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"Betting the Whole Farm: The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus" - by William Dickson

"Betting the Whole Farm: The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus"

by R. William Dickson

March 2005

Introduction: What sort of expectations have you brought along with you to this Easter Sunday? What sort of hopes, dreams, needs, desperations lie behind your being at church rather than somewhere else? Is there perhaps some sort of familial or cultural inertia which got you up and headed out the door toward the church on this particular day? Or has something made you recently aware that life sometimes raises challenges which don't seem to be adequately or fully answered within the constraints of this life alone?

Are you here to worship the God you have come to know personally, intimately, savingly? Are you here wondering what sort of people could believe that such a God even exists? Are you here hoping to demonstrate to your children or some other loved ones that a visit to the church from time to time is a fundamental aspect of a well-ordered life, even though you perhaps harbor the opinion that the ideas put forth within the church are oftentimes fanciful and not perhaps entirely true?

Are you here because someone else insisted that you be here? Are you here today, shall we say, under protest? Are you here today because surely you could be nowhere else? Are you here, but perhaps, you're not quite sure why? For whatever reasons we find ourselves together in this place on this day, it is right that we should be here. For this is the day when the church will make its most fundamental and audacious claim of all. This is the day in which the church will proclaim a message which if true changes everything, absolutely everything, but if false makes of Christianity nothing but a fool's dream. This is the day when the church bets the whole farm. It's winner take all here. There is no second place. There is no consolation prize. Either Jesus is in fact literally and bodily raised from the dead, empty tomb, risen living Jesus seen by many witnesses, risen living Jesus still alive and well and active in the world today helping, saving, delivering folks like you and me or he's simply dead and gone. What do I mean by simply dead and gone? I mean something like this: [and I quote]

"Jesus...was...placed into a common grave, and covered over...in a very short time only some unmarked bones remained. Even the bones were gone before too long. Nature rather efficiently reclaims its own resources." John S. Spong, "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?"

If indeed the heretic bishop Spong has it right, if indeed nature has efficiently reclaimed the body of Jesus into the soil of Palestine, then I believe it is time for us to turn out the lights and go home. For if Jesus is not risen, if he is simply dead, then Christianity is overthrown, undone, rendered null and void and the sooner we leave the silly thing behind the better!

Let's admit the critical nature of the question from the start. It is not the case as some have suggested that it doesn't matter whether or not Jesus is in fact bodily raised from the dead, that what matters is the fact that Christians find comfort in the idea. This is wrong-headed in the extreme. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, literally and bodily, then the Christian Faith is entirely invalidated and Christians are a tragically misguided and dangerously deluded bunch of dupes for living as we do.

Does that sound a bit harsh? Well, that is precisely what the Apostle Paul says in I Corinthians 15:12 Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14 if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17 If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.

Now, it is not my intention today to demonstrate the truth of the historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus. That would be a perfectly sound thing to do, and I will no doubt choose to do that some other Easter Day, but that is not my intention today at all.

I would challenge everyone here wrestling with the question of whether or not Jesus truly rose from the dead to read the New Testament closely and try to explain how any of it could make any sense if in fact he is not risen. I would suggest to you that the entire New Testament from beginning to end and the entire historical record of the early church are simply incomprehensible riddles apart from the conclusion that in fact, just as the early witnesses all claimed, yes, Jesus was indeed risen from the dead.

But I leave you to work that out on your own for now. If that is a study you have not yet conducted, I recommend that you get started on it right away.

And I do wish to recommend a few classic works on the subject. To get started on that question read Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the Acts of the Apostles. Read them all. Read them in that order. And then if you're inclined, give me a call and we'll schedule a time to talk about the question together. I'd love to do that. The evidence is overwhelming, and the facts of the matter are critically important.

But today I would like for us to consider not so much the fact of the resurrection but rather its significance. What does it mean about our lives and their meaning for Jesus to be raised from the dead? More specifically, what does our Gospel reading from Matthew 28 suggest about the significance of the resurrection?

