Monday, April 17, 2017

Where's Jesus?

Recently my granddaughter was looking through a Bible and found some maps at the back. Lately she has been obsessed about maps, probably because of the singing and talking map on Dora the Explorer. So she showed me the map of the Holy Land and I was pointing out the cities and towns: “There's where Jesus was born. There's where Jesus grew up. There's where Jesus died...”

Jesus died?” she asked, sounding surprised. She knows about death because recently the family's cat and last remaining sugarglider died.

Yes, on the cross.” And I pointed at the cross behind the altar.

The cross?” she said, pointing at it.

Not that cross. We have that to remember what Jesus did for us.” I showed her our stations of the cross, some of which were done by her father when he was in Sunday School. We got to Jesus being laid in the tomb. Then, not wanting to leave it there, I said, “But he didn't stay dead. God raised Jesus to life again.”

He brought him back to life?”

Yes,” I said, pleased that she grasped the resurrection.

Where is he?” she said, looking around the church. “Outside?”

And that's where you realize that teaching a 3 year old the most basic theology is going to be a lot more challenging than you imagined.

But one thing I realized is that this was all new to her. She didn't know that Jesus had died nor that he had been raised. For us it's old news. To her it's new information.

It's hard to remember that the same conditions applied to the people who discovered Jesus' empty tomb that first Easter. None of the events that happened that weekend was expected. The idea that God's Messiah would die, and on a cross of all things, was new and hard to accept. The idea that he would be raised to life again long before the general resurrection of the dead was unprecedented.

And then there are the purely human reasons that resurrection would be hard to believe. We have all had loved ones who died. We may have actually been there when they died, or we saw them after they died. We saw them buried. Now imagine that someone told you they were alive again. Let's say the person telling you this was someone you knew quite well, someone you spent a lot of time with, say on the road or working on a project. It would still be difficult, if not impossible to believe them.

And sure enough, that is what we see in the gospels. When they find the tomb empty, the women do not believe Jesus is risen but that his body was stolen. Even after seeing the angels and the risen Christ, they are not able to convince the male disciples. When Jesus appears to the disciples behind locked doors, they thought he was a ghost, according to Luke. Even seeing his wounded wrists and feet doesn't do the trick. Luke says “...they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement...” (Lk 24:41) In other words, their first reaction was that it was too good to be true. It might be an hysterically happy hallucination. Jesus has to eat a piece of fish to make them realize that he is real. So we should not fault Thomas for doubting; he wasn't with the others when Jesus first appeared. They all doubted, and rightly so, until they actually encountered the risen Jesus.

How strong was the natural rejection of this new reality? Matthew says that after the resurrection, on the mountain in Galilee, “When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.” (Mt 28:17) Even then, they were having a hard time believing that a man who they knew had died was alive again. So we are not talking about credulous people who accepted whatever they were told or even whatever they saw. They were normal human beings who had a hard time wrapping their minds around what they were experiencing.

But the next generation of Christians accepted the resurrection blindly, right? Not according to Paul. In his first letter to the Corinthians he addresses the problem of people not believing in the resurrection. And in the process he gives us the earliest account of Jesus' appearances after he rose. “...he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also.” (1 Cor 15:5-8) This letter was written sometime around 55 AD, about 25 years after the resurrection of Christ. Again people are skeptical. And even though Paul could say, “I saw the risen Christ,” he emphasizes that 500 people saw Jesus at one time and that most of them are still alive. He's essentially saying, “If you don't believe me, ask one of them.”

In fact, the reason that the gospels were written later than the letters of Paul was probably due to the fact that for 40 years there were still living witnesses to what Jesus said and did. Once apostles like Paul and Peter and others began to be martyred under Nero, Christians probably thought that they must get their testimony on parchment. It makes sense that Mark, who worked under both Peter and Paul, would produce the earliest gospel, a rough and breathless account of what he heard them say about Jesus' life and ministry. Then Matthew and Luke, an associate of Paul's, added the information they had. And lastly, John fills in details that the others didn't have.

The most convincing evidence for Jesus' resurrection is the fact that those who knew the truth died rather than renounce it. If I made up a story and could save my life by simply admitting it, I would. Why die for a lie? But if I saw Jesus alive again, if my earlier perception that he was the Messiah was completely vindicated by his resurrection, I would likely lose my fear of death. Jesus' talk of eternal life wouldn't be a mere hope but a palpable reality. And nobody could stop me from telling others about him, even if they threatened to kill me.

Michael Grant, an historian who specialized in classical Greek and Roman history, admitted that it is hard to understand how Christianity survived the death of its founder and spread so fast and so widely without positing the resurrection of Jesus. It's difficult to explain why we are here now, nearly 2000 years later, if Jesus had not risen from the dead. He said a lot of good things but some of them make no sense without the resurrection.

