After my last three sermons one of the church members mentioned an ABC TV show entitled “Resurrection” where people in this small town return to life sometimes years later and how that impacted their relational networks. I decided to watch the show and am half way through the second season. I’m not endorsing the show. The initial idea was thought provoking but like many TV dramas couldn’t really keep from devolving into something between a soap opera and a crime drama.
While the imagined resurrections in the TV series didn’t really have much in common with the asserted resurrection of Jesus Christ one issue that hold dramatic tension in the show was of course the questions of cause, purpose and meaning. OK, so if you have to buy the idea of people coming back from the dead, as the characters in the show were forced to do, how are you to understand what this means about the nature of reality and more importantly the purpose for their return? The “living” TV characters of course immediately would grill “the returns” for intimate personal historical knowledge that no body double or alien could reasonably duplicate. Even while the “it’s really them” question lingers the reality that you need to deal with these people relationally as their former selves had to be engaged. But how does their return change the worldview, or deep assumptions of reality of the living? These are much harder questions.
Most Americans in the Folk-Religion Mushy Middle
Second to the “did it really happen” question about Jesus’ resurrection is of course “what does it really mean and how does this change the world?
In the TV show “Resurrection” they really didn’t get into worldview questions. I understand why they didn’t want to do this. Making these kinds of shows is an exercise in marketing and if you start getting too specific about afterlife questions you’ll start to alienate religious communities and their viewers. American media creators have long tried to stick to tried and true “folk religion” platitudes in order to construct an imagined after-life narrative that will offend as few as possible. That’s why we always get ideas like “when people die God turns them into angels (“It’s a Wonderful Life)” or when “good people” die they float up in light into the sky or into light (more movies than I can name). “Resurrection” (I haven’t seen the conclusion yet here some of these questions might be answered) seems to want to avoid questions about heaven or an afterlife and have “the returned” assert that they simply woke up alive after the died. No conscious afterlife, maybe giving a nod to contemporary materialists, agnostics and atheists.
I noticed in watching a recent debate on the Veritas Forum that groups like committed educated Christians and committed educated atheists both feel like embattled minorities in the culture. I think both those who want to make specific assertions about the afterlife in either direction receive a skeptical response. Part of that could be that people aren’t convinced that anyone really knows. Part of it could be that people would like to leave the question more open so that they can feel freer to believe what they wish.
Fuller Imaginary Resurrection Narratives
Jesus raising Lazarus in John 11 has within itself a narrative that people could pick up on.
- Lazarus was the friend of Jesus
- Jesus said he intentionally waited so that Lazarus could die and Jesus through this resurrection would be revealed to be “the resurrection and the life”
Lazarus, however, was raised to be functionally the same as he was before he died. We aren’t told hardly anything about post-resurrection Lazarus. We don’t find becoming some supernatural teacher or wonder workers who can show up in locked rooms. The silence suggests he went back to who he was before only to later die a natural death at some point.
Jesus’ resurrection, however, is presented to be something the same but different than before.
I’m sure the disciples had lots of questions about what this new resurrected appearance would mean.
- Would Jesus be with them like he was before his death, walking, living, healing, teaching, debating?
- Would Jesus now enter Jerusalem again, in full view of Pilate, the Sanhedrin, the Roman soldiers that executed him and say…
- “Try and kill me now! Suckas!”
- “Won’t you believe in me and throw down your arms and office?”
- “First stop Jerusalem, then Antioch, then Corinth, then ROME!”
- “First Rome, then the Incas, then the Chinese and Indians!”
- Would Jesus go into the desert, found a monastery and be a wonder and a guru for people to go out to see to learn how to escape the world?
- Would Jesus no age, becoming 2000 years old (by now) and just be a perpetual wonder whose existence all human leaders would have to deal with, smiting armies that might try to kill him or just vanishing so that he’d be unarrestable, escaping locked prison cells, etc. ?
When you introduce this resurrection into human history and the seeming ability to do miraculous things at will, all sorts of scenarios become possible.
- Wouldn’t something more miraculous on an ongoing basis be more effective in getting people to believe in Jesus?
- Wouldn’t being a 2000 year old man who can start and still storms be more effective in telling governments and people to be nice, non-violent and fair to the weak?
- Wouldn’t being a god man who came from heaven, and now rose again from the dead be more effective in giving us answers about politics and sex and poverty and morality?
Luke on the Appearance of Jesus
Luke 24:39f presents what is likely Luke’s version of the same story that we read last week from John 20.
Luke 24:36–43 (NET)
36 While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”37 But they were startled and terrified, thinking they saw a ghost.38 Then he said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; it’s me! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones like you see I have.” 40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.41 And while they still could not believe it (because of their joy) and were amazed, he said to them, “Do you have anything here to eat?”42 So they gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in front of them.
The focus isn’t on the wounds in this one as much as the ghost/fish-eating question. “Is this resurrection or something we already have a category for?”
Luke 24:44–49 (NET)
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures,46 and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. But stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Here again Jesus is engaging some of the same things he was doing in John 20 but adds the Scriptures, Moses, the prophets and the Psalms. For Christians reading this today this might be expected, but I think you should first consider the strangeness of this.
Why Drag Along THAT Old Book?
Most of the time Christians try to explain or defend their religion they start with something like the authority of the Bible. This is natural for us given our place in history but it really isn’t the way Christianity developed. There were in the early years of the church, and still is today, a group of people who advocate detaching Christianity from the Bible, especially the Old Testament because of all of the complications it creates. Many of the heresies that emerged in the first 400 years of the Christian church in fact arose because of the difficulties of the Old Testament and the desirability of Christians to make Christianity intelligible and attractive to the cultural groups around them that found the Old Testament in particular offensive or substandard to the books and ideas they esteemed.
