12 April 2008

The Importance of Jesus' Bodily Resurrection. . .a beginnning. . .

For the last three weeks we have been celebrating the bodily resurrection of Jesus. There is no doubt that despite the fact we spend a lot of time on the Easter event, we really do not appreciate what we celebrate. It is common to hear Christianity characterized as a religion which is based on illusion, or a desire to escape the real world, or both. We hear it referred to as, "Pie in the sky by and by" or see Christians characterized as, "so heavenly minded they are (of) no earthly good," and the fact is many times these derogatory characterizations are true. Christians have a right to hope that in this world sin and death do not have the last word, but the idea that our salvation ULTIMATELY rests in a heaven distinct and removed from this world is something BODILY resurrection does not support.

I am only just beginning to explore this topic. I began as a result of readings from the first and second weeks of Easter. In those readings what was clear was how truly astonished and overwhelmed by what had happened to Jesus in the resurrection was. They were joyfilled, but also terrified, astonished, curious, disbelieving, etc and there was no way in light of those readings one could come away thinking that the resurrection was merely something occasioned by wish-fulfillment or the disciples' inability to deal with their own grief. What they experienced was discontinuous with what they knew or had conceived of --- not completely so, but enough to underscore how truly real in an objective sense this resurrected Christ was for them. This was no resuscitated corpse a la Lazarus, for this Christ walked through walls, came and went in an instant, was not recognized except as he called a disciple by name or in the breaking of the bread, etc. And yet, neither was he a ghost or mere "spiritual being" for he could be touched (not clung to perhaps, but touched nonetheless!), and he ate fish! Nor was his resurrection merely symbolic of the return of Israel from exile (though it signalled the return from exile of the true Israel nonetheless.)

The notion that Christians are those who must escape from this world to a remote heaven was contradicted by the fact that Jesus' resurrection was a bodily resurrection and thrust him back into this world to serve it, first in the Easter appearances, then at the right hand of his Father where he continues as the crucified and risen one, and so, one presumes, the incarnate God who is bodily present to the world, and in the giving of the Holy Spirit who makes both Father and Son present in power. In this resurrection heaven and earth interpenetrate one another in a way which allows us to see that the ultimate Christian hope is a new heaven and a new earth in which God is all in all --- not a remote and distant heaven! It seemed to me that Christians may in fact be the ones who are called not only NOT to escape from this world and all its evils, but to confront them face to face, not only because we know sin and death to be defeated in Christ, but because we know he remains committed to this world's transformation in him.

I moved next to consider the ascension on the basis of a comment I read by Kenneth Leech that dovetailed with what I had been thinking about bodily resurrection. Leech says:[[ to many people the doctrine of the ascension spells remoteness --- Jesus goes away into a remote heaven. . . .In fact the whole point of the ascension is missed here. Heaven and earth become crude geographical entities. But the New Testament teaches that Christ ascended so he might be CLOSER to us in his risen body, and that he might fill all things (Eph 4:10).]] (Leech, True Prayer, p 15).

And then I picked up Tom Wright's book, Surprised by Hope! Now, a couple of years ago I had read his work on the resurrection over a period some weeks, and Surprised by Hope is in some ways, a more readable version of that more technical work. Still, it is an amazing book and brought home to me just how common is our misunderstanding of what it is Christian hope truly consists. Most important are the implications for missiology of the bodily resurrection and the fact that we await a new heaven and a new earth. We really are called to transform this world because ultimately we hope to participate in that new heaven AND NEW EARTH the Scriptures talk about.

Over time I will write more about this because it is an idea too little heard about, and too often contradicted by various forms of spirituality and (non-Christian or insufficiently Christian) theological ideas. (It is also an idea I have not sufficiently grappled with myself!) For now, let me leave you with the questions: 1) how often have you thought about the significance that Christ was raised bodily, and that our ultimate hope is for bodily resurrection? 2) How often have you thought about heaven as someplace remote from this world rather than as the power of God which interpenetrates this world and, through the work of the Spirit, is the means by which this world is recreated? 3) And how much more compelling would your work to preserve, honor, and transform this world be if you grounded it in a theology which recognized that ultimately we hope for a new heaven and a new earth in which God is powerfully and fully present and which itself is completely part of (or, better put perhaps, taken into) the life of the Trinity?