because he didn’t think the resurrection really happened.  However, when he turned forty, he thought he should find the right religion because he didn’t want to be on the wrong side on judgment day.  I wondered if this man’s occupation might have something to do with computers (and as it turns out he was a senior engineer for IBM) since his thinking seemed to be very much based on evidence and fairly black and white.  However, more than that, I learned that day that the existential crisis that drives one person is not the same as the one that drives someone else.  This probably should not have come as a surprise, but it did. 

My existential crisis of faith when I was a young college student also came about by reading a book.  It was Let the Nations Be Glad by John Piper, which was assigned for an Introduction to Missions class at Oklahoma Baptist University.  It was one of the few non-required religion classes I could take that didn’t feel hostile to women.  But suffice to say that I started a class being enthusiastic about sharing my faith and feeling called by God to do something that left me feeling ashamed of my faith and not sure I wanted to be a Christian.  I had never thought of God as a narcissistic monster who delighted in torture before I read Piper.  I took that class because I loved to worship God and wanted to serve God.  I left that class not really liking God. 

My existential crisis had primarily to do with hope.  I remember scrawling in my notebook of deep thoughts that philosophically, I thought that love and justice might in fact be the same thing rather than opposites – and learned in seminary that Paul Tillich thought so too.  But at the tender age of twenty-one, I thought my only choices were Evangelical Christianity or agnosticism/atheism or some other religion like Buddhism or something.  So it seemed to me that if you were an atheist and a woman, you could be an equal citizen rather than a second class one.  If you were an atheist, you might be dedicated to do something about the real world because you would realize this life was precious.  Maybe in the future, there could be an ideal society where people actually loved each other and cared about each other and we learned not to fight wars and had cured most diseases.  Maybe we could actually solve some of our problems and we wouldn’t have to have poverty and hunger anymore.  Maybe we could even travel to other planets and make contact with extraterrestrials.  And my crisis was that if the only choices out there are Star Trek or John Piper, then there wasn’t even a contest.  

So do we each have our own existential crisis that drives us?  In asking this question, am I making certain assumptions about the nature of reality based on my own experience?  The primary reason that I did not become an atheist was because I could not imagine away what I felt to be the presence of God.  It was simply beyond the limits of my imagination to not conceive that God was up there somewhere and that God was aware of everything including all my thoughts and questions (as well as everyone else’s).  It was personal experience that I have difficulty putting into words or naming with language.  No doubt most atheists would think it was really all in my head.  And maybe I have a psychological need to believe in God because I find the idea of a random, chaotic universe unbearable.  It is possible that could be the case.  Fundamentalists would also say that I’m wrong because if I can’t see things in black and white and in terms of evidence, then I’m just reading what I want to see into reality.  Of course, I don’t expect many of them to have read past a title like, “What is your existential crisis?” 

However, that’s the point.  We all perceive things differently.  Maybe the people who say they’d like to believe in God, but can’t, really don’t have that sense that I couldn’t imagine away.  It’s easy for me to say, “Well you just think that your only choices are Star Trek or John Piper, but let me enlighten you with liberal mainline Protestantism.”  However, I don’t think I would have lost or gained my faith with a book like Evidence that Demands a Verdict.  My questions would have had to do with the nature of justice and the desire for a better world.  I would still ask what the resurrection means and why it matters.  That is not to say that if someone proved beyond a doubt that it didn’t happen, that I wouldn’t have to accept the evidence.  But as long as there is space to believe in the resurrection, I will.  I think if you are inclined to think the resurrection didn’t happen because people who are dead have a habit of staying that way, then that completely misses the point.  The point (at least to me) is that if even death can be overcome, then why not every other injustice and hurt in the world?  Why are we limited to only what we see as being possible?  But then my existential crisis was a crisis of hope. 

