Monday, April 30, 2012

Between Death and Resurrection?

Continuing last week's reflection about the hope of the resurrection of the dead/body:

For Christians, the resurrected body has always been (officially if not in popular imagination) an integral aspect of our ultimate expectation. This creates a challenge to some popular and rather sentimentalized notions of life after death. Affirming that hope raises other questions such as:

Can we expect any conscious existence between our individual deaths and the Resurrection of the dead/body?

There have been those who have argued that the answer to that question is 'no.' In that case, those who have died are dead - period - until the Day of Resurrection at which point we will be restored for judgment and eternity.

Is it possible, though, even if we restore the centrality of  the hope of resurrection in place of popular images of heaven, to expect some conscious existence between our physical death and our resurrection?

Certainly that has been the majority view of the Church through the ages, including the representatives in the post referenced above. Even though they believed that whatever intervening existence those who have died might have is incomplete until the restoration of resurrection of the body, Anthony, Ephrem, and Dante each believed the dead had some conscious existence. 

We saw in the last post that physicist/theologian, John Polkinghorne holds to an idea of a conscious existence of the dead,'held in the divine memory.'

N. T. Wright, who is one who has been reclaiming the centrality of resurrection hope also thinks so,

All the Christian departed are in essentially the same state, that of restful happiness. Though this is sometimes described as sleep, we shouldn’t take this to mean that it is a state of unconsciousness. Had Paul thought that, I very much doubt that he would have described life immediately after death as “being with Christ, which is far better.” Rather, sleep here means that the body is asleep in the sense of dead while the real person–however we want to describe him or her–continues.
This state is not, clearly, the final destiny for which the Christian dead are bound, which is as we have seen, the bodily resurrection. But it is a state in which the dead are held firmly within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Jesus Christ while they await that day. There is no reason why this state should not be called heaven, though we must note once more how interesting it is that the New Testament routinely doesn’t call it that and uses the word heaven in other ways. (Surprised by Hope, p. 171-172)

Whether we are merely dead (and thus with no consciousness) until the resurrection or we have some conscious existence in the meantime, our next awareness after dying will be coming face to face with Jesus.

While I am persuaded that we do well to remember that our ultimate hope is the fullness of our restoration at the resurrection of the body, I am inclined to agree with the tradition that there is some conscious existence of the dead, however incomplete, between now and then.  But, then, other questions arise:

What is the relationship between those who have died and those still living in the flesh? Does it make sense to pray for the dead? To ask the dead to pray for us?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Can These Bones Live? More on the resurrection of the body

Picking up from my last post about the hope of the resurrection of the dead/body:

For Christians, the resurrected body has always been (officially if not in popular imagination) an integral aspect of our ultimate expectation. But affirming that raises other questions such as:

How do bodies that have turned to dust and whose atoms have been scattered and shared by other bodies get resurrected?

First of all, any answer to this questions like this is bound to be speculative and partial. For now we see in a mirror, dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12).  Still, we wonder.

I have been helped in wondering about this by John Polkinghorne, the English theoretical physicist, theologian, and Anglican priest. In his book, The God of Hope and the End of the World:
Whatever the human soul may be, it is surely what expresses and carries the continuity of living personhood. We already face within this life the problem of what that entity might be. The soul must be the ‘real me’ that links the boy of childhood to the ageing academic of later life. If that carrier of continuity is not a separate spiritual component, what else could it be? It is certainly not merely material. The atoms that make up our bodies are continuously being replaced in the course of wear and tear, eating and drinking. We have very few atoms in our bodies today that were there even two years ago. What does appear to be the carrier of continuity is the immensely complex ‘information-bearing pattern’ in which that matter organised. This pattern is not static; it is modified as we acquire new experiences, insights and memories, in accordance with the dynamic of our living history. It is this information-bearing pattern that is the soul. - p. 105-106
If these ideas contain some truth, we have to acknowledge that this information-bearing pattern will, in the course of nature, be dissolved by the decay of our bodies after death. There is therefore, no intrinsic immortality associated with the soul in this way of understanding it. Death is a real end. However, it need not be an ultimate end, for in Christian understanding only God is ultimate. - p. 107
. . . there is indeed the Christian hope of a destiny beyond death, but it resides not in the presumed immortality of a spiritual soul, but in the divinely guaranteed eschatological sequence of death and resurrection. Only a hope conceived of in this way can do full justice to human psychosomatic unity, and hence to the indispensibility of some form of re-embodiment for a truly human future existence. The only ground for this hope–and the sufficient ground for this hope, as we have already emphasised–lies in the faithfulness of the Creator, in the unrelenting divine love for all creatures. - p. 108 
It is a perfectly coherent hope that the pattern that is a human being could be held in the divine memory after that person’s death. Such a disembodied existence, even if located within the divine remembrance, would be less than fully human. It would be more like the Hebrew concept of the shades in Sheol, though now a Sheol from which the Lord was not absent, but quite the contrary, God was sustsaining it. It is a further coherent hope, and one for which the resurrection of Jesus Christ provides the foretaste and guarantee, that God in the eschatological future will re-embody this multitude of preserved information-bearing patterns in some new environment of God’s choosing. - p. 107-108

