I have a difficult relationship with the Resurrection.
I know that’s a strange statement to make, considering centrality of the Resurrection of Christ to the Christian faith. Ask any Christian you know, and they likely will tell you that the bodily resurrection of Christ is a non-negotiable tenant of the faith.
Let me be straight with you: I don’t believe in a bodily resurrection. I don’t believe Jesus rose physically from the grave on the third day after he died. In fact, I don’t even think he was buried in a tomb. I certainly don’t think his physical body appeared to Mary, or Peter, or the disciples, or the travelers on the road to Emmaus, or Paul.
I know this probably brands me as a heretic, or some such other outcast from the Christian faith. Just consider tonight’s passage from Paul: 1 Corinthians 15 is exclusively focused on the Resurrection, it’s centrality to the Christian faith, and the common bond it engenders among all believers. Paul uses the Resurrection to hammer home his point of Christian unity in this letter, saying: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.”
So that basically seems to seal the deal, right? Maybe I should be reconsidering my religious affiliation here.
But let me restate what I believe: I don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ.
But is there a resurrection outside of the bodily type that exemplifies what the early church described when it spoke of a “Living Christ” and “Resurrected Lord?”
Not long after I began my ordination process with the UMC in Kansas, I met with my pastor at the time to discuss some of my questions and concerns in the process. I asked my pastor (a progressive leader of a Reconciling Ministries congregation) about my unorthodox theological beliefs, including this very subject. I told him I was concerned about taking the ordination vows of Methodist church, considering I didn’t necessarily believe the same thing as the church on Resurrection, among other things. I didn’t want to have to take vows while crossing my fingers. I want to be true to myself, my church, my faith and my future congregations.
My pastor told me something that has stuck with me ever since: “Everybody believes in the Resurrection; but that Resurrection takes different forms for different people.”
This seemingly obvious idea has stuck with me, and has allowed me to evolve theologically in an open and free way. It’s allowed me to get to the place I am on the Resurrection, which is being open and honest about my disbelief, and on the flip side, about what I in fact do believe.
So, if not a bodily resurrection, then what?
The movement Christ led seems extraordinary to us, two thousand years after the fact, considering it led to the formation of the largest, most influential religion in world history. But in first century Palestine, Messianic movements centered around a charismatic personality were fairly common and anodyne.
Yet, the Christian movement persisted, unlike to many other. Why is this? What made the Christian movement more special than any other?
Many Christians would, I think, answer that the answer is obvious: because the God-given message of Jesus is irresistible and divinely ordained. In this view, the spread of Christianity was inevitable. But I don’t think so. Yes, Jesus’ message was counter cultural, revolutionary and world changing in a way none of the others was. But after his death, something had to have perpetuated this message. Something carried that message for forty years, until it was written down by the author or Mark, beginning the synoptic traditions and the worldwide spread of written Christianity.
I contend that the thing that caused the Christian cause to live on, to not die out following the devastating and especially cruel death of it’s progenitor was a single person: Peter. I believe we Protestants overlook the outsize influence and role of Peter in the perpetuation of our faith.
Now, I know this is a series on Paul and the importance of writings, but let’s show some love to Peter. I’ve come to this appreciation of Peter very recently. Bishop John Shelby Spong’s book “Resurrection” helped me get there, and since finishing it recently, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the Rock of the church.
Following Jesus’ death, it would have been very easy for the Christian movement to fold up, to disappear in a cloud of despair and grief. And maybe it did for a while. Maybe after the death of Jesus, the disciples scattered for a time, and things quieted down, and it seemed that the movement was good and dead.
But I think at some point soon after Jesus’ death, after the shock of his death have begun to fade, Peter decided to pick up the pieces, to carry on the life-changing message of Jesus. Through his force of personality and will, Peter reassembled those who followed Jesus, began the theological development of Christianity, and built a church community based in Jerusalem.
And at that point, Christianity distinguished itself from all the other Messianic movements, and took on the narrative of Resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection took the form of the continuance of the movement he started. Jesus’ resurrection was, and is, the success and life of the Church initiated in his name. Jesus’ resurrection is the message he preached being taught in all the world, and embraced by billions over the last two thousand years.
And who led this early movement? Peter. I think Peter almost singe-handedly willed the Christian movement into existence. I think Peter embodied the Resurrection of Jesus. I think Peter, by being the foundation of our faith, deserves to be recognized for the out sized influence he had on the Christian faith.
I don’t really know what this means for the message Paul is recounting here. Twenty years after the death of Jesus, the story of Resurrection has already become central to the Christian community spreading across the Mediterranean world. It’s easy to read this chapter in light of either of these views of Resurrection-the bodily variety, or the living church variety- and feel it validates your particular view. And that is probably why Resurrection has gone from an understanding of the extraordinary nature of the Jesus movement’s continuance, to meaning the literal, physical bodily Resurrection of Jesus.
I could write a book about the subject of Resurrection, and another one about what I think of Peter. Maybe I will one day. But for tonight, here is my takeaway from 1 Corinthians 15: the idea of Resurrection, of rebirth, of a return to life after the seeming inevitability of death, is indeed central to Christianity, no matter what form that Resurrection takes for different people. My pastor was right: everybody has their own view of Resurrection. And really, that’s perfectly fine. It’s the idea of rebirth that’s important in the end, not the literal truth of any one story.
Let’s embody that Resurrection by carrying forward a message of peace, of love, of forgiveness, of God’s authentic justice and desire for liberation of all people, as taught and lived by Jesus before his terrible death. Let’s not let the Good News be buried, but be reborn everyday in our actions, in our lives as Christians. Amen.
Next: 2 Corinthians 2:14-3:18