His admonition, “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek turn to him the other also,” (Mt 5:39) is a good recipe for getting beaten up or even killed. “Take up your cross and follow me.” The cross was an instrument of death. The only people carrying crosses then were condemned men and women going to die. Jesus tells us to count the cost and follows that up with “...any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” (Lk14:33) Back in 1 Corinthians Paul says, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only in this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Cor 15:17-19)

Imagine how differently you would play a video game if when your character died, that was it. No more lives. Game over. No do overs. That's the one and only time you get to play that game. Everything you invested in that world would be done and over with. The game would cease to be an adventure. You would play it very conservatively. Who would take risks? Who would make major changes in the in-game world if opposed by powerful enemies who could take you out for good?

After the disciples got over their natural skepticism, it was replaced by joy. And courage. They rejoiced that Jesus was alive. And the fact that he defeated death encouraged them to live brave new lives. Taking up the cross was no longer a dreaded idea but a liberating one. Because just as Jesus had turned other perceptions about the world upside down, so did his resurrection.

We think this world will outlast us. It was here before we were born; it will be here after we are dead. But not if what Jesus said is true: that trusting in him leads to eternal life. This world is not eternal. The sun will burn out one day. This will be a cold rock orbiting a dead sun. But we will live on. God will not only bring us back from the dead but the universe as well. The climax of creation is the new creation: new heavens and a new earth. An eternal habitat for eternal people.
C.S. Lewis said, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” If we live only for 7 or 8 decades, then how we live won't matter much, at least to us. One day it will be “game over” and the damage we have done will be someone else's problem. But if we live forever, then the trajectory of that life is of supreme importance. Is that life moving us ever closer to the God of love, or ever farther from him? Are we expanding in response to his warmth and light or are we shrinking and becoming colder? If we do not course-correct, will we not end up in the outer darkness?

Believe or not, no matter how much it moans about death, this world needs it to keep us docile. It needs us to think that this life is the only one. Because then we will not want to risk it to change the way things are done. Because then we will settle for the amusements and distractions it sells us and consider the bad things that accompany them as necessary evils. Because then it will not matter how we treat others or whom we deem it OK to exploit or even to kill. They were going to die anyway and they are not coming back. And if, when we die, we have avoided the consequences of our bad behavior, we need not worry about justice afterward. And those who make huge sacrifices for others can be seen as having wasted their one and only life.

But if we and every person we meet are so valuable to God that he will not let us go, that he will not give up on us, that he will bring us back, then the logic of this world is turned on its head. It does make sense to risk it all to confront and change what is evil in this world. It does make sense not to indulge in everything that promises pleasure if it diverts us from everlasting good. And how we treat others is essential, in part because the consequences of our words and works will catch up with us, if we did not turn around the direction of our lives. But mainly because the person we affect is a fellow immortal. We are horrified if someone damages or destroys some ancient work of art—Michelangelo's Pieta or the Acropolis or a statue of Buddha; how much more terrible is it to try to damage or destroy a person created by God and destined to live forever?

But God is the only one who can decide if a life is truly over. When he lived among us, his works were to focused on bringing life and health to all. He turned water into wine and a handful of loaves and fishes into enough food for 5000 plus hungry people. He gave sight to the blind, speech to the mute, hearing to the deaf, the ability to walk to the lame, freedom from continuous hemorrhage to this woman, a functional hand to that man, freedom from seizures to this boy, and life to a young girl, to the son of a widow from Nain and to his friend Lazarus. And when his creatures murdered his son, God gave his life back to him.

We worship the God of life. As Paul tells us, nothing can separate from the love of God in Christ, not even death. And the resurrection of Jesus verifies that. In this world, everything ends, everything dies, everything goes away. But God will not allow us to go away. Jesus died to save us. And as God raised him from the dead, so he will raise those who are in Christ. The God of life gives us new life. And that is the good news the apostles were so fearless in spreading.

My granddaughter just learned that Jesus died and that God brought him back to life. She pretty much accepts what we say. But the men and women who first had to accept this news were rightly skeptical. Dead men just don't get up and leave their tombs. They knew that. And then nearly 2000 years ago, they had to unlearn it. Because of the resurrection, they had to accept that Jesus was the Messiah after all and that his mission was not to liberate some people from being subjects of some political empire but to free all people from their subjection to sin and death. Because of the resurrection, they had to accept that the things this world uses to enslave us are our masters no more. Because of the resurrection, we need not fear death and that frees us to do all that God wants us to do. To love others, even our enemies. To forgive all wrongs done to us. To stand up to the powers of this world and work for justice, peace, mercy, health and reconciliation for all people.

That's what I want my granddaughter to learn. That the powers of this world tried to use death to stop Jesus and shut him up in a tomb. He blew the door off that tomb and strode out into the world and everyone he touches awakes to new life. That's what I want her to know—firsthand. That Jesus is not just outside but inside as well. As Jesus said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23) Or as Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) So when we proclaim Jesus' resurrection, we are not merely stating an historical fact but an ongoing reality. Christ lives in us. We are his body. We are the temples of his Spirit. We are his presence in the world today. So let's live like it.

Be fearless. Death is defeated. Christ is risen! 

He is risen, indeed!

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