We could say, I suppose, that, if God can pull of the resurrection of the dead at all, he can take care of the details, and leave it at that. But, the observation that our bodies as we know them now have very few atoms that were there even two years ago seems to help resolve the question at the beginning of this post. Our current bodies are dynamic rather than static, maintaining a continuity of appearance even as their material make-up changes. Might we imagine that if the Christian expectation of the resurrection of the body is true that the "information-bearing pattern" that is the "carrier of continuity" of our personality and physical form will be re-embodied when the New Heaven and New Earth are united (the "new environment of God's choosing")? And wouldn't that mean that our resurrected bodies will be made of the transfigured material of this world -- whether or not that incorporates all the particular atoms that might have made up our bodies at any given moment of our pre-resurrection lives let alone at the time of our death?

That would mean that there would be both continuity and discontinuity between our pre-resurrection and post-resurrection existence, just as we see with Jesus. His resurrection appearances give us a hint of that destiny as does Paul's discussion of the "spiritual body" in 1Corinthians 15. 

For a playful imagining of how this world might look, transfigured into New Creation where the resurrected, transfigured, spiritual bodies will enjoy eternal life partaking in the divine nature see: Ephrem of Edessa (the Syrian) on Paradise.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Hope of Resurrection of the Dead/Body

When Christians gather for worship they usually say one of two classic affirmations of faith.

They either say the Nicene Creed which includes the line,
"[We believe] in the resurrection of the dead"
or they say the Apostles' Creed which includes the line,
"[I believe] in the resurrection of the body"
Thus Christians regularly affirm that our bodies matter – God created them and declared them good after all – and that we expect to be embodied beyond death.

In spite of these affirmations, many contemporary Christians have inculcated a rather gnostic view of of the body and material reality in general as unimportant if not somehow bad. This view leads to an expectation of life after death in which an immortal, immaterial soul escapes the dead body and goes directly to its eternal fate in the spirit-realms of either Heaven or Hell (or maybe Purgatory).
This was driven home to me recently in a conversation with someone who has been a lifelong Christian with consistent church attendance, involvement, and leadership. Despite over 70 years in the church, this Christian spoke of the body as something insignificant that we leave behind when we die. 
I suspect this is not an uncommon view. But, such a view makes little sense in light of the belief the Church and her members affirm in the creeds represented in the lines above, which in turn reflects a more complete biblical view of the indispensableness of the body for our ultimate hope.  This spiritualizing tendency undervalues the goodness of our bodies as creations of God. It also misses the wonder and mystery of the sanctification of embodied life represented in the Incarnation and Ascension. And it negates the aspect of hope contained in the creeds that we await the fullness of  the resurrectioon and restoration not just of our bodies but of new creation at the end of history.
Some contemporary theologians have been attempting to correct this over-spiritualized view of our hope. One of these is Bishop N. T.Wright (see for example Christians Wrong About Heaven, Says Bishop or, for a longer, but still accessible treatment, see Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church).
I want to point out that what Wright and others are advocating is not some new teaching. It is the classic Christian understanding that the soul - whatever it is and whether or not it can be separated from the body at all - is incomplete without the body. Thus, the ultimate Christian hope is not that our disembodied souls might enjoy eternal life relieved of our bodies in a spiritual heaven, but that at the Last Day, there will be Resurrection, Judgment, and Life Everlasting as transfigured embodied persons in a restored transfigured New Creation.
Here are some examples:
St. Anthony the Great (ca. 251–356):
God teaches us to keep the body in order–the whole of it, from head to foot; eyes–to look with purity; ears–to listen in peace (or to peaceful things) and not to take pleasure in gossip, slander, and criticism; tongue–to say only what is good, weighing every word, and allowing nothing impure or passionate [passion is a technical term of the early church referring to sinful agitations of the spirit, e.g., anger, envy, greed, lust, etc.] to become mixed with its speech; hands–to be moved primarily for lifting up in prayer and for acts of mercy and generosity; stomach–to be kept within suitable bounds in food and drink, allowing only as much as is needful to support the body, not letting lust and gluttony lead it beyond that measure; feet–to walk righteously, according to the will of God, aiming at the service of good deeds. In this way the whole of the body becomes accustomed to every good and, submitting to the power of the Holy Spirit, gradually changes, so that in the end it begins to participate, in a certain measure, in the qualities of the spiritual body, which it is to receive at the resurrection of the just.
– Directions on Life in Christ, Epistle I. 20 in Early Fathers from the Philokalia

St. Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306 – 373) in Hymns on Paradise writes:
The soul cannot
have perception of Paradise
without its mate, the body,
its instrument and lyre.
- Hymn VIII.2
Though the soul exists
of itself and for itself,
yet without its companion
it lacks true existence;
it fully resembles an embryo
still in the womb,
whose existence is as yet
bereft of word or thought.
- Hymn VIII.5
That blessed abode
is in no way deficient,
for that place is complete and perfected
in every way,
and the soul cannot
enter there alone,
for is such a state it is in everything
in sensation and consciousness;
but on the day of Resurrection
the body, with all its senses,
will enter in as well, one it has been made perfect.
- Hymn VIII. 7
Thus in the delightful mansions
on the border of Paradise
do the souls of the just
and righteous reside
awaiting there
the bodies they love,
so that, at the opening
of the Garden’s gate,
both bodies and souls might proclaim,
amidst Hosannas,
“Blessed is He who has brought Adam from Sheol
And returned him to Paradise in the company of
- Hymn VIII. 11
A hundred times finer
and more subtle
are the bodies of the righteous
when they are risen at the Resurrection:
they resemble the mind
which is able,
if it so wills, to stretch out and expand,
or, should it wish, to contract and shrink;
if it shrinks it is in some place,
if it expands, it is in every place.
- Hymn V. 8
Even Dante (c1265–1321), who Bishop Wright takes to task, in his delightful and mostly spiritualized vision of Paradise, retains as essential the hope of the resurrection of the body. From within a circle of dancing light, the soul of Solomon explains,
'Long as the joyous feast of Paradise
shall last, so long our burning love
shall clothe us in the radiance you see.
Our brilliance is in ratio to our love,
our ardor to our vision, and our vision
to the degree of grace vouchafed to us.
When our flesh sanctified and glorified,
shall clothe our souls once more, our person then
will be more pleasing since it is complete;
wherefore, the light generously bestowed
on us by the Supreme Good, is increased --
the light of glory that show Him to us.
It follows, then, that vision must increase,
as must the ardor kindled by the vision,
as must the radiance the ardor gives.
But as a coal burns white in its own fire,
whose inner glow outshines its outer flame
so that its form is clearly visible,
so this effulgence that envelops us now
will be surpassed in brilliance by the flesh
that for so long has lain beneath the ground;
Nor will such light be difficult to bear,
the organs of our bodies will be strengthened
and ready for whatever gives us joy.'
- Paradiso, Canto XIV, Lines 37-60

For Christians, the resurrected body has always been (officially if not in popular imagination) an integral aspect of our ultimate expectation. But affirming that raises other questions such as:

How do bodies that have turned to dust and whose atoms have been scattered and shared by other bodies get resurrected?

Can we expect any conscious existence between our individual deaths and the Resurrection of the dead/body?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Anselm on Seeking Understanding

Today is the feast day of Anselm of Canterbury (1033 - 1109). Among other things, Anselm is famous for asserting (following Augustine of Hippo), "I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand."

Here is more from Anselm along that line:
I shall preface a few words in order to curb the presumption of those who with abominable insolence dare to raise as an objection to one of the articles of the Christian faith the fact that they cannot grasp it by their own intellect. With witless arrogance they judge that what they cannot understand is in no way possible, rather than acknowledging in humble wisdom that many things are possible that they are unable to comprehend. Indeed, no Christian ought to argue that something the Catholic Church believes with her heart and confesses with her lips is not true. Instead, always holding that same faith unswervingly, loving it, and living in accordance with it, a Christian ought to seek the reason of its truth as humbly as he can. If he is capable of understanding, let him give thanks to God. If he is not, let him not brandish his horns to scatter, but instead let him bow his head in reverent submission.
For human wisdom trusting in itself can more quickly tear out its own horns by brandishing them than it can roll this stone by pushing. For as soon as some people have begun to produce, as it were, horns of self-confident knowledge — not realizing that if someone thinks he knows something, he has not yet understood in what way he ought to know — they often presume to rise to the very loftiest questions of the faith before they have developed spiritual wings through the firmness of their faith. This is how it comes about that they absurdly attempt to climb up through their understanding to those things that first require the ladder of faith: as Scripture says, “Unless you believe, you will not understand.” And when they do this, they are compelled to fall into manifold errors because their intellect fails them. For it is obvious that they do not have the firmness of faith, given that they raise objections against the truth of that faith, which has been made firm by the holy fathers, simply because they cannot themselves understand what they believe. It is as if bats and owls, which see the sky only at night, should dispute about the midday sun with eagles, who behold the sun itself with unflinching eyes.

