Sunday, April 5, 2015

Love Wins in the End

The scriptures referred to are the resurrection accounts in all the gospels.

Most action films end with the good guys winning, usually by killing the bad guys. That's how the film The Matrix ends, as I expected. What I didn't expect was that this violent action film would be so obviously structured on the life of Jesus. Mr. Anderson (which, reading ander as andros, man in Greek, could be translated as “son of man”) is Neo, the One who will be able to break through the illusion of the Matrix, and free other people from this machine-generated virtual reality. Morpheus is his John the Baptist, Cypher is Judas Iscariot and Mr. Smith is the devil. Neo is killed by Smith but comes back to life through the love of a woman named Trinity. And the film ends with Neo literally ascending from the earth. It's a good action film, but I have trouble with a messiah who kills such an astonishing number of people. And it is established that if you die in the Matrix, you die in reality. This makes Neo different from most other action heroes, who kill monsters, zombies, robots or aliens but not humans. Neo doesn't care about collateral damage. In effect, he is the opposite of Jesus, who came to bring life to all.

As the film series goes on, we find out more about the war between the machines and the humans. We find out that humans, having created Artificial Intelligence, treated the robots and machines badly, which caused them to rebel. In the last movie, in the Matrix Neo defeats Smith by inhabiting all the versions of the evil program and turning them into versions of Neo. In the physical world, Neo dies and this brings a truce between the machines and humans. There are parallels to the indwelling of the Spirit and the atonement. But Neo is just a man and stays dead. Trinity dies also. So while in the end Neo kinda brings reconciliation between the two sides, lots of people die through violence and the ending is a real downer.

I used to enjoy all the documentaries on the Bible that would come out around Easter. Well known scholars would be interviewed, new archeological discoveries would be discussed and I would gain some insights into the scriptures. But, possibly because they have covered every major event and issue over and over, they now no longer try to balance the skeptical and the more faithful viewpoints by scholars. In their desire to present novel interpretations and yet not overly offend the Christians and Jews who are most likely to tune in, they present controversial ideas but then refuse to evaluate them using critical thinking. These documentaries used to at least present the views of distinguished scholars on each side. Now they just seem to grab anyone who teaches religion at any college, however obscure, and juxtapose them with clergy I've never heard of. If you don't follow Biblical scholarship, you get a very distorted look at the state of the field.

I gave up on one such documentary this week when a guy in T-shirt proposed that the reason that the tomb was empty because, constrained by the approaching Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea just stashed Jesus in the nearest tomb and later moved him to his permanent resting place. This is the dumbest theory ever. It assumes that not only did Joseph do this immediately after sunset Saturday but that he never bothered to tell Jesus' other followers, not even after they were preaching the resurrection in public. At least Hugh Schofield in his book The Passover Plot put some real thought into his bizarre and elaborate theory of Jesus faking his death, even though Agatha Christie would reject it because she knew more about the effects of dangerous drugs than he apparently did.

I am not going to rehearse here all the problems with all the attempts to explain away the resurrection. Respected Biblical scholar N.T. Wright points out that there were many would-be messiahs in the time before and after Jesus. Their followers, if they escaped execution by Rome, either returned to their former obscure lives or decided to follow the next self-proclaimed messiah. Only Jesus' followers not only remained loyal to him after his death but insisted that he came back to life and lives still. Michael Grant wrote in his book on Jesus said that as an historian of ancient Rome he really ought to end the book with Jesus' death. The problem is, he found, without Jesus' resurrection it is extremely hard to understand why his disciples went from cowering from the authorities in the locked upper room to fearless witnesses willing to die for their belief, nor how this faith in a carpenter in a tiny corner of the Mediterranean spread throughout the Empire in less than 100 years. Because of his followers' testimony and martyrdom, Jesus is not only known today to people other than scholars but is worshiped the world over as Lord.

Rather than talking about how this happened I would like to focus on why. Why was the resurrection so vital to the first Christians and why is it still essential today?

