The text this Easter morning
is from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15 verses
16 to 26:
For if the
dead are not raised, then Christ has
not been raised. 17If Christ has not
been raised, your faith is futile
and you are still in your sins.
18Then those also who have died in
Christ have perished. 19If for this
life only we have hoped in Christ,
we are of all people most to be
20 But in
fact Christ has been raised from the
dead, the first fruits of those who
have died. 21For since death came
through a human being, the
resurrection of the dead has also
come through a human being; 22for as
all die in Adam, so all will be made
alive in Christ. 23But each in his
own order: Christ the first fruits,
then at his coming those who belong
to Christ. 24Then comes the end,
when he hands over the kingdom to
God the Father, after he has
destroyed every ruler and every
authority and power. 25For he must
reign until he has put all his
enemies under his feet. 26The last
enemy to be destroyed is death.
A fisherman and his wife went crabbing
off the coast when a sneaker wave caught them by surprise,
washed the wife overboard. The fisherman dove in after her, but
the water was murky, her clothes were heavy, she sank quickly to
the bottom and he couldn't find her. After trying for hours and
hours in frustration, despair and exhaustion, finally he gave up
the search, went back to shore, notified the authorities. Very
distraught, he went home.
A couple of days later, a fellow fishermen and that he
recognizes, Joe, comes to his door. And Fred, the fisherman,
goes to the door and says: "Joe, what is it?". He says, "Fred,
I'm sorry to tell you that I have bad news. But I also have good
news and great news". Fred says "Well, what's the bad news,
Joe?". Joe says, "Fred, we did find your wife. She was tangled
up in one of my traps, we pulled her up this morning. I'm so
sorry, she meant a lot to all of us". Fred said, "Thank you Joe,
I know it's sincere, and I was prepared for the worst".
"So what's the good news?". Joe said "Well, when we pulled her
up, she had half a dozen good sized lobster and a dozen snow
crabs hanging onto her".
Fred was a little aghast at the crassness of his friend. He
asked "What's the great news?".
Joe replied: "We're going to pull her up again tomorrow" :).
[Groans from the congregation :)]
Now, if you think I have a warped sense
of humor, you should know that I got that from my Dad's wife,
who is the administrator of Portland First Christian Church, and
she got it from the administrator at Dad's previous church in
San Diego. So it's really the warped humor of church
administrators, I think :).
Well, Easter is kind of like that. There's bad news, there's
good news, and there's great news.
The bad news is for all those who thought they could take care
of Jesus and his challenge to the religious and political
authorities by nailing him to the cross. The good news is, it
didn't work. God vindicated Jesus, and repudiated his enemies,
on that Easter morning. The great news is that Easter was just
the beginning, says Paul.
Jesus was the first of many more resurrections to come,
culminating in the defeat of all worldly powers like those that
put him to death. And even death itself, the last enemy to be
Now, there are two ways that we can take a text like this. We
can read it literally, referring to the actual events that will
take place in time in history, caught on camera, reported in the
news. Or, we can read it metaphorically, referring to those epic
struggles between good and evil, be it in actual human affairs
or those struggles that go on in the human soul, in the inner
work in the psyche.
Both of those are perfectly valid ways to
read the text. But there is one way of reading it, and others
like it, that I think we have to be absolutely clear is not
valid. And that is as justification for armed revolt against the
government as one of those worldly powers to be defeated. To
take it upon ourselves. There's a reason, you see, that Jesus
did not have and never will have a militia. It is counter to the
whole concept of bringing the Kingdom of God on earth. And even
in the book of Revelation, thoroughly metaphorical, never
intended to be read literally, the only human warriors are those
who battle against God. Not for God. It's why Jesus told his
Disciples to put away their swords when the chance came to fight
for him. He didn't need it then and he doesn't need it now. So,
Hutaree and other so called Christian militia groups, please
I cringe every time I read in the news, or even hear that term
"Christian militia". It's an oxymoron, and it makes me
understand how most Muslims feel when they hear the term "Muslim
terrorist". Because if you know the Koran, you know that you
cannot be a Muslim and be a terrorist. Killing of innocent
people is specifically, explicitly, forbidden in the in the
And so those, who as we've seen just
recently in Baghdad once again, take their own lives in killing
others, distort their own faith. And the same is true for
Christians who form their own private militia. Christians
certainly can, and do, serve with honor and distinction in our
military forces and they should be thanked for their service to
the country. But there is no scriptural basis for Christians to
form their own militia. Period.