So first our heart must be cleansed by faith; Scripture describes God as “cleansing their hearts by faith.” And first our eyes must be enlightened by our keeping the Lord’s commandments, since “the command of the Lord is bright, enlightening the eyes.” And first we ought to become little children through our humble obedience to the testimonies of God, in order that we might learn the wisdom that the testimony of the Lord gives, for “the testimony of the Lord is sure, giving wisdom to little children.” This is why the Lord says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the learned and wise, and have revealed them to little children.” First, I say, we must set aside the things of the flesh and live according to the spirit. Only then can we investigate perceptively the deep things of faith. For someone who lives according to the flesh is carnal or sensual. Of such a person Scripture says that “the sensual man does not perceive the things that are of the Spirit of God”; but one who “by the Spirit puts to death the deeds of the flesh” is made spiritual, and of him we read that “the spiritual man judges all things, and he himself is judged by no one.” For it is true that the more abundantly we take nourishment in Holy Scripture from those things that feed us through obedience, the more acutely we are brought to those things that satisfy us through understanding. Indeed, someone who ventures to say, “I have more understanding than all my teachers,” is speaking in vain unless he is bold to add, “because your testimonies are my meditation.” And someone who proclaims, “I have more understanding than my elders,” is lying unless he is well-acquainted with what follows: “because I have sought out your commandments.” There is no room for doubt about what I say: one who has not believed will not understand. For one who has not believed will not experience, and one who has not experienced will not know. For as much as experiencing a thing is superior to hearing about it, so much does the knowledge of someone who has experience surpass that of someone who merely hears.

And not only is the mind forbidden to rise to understanding higher things apart from faith and obedience to God’s commandments, but understanding once granted is taken away and faith itself is destroyed if one does not take care to preserve a good conscience. For the Apostle says of certain people, “Although they had known God, they did not glorify him as God or give thanks; but their thoughts became empty, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” And when he commanded Timothy to “fight the good fight,” he spoke of “preserving faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck regarding the faith.” Let no one, therefore, be in a hurry to plunge into the thicket of divine questions unless he has first sought in firmness of faith the weight of good character and wisdom, lest he should run carelessly and frivolously along the many side-roads of sophistries and be snared by some obstinate falsehood.
--On the Incarnation of the Word (ca. 1094)

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Fundamental Error

A Fundamental Error: Mistaking the mirror for an icon.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Eight Days a Week or, Why Sunday?

The Octave of Easter refers both to the first eight days of Easter and to the eighth day in particular. So, the Sunday after Easter Sunday is the Octave of Easter. 'Eight' is a significant number in Christian symbolism and is related to why Sunday is the main day of worship for Christians.

Why Sunday?

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.
- Luke 24:1-3

In the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that Paul preached "on the first day of the week when we had gathered to break bread." - Acts 20:7

On the Lord’s day, gather together and break bread and give thanks. – Didache 14:1 (c. 100 A.D.)

Sunday is the day on which we hold our common assembly, for this is the first day on which . . . Jesus Christ our Savior . . . rose from the dead.
Justin Martyr, The First Apology, Chapter LXVII (2nd century)

Because it is the day of Jesus’ resurrection and victory over sin and death, Sunday became known as “the Lord’s day” and eventually became the chief day of Christian celebration and worship. Every Sunday is therefore a commemoration of Easter.

But worshiping on Sunday is not just about looking back with gratitude for an event in the past. Because it is the day of resurrection, Sunday became understood as not just the first day of the week, but also as the first day of the New Creation. As such, Sunday came to be referred to as the “eight day”. In an early Christian text that was not included in the Bible, we read,
. . . when giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eight day, that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead. – Epistle of Barnabas, 15:8 (c. 100 A.D.)

