Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter 2008: Resurrection Fact, Metaphor, and Mystery

Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, John 20:1-18

Colossians 3:3, For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Welcome to Easter. I’m glad that you are here. Church members, visitors, walk-ins, whether you are Christian or not or something else, with your questions and doubts and beliefs, whatever, we are glad that you are here.

Easter is for everyone, Easter is not church property, we don’t own this story, it’s been given to humanity. It’s a great gift, it’s a story beyond our full comprehension. Old First is an open church. Our people have different responses to this story, different understandings, but we agree that this is the story that deserves our celebration and our contemplation.

This morning I want to contemplate the resurrection as fact. and as metaphor, and as mystery.

I believe the resurrection is a fact. I mean that I believe it really happened in real time. If you find that you doubt it, I don’t blame you, and I suspect it’s the hardest thing of all to believe. It’s not the kind of fact that you can prove, and I don’t intend to try. I want only to propose what kind of fact it is, what kind of fact the writers of scripture regarded it to be.

It is not a scientific fact. It cannot be verified according to the scientific method of controlled repetition. Of course not, by definition, because the resurrection was a singularity. It’s sort of like the Big Bang, which strictly speaking is not scientifically verifiable. It can only be inferred.

The Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to Arno Penzias who first detected what we call "cosmic microwave background radiation," the constant extra hum of the universe, which he proposed to be the leftover noise of the Big Bang. We cannot prove the Big Bang, but inferring it helps us make sense of many other phenomena. Christians regard the resurrection of Jesus to be like that.

The resurrection is not an historical fact, not in the way that the crucifixion is. The crucifixion was not a singularity and it fits with ordinary Roman practices. It has literary witnesses which are relatively objective and even unsympathetic, the sort of witnesses that we require for the standards of history.

With the resurrection, the gospel writers report only what the apostles said they saw, and it only helps a little to note that at first the apostles were not sympathetic witnesses. They didn’t expect the resurrection, they hadn’t wanted it, and at first they did not believe it. They had to come around to it. But then afterwards they didn’t try to prove it objectively, because they couldn’t.

Consider the resurrection as something like a newspaper kind of fact. That fits with how the apostles presented it, they always called it "news," like the daily news, or when you tell someone you have good news.
Consider that news is most newsworthy when it’s least expected and most exceptional and singular.
Consider that news is the kind of story that we want to know because it makes a difference in what we do from then on and how we see the world.
Consider it the kind of fact that depends on the credibility of the reporter. You believe it not because you see the evidence but because you trust the judgment of the network that you listen to.

My second church was among Dutch immigrants in rural Ontario, and one summer evening a group of us were standing on the shore of Lake Erie and gazing at the full moon. I remarked, "Just think, human beings have walked on it." An elderly woman named Cornelia Vander Knyff said she didn’t think they really had. Now I respected her, and she had been in the middle of Nazi gunfire in World War II. So I said, "Well, we watched it on TV!" And she looked at me with some pity, and asked me if I really believed in what I saw on TV.

How much can you trust the writers of the gospel? If we judge them as reporters by their subsequent behavior, by what they did with what they said, by their judgments on other matters, I think we may find them very credible. And so we have reporters who are credible telling a story quite incredible. And that’s the best we can do with the resurrection as a fact.

That the resurrection is a metaphor there is no question. It has become fashionable to call it a metaphor as a dodge around its being true, especially among many popular scholars. With the way they use "metaphor" I don’t know how they got through English Composition 101. A metaphor is when you apply something concrete to something other either abstract or unfamiliar.

If you say metaphorically that "your love is like the ocean," then your love is the abstract and the ocean is the concrete, and so the ocean is a metaphor for love. If we say the resurrection is a metaphor then we must also say for what.

Our reading from the Epistle to the Colossians says for what. The resurrection of Jesus is a metaphor for the new life of the rest of us. The new life is bound to be unfamiliar and abstract, but St. Paul regards the resurrection of Jesus as concrete. And so he writes, "If you have been raised with Jesus, seek the things which are above." He makes the resurrection of Jesus the generating metaphor for the whole new life of the world. I can recommend this metaphor to all of you today, even if you find it difficult to believe the resurrection as concretely as the apostles did.

The resurrection’s power as a metaphor confirmed the followers of Jesus in their belief that it was concrete. It empowered ordinary people to do extraordinary things. They were very ordinary people except for one thing which distinguished them—that the fear of death had no power over them.

Not like the heroes of the sagas and the epics, because they were not heroes, they wore no helmets and they carried no swords; they were only private soldiers in the ranks, they were slaves, they were mothers and seamstresses. But they were a new kind of human being, because they considered themselves to have already died, and risen again, the sting of death was behind them.

They could be beaten, but they could not be broken. When they were bound in chains they acted as if they were free. When they were condemned they acted as if they were justified. They didn’t keep score, because they had already won. They refused to regard their enemies as enemies. They began to experience a whole new way of living as human beings in the world, they began to live a whole new kind of life.

When you speak of love, do you say that your love is like a precious jewel or like an ocean? The metaphor makes a difference. The resurrection is the generating metaphor that opens up so much. It means your body is meant to be the spouse of your soul for eternity, and that your body has a spiritual potential beyond that which you now experience. It means the physical world itself is good, it means God cares about our daily lives, and it must mean that God takes suffering seriously. It means that the gospel addresses poverty and ecology and slavery and femininity and sexuality. The implications of this generating metaphor require the whole New Testament to work out, indeed, it’s taken two thousand years of history, and there is more to come.

But when I watch the driver of the B69 bus lower the ramp for a person in a wheel chair, and when the driver patiently and cheerfully does all he has to do to strap that wheelchair in, and when we other passengers remind ourselves how good it is for him to take our time to do this, I’m telling you that this is the long term effect of the resurrection as God’s great metaphor for our lives on this planet. And we may consider such effects as something like "cosmic microwave background radiation," from which we can infer a singularity, which if it’s true can help us make sense of many other phenomena.

And the resurrection is a mystery. Not a narrow and finite mystery, but a mystery inexhaustible and infinite, like the mysteries of astrophysics and the universe.
It’s a mystery because it opens new uncertainties even while it makes sense of many phenomena, and these uncertainties require us to live by faith, not sight.
It’s a mystery because it is an act of God that is so full of the nature and character of God that it requires the mind of God fully to understand it. And yet this is a mystery which is for us and for our benefit, a mystery like the mysteries of music and of love.

It helps us with the mysteries of grief and joy, with the mysteries of our own lives, and the difficulty of these two natures that are both inside us, the old nature that is dying away and the new nature that is coming to life. We live in the framework of a daily mystery, that our old and dying nature is not the summary of us, but the earth in which the Holy Spirit plants a new nature, which we can detect in ourselves, which we have seen in Jesus Christ, which has a power beyond the force of death, a power that only comes from God.

We can be relieved to learn from St. Paul that our lives are hidden with Christ in God, and that means even hidden safe from our own selves and from the predations of our self-awareness and our guilt. Our lives extend beyond the boundaries of our present references and comprehension. The greater part of our own lives do not belong to us, but to God, and even in this present darkness we are in God’s light and sight and care and love.

This mystery compels the metaphors and comprehends the facts. This mystery we must always hear again as news, and rise again to greet as true. This great mystery we can prove only with the conduct of our daily lives in the world, this great and wonderful mystery we can only solve in the prayer and praise of worship. You were right to come here today, whoever you are, whatever you call yourself, whatever you think about these things, you were right to come here today for glory, and to celebrate this great story of God in Jesus Christ.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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