Now that we've cleared that up, let's move on to the easier
matter at hand, resurrection :). Literal or metaphorical? And
the simple answer is: yes it is :).
Lisa Miller addresses this question in a forthcoming book on
heaven that was excerpted in Newsweek this week. It's the
edition on a stands with the iPad on the cover, which if you
believe the hype from Apple is a digital manifestation of heaven
:). And I'm standing in line. For the metaphorical argument, she
cites Boston University religion scholar Steven Prothero (and by
the way, those were present at "Theology on Tap" Tuesday night
will recognize that name -- that was the review that we read
from Dr. Prothero). And he says that it seems fantastic and
irrational that we are going to have a body in heaven. But ever
since the days of Plato, it has been possible to conceive of the
soul apart from the body. And so we have the notion of the
immortality of the soul independent of our bodies.
And Paul more or less suggests just that, later on in the same
text where he writes: "What his sown perishable is raised
imperishable. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a
spiritual body". Thus, the resurrection -- whether we are
talking of Jesus or of our own -- can be seen as a metaphor for
that transformation from the physical to the spiritual.
Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar NT Wright, however,
says that such metaphorical talk is a cheap cop-out. The whole
point of Easter, he says, is that the resurrection really
happened. That the tomb really was empty. That Jesus' body and
spirit came back to life.
Unless we think that such notions of resurrection are solely
owned by Christians, Miller cites a Jewish scholar at Harvard
Divinity school, John E. Levinson, who says the belief in
resurrection is more radical. It's a supernatural event, it's a
special act of grace or of kindness on God's part. And so
Levinson advocates that Jews reclaim this very Jewish tradition
that Paul is drawing upon as the promise of God for all people
of faith. And we know of many other religious traditions that
make similar claims.
Now, for her part, Miller remains rather skeptical of the whole
idea of resurrection. However, she says "I to leave the door
open for radical acts of grace and kindness and for humbling
ourselves before all we don't understand".
and have a hunch that many if not most of us can relate to that
view. We don't always understand. And Easter is one of those
events that is hard to understand. The details are a little
fuzzy -- John reports one thing, Matthew another, who is at the
tomb, who saw what, when, it varies according to which gospel
you read. Paul has an entirely different chronology than the
Gospels of what occurred. And Paul says that his experience of
the risen Christ on the road to Damascus was no different than
anyone else's. And certainly his was not that same kind of
experience of the body of Christ.
Well, we may not be certain about that. Likewise, we don't
always have much of a clue on what happens after death. But it's
pretty clear, if you believe those who report their experiences
of being brought back to life, that our bodies are not part of
that experience, whatever it may be.
of any of that, or how much of the Easter story we take
literally and how much we take metaphorically, we all recognize
the power of Easter to transform something as vile and ugly as
death by crucifixion into something as beautiful as that cross.
We know there is more to this life than can be known in the
physical realm. We believe that death does not have the last
word. Otherwise, why do so many people come to church on Easter?
Is it not to be touched by that spirit? Is it not to behold that
beauty of transformation? Is it not to hear a word of hope in
all of our lives?
We had a beautiful service on Good Friday, that April and our
choir led. It was an intimate service. That's preacher-talk for
"OK, it was small" :). But that's OK, I get that. I mean, who
wants to go to a movie when you know that the hero is going to
die in the end? And we all have too many Good Fridays in our own
lives. Painful stories to remember, suffering we have endured,
mortality we have confronted, grief we have known. And those are
hard places to revisit. Going back to Golgotha can be a hard
thing. No one likes to face death. Indeed, the only thing that
makes it bearable in the end is knowing that Friday is not the
end of the story.