This attitude really hasn’t changed. An atheist friend of mine in a recent Facebook conversation about morality said this.
Well, if a person doesn’t know the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, they most certainly won’t discover the answer by reading the Old Testament… which is the root-link of all the Abrahamic religions and the root-cause of the horrors of fundamentalism. It’s bursting with celebrations of cruelty: both human and divine.
I’ll give you that the teachings attributed to the man Jesus, in the New Testament are ‘good’… Damn shame god couldn’t get it right the first time round.
She’s not alone. While many Christians would stand up and say “The Bible is the Word of God” they ignore most of the Bible, not knowing quite what to do with it and most of what they ignore is the Old Testament. Many Christians by virtue of their practice, my atheist friend, and ancient Christian heretics I think might all council Jesus “let’s stick to what you have to stay but ditch all that old background material. Maybe put it in a footnote or something?”
Why Would the Apostles Keep THAT Old Book?
Well someone might say “well the apostles were Jews and so they wanted to keep their scriptures…”
Not too much knowledge of what would unfold in the very early church would lead us to believe that if anything they might be motivated to listen to everyone else and just start fresh. Wouldn’t they have more power if they had the freedom of just making everything up new? Early churches were in many ways harrassed by synagogue communities that saw these new Jesus followers as a dangerous heretical movement that needed to be stamped out. The Old Testament hardly seems like a help with these groups. Paul after switching sides went through the synagogues teaching from the scriptures that Jesus was the climax of the story but this itself was offensive. They already had their own traditions of reading the text.
Neither would the Old Testament help them be attractive Greeks who considered the Hebrew scriptures an uneducated, unsophisticated tribal document. It was so thoroughly out of step with hundreds of years of accepted and esteemed Greek philosophy. How was Moses as compared to Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics, the Cynics and the Epicureans? Who was Yhwh compared to Zeus/Jupiter? To the urbane, sophisticated world with their flexible and inclusive religiosity that avoided religious exceptionalism, always had room for new gods. They were sexually liberated not embracing that old restrictive Hebrew sexual ethic. Why should becoming Jesus’ friend mess up liberty in the bedroom and boardroom?
The best answer to all of this is that in fact embracing this comes from Jesus himself which is why the apostles and the early church followed Jesus into this. It is because now after the resurrection the disciples begin to radically re-understand Moses and the Prophets and the Greek translation of that Old Testament becomes the Bible for the Roman empire beyond Jerusalem until they made a Latin version in the West.
It is because of this that Paul has to write the kinds of things he does and develop the theology he does with people coming from the pagan diversity of the Roman empire now believing in Jesus. Why they have to wrestle with the difficulties of what it would mean to be a Christian in the Roman world, to be seen as outsiders, as immoral cannibals.
The Cost of Embracing the Book Jesus Embraced
This cost will increasingly continue today as our own culture expresses its difficulties with it. The church itself will have to continue to do the hard work that Paul, the Apostles and theologians all through the centuries have done to try to understand how Jesus fits into that whole story.
Without the Old Testament we like the villager of the imaginary Arcadia in “Resurrection” are simply left to make up stories that fit our needs but really don’t offer much hope in getting us in touch with a larger reality or truth.
If it had not been for Jesus’ demand that the disciples find him in the Old Testament what we would have been left with is what we struggle with in every age. We would have simply remade Jesus and God into useful divine vessels for our own needs, wishes and agendas which might seem spectacularly successful in our own cultural context but which would of course in time be exposed as simply our own wishful thinking. Jesus would have been our tool rather than our Lord.
What we get instead, with a great deal of difficulty sometimes, is a much broader, enduring picture of God working throughout the history of the world, through a particular nation, addressing sin and death and bringing eternal life to us through Jesus Christ. The Old Testament roots Jesus in a far larger picture than one man, even this man could offer us in one short lifetime. It offers us a far larger story to live into.
It is amazing that we have, in fact, ever thrown away this Old Testament, despite many who have proposed we do so. It became a difficult living word for the early Christians as it does for us today.
In many ways we are like the citizens of this fictitious town of Arcadia. Things are going on that we’re trying to get a grip on.
In our contemporary context we very much believe that our ability to save ourselves is built on getting the best information. We are frustrated and maybe even despairing to discover that the quest for information, for a fuller story that will give us the tools and the insight to navigate reality to the outcomes we desire alludes everyone. Information pluralism deconstructs all systems and like the people of Arcadia stand before “the returned” trying to figure out what it all means? What life means? How to understand death? How to try to “take control of our lives” when the truth is we neither have the power to do so nor the clarity to do so productively and morally if indeed we had it. We are lost.
Jesus appears to his disciples, demonstrating that he is their friend and master and they showing that he has in fact already affected their salvation. What they are to launch out on is an operation of good news, not good advice. That old, complicated, parochial book they grew up with will flesh out the story and give foundation for the understanding of the hope that is within them. The disorienting strangeness of what they just observed is fleshed out in that book. He had to come, to live, to be crucified, and to rise again so that we might follow him through his and Israel’s story. You haven saved.
Now if you believe this, what will you do? He invites you with divine curiosity to be witnesses to this deliverance. He invites us all to bear witness to Jesus by explaining him through Moses, the Psalms and the Prophets. This is not a puzzle that our salvation is dependent upon completing satisfactorily, but a mission of joy. People will naturally ask, as we do “how can this be?” “how shall we respond?” This is why we’ve been given the book, the Old and the New Testaments. Throughout the history of the church we have kept to it, mined them, worked them, found the context of our conversations in them. This is exactly what Jesus intended and commanded, that we find him in this way.