I suspect that we have brought to this day a tremendous number of different hopes and expectations. But I don't believe that what you get out of the day is necessarily completely controlled by the size of your expectations. For we immediately meet in our gospel lesson two ladies, Mary Magdalene, and another woman called "the other Mary." And we are told why they have come, and the reason is hardly a terribly lofty one - they have come to view the tomb. Now bear in mind that Jesus had plainly told his followers that he would rise on the third day after his death, but they are not here looking for the resurrected Jesus. They have no expectation of seeing him risen. No, they are here to view the tomb. It's a nice gesture, a statement of their regard of the deceased.

But it is important to see that these women brought no so-called "Easter faith" to the tomb, a faith which worked upon their fevered imaginations such that they concocted this notion of a risen Jesus. No, they brought the certainty that Jesus was a dead man, a corpse lying within a tomb, and that they should pay the tomb a visit out of respect for all that he had meant to them when he had been alive. This fact is made even clearer when we remember that in Mark 16 we read, v. 1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Mag'dalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salo'me, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen.

No, these ladies didn't bring an Easter faith with them, instead they brought embalming spices. They brought the hope of performing some last little acts of kindness upon the dead Jesus.

But notwithstanding the smallness of their intentions, the modesty of their expectations [and perhaps ours as well], what in fact happened turned their world upside down. I believe we are to see through a close reading of Matthew's account that is the reality of the historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead in space/time history

C1 demonstrates that the final apocalyptic purposes of God are being accomplished through the crucified one.

C2 shows that the forgiveness of sins [on God's side of the equation] has been fully accomplished

C3 proves that those previously caught up in the despondency of mortal life and its tragedies and disappointments are transformed and commissioned as witnesses of the greatest event in history

Let's consider Matthew's account briefly under these three heads.

I.The reality of the historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead in space/time history demonstrates that the final apocalyptic purposes of God are being accomplished through the crucified one.

"2 And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus, the crucified one."

Only from Matthew do we learn of the earthquake and actually hear of the angel's resplendent brightness and his rolling away the stone and sitting upon it. But this description, at least to those schooled in the Old Testament would sound very very familiar. For this language is remarkably reminiscent of what one encounters in those sections of the Old Testament which are presenting its readers with a vision of God's final triumph over evil, God's ultimate sovereign purposes for this world - in passages which are called the apocalyptic sections of the Old Testament. It is characteristic of those passages that we see God announcing his in-breaking kingdom into the affairs of men and women through a great earthquake. It is typical of these accounts that God sends one of his mighty angels whose appearance is as bright as lightning to disclose to his chosen ones his purposes. Matthew's account with its shattering earthquake and angel resembling lightning is suggesting to careful readers who know their Old Testament that God's ultimate purposes within this world are being worked out in the resurrection of "the crucified one."

Now you might have noticed that when I read the gospel, instead of hearing the precise phrase "the crucified one" instead we heard this,

"5 But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified."

But the Greek of verse 5 is rendered more literally with, "I know that you are seeking Jesus, the one who was crucified." And the words "the one who was crucified" are in the Greek a perfect participle. I believe there is significance hidden away in the exact form of the words. As one commentator explains so well, "The perfect participle used by the angel identifies the risen Jesus as "the crucified one". Since the Greek perfect tense indicates a completed act with ongoing consequences, Jesus' crucifixion was not a temporary episode in the career of the Son of God, a past event nullified, transcended, or exchanged at the resurrection for heavenly glory. Even as the risen one, he bears the mark of his self-giving on the cross as his permanent character and call to discipleship (16:24)."

