Monday, April 01, 2013

March 31, Easter 2013, The Story, the Doctrine, and the Vision (second edition)

Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12

(N.B., this sermon quotes from Lesslie Newbigin’s modern classic, Foolishness to the Greeks, pp. 62-64. For Jim Bratt.)

Welcome to Easter, welcome to the celebration of the resurrection of Our Lord. Members and friends, visitors and seekers, whatever your belief or unbelief, it’s good that you are here. Easter is a public day, Easter is not church property—it is but our privilege to host it for the world on God’s behalf.

We celebrate three things today: the story, the doctrine, and the vision—the story as in the gospel lesson by St. Luke, the doctrine as in the epistle lesson by St. Paul, and the vision as in the first lesson, by Isaiah, when it says, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” The vision is projected by the doctrine, and the doctrine interprets the story.

When I say “story”, I don’t mean the kind that opens by saying, “Once a upon a time” (Barth), but a news story, with a date line, the kind of story that a journalist files with a periodical. Journalism comes closest to what the gospels do: blending facts and narratives and observations and interpretation, in the general interest. The gospel writers did not think of themselves as writing for spirituality and religion—they wrote for the general interest, and as much about politics as about spirituality. If St. Luke were writing today, I think he’d want to get published in The Atlantic Monthly. St. Mark would try for Mother Jones, and St. John for Vanity Fair. The apostles did not think in terms of starting another religion. They had a story to publish for the public interest.

When I say “doctrine”, I mean the summation of the story, as in the Nicene Creed, which we will soon recite, that “on the third day he rose again, in accordance with the scriptures.” There is a broader summation and a short analysis in our epistle, 1 Corinthians 15. The epistle is journalistic too, but in the manner of an op-ed piece. The doctrine interprets the implications of the story. And again, the implications are not merely spiritual but general. The doctrine is not just for personal religion, or for the church, but for the whole public. The doctrine is offered as public truth for public life.

When I say “vision”, I mean what the doctrine permits us to look for in the world, in both the future and the present. According to the Nicene Creed, the doctrine permits us to “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” That gives us a public vision for the world and the whole life of the world, from plants and animals to economics and politics—a view of the world, a world-view projected by the resurrection. It also gives you personal visions for yourself and your loved ones, a vision of your death, but also for a life beyond your death, and a vision of your body—your body so familiar and so mysterious—that your own poor body, your bones and your nerves and your feelings and emotions and all the memories you carry within you, can be so totally healed and reconstituted by God as to be physically fit to inhabit the world to come.

The vision requires the story to be true. And there are reasons to be skeptical. Skepticism is not an enemy of belief. Skepticism arises from belief. It’s because you believe some things that you are skeptical of others. And the ordinary public of Jesus’ day was just as skeptical about his bodily resurrection as anyone is today, because they believed, with good reason, that dead bodies do not come back to life. It was totally implausible, according to the plausibility structures of the worldview of their day, no less than by the plausibility structures of the worldview of our day.

The disciples were not watching at the tomb because they had given Jesus up for dead—dead as a door-nail, done for. When the women discovered the tomb was empty they were perplexed. They did not believe what they were told by the two men there in dazzling clothes. And when Peter noticed the linen clothing lying there (evidence that no Jew had carried his body out—not a naked dead body, certainly not on a holy day, so that maybe Jesus came out under his own steam), Peter still could not envision it until the living Lord confronted him, and even then it took him a couple weeks really to get it.

It’s remarkable that the Lord Jesus never tried to prove his resurrection to the public, and he never showed himself to his opponents—not to Pontius Pilate nor the chief priests and the scribes. God seems to have designed the facts of the story not to be the kind of facts which count for public proof within the plausibility structures of whatever the prevailing worldview is. St. Paul called the resurrection “foolishness to the Greeks,” and there is no way that the truth of the resurrection can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of the modern mind. God intends that we who believe the story and celebrate the doctrine must always give our “testimony in a trial where it is contested. The verdict as to what stands and what falls will only be given at the end. To desire some kind of rationally conclusive ‘proof’ of” the resurrection is to mistake the privilege of witness which God has given us. God invites us rather to offer and live out the ethics of an alternate worldview which arises from the doctrine. And our view of the world is part of our vision.

It is the vision of the life of the world to come, a world which is inhabited by persons who are resurrected from the dead. We get the first glimpse of the vision from the story, from those two men in dazzling clothes. St. Luke specifically calls them men, not angels, and they are wearing the same clothes as Jesus did at his transfiguration. These men two men are in the future, living in the world to come, but the women could see them because the resurrection of Jesus had broken through the boundary of death. The resurrection of Jesus is the gateway to another universe, a greater universe than ours, embracing ours, penetrating ours, expanding into ours, converting ours, a universe generated by the small bang of the resurrection, the new heavens and new earth.

This vision is so large and loving and inclusive that although the plausibilities of its alternate worldview allow us to be skeptical of all the pretensions and certainties of our common knowledge, at the same time the vision can acknowledge and cherish so much of the fruit and insight and achievements in the arts and sciences of the very culture which regards the resurrection as implausible. The relationship is asymmetrical, but not completely discontinuous. From the one side, this side, the other looks implausible, but from the other side there is a plausibility that embraces both. So if we believe in the resurrection we do not abandon the world and its culture but embrace it, and bless it and serve it and develop it for the sake of the Lord. Using our imaginations, just as God designed to leave the details of the Easter story to our imaginations.

I invite you to imagine your own life in terms of the life of the world to come. You are used to factoring death and sin and evil into your life, it’s hard to imagine real human life without those factors in, it’s hard to envision power without corruption, government without force, prosperity without consumption, aging without weakening, and physical bodies without breakdown. Our visions are only glimpses on this side of the boundary of death, and everything in our present lives is contested. Your own lives are mysterious mixtures of good and evil, which will not be sorted out until your death.

In the meantime, you can still look for the new world in your own life, but you cannot find it in the good things about yourself that you can specify with certainty. You can look for the providence of God the Father in your life, who is converting your every sin and pain and misery into the material of salvation. You can look for the grace of God the Son within your life and for the warmth of his body in the form of his community. You can look for the fruits of God the Holy Spirit in your life, real fruits, though as passing and temporary as fruits always are, as well as the love of the Spirit, whose love is so limitless and inclusive that God loves not only your good, but even your sin, your failures no less than your successes.

Which means that your primary expression of this vision has to be reconciliation, your reconciliation of yourself and of this world in the light of the world to come, and that your application of this doctrine is forgiveness, your forgiveness of yourself and your reality as well as your forgiveness of your neighbor as yourself, and that your insight from the story is the power of God’s love that you see expressed in it, the love of God for the human body, which includes yours, the love of God for humanity, which includes you, the love of God which goes through death to the other side, which will be yours. This vision is a love vision, this doctrine is a love doctrine, and this story is a love story.

 Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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