Some of you are probably familiar with the novelist and memoirist Frederick Buechner; if you’re not and you like good writing, you really ought to check out his work. He’s a luminous writer, whether he’s telling the difficult story of his childhood or recasting the legend of St. Brendan’s voyage to America, which is why he’s so widely praised. He’s also a Presbyterian minister; and of all the things he’s written, I think I value his sermons the most. I appreciate him because he has a wonderful way of sliding his words sideways through our pretensions and our comfortable assumptions, puncturing them before we even see the needle coming; and I appreciate him because while he’s not necessarily straightforward, he’s always unflinchingly honest about our human condition. Take, for instance, this observation from his sermon “The Magnificent Defeat”:
When a minister reads out of the Bible, I am sure that at least nine times out of ten the people who happen to be listening at all hear not what is really being read but only what they expect to hear read. And I think that what most people expect to hear read from the Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson—something elevating, obvious, and boring. So that is exactly what very often they do hear. Only that is too bad because if you really listen—and maybe you have to forget that it is the Bible being read and a minister who is reading it—there is no telling what you might hear.
He’s right: we tend to hear what we expect to hear; and that’s because what we expect to hear is, at some level, what we want to hear. After all, while “something elevating, obvious, and boring” obviously isn’t going to excite us much, it won’t threaten us, either; it’s safe and comfortable and allows us to walk out of here with our spirits raised a little, feeling a little better about ourselves. That’s understandable, given the ways that the world in which we live tends to beat us up and wear us down; a lot of the time, I think that all that many folks really want out of their faith is just to be able to feel a little better.
The problem is, though, that that isn’t all our faith is about, nor is it all God is trying to do with us; to settle for something safe and inoffensive when he’s offering us infinite joy is to do both God and ourselves a vast disservice, because he’s about something far, far bigger. You see, if we unshackle the word of God from our expectations and assumptions about what God is saying to us, there really is no telling what we might hear. We might hear about a God who does things we don’t believe can happen, who explodes all our comfortable certainties and upsettles all our fixed ideas about possible and impossible and how the world works, and how it ought to work. We might even, if we really listen carefully, find that we have to change.
And so instead of listening, we often try not to; and we build defenses against having to. In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, that’s a process that began right at the beginning—look over to Matthew 27, and you can see that, as the Jewish leaders go to Pilate and ask him for a squad of his soldiers to make the tomb secure. Secure against what? Against Jesus’ disciples coming and stealing the body? Well, that’s what they tell Pilate, and I’m sure they meant it, that they were afraid someone would try to hoax the public. But you know, I think Buechner’s right when he suggests in another sermon that in the back of their minds, nagging at them though they refused to think about it, was another fear: the fear that Jesus might actually, somehow, come alive again. He’d done enough other unbelievable things—could they be quite, quite sure he wouldn’t do this one, too? And so I think, at some level, they were trying to make the tomb secure against—miracle. Against being wrong, against losing control—really, against God.
And of course, it didn’t work; no band of soldiers, however capable, can stop a miracle of God any more than they can stop the sun from rising. The problem was, they were going about it the wrong way. As Buechner goes on to note, “all in all there is a lot one can do in defense against miracle, and, unless I badly miss my guess, there are thousands upon thousands of ministers doing precisely that at any given instant . . . there are at least as many ways of doing this as there are sermons preached on Easter Sunday.” If you don’t believe that, just take a look at history for a while, and you’ll see how many ways people can come up with to try to defuse the resurrection of Jesus, to try to turn it into something safe, something they can live with; the endless creativity of human beings on this point is truly staggering.
Perhaps the most popular approach is to try to spiritualize it in some way. For instance, some people say that the story of the Resurrection means that the teachings of Jesus are immortal, that their wisdom and truth conquered death and will live on forever. This is the same sort of thing we mean when we say “The pen is mightier than the sword,” which is complete balderdash; when it comes to a direct contest of pen vs. sword, the latter wins every time. Others will tell you that the story of the Resurrection means that the spirit of Jesus lives on among us in the lives of all who follow his great example. Which begs the question: why would anyone would follow the example of a failed Messiah who got himself butchered by the authorities? There were a lot of those back then, and nobody follows any of the others; why this one? Yet others have written that the story of the Resurrection is a metaphor, that it means the rebirth of hope in the despairing soul; which still leaves one asking if there’s any actual reason for the rebirth of hope if it’s all just a nice story, not something that actually happened.
These are all attempts to make the Resurrection “an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson—something elevating, obvious, and boring”; and the Scriptures just don’t go there. There are lots of stories in the Bible, of which many come with moral lessons attached, and there are lots of metaphors, and lots of poetry of one sort or another, but we find none of them here. What we find, instead, is the Bible proclaiming a brute physical historical fact: this Jesus whom you crucified didn’t stay dead. He lay there in the tomb three days, and then his eyes opened, and he sat up—through the bands of cloth which had been wrapped tightly around him—and he got off the stone slab on which he had been laid, and he walked out of the tomb—through the half-ton stone covering the entrance; Jesus’ resurrected body was a little different from ours—and went on his way, no mere ghost or spirit or metaphor, but alive in the body once again.