To the disciples Jesus' death was much more than a downer. It was devastating. It was the death of their dreams, the destruction of their hopes. It plunged them all into despair. And remember many had followed John the Baptist, who had also been killed. Now the man who they thought was the Messiah, the Son of God, the new king from the house of David, was killed in the most grotesque and humiliating way possible. And they, his friends who thought they would rule the kingdom with him, ran like cowards when facing armed opponents. Their picture of Jesus and their images of themselves were shattered. In abject misery they holed up and could not even think of what to do next.

Denial is a part of grief, though usually before an imminent death. And some people say that the resurrection was some kind of hallucination born out of denial that Jesus was really dead. But it would have to be a group hallucination, one in which everybody saw and heard and touched the same thing. In fact, it would have to be a series of them that stretched out for forty days. And happened to 500 people, according to Paul. And then stopped. And the effect of this illusion would have to last all the way up to their deaths.

And they were avoidable deaths, depending entirely them on sticking to their story that Jesus arose from the dead. All they had to do to live was deny the resurrection. If their memories were at all odd or dream-like or influenced by others, why did none of them doubt and opt out of martyrdom? If it were a lie, their deaths are even more inexplicable. People might kill to cover up a scheme they concocted but who would die for a lie?

Grant is right. Only a real resurrection accounts for the change in the behavior of the disciples. They went from fearful to fearless at a time when most people would have given up and gone home. They had fled the authorities even when they had swords. Now they defied those same authorities armed only with the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

One reason is that, of course, Jesus' triumph over death meant that they would, too. All those promises of eternal life turned out to be not poetic but actual. Few people would volunteer to be the first person ever to use a parachute. But if you were in a falling airplane and saw a parachute save the life of someone who jumped from that plane, you'd be willing to be the second person to try it. In the Antarctic, hungry penguins are nevertheless reluctant to go into the water for fish out of fear that their predator, the sea lion, is waiting to eat them. So they crowd along the edge of the ice until one falls in. If he doesn't get eaten, they all dive in. Jesus raised the dead and then was the first to return from death on his own. So the disciples knew it was safe to die for him.

More than that, though, the resurrection of Christ meant that everything he said about himself was vindicated. It took decades for the vindication of the work of two Australian scientists who discovered that the bacteria H. pylori causes stomach ulcers. In 1982 medical journals and conferences rejected their work. Finally, one of the men, Barry Marshall, consumed the bacteria, developed an ulcer and then cured himself with antibiotics. In 2005 the two scientists won the Nobel Prize for their work. 

For the disciples, Jesus' credibility was vindicated on Easter. And even so, the disciples did not accept the first reports, those of the women who went to anoint the body that morning. When Jesus appeared to them they did not believe at first, thinking he was a ghost. Once it sank in that he was truly and bodily alive again, they had to reconsider everything Jesus said about himself, about his death and about the kingdom of God. They called him the Son of God. But they may just have meant that as a traditional title for a Davidic king. Now they realized that title was literally accurate. Jesus liked to call himself the Son of Man. And again that could just be a way of saying he was a human being. But now they thought of the passage in Daniel where it says, “And with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man was approaching. He went up to the Ancient of Days and was escorted before him. To him was given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty. All peoples, nations, and language groups were serving him. His authority is eternal and will not pass away. His kingdom will not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7: 13-14) Who else could this refer to other than God's Anointed, Jesus, whom God raised from the dead?

All of the Hebrew scriptures were seen in a different light, especially the passages in Isaiah that spoke of God's suffering servant who was despised and rejected by the people, who was wounded for our sins, who died among criminals and was buried in a rich man's tomb. Who else could this refer to but Jesus, who was executed though innocent and whom John called the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world?

All they had to do was keep trusting Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God, Lamb of God, and he, being faithful to those who are faithful to him, would be with them to the end of the age. So they passed the word along: Jesus is Lord and Savior to all who trust in him.

