I Plead Guilty to the Charge of Denying the Resurrection – But I ain’t leaving!!!

I have been asked to repost this particular post. It first appeared during  my first months of blogging and I am often asked about this post. Its contents continue to invoke the wrath of some and the appreciation of many. I offer it here, mindful that in the intervening two years since I first posted it, I have had the opportunity to explore progressive and evolutionary theologies which have nourished me in my efforts to proclaim the Easter story in ways that move beyond the tired debate over the physical resuscitation of a corpse toward an understanding of resurrection that permeates my daily quest to know the unknowable ONE who lies at the heart of reality. 

Peter Callesen's Papercut Resurrection

Peter Callesen’s Papercut Resurrection

Blogging is sometimes a very strange medium and I must say that I am overwhelmed by the responses to my recent posts about resurrection.  While many have emailed or posted their ardent “amens” others have been scathing and some hostile to my remarks.  I am grateful to everyone who has responded.  All of your comments help me as I continue to ponder the theological and practical implications of the Easter story.  For those of you who have suggested that I have no business calling myself a Christian or a pastor and have suggested that I ought to consider leaving the church, I offer the following.

A while back, I got together with clergy colleagues to talk about the challenges of preaching during Holy Week. When the subject of the crucifixion and the resurrection came up, the conversation became very lively as the traditionalists challenged the progressives. Toward the end of our conversation, it became clear that because I was unwilling to concede to the notion that Jesus corpse was physically resuscitated; I stood accused of having denied the resurrection.

Some colleagues rose to my defense and insisted that I wasn’t saying anything different than what we all learned in seminary. But they also insisted that most lay-people simply don’t want to hear it. So, I asked them if they were going to preach about what they had learned in seminary and beyond and the general consensus was that there are too many guests on Easter Sunday to tackle theology.

Some said, they were simply too afraid of the fundamentalists in their congregations to ever even attempt to preach what they knew. A few confessed that they were working up to it; but not on Easter Sunday.

The traditionalists in the group were disgusted. One colleague went so far as to insist that I had no business being in the church because my very presence puts the beliefs of the faithful at risk. He wondered aloud, “Why do you stay in the church if you don’t believe?  If the church’s theology no longer works for you, why don’t you just leave?”

“Why do you stay?” is a question I am all too familiar with. Well, before I can answer that, I have to say, that I’ve taken a leaf out of Joan Chittister’s book. Chittister insists that we should all be asking ourselves why we stay.  She cautions that those of us who stay, need to respect those who decide to leave and those who leave must respect those who stay. Chittister also insists that while we continue to ask ourselves why we stay, we ought to remember that “if we go, we must not go quietly and if we stay we must not stay quietly.” We must speak out because the church needs us to speak out.

I confess that I am constantly asking myself why I stay and there are days when I feel like leaving, days when I feel like staying quietly, and days when I am convinced that it is in the church where I must not only stay but echo the words of Luther with gusto:  for in here I stand!

I stay, because I still believe that it is possible to change the church from within. I stay, despite the fact that each time I go out into the wider church, the traditions and traditionalists that I meet there often make me want to leave. But then I remember all of the people in the faithful community that I serve. I remember their wiliness to dwell in the questions of our faith. I remember their courage and their determination. I remember their thirst for knowledge. I remember the amazing ways they reach out to the people outside the walls of the church. I remember their faithfulness, their love,  and their keen sense of justice. I remember the image of Christ that I see in their faces and I know without a doubt that the church is where I belong, even though I know that as a community we will continue to ask ourselves,  “Why do we stay?”  And I know that if we stay we will not stay quietly. And if we should ever decide to leave, we will not leave quietly. I stay because in the church community that I serve, I have encountered the Body of Christ.

Here in the church, I have seen the risen Christ reach out to our neighbours in need, fight for justice, and love God with all our hearts, with all our souls and yes with all our minds.  So, I stay surrounded by such a great crowd of witnesses.  But like so many before us, we must not stay quietly. Together we must continue to speak out for change in our church.  And together we must continue to explore what the best minds of this century have to teach us about the nature of our God.

My desire to work together with others to move the church into the 21st century is precisely why I preach the sermons I preach on Good Friday and Easter Sunday mornings.  And for the most part, despite the dire warnings of some of my clergy colleagues, our visitors take it all very well. Indeed many are relieved to hear that there is more than one way to follow Christ.  But there was this one person last Easter Sunday, who on the way out the door, insisted that I had denied the resurrection.  This person was quite distressed and wondered aloud how a Christian could deny the resurrection and still call themselves a Christian.

Now even though I assured this person that I do indeed believe in the resurrection, it was clear to me, what this person heard me say was not exactly the same as what I actually said.  So, let me make it clear. There is, and there has always been, from the very beginning disagreement among the followers of Christ as to the exact nature of the resurrection. And things aren’t any different today than they were in the first century. There is a distinct disagreement between the Christianity of biblical scholarship and the Christianity of fundamentalists.  And 21st century Christians can be found faithfully following Christ all along the spectrum of beliefs about the resurrection.

Fundamentalists are quite sure of their truth.  On Easter the crucified Jesus, who was laid in the grave as a deceased man on Good Friday, was by the mighty act of God, restored to life on Easter. Jesus had broken the power of death for all people. If the body of Jesus was not physically restored to life, the fundamentalists claim, then Easter is fraudulent. There can be no compromise here. Those who waver on this foundational truth of Christianity have, according to this perspective, abandoned the essential core of their faith tradition.