Thus, worship on Sunday is a present invitation to enter into the new creation in Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17).

But, worshiping on Sunday is also a reminder that the church is called to live in expectation of the new creation promised by God and inaugurated by Jesus.

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. . . . They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:17-19, 22-25; cf. Revelation 21:1-5)

As “eighth day people”, Christians are called to bear witness to, and shape our lives now in anticipation of, the fulfillment of that new creation.

Previous: Jesus of the Scars

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Jesus of the Scars

The gospel lesson for the Sunday after Easter (tomorrow) is John 20:19-31 which tells of Jesus' appearance to Thomas after the resurrection. For the seventh day of the Octave of Easter, here is a bit of a preview from William Temple's commentary on that gospel:

The wounds of Christ are his credentials to the suffering race of men. Shortly after the Great War [WW I], when its memories and its pains were fresh in mind, a volume was published under the title Jesus of the Scars, and Other Poems by Edward Shilito. The poem from which the title was taken stands first in the book and is headed by the text, ‘He showed them His hands and His side’:

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are two calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

Only a God in whose perfect Being pain has its place can win and hold our worship.
- Readings in St. John’s Gospel

Previous: The Resurrection: A Second Big Bang

Next: Eight Days a Week

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Resurrection: A Second Big Bang

For the sixth day of the Octave of Easter, here is something from Tokens of Trust by Rowan Williams:

When we celebrate Easter, we are really standing in the middle of a second ‘Big Bang', a tumultuous surge of divine energy as fiery and intense as the very beginning of the universe. What a recent writer wonderfully calls ‘the fire in the equations’,* the energy in the mathematical and physical structures of things, is here sat Easter; and when in the ancient ceremonies of the night before Easter we light a bonfire and bless it and light candles from it, we may thin k of the first words of God in genesis, ‘Let there be light!’ – p. 95

The reality of the new creation is that every moment of our history has now been opened to a future of healing and promise; but from moment to moment the possibility and the reality remain of struggle, uncertainty. The future is just that–the future: not something we can know and control. It is in God’s hands, ultimately, and we have been given confidence that God is the end of the story and that our history cannot just fall away into final, irredeemable chaos. – p. 96

On the far side of all the testing, the pain and struggle of our history, there is Jesus. Finally, beyond all our history, he will be there to try and test all things by his absolute truth; in his presence everything and everyone will finally be shown for what they are and find their true place. – p. 97

*Kitty Ferguson, The Fire in the Equation: Science, Religion, and the Search for God
(I think Ferguson got the phrase from Stephen Hawking)

Previous: Of First Importance

Next: Jesus of the Scars

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Of First Importance

I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
Isaiah 25:6-9, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, John 20:1-18

On Good Friday I offered a meditation on one of the Seven Last Words of Jesus from the cross, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' in which I shared the horrific story of Christian Choate who was kept in a dog cage and eventually beaten to death by his father. I decided to repeat the story on Easter morning to explore what hope the resurrection might shine on such a story (in retrospect the story might have been a bit harsh for Easter Sunday).

Such stories are the test of anything we say about God and faith. I agree with Karl Barth that God earns the right to be God in this world on the cross. And it does matter to me that, as Paul Claudel wrote, Jesus fills suffering with his presence. Similarly, William Temple:
The revelation of God’s dealing with human sin shows God enduring every depth of anguish for the sake of His Children. . . All that we can suffer of physical or mental anguish is within the divine experience. . . .He does not leave this world to suffer while He remains at ease apart; all suffering of the world is His. . . Only such a God can be God of the world we know.
- Christus Veritas
The Christian story of Incarnation and cross includes the promise of God’s solidarity with his creatures caught in the web of sin, brokenness, and death.

What more can we say about the good news of Jesus Christ in light of the tragic story of Christian Choate?

In his first letter to the young church in Corinth, Paul reminds them of what he considered of first importance – what he in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.

Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.

I suspect few of us have done anything as egregious as Christian Choate’s father. But each of us has failed to love as we are meant to love. Each of us has been negligent of God and neighbor. Each of us has contributed in ways large or small to the mess of the world.

And yet, in spite of that, God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). William Temple wrote,
In the most true sense [God] loves me even while I sin; but it cannot be said too strongly that there is a wrath in God against my sinning; God's Will is set one way and mine is set against it. There is a collision of wills; and God's Will is not passive in that collision.

