He is risen! … now what?

Several of my mainline friends get to preach this coming weekend – as do I. The conversations have been great as we compared notes. The first question is usually “are you using the lectionary text?” (which I am not) and then the question of post-Easter themes as we round the corner toward Pentecost come up.

I was looking for something on my old blog and stumbled upon two posts from an Easter past. I thought it would be fun to edit them and put them up again.

The central question is “what do we do with this?” – also known as the so what question. People want to know because there are 3 key passages in the New Testament that say Jesus’ resurrection has consequences for what we as believers can expect after our death.

Here are the 4 layers of thought that seem to come out of the Resurrection conversation.

  • Layer 1: The disciples experienced Jesus after his death and that indicated two major things A) death is not the end and B) the Roman empire was not the final authority.

I like this interpretation. If this were all that there was, it would be enough for me. I often hear that this is nothing more than a ‘ghost story’ and offers no hope. I don’t see it that way, and have written about it often.

Let me just add that North Americans are good at focusing on the first implication – that death is not the end – but often struggle with the second implication because, as I have learned, we assume that the as is structure of modern existence is the final ordering. Both the Nation State and Capitalism are given realities and so the best that can be hoped for is for the system to be tweaked in order to bring about a slightly kinder, gentler, more fair, and just version of the structures as it currently is configured [as Jeremy and Tripp outline in their TNT episode breakout session entitled “Occupy Theology”]

Christian implications of the resurrection should enable us to imagine a re-ordering of this world’s governors and empower us to dream of and participate in our ordering of life to display a different operating system and demonstrate a pronounce protest to the powers the be.

  • Layer 2: At the end of our life, we are taken into (or absorbed back into) the life of God. This position holds that life after death is total and absolute communion with God and acknowledges that all the ‘streets of gold’ and ‘pearly gates’ stuff is a result prophetic language and poetic imagining- not a material (physical) rendering.

I like the language of this view. It also helps that I think the book of Revelation is a political critique of the Roman empire and has nothing to do with the end of the world and is therefor not instructive in the least about life after death. So I don’t have to worry about the personification stuff. It frees me to enjoy the thought of release and embrace: release from this life and embrace by the divine other.

The way we read the book of Revelation now is killing our political imagination. The lesson of Revelation is not what will happen in our lifetime or in history – but to model for us how to speak to our time like the author spoke to his time! We are faithful to the book of Revelation not when we take it literally (as if one even could) but when we critique our Imperial structures and imagine a different way of ordering the world in order to bring about different and better outcomes.

Critics of this view say that it is too spiritualized and not specific enough and doesn’t give dignity to the existence of the individual. I hear what they are saying, but it opens us up the to anthropomorphic critique again.

  • Layer 3: Jesus was resurrected with a trans-physical body. So we can expect a glorified – bodily – spiritual/physical existence in kind.

This is the classic reading of the text. Jesus both interacted with the physical (making breakfast on the shore and letting Thomas touch his wounds) while also not being limited to the physical (walking through walls, etc.)

I am, of course, comfortable with this view as it is what I was raised with and ordained into. The only downside is that it desperately needs to humbly engage the gaps that emerge in Biblical scholarship instead of arrogantly raising it’s voice to anyone who dares question any aspect of the accounts that were written so much later and which vary from each other. We have to be honest about the literary aspect of the Gospel accounts.

  • Layer 4: Some really thoughtful modern theologians have put forward some new theories or vocabularies with which to have this conversation. Notable are N.T. Wright, John Cobb, and the new book by Philip Clayton.

I was listening to an interview with John Polkinghorn and he said something that caught my attention.

“What is the real me? It is certainly more than the matter of my body, because that it changing all the time. The atoms are always changing – but in some sense it is the pattern of how the atoms are formed. That,I think, is what the soul is (agreeing with Thomas Aquinas).
It is an immensely rich pattern that doesn’t end at my skin. It involves my memories, my character, my personality. I think it involves all the relationships I take on. It is complex and we struggle to even say something about it. But I do not think that God will allow that pattern to be lost and I think that God will recreate that pattern after resurrection.
Faith and Science are in conversation about what could be the continuity between this world and world that has yet to come.”

I love this language. It gets away from the historical argument of only literal vs. merely spiritual and points to the possibilities of a preferable future – but does so without being dogmatic, wooden interpretation or concrete physics. It leaves the door open for faith and invites us into a conversation. In my mind, that is better than rote regurgitation repetition of old formulations. It encourages us to think biblically and explore theologically the possibilities of a new reality.

We just can’t afford for Christ’s resurrection to be a promise of escape from this present world and a subsequent passivity toward the as is structures of our existence.