 

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The Elephant in the Tomb

Ah…the week after Easter, that magical time of year when so many progressive pastors post their Easter sermons.  They basically say something like, “no one really knows what happened that day, but something did.  Whatever you want to believe about it is cool and all.  Now, let’s try to capture the essence of resurrection.”  To which I think, “I was totally reading your blog and grooving on everything that you were saying, but now you’re telling me that part of growing up is learning to acquiesce to a world smaller than ideal.”  Then I feel this sense of revulsion that harkens back to a conversation with my father fifteen years ago.  He told me that my summer job at Burger King was good for me because I wouldn’t only take jobs that would “benefit humanity and save the planet, but be willing to take jobs better than Burger King.”  It was wise advice in that there are times we have to take those jobs to eat.  However, that was also the summer I almost became an atheist.  Somehow what I heard was that growing older means becoming a cynic and giving in.  My existential crisis was and still is that I do not want to settle for the world as it is, accepting suffering and injustice as necessary norms.  So I will confess right here that my personal bias is that I put hope first defined in such broad, liberal terms as longing for a world in which there is no suffering, everyone gets along, and everyone is fulfilled in some way – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Ultimately though, I think whether you’re on Team Wright or Team Borg has more to do with something inside of you than it does with who made the most logical argument with the most evidence.  I’ll pretend Jonathan Haidt and David Hume have a point about reason being subservient to the passions.  As Haidt says over and over in The Righteous Mind, we are about ten percent rider and ninety percent elephant.  The rider would be our conscious mind that uses rationality and logic and the elephant would be our intuition.  If I pull out a 742 page book by N.T. Wright to make an argument about why the resurrection likely happened, I’m speaking to your rider, but not your elephant.  I know this is bold, but this post is for elephants.  There are already countless books written for riders.  If you think this means that this means I live in postmodern fantasy land and don’t believe in objective truth, I will remind you that ultimately questions about Christology (Jesus being both God and human and how that works out) and resurrection are questions of faith.  Faith engages something beyond reasonable evidence and logical arguments.  

The first reason some progressives have a harder time believing in a literal resurrection is often that people who make such stringent arguments for a literal resurrection do so on the basis of three morals that Haidt shows liberals don’t value as much as conservatives.  Their arguments for believing in the literal resurrection are based in authority (the Bible says so), loyalty (that’s what it means to be on Team Jesus), and purity (people who don’t take the resurrection literally are heretics and should be voted off the island).  Of course, since liberals don’t put much stock in these moral foundations, these don’t actually sound like good reasons to them.  That is not to say that conservative arguments don’t have validity.  But one reason N.T. Wright is the most conservative some liberals read and the most liberal some conservatives read is that he connects to all six of Haidt’s moral foundations.  In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright makes it clear that resurrection has to do with the renewal of all creation, which relates the favorite liberal moral foundation of care as well as the liberty/oppression foundation. 

The second reason that liberals have a harder time with a literal resurrection has to do with myth and literalism.  I don’t know if Joseph Campbell made a statement declaring that this particular resurrection didn’t happen, but he has thoroughly schooled our society in the concept of taking myth seriously without actually believing any of it literally.  In Hero with a Thousand Faces, we learned that the Sumerian goddess Inanna descended into a hell and came back.  At the center of Joseph Campbell’s assertion is that myths share common elements and we connect to them on a subconscious level that gives us deeper meaning.  We have learned that stories can be valuable and meaningful, even if they didn’t actually happen.  We spend billions of dollars entertaining ourselves with fiction that provides more substantive levels of connection and meaning than the average church service and then wonder why church attendance is declining.  The literal minded people often don’t connect as much on these levels and argue for resurrection by reducing it to a historical event based on evidence.  However if resurrection is excluded from the realm of history and relegated to the realm of probable fiction, then that too is just as much of a reduction in its meaning.  If we actually want to talk about benefitting humanity and changing the world, then somewhere the ideal and the real must meet.  I believe they meet in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – or rather my elephant believes this and my rider philosophizes about it incessantly. 

So here are what I perceive to be the two biggest liberal fears about believing in a literal resurrection.  The first is that the resurrection is not first and foremost related to a moral foundation based on care and liberation from oppression.  The second is that if the resurrection is a real, historical event that somehow reduces its scope and mystery.  Neither of these fears has any actual basis.  But then the thing about fear is that it is reactionary.  Easter Sermons however should be proactive declarations of hope.

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