As we will learn from the resurrection appearances found in the other gospels, Jesus showed himself risen from the dead but with the wounds of his suffering still on his body. Apparently, those wounds become from that point on an indelible and glorified feature of his resurrection body. The death of Jesus is of such staggering and eternal significance, that those of the heavenly realm rightly refer to him as the "crucified one." Or when we are given a glimpse into heaven itself and its worship of this one we call Lord, we see him presented as a lamb standing as if slain.

In the language of Matthew with his recounting of the dramatic events of the earthquake and the angel as bright as lightning rolling away the stone and sitting upon it and then referring to Jesus as "the crucified one" we are to see that the ultimate and glorious purposes of God to redeem the world have come to their consummate fulfillment in the saving death of Jesus Christ. And his being raised from the dead proves that he has not failed at his saving intentions. The purposes of God have been realized, fully and timelessly in this one who gave up his life in self-sacrifice for others and whom God the Father has now raised from the dead.

II. The reality of the historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead in space/time history shows that the forgiveness of sins [on God's side of the equation] has been fully accomplished.

Throughout the New Testament and indeed in the early Christian creeds and confessions you always find the fact that Christ died for our sins. It was not primarily a death which might serve as an example to us [although it is on occasion referred to that way], but it is primarily a forensic, or juridical, or to use the technical term a piacular transaction by which the guilt of humanity's sin and God's consequent wrath against us because of that sin is rectified or resolved. Or to put it another way, it is a propitiation. So if Jesus died for our sins, and then Jesus is plainly no longer dead but raised, we have the most overwhelming evidence conceivable that our sin problem has been remedied by his great sacrifice. Or to put the matter negatively once again in Paul's language from I Corinthians 15,

"If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins."

But the account in Matthew makes it clear that our sin problem has been resolved. It is made clear through his resurrection which implies that. And it is made clear through Jesus' reference to the disciples which explicitly states it. What do I mean? I mean that it is very telling that Jesus in verse 10 calls his disciples "my brothers." The angel in verse 7 referred to them as "his disciples." But Jesus deliberately and tellingly uses a different phrase - the phrase "my brothers." Why is this so important. As one commentator puts it,

"We have not seen the disciples since they all 'deserted him and fled' (26:56), except for Peter, who denied him, and Judas, who betrayed him and then killed himself. The alienation has now been healed from the divine side; the disciples may know that they again/still belong to the family of believers."

I believe this is exactly right. Jesus in referring to his sorry group of disciples who had either deserted him, denied him, or even betrayed him calls them "his brothers" to indicate that their and our sin problem had been taken care of on the cross. And the staggering fact of his resurrection proves it.

III. And thirdly and finally, I believe the reality of the historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead in space/time history proves that those previously caught up in the despondency of mortal life and its tragedies and disappointments are transformed and commissioned as witnesses of the greatest event in history.

We have already noted the modest intentions and expectations which the two women brought to this Easter morning. They were coming to pay their respects to the dead. And in their imagining that his language of rising on the third day was just too incredible to believe, and in their supposing that they had lost forever this one who had been so dear to them for three years, they were entirely desolate of soul, and devoid of hope. And frankly, I'm glad that that is the condition of soul that they brought to Easter morning. For I think humanity is oftentimes shattered and bewildered by the losses, the disappointments which seem to surround us on every side or our mortal existence.

I have always been deeply moved by the tragic desperation of the philosopher of despair, Arthur Schopenhauer. He said this in his essay entitled "On the Suffering of the World,"

"You can also look upon our life as an episode unprofitably disturbing the blessed calm of nothingness. In any case, even he who has found life tolerably bearable will, the longer he lives, feel the more clearly that on the whole it is a disappointment, nay a cheat. If two men who were friends in youth meet in old age after the lapse of an entire generation, the principal feeling the sight of one another, linked as it is with recollections of earlier years, will arouse in both will be one of total disappointment with the whole of life, which once lay so fair before them in the rosy dawn of youth, promised so much and performed so little. This feeling will dominate so decidedly over every other that they will not even think it necessary to speak of it but will silently assume it as the basis of their conversation."