If you read the Register Guard, you know
that Bob Welch has revealed that Rick Dancer has gone public,
has joined that club that no man wants to be a part of, and is
being treated for prostate cancer. I was shocked when I read the
story -- not because of the prostate cancer (being part of that
club, it's a very close-knit group and we hear about those
things, so I knew about Rick's cancer before it was in the
paper) -- I was shocked to learn that Rick is five years younger
than I am! Have you seen the guy? Even when he was still doing
his news bit, he had way more gray hair than I do! Running for
secretary of state and all that, and here he is five years
younger than me. I mean I was shocked :).
As you know, four years ago I went
public with my own prostate cancer. And among the several things
that helped me to endure, to face that with hope, was the
encouragement that my physician gave when they diagnosed me. He
said "Our goal is not just to treat you, our goal is to cure
you". And indeed that has been the case, thanks to God and to
those doctors. There is more to that resurrection story, but
we're not going to go there this morning :).
The point of Easter is not to postpone death, but to defeat it.
How? As the vision of Revelation makes clear, through the
metaphor of the new Jerusalem where humanity will dwell with God
on earth in peace, death is defeated when & where evil is
defeated. Martin Luther King Jr. understood that, and he knew
that defeating evil would not be done by killing the evildoers,
but only by following the example of Jesus. The way of love that
overcomes evil with good, fear with hope, war with peace. And
so, on April 4, 1967, 43 years ago today, at the Riverside
Church in New York City, he made public his opposition to the
Vietnam War. And said in response to those who questioned why
civil rights leader would come out publicly on on a foreign
policy issue, he said the Nobel Peace Prize gave him a calling
beyond national allegiances. But even if it were not present, he
said, "I would yet have to live with the meaning of my
commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the
relationship of this ministry to making of peace is so obvious
that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I'm speaking
against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good
news was meant for all people? For communist and capitalist? For
their children and ours? For black and for white? For
revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my
ministry is in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so
fully that he died for them?".
Exactly 1 year later on April 4, 1968, 42
years ago today, King died for that message. And even as we
remember that Good Friday story, we celebrate the ways in which
his life and message continues to live and to change us for the
better. So we celebrate how evil is defeated by Jesus through
people like Martin Luther King, just as evil was defeated by God
through Jesus. The evil of crucifixion, the symbol of Roman war
and oppression, was defeated on that Easter morning when the
Disciples discovered that the power and presence of God they had
before known only through Jesus was now available to them.
New Testament scholar Walter Wink says
that's what makes Easter so important. It's not the change that
occurred to Jesus that morning, but the change that occurred to
those Disciples because of Jesus. That his power and presence
was so real, so tangible, it altered not just their lives, it
changed the world. And so Wink says in their struggles with the
powers that be, the Disciples knew that whatever their doubts,
losses, or sufferings, the final victory was God's, because
Jesus had conquered death and the fear of death, and led them
out of that captivity. The resurrection was real--something
happened to God, something happened to Jesus, something happened
to the Disciples. It may not be an datum of public record, but
divine transformative power overcoming the powers of death.
is the good news: Jesus has defeated death. And the great news:
we can too.
Whether your understanding is more like that of N.T. Wright
(more literal), or that a Walter Wink (more metaphorical), the
transformative power of Easter is the same.
Is is the power that brings life out of death.
It is the power that turns grief into joy.
It is the power that changes the ugly into something beautiful.
It is the power that overcomes evil with good.
It is the power that overcomes war with peace.
It is the power that speaks to us from the cross of God's love
for every person.
It is the power just as available to us this day, as any day.
It is the power of Easter, that we claim this day. Praise be to
God. Hallelujah! He is risen!