Well, to borrow the words from an old song and say, “”Tain’t necessarily so!” When you read the New Testament in the order in which these books were written, a fascinating progression is revealed.  Paul, for example, writing between the years 50 and 64 or some 20 to 34 years after the earthly life of Jesus came to an end, never describes the resurrection of Jesus as a physical body resuscitated after death.  There is no hint in the Pauline corpus that one, who had died, later walked out of his grave clothes, emerged from the tomb and was seen by his disciples.

What Paul does suggest is that Easter meant that God had acted to reverse the verdict that the world had pronounced on Jesus by raising Jesus from death into God. It was, therefore, out of God in a transforming kind of heavenly vision that this Jesus then appeared to certain chosen witnesses. Paul enumerates these witnesses and, in a telling detail, says that this was the same Jesus that Paul himself had seen. No one suggests that Paul ever saw a resuscitated body.

The Pauline corpus later says, “If you then have been raised with Christ, seek the things which are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Remember, the story of the Ascension had not been written when these Pauline words were formed. Paul did not envision the Resurrection as Jesus being restored to life in this world but as Jesus being raised into God. It was not an event in time but a transcendent and transforming truth.

Paul died, according to our best estimates, around the year 64 C.E. The first Gospel was not written until the early 70’s. Paul never had a chance to read the Easter story in any Gospel. The tragedy of later Christian history is that we read Paul through the lens of the Gospels.  So, we have both distorted Paul and also confused theology.

When Mark, the first Gospel, was written the Risen Christ never appears. The last time Jesus is seen comes when his deceased body is taken from the cross and laid in the tomb. Mark’s account of the Resurrection presents us with the narrative of mourning women confronting an empty tomb, meeting a messenger who tells them that Jesus has been raised and asking these women to convey to the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Mark then concludes his Gospel with a picture of these women fleeing in fear, saying nothing to anyone.  So abrupt was this ending that people began to write new endings to what they thought was Mark’s incomplete story. Two of those endings are actually reproduced in the King James Version of the Bible as verses 9-20. But thankfully, these later creations have been removed from the text of Mark in recent Bibles and placed into footnotes.  The sure fact of New Testament scholarship is that Mark’s Gospel ended without the Risen Christ ever being seen by anyone.

Both Matthew, who wrote between 80-85, and Luke, who wrote between 88-92, had Mark to guide their compositions. Both changed, heightened and expanded Mark. It is fascinating to lift those changes into consciousness and to ask what was it that motivated Matthew and Luke to transform Mark’s narrative. Did they have new sources of information? Had the story grown over the years in the retelling?

The first thing to note is that Matthew changes Mark’s story about the women at the tomb. First, the messenger in Mark becomes a supernatural angel in Matthew’s story. Next Matthew says the women do see Jesus in the garden.   They grasp him by the feet and worship him. This is the first time in Christian history that the Resurrection is presented as physical resuscitation. It occurs in the 9th decade of the first century.  It should be noted that it took more than 50 years to begin to interpret the Easter experience as the resuscitated body of the deceased Jesus.

I don’t have time to go into the details of the development of this interpretation. But you can trace its growth through the gospels of Matthew and Luke until finally at the end of the first century to the Gospel of John. And when you read these chronologically, you will see that the Easter story appears to have grown rather dramatically over the years.

Something happened after the crucifixion of Jesus that convinced the disciples that Jesus shared in the eternal life of God and was thus available to them as a living presence. This experience was so profound that the disciples, who at his arrest had fled in fear, were now reconstituted and empowered even to die for the truth of their vision.  This experience had the power to force the Jewish disciples to redefine the God of the Jews so that Jesus could be seen as part of who God is. Finally this experience was so profound that it ultimately created, on the first day of the week, a new holy day that was quite different from the Sabbath, to enable Christians to mark this transforming moment with a liturgical act called “the breaking of bread.”

When these biblical data are assembled and examined closely, two things become clear. First something of enormous power gripped the disciples following the crucifixion that transformed their lives. Second, it was some fifty years before that transforming experience was interpreted as the resuscitation of a three days dead Jesus to the life of the world. Our conversation about the meaning of Easter must begin where these two realities meet.

As for those who condemn those of us who choose to follow the biblical strains of our resurrection theology as non-Christians, well there will always be those who will insist that it is their way or the highway.  As for the person who greeted me on the way out the door last Easter Sunday and questioned my ability to call myself a Christian, I would say, “Thank-you!”.  This question allowed me the opportunity to communicate clearly and concisely my thoughts on the resurrection, so please allow me to repeat myself. To those who have responded to my blogs, I say, “Thank-you!”  I thank-you for engaging me in the questions of our faith.  I thank-you because your questions make me a better follower and I trust that my questions will do the same for you.  Let us together be the church in our own time and place and have the courage to follow where-ever Christ leads.

So, without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think.  I deny the resurrection of Christ.  Theologian Peter Rollins puts it far better than I ever could, and with him, let me just say:

“I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor;  I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and the oppressed. Every time I do not serve my neighbour, every time I walk away from the poor. I deny the resurrection every time I participate in an unjust system.  However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm the resurrection when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, I affirm the resurrection when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, I affirm the resurrection, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed. I affirm the resurrection each and every time I look into your eyes and see the face of Christ.”

Christ has died. Christ has risen.  Christ will come again and again. This is the mystery of our faith. Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed!  Alleluia! Christ is risen in you and in me. In the words of Martin Luther:  “This is most certainly true!” Can I get an Amen?             

Leave a Reply