Now I am not going to stand here this morning as a Christian minister and tell you that Schopenhauer was right, he wasn't. But, I think it important to acknowledge that if you grant his assumptions - the assumption that Christ is not risen from the dead, the assumption that our lives end in the nothingness of oblivion, then it is quite reasonable to feel that life truly is a cheat, a fraud, a huge disappointment.

But the risen Jesus steps into this bleak and desolate world and he turns it upside down. In his resurrection, the whole world is changed. We see women filled with despair turned into bold witnesses. We see people of no standing raised up to be key witnesses of the greatest event of all history. Women in the first Century in Palestine were regarded as dubious witnesses. And yet we see Mary Magdalene being sent as an evangelist to the apostles. Everything changes when Jesus rises from the dead. We see the guards, those whose job it was to make sure the dead man didn't go anywhere, falling to the earth as though dead themselves, before the one who now lives.

And we see that those sent by the Lord to bear the message of his glorious resurrection encounter him while doing his bidding. I think it is very important to observe that the angel had already told the women to go tell "his disciples" that he was risen and they were doing just that when Jesus himself met them along the way. This is fundamental to Matthew's understanding of one of the central significances of the resurrection - the risen Lord would always be with and make himself known to those sent out with the good news. So just verses later when Jesus does meet the disciples on a mountain in Galilee and commission them in that wonderful language which we have come to call the Great Commission, it is a promise of the resurrected Lord always to be near and with those getting on with this job which he is talking about when he concludes,

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."

This is not merely a promise to the apostles, this is not merely a pledge to the Christians of the early centuries, this promise is to the people of God to the very close of the age. As Jesus met the women as they were headed to the disciples with the good news of his resurrection, so this same risen Lord will meet us as we are on our way bearing that good news where he has sent us, where he sends us. You could almost say that in Matthew's view of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, they do not come to an end. The resurrected Lord continues to show himself to his disciples and will do until the close of the age.

Conclusion: We began this sermon by considering the various and differing motivations and expectations which we have no doubt brought to this morning. And I suggested that they are all of them quite legit, inasmuch as they did actually get us here, where we needed to be. But even those having brought the most slender and insubstantial expectations to the morning could just find themselves in the position of these women. Remember, they were only there to pay their respects to a dead friend. They meet him risen, and all things were changed. And that transformative meeting which people have had and continue to have with the living Jesus is one to which many of us would attest. The risen Lord continues to show himself to those who would seek him.

But the events of this day force a decision before us. We stopped our gospel lesson before the next section which describes the story which the guards and the religious leaders concocted. The resurrection is not the only possibility. We are presented by Matthew with a choice. The authorized version of what happened is that while the guards were sleeping the disciples came in ever so stealthily and stole the body. Now I think we need to consider that possibility. And having considered it, I think we need to recognize it for what it is. That desperate and implausible "official version" of the events is a pathetic attempt to evade the obvious. Why would we wish to evade the obvious? Because if Jesus is truly risen from dead as all the evidence would suggest, then his truthfulness and his veracity are established. After all, he had told them that he would rise from the dead. Remember the language of the angel to the women,

"He is not here. He is risen just as he said."

The resurrection demonstrates the fact that Jesus was always telling the truth about himself and about us and what our lives are about. And he left no doubt on that point. True life, life deserving the label would only be known, only be found by those who trusted in him, those who followed him.

So the risen one is in our midst even this day, and he demands of us a response. To receive him and the grandeur of this moment means that we will be sent out. To deny him involves our holding to a most bizarre and unlikely conspiracy scheme of the disciples. But at least then our lives would still be our own.

The risen Lord demands a decision. The risen Lord calls those who desire life to trust in him and find that life, even now, right here. How will we respond? How will I respond? How will you respond? Amen.

--The Rev. Dr. R. William Dickson is the Associate Rector of St. John the Divine Church in Houston, Texas

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