Saturday, April 15, 2006

What does the Resurrection mean?

I have adapted a sermonette on the resurrection that I read at Ship of Fools which I think comes from Tom Wright. Anyway, I think it is a brilliant illustration that both arch-conservative and hyper-liberal interpretations of the resurrection have got it wrong. The resurrection means something much more richer and provocative. Here's my revamped version of the Ship of Fools illustration:

What does the resurrection mean? Well, on any given Easter Sunday there are usually two kinds of sermons that you can hear that try to explain the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.

In the first kind of sermon, the Rev. Johnny Pulpit-Thumper Jr of Beechcroft Bible-Believing Baptist’s-R-Us Community Church, preaches every Easter Sunday on the reality of the resurrection of Christ. He believes earnestly in the angels who were there, the physical resurrection of Jesus, and the empty tomb. He also loves to give a good bashing to the liberal parish down the road, especially the Rev. William Humbug III who does not believe that Jesus really rose from the dead.

Rev. Pulpit-Thumper finishes his sermon as he does every Easter by quoting the hymn "You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart!" The application of his sermon is also the same every year, Jesus is alive and that proves that one day we can go to heaven to be with him. We can escape this world and go to the blissful abode of heaven where they will be no sin, death or godless left-wing political parties.

Alas, the poor Rev. Pulpit-Thumper has missed the point. Much of what he says is true, but giving us assurance that when we die we will go to heaven is simply not what the Easter stories were written to convey.

As for the second kind of sermon, down the road at St. Marcion’s, Rev. William Humbug III (Ph.D, Th.D, DD, OBE and DUI) takes a last sip of Bundaburg rum and cola in the Rectory before entering the pulpit. Rev. Humbug is in his usual form this Easter. He says, “We know that the literal meaning of the resurrection stories can't be true. Modern science has proven that miracles don't happen, that dead people stay dead. Anyway, it hardly seems fair that God would raise his son only to leave millions of children around the world to languish in death.” – his God is an equal opportunity saviour. Thus: “A real physical resurrection, as believed by naïve-literal-fundamentalists-bigots is out of the question; it is an offense to our faculties of reason”.

So the stories of the appearances and the empty tomb were probably made up many years after. The learned Rector wants to make this quite clear: the Easter stories are a remythologization of the primal eschatological drama, which caught the disciples in a moment of sociomorphic, possibly even sociopathic, empathy with the apocalyptic dénouement. Well, the congregation didn't quite get that, but they don’t get very much of what Rev. Humbug says anyway.

When it comes to the "meaning" of Easter, Rev. Humbug is direct. Now that we've got away from that banal supernatural nonsense, the true meaning of "Resurrection" is clear. Resurrection is a new way of understanding the human dilemma, breaking down social barriers in society and espousing a new ethic of inclusively towards tax-collectors, prostitutes, gays, and even Manchester United supporters. Resurrection is not a heap of superstitious non-sense about dead corpses coming back to life, but a manifesto for social action to affirm the “otherness” of everybody.

Both sermons strike me as amiss. Rev. Pulpit-Thumper thinks the resurrection is just proof that we can go to heaven when we die. Meanwhile Rev. Humbug tries to make resurrection out to be a metaphor for a bunch of postmodern psycho-babble that has nothing to do with the New Testament.

Well, what is Easter really about then? I would say this: God's new creation is launched upon a surprised world, pointing ahead to the redemption and the renewal of the entire creation.

That's the point which all the Gospels actually make, in their own ways.
• Jesus is risen, therefore God's new world has begun.
• Jesus is risen, therefore, God’s verdict against us has been transposed into God’s vindication of us.
• Jesus is risen, therefore, the tyrants and despots of the world should tremble and quiver – because God has exalted Jesus and every knee will bow before him.
• Jesus is risen, therefore Israel has been restored and the plan for the nation is fulfilled in him.
• Jesus is risen, therefore, death has been defeated.
• Jesus is risen, therefore, creation groans in anticipation of its renewal.
• Jesus is risen, therefore, we will be raised also to live in God’s new world.
• Jesus is risen, therefore, go and make disciples in his name.

The resurrection means that God’s new world has broken into our own world, and we are heirs and ambassadors of that kingdom that has come and is still coming.

But that implies something else. The resurrection means that we have the task of proclaiming, embodying, and demonstrating before the world exactly what this new creation is and what it looks like.

Paul concludes 1 Corinthians 15, not by saying, "So let's celebrate the bliss of heaven that awaits us." He says, "So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and steadfast, always enthusiastic about the Lord's work, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless."

In other words, resurrection means mission.

One of the creators of Apple Computers, Steve Jobs built a very successful computer company. But Jobs soon discovered that if his vision was to reach fruition they needed greater management expertise. So Jobs approached John Sculley, then President of PepsiCo. There was absolutely no reason why Sculley should leave a highly paid position in a world leading company to go work with a bunch of computer nerds in a fledgling industry. Not unsurprisingly he turned Jobs down. But Jobs wouldn't take no for an answer. He approached Sculley again. Again Sculley turned him down. In a last ditch effort Jobs passionately presented his visionary ideas to Sculley and he asked Sculley a question that forced him to accept. The question was this: "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?"

"Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?" Indeed Jobs and Sculley did change the world.

Jesus comes to us with the same question: "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugary water or do you want a chance to change the world?" Most of us spend our lives making sugared water, or do you want to be an ambassador of the risen Christ.

(Donald William Dotterer, Living The Easter Faith, CSS Publishing Company,

What then is Easter about? What are we celebrating? What is the significance of Jesus' resurrection? Well, it testifies to God's faithfulness to Israel, it shows that God has launched the most ambitious phase of his plan to repossess the world for himself, it means that death is not Lord but Jesus Christ is Lord, our condemnation has been changed into vindication, the new creation has begun, and we labour in the task of bringing the life of heaven to bear upon this sin cursed earth!

One final thought:

May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Heb 13.20-21.


Chris Petersen said...

Excellent post, Dr. bird. I hope my post on the resurrection tomorrow will be this good. Keep up the great work.

Dave said...


Enjoyed your post, especailly the stereo typical caricatures...Yet I think that so many miss the point of the death of Christ and the tearing of the temple curtain.
How great that we now have no restrictions in relationships, upward and sideways, and in many ways the resurrection of Jesus is an inditement on the current state of not only many hearts, but also many churches...God can and is reconciling the world to himself, and yet we his people, endued with His Spirit, struggle to reconcile with each other, instead choosing the way of power and prestige.

I was at a service last night (Good Friday) and the closing prayers focused on the Sunday event. Do you agree that we know the easter story so well in the west that we forget easter saturday, Jesus lay stone cold dead in a cold tomb, and the disciples were scattered and without hope. The church needs to experience the gospels as a narrative, that is where a lot of the liberation theology of places like South america helps. We need to rest in that abandonement and hopelessness from time to time.
So today we feel the loss, and yet we hope that Jesus promise to rise again is fulfilled tomorrow.
We are a people of hope, our mission is exactly that, to carry that hope forth outward from another resurrection day.

Thanks for your posts


Dave said...

Hey Mike, just read it again as I noticed the ref to Manchester Utd said

breaking down social barriers in society and espousing a new ethic of inclusively towards tax-collectors, prostitutes, gays, and even Manchester United supporters.

Do you think the Kingdom excludes any of these groups...not sure what point you were making about Rev Humbug?

MOWENS said...

Great post. A pleasure and encouragement to read. Blessings.