Of course, even if you accept that, even if you accept the real miracle of the Resurrection, you can still defuse it, defend yourself against it, make it something safe, without too much trouble; all you have to do is treat it as something that happened long ago—not quite “long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” but something of that sort. Yes, Jesus died and rose again, and yes, that’s a good thing, because it means we get to go to heaven when we die, and yes, I believe all that, and can I get on with my life now? It’s something that happened so we could be saved, and so we celebrate and sing songs, but in the last analysis, it’s something that happened 2000 years ago, and not anything that we really need to think about all that much as we go about our daily lives; after all, it is, as we might say, ancient history.
Except that to say that is to miss half the story, because it isn’t just ancient history, it isn’t just something that happened once long ago; it’s not just that one man who was God came back from the dead, but that because he rose from the dead, so we, too, have been raised from the dead and will rise from the dead. The New Testament hammers this point home, that the death and resurrection of Christ isn’t only something that happened to him, it’s something that happened to us, by the power and grace of God. At the point of our conversion, in his death, our old selves died; in his resurrection, we were raised again to new life. Because Christ is risen, when he comes again, we will receive new, perfected bodies, and we will live forever with him; and for now, though we still have the same old bodies, we have new spiritual power, from the Spirit of God. We were enslaved to sin, under the power of death, but no more, for those old selves are gone, and in Christ we have been given new life—his life—the life which triumphed over sin and broke the power of death. We are free from sin, free to live for God, free to be more than we have been, free to be the people we were meant to be. We do still sin, for old habits die hard, but we are no longer bound to it; our chains have been broken.
This is the power of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. It’s not merely something Jesus did so that we could choose to be saved if we wanted to; it’s our resurrection—our re-creation as people. It’s the beginning of our transformation, not into new people, but into the people God created us to be. It’s about being set free, completely free, from all the things that haunt us and weigh us down—free to go forward in the power and the grace of God to live as his new creation, for we are no longer who we once were; we are no longer “only human,” we are no longer bound to what is “only natural,” for that life is dead, and the life we now live, we live by the Spirit of God.
This means that we can’t reduce the Resurrection to merely an edifying story or an uplifting thought; it isn’t a metaphor, or an image, or a poetic expression; indeed, it isn’t about anything else, whether hope, or faith, or how wonderful Jesus was—it simply is, this utterly new thing God has done for the healing and the recreation of the world. The Resurrection isn’t about anything else at all; rather, everything else we do and say and know and live as Christians is about the Resurrection, and if we’re not talking and living that way, we’re missing the point.
This is why Paul says that if Christ hasn’t been raised, if our hope in him is in this life only, that we are of all people most to be pitied; which says something about what our lives ought to look like. If this world and this life are all there is, then we might as well devote our lives to maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, because there’s really nothing more to life than that; pleasure is the best this world can give, and suffering doesn’t get you anything worth having. For each of us, death comes as the end, and that’s that. From that point of view, living for the hope of another life that isn’t there, giving up pleasures and accepting suffering for the sake of another world that doesn’t exist, is simply pitiable, the dedication of life to a delusion.
But in fact, Paul says, Christ has been raised from the dead; yes, in Adam, all die, but in Christ, we have been made alive. In him, we have been given new life that is stronger than this world and new sight that sees farther than its bounds; we can see beyond death, we can see through this world to the new world coming. We don’t have to settle for what this world has to offer, because we don’t have to bow to the powers that rule it; this world tells us that death is final and pain has no answer, it tells us to come to terms with our sin because we cannot defeat it, and in Jesus Christ we know better.
In Jesus Christ we know that none of these things has the last word—we know that pain doesn’t have the last word, sin doesn’t have the last word, grief doesn’t have the last word, loss doesn’t have the last word, even death itself doesn’t have the last word, because there is a resurrection. If your hopes have failed and your plans gone awry, there is a resurrection. If you’re grieving the death of someone you love, there is a resurrection. If you’re suffering, if you’re in pain, there is a resurrection. If you’re worn down and beaten down by guilt for something you’ve done, there is a resurrection. If you’re alone and lonely, there is a resurrection. If those you love have hurt you and let you down, there is a resurrection. Whatever you have done, whatever this world has done to you, whatever is wrong in your life, take heart, for there is a resurrection.
Christ is risen, and with him we are risen; this world is not all there is. We don’t have to settle for what it can offer, nor do we have to let our circumstances determine our lives. We can rest in the assurance that in the hard times, God is always with us, and that in time, there will come an end to all hard times and all pain; when Jesus returns, all his faithful ones who have died will be raised from the dead, just as he was raised—in resurrection bodies, perfected bodies, free from sin and all its effects, free from the power of death, free from all the things that go wrong—and we will live with him forever in his kingdom, all the heavens and earth made new. “See,” Revelation 21 declares, “the home of God is among human beings. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” That’s the promise of God to us because Jesus rose from the dead. In his death, we died; in his resurrection, we are risen; in his kingdom, we will live forever.