The cross is the collision of those wills in which God’s love overcomes all our unlove – all of our envy and enmity, all of our indifference. God poured out his love on the hard wood of the cross and thereby entered into the worst humans can do and made a way for us to enter into his forgiveness. There is no one and no deed – including Christian Choate's dad – that is beyond forgiveness if we are willing to turn toward God’s outstretched arms and receive it.

I suppose, in ways we do not know, we have to accept that Christian Choate, as part of the human web of sin, needed that forgiveness as well. But that is where I think an exclusive focus on the cross and our need for forgiveness starts to fall short. Is it really satisfactory if all we can say about Christian Choate is we hope he had an opportunity to say the Jesus Prayer and receive God’s forgiveness before his dad beat him to death? Especially given that we have no evidence that he had ever heard anything about Jesus, let alone enough to respond? And if he didn’t? Were those horrific thirteen years just a brief prelude to an eternity in hell?

I believe the Christian hope is more than that. In Christ, God has addressed more than our guilt. In Christ, God has addressed the deep wound of humanity, and of human history and, indeed, all of creation.

Few of us have suffered anything as terrible as Christian Choate – though my wife, who is a therapist, told me recently that as many as one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually molested. So maybe more of us have stories of suffering and sorrow than we usually let on. But even if we have avoided abuse of that nature, each of us bears the wounds and brokenness endemic to humanity. We don’t just need forgiveness. We need healing.

It is important to note that healing was as significant a part Jesus’ ministry as was his call to repent and offer of forgiveness. His mercy included both. So did his dying and rising.

He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.

Handing on to the Corinthians that which he considered of first importance, Paul referred to the resurrection using the exact language he used for the death of Christ suggesting that the two go together as two aspects of one salvific intervention. Good Friday and Easter Sunday are two sides of the one coin of the world’s redemption.

In some theologies and popular pieties Jesus’ resurrection is treated as an addendum to what is considered the really important thing which was Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins. The resurrection is sometimes reduced to little more than proof of Jesus’ divinity or the assurance that there might be life after death. At most it is God’s vindication of Jesus’ life and message. Though I emphatically affirm that it is the latter of these, it is also much more.

The crucifixion and resurrection include the promise of healing, transformation, restoration, and new creation. I am persuaded that that is true for the past as well as the present or the future. As Wolfhart Pannenberg has written,
The kingdom of God embraces the earlier generations of mankind as well as the coming ones, and hope for the coming of the rule of God does not only expect salvation for the last generation; it is directed towards the transfiguration of all epochs of human history through the fire of divine judgment, which is one with the light of the glory of God.

In the final resurrection and restoration of all things (Acts 3:21), it is not just the memory of Christian Choate’s agony that will be redeemed. It is not just the memory of the Killing Fields and all the trauma, torture, and terror of human history that will be redeemed. The very reality of it will be caught up and transfigured – scars and all.

In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has broken open the cage of sin and death and decay that holds us all. The resurrection of Jesus is a ray of light piercing the cloud of Death that is cast over all people (Isaiah 25:6-9) guaranteeing that the world's story ends in resurrection and transformation. Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died (1 Corinthians 15:20). As Paul insists in Romans 8, that is a promise for all of creation as well. All of creation will be renewed.

In the meantime, creation continues to exist under the reality of death and decay. And not just the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23).

The Gardener come to repair and restore the garden.

Mary Magdalene, who the scriptures point out followed Jesus because he healed her (Mark 16:9), not because she had any unusual need of forgiveness (despite later tradition to the contrary), came to honor him at the tomb. There she found the grave empty. Assuming someone had taken the body (what else would she suspect?) she asks one she takes to be a gardener where they have taken the body of the one she had hoped would redeem Israel. When the gardener speaks her name she recognizes that he is in fact Jesus who had been dead, but is now risen.

But, Mary had rightly identified him the first time. Jesus is the Gardener, come to restore the Garden of creation and history that has been infected with the thorns and thistles of sin and death that have made it a curse for so many to be born (Genesis 3). According to the ancient story, the curse began with a tree in a garden. And the healing and restoration begins with a tree and a garden.

The fullness of the restoration of all things remains a hope of the future. We do not pretend that all is already well. In Christ we have received the first fruits. We live in expectation. But, if we allow the Gardener to work in our lives, forgiveness and healing can begin now. New creation can begin now. And as his Spirit moves in and through us we can participate with him in the healing of the land and live now in the shade of another tree – the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:2).

Christ has died for our sins and was raised on the third day. In that two-fold event, God' mercy has entered into the deepest, darkest human reality of sin and suffering and broken out with the