That's what Jesus' resurrection meant to the first Christians. What does mean to us today?

All of that and more. It means our faith is vindicated. Today's world, for all of our advances in science and medicine and democracy and human rights, is still being ruined by our arrogance and laziness and lust and greed and rage and envy and overindulgence. Even more than in the past we know what we should do and so it is all the more dispiriting that we don't act on this knowledge. We have had our trust in our leaders, our institutions, and our charities betrayed. To listen to the news is to invite your faith in your fellow man to be shattered.

But Jesus' resurrection means we can trust God. If Jesus did not rise again, then he would have been just another martyr, another good person destroyed by the world. And if he was the best person this world had ever produced, we would have to look askance at God. We would have to wonder if he really cares for us. Or if he is either indifferent or hostile to human beings and our pain and suffering. But if God raised Christ from the dead, then we know our faith in God's love is well-placed and that he will never leave us or forsake us, no matter how dark and dangerous our situation gets.

Jesus' resurrection means our hope is vindicated. Not only is our world bad now, it appears to be getting worse. Every advance in our technical prowess seems to be followed by a decline in our morality. Things that people and governments used to do in secret they now shamelessly do for all to see. The powerful oppress and exploit the weak and don't even hide it. The greedy proclaim greed a virtue; the unrestrained shrug and say they are powerless pawns of DNA or their environment; the liars ignore those who point out the truth and just repeat their falsehoods until people start to believe them. And none of this looks like it's going to change. To become better informed today is to invite your hope for humanity to be crushed.

But Jesus' resurrection means we can continue to hope for humanity's redemption. On Good Friday, it was Jesus' prospects and those of the movement he started that looked bleak. Jesus was helplessly bleeding out as his enemies mocked him; his disciples were hidden behind locked doors. But if God raised Christ from the dead, then we know we can place all our hopes in him. We know that God will make all things work together for the good of those who love him and that any delay is because God's timing is not ours. We know that despite events that tempt us to despair, God is making sure that everything will be all right in the end.

Jesus' resurrection means the love of God is vindicated. This week I heard a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center that says there are 784 hate groups in the US. And, after California, our state Florida has the second largest number of them: 50. There seemed a ray of light when the editor of the report said that their memberships were declining. But he said a lot of that is due to people going online instead, where the can express their hate under the Internet's anonymity. Nearly 50 years since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and nearly 70 years since the death of Gandhi and of course just 15 years shy of 2 millennia since the death of Christ, people still think their problems do not reside in themselves but in some other group of people. And if they can just suppress or enslave or annihilate that group, everything will be wonderful. And this despite all evidence to the contrary. So ISIS continues to kill Christians and Shiite Muslims; Hindus and Muslims kill each other in Pakistan and India; Arabs and non-Arabs kill each other in Darfur. This world is a very unloving place.

But if Jesus rose after all the forces of hate did their worst to him, that means we know that God is love and that love wins in the end. It means we are not crazy for loving others including our enemies because whatever happens in the short run, God is love and love wins in the end. It means that demanding an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life is not only a futile and counterproductive strategy, it is an evil one because God is love and love wins in the end. God's love, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, by way of the Phillips translation, “knows no limits to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. It is in fact the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen.” And if Jesus is the love of God Incarnate, then we know that when this world divided against itself falls, Jesus will be the last man standing. Because God is love and love wins in the end.

It must have been hell for the disciples all night that Thursday, when Jesus was arrested, and all day that Friday, when he hung on the cross, and all that night and all that Saturday and the next night, when he lay in the tomb. All of their faith and their hope and their love were smashed to pieces. Until just after dawn that Sunday when the women went to the tomb and the angels appeared and Jesus greeted Mary and Jesus walked to Emmaus and Jesus came to the upper room and they found out that Jesus was alive again and that everything they thought knew changed. Because God is love and love wins in the end.

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