Friday, April 6, 2012

Is This Resurrection Stuff for Real?

I remember my first experience with death. I was only six years old, which was a long time ago, but I remember it. I remember a room filled with people who were all talking above me as if I wasn't there. I remember the stifling smell of flowers and the horrifying sound of my grandmother wailing. Most of all, I remember the body in the box. It didn't look real. It was like the people in the wax museum we had visited at Niagara Falls. Only this wax figure was my father. I took it all in. His closed eyelids, the expression on his lips, his powdery face, the hands with the puffy fingers. This was not the same person who had carried me in his arms and bounced me on his knee.

The corpse of my father traumatized me; not just when I saw it in the funeral home but for most of my childhood. I was afraid to look out the window at night because I would see that face looking back at me. I was afraid of the basement, the attic, the closet, and the top bunk in my bedroom, and any place I couldn't really see, because I was sure that the body was there.

I wanted desperately to believe that my dad was in heaven with God because the idea that he was in heaven was so much better than believing that he had just ceased to exist. But it all seemed rather unbelievable, like some fairy tale that adults made up to make people feel better when someone dies. When I was a little girl and into my teenage years, I was so terrified of death that many nights I cried myself to sleep. I used to pray that I could know there really was a heaven so that I wouldn't have to be afraid anymore.

Lots of people go through something like that, although usually not at such a young age. When we're confronted by death, our faith is challenged. I wasn't raised with any kind of a faith background, so I didn't have any spiritual resources to handle the death of my father. But even those who have been raised in the faith can have that faith seriously challenged by the reality of death. Is this resurrection stuff for real or is it just some fairy tale that we've been taught so that we can face the grim reality of death?

It's all rather unbelievable, and it's only natural to question it. That's been the case ever since the very beginning. Even Jesus' own disciples were in disbelief. The women who took spices and perfumes to the tomb that first Easter morning didn't go to witness a resurrection; they went to anoint a corpse. When Mary Magdalene saw that the tomb was empty, she didn't say to herself, "Oh, it looks like Jesus has been raised from the dead." She assumed that someone had come and stolen the body. When she and the other women told the other disciples that they had seen the risen Lord, Luke's gospel tells us, "These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them" (24:11). That night the disciples hid out behind locked doors because they feared for their own lives. Later, two witnesses told the disciples about their encounter with the risen Jesus, but the disciples didn't believe them either. And there's the story of Thomas, the most famous of all the doubters. Right up until what might have been his last resurrection appearance in Matthew, we read that there were still some of the eleven disciples who doubted.

The resurrection has always been hard for people to swallow, even people of great faith. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Saint Paul has much to say about the resurrection, because apparently it was a problem for members of the early church, as well. There were already those who were refuting the resurrection of Jesus. Paul has to remind them that without the resurrection, there is no Christian faith. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus are at the center of it all.

The proof that Paul gives for the resurrection is that the risen Christ appeared to the disciples, and to hundreds of other people, including Paul. That continues to be the strongest proclamation we can make regarding the resurrection.

You know, messiahs weren't all that uncommon in Jesus' day. There were others who had devoted followers like Jesus did. He was just one among many. Just like Jesus, they routinely died at the hands of Romans. But when they died, their movements died with them. The Jesus movement was unique, because it didn't die when he did. Instead, within days of his crucifixion, the movement had been transformed. Within weeks it was proclaiming that Jesus really was the Messiah. Within a year or two, it was taking the message of the good news to all the world. How can this amazing transformation be explained? It surely didn't come about because of a Messiah who had been crucified and buried.

There is a consistent message about the followers of Jesus in the Bible. Down to a person, not one of them believed in the resurrection of Jesus in the beginning. This rings true because the scriptures tell us about it in so many places and in so many ways. It also rings true because we know from our own experience that it's hard to believe. And yet, we know that something happened to Jesus' followers in the Bible, something so convincing that they devoted their lives to sharing the good news of the resurrected Christ with others. In fact, they were willing to give their lives rather than deny its truth. This, from the ones who cowered in fear behind locked doors after Jesus was crucified.

What was this thing that happened to them? The risen Christ appeared to them. We get some of these accounts in the Bible, but no doubt there were other instances as well. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul mentions an instance that we don't read about anywhere else in the Bible, so we're not sure what it's referring to: a time when the risen Christ appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at once. Now, when over 500 people see something at the same time, you cannot dismiss it as some kind of vision or a dream. There can be no doubt that it really happened.

After Jesus was raised from the dead, hundreds of his followers had the opportunity to see him. They saw the risen Christ. That explains why their lives were so transformed. I'm not sure how there could be any other explanation. After seeing the risen Christ, all the stuff that had confused them in the past became clear for them. Jesus really was the Messiah. From the perspective of the resurrection, the cross was not a shameful death after all but a victory.

The mission of the early church was simply to tell about what they had seen and heard. It was to bear witness to the things that happened. "... Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3b-4).

The biblical witnesses are still announcing the resurrection to us today. That's why we gather together on Easter, and every Sunday actually, because that's why the Christian church changed their sabbath day to Sunday, so every week our worship is a celebration of the resurrection. The resurrection had the power to transform the lives of the first disciples. The truth of their witness to the resurrection still has the power to transform our lives, as well. Amen.

No comments: