Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
What is resurrection?
Once, while studying theology, a professor asked us students what exactly was resurrection. Despite being a central tenet of Christian faith, it was the first time anyone had ever asked me to seriously contemplate the meaning of resurrection. I recall being struck by the question because it was something that we all simply took for granted. Left with the question, we were given a week to formulate a short theological response.
It was perhaps the most difficult question I’ve ever addressed. I soon discovered at the following week’s class that all of my peers struggled to articulate exactly what happens when a body is resurrected. The question baffled us and left us utterly perplexed. Every suggested theological answer simply failed to fully address what we are told happened to Jesus. Among the most common of answers was that resurrection was something akin to someone coming back to life. Yet our professor wisely pointed out that was merely resuscitation, not resurrection. Needless to say, none of us could quite grasp or define resurrection. Even our professor left the question unanswered. He noted that the disciples, those who encountered the resurrected Jesus, were confused, bewildered, and afraid by the sight of the resurrected Jesus.
What is resurrection? This question came to my mind again the other day as I was reading a couple of online commentaries on another question and happened upon an article that tried to present and define the Christian teaching of resurrection. I was immediately struck by how the author failed to distinguish between resuscitation and resurrection. One of his examples was the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. While the story prefigures Jesus’ resurrection, Lazarus was not resurrected. He was brought back to life, but simply continued to live as all of us live. Jesus, on the other hand, appears to his disciples as both being like what he was prior to his death and being something entirely out of this world. He has a body and eats, yet he also is not bound by the physical realities of this world.
While I don’t intend to give a definitive response to the question, “What is resurrection?”, I offer this morning a few observations about the resurrection based upon what we read in today’s gospel lesson from Luke. While the resurrected life is beyond our understanding and comprehension, there are certain qualities of that life that Jesus makes evident to his disciples.
Before I say more, I think it’s helpful to remember at the time of Jesus the notion of resurrection was a relatively new theological theme and wasn’t believed by all Jews. While the stories of Elijah and the prophecies of the Prophet Daniel offer allusions to resurrection, and the Pharisees held a belief in resurrection, as a whole the idea of one being raised from the dead and into the life of God was largely foreign to most Jews. It was deeply problematic for our Jewish ancestors who understood the sin of humanity created a great divide between this world and the next. Not only were we banished from the garden, but as Genesis tells us, never will any human be able to partake of the tree of life. Instead, God places an angel to stand guard to ensure no mortal may partake of its fruit. Eternal life, it seems, was beyond the grasp of humanity. Only the most holy of our ancestors would behold the face of God. The rest of us would simply be left to a place of the dead, a netherworld void of life often referred to as Hades.
Jesus, deeply aware of the prevailing interpretations of life after death during his time, proclaims a radical message of not only life after death, but that all of us shall be raised up on the last day into life everlasting. Jesus tells his disciples as much, “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:40) Thus, in order for all of humanity to be offered the gift of life, Jesus had to bear the tree of life — the cross — so as to open the way of life for all humanity. This is why his humanity and divinity is so important to the story; no ordinary person could partake of the tree, but only the son of God.
Despite Jesus’ repeated statements that he has come to bring life and to offer it fully, the disciples simply couldn’t wrap their minds around this concept. (John 10:10). Peter, as we hear in Matthew’s Gospel, goes so far as to rebuke Jesus upon his proclamation that he will die and in three days be raised from the dead. In response to Peter’s inability to understand, Jesus retorts: “You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matthew 16:23) The challenge for all the disciples was that they had their own pre-conceived notions of what God could and couldn’t do. Jesus’ death and resurrection forces his disciples — and us — to expand our imagination and to be open to the possibility that God can breath life into even the darkest of places.
So we come to our gospel lesson today from Luke. Hiding in fear of the larger community and its condemnation of them, the disciples huddle together in a room, dismayed by what has unfolded in the past few days since Jesus’ resurrection. As with Easter Sunday, and last week’s story of Doubting Thomas, Jesus appears to the disciples in a time of great fear and confusion. And, as with each of the previous stories, Jesus’ presence baffles and confuses the disciples further. They are still stuck in their limited and narrow ways of thinking of God and God’s power. Rather than be open to the possibility of God doing a new thing in their midst, they assume that Jesus is a ghost, a fantasy before them. After showing them the wounds in his hands and feet, the disciples gather that indeed Jesus is in their midst.
This story reveals three insights about resurrected life. First, although the disciples can recognize Jesus, there is something about him that makes him very different from anything they have ever seen before. Their best way of describing his appearance is that he is like a ghost. Clearly, Jesus hasn’t been simply brought back to life but rather to something even greater, something beyond our human understanding and comprehension.
Yet the story also takes a strange twist, revealing the second insight about the resurrected life: the resurrected Jesus has a body and he eats! So although this body may appear very different than anything the disciples have ever seen before, there still is a real body. This is an important distinction, and one that is helpful to our own understanding today: on the day of the final resurrection, we will be raised both in spirit and body. The resurrection of Jesus, and our awaited resurrection is an affirmation of the goodness and beauty of the human body and that our bodies — although still marked with the wounds of the past — will be transformed and renewed by God’s grace. Resurrection is a physical and spiritual reality.
This is a critical point for us today. All too often when someone dies, we hear people say trite phrases such as a “heaven’s gained another angel.” Yet nothing could be further from the truth. After death and resurrection, we do not become spirits, nor do we become angels. Rather, through the power of God, we will one day be raised body and soul into God’s divine life. This is a core teaching of the Christian Church as articulated in the Apostle’s Creed: “We believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” So no, you do not become angels after death, but God transforms your entire being and body into its glorious form.
This leads us then to the third and final lesson about resurrection as revealed in today’s gospel: Jesus eats with the disciples and breaks bread with them and discloses himself to them while sharing table fellowship.. As he does, he breaks open the Word for them and teaches the disciples the message of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms and that he is the fulfillment of all that has been revealed to them. Here we have another story of the Eucharistic banquet and a lesson for us all: if we wish to know the Risen Christ, we must gather together at the table, break open the Word, and break Bread together. If you wish to find Jesus, you have to open yourself to a relationship with him. Our table fellowship that we celebrate each week is a participation in the resurrected life. Here we have a foretaste of the life to come.
To be sure, all of this may seem entirely beyond our comprehension. Yet Jesus’ words to his disciples in today’s gospel lesson are an invitation to us as well: to open our hearts and minds to God and his power to sanctify, redeem, and save us. Jesus’ death and resurrection, and our eventual resurrection on the last day, is God’s ultimate proclamation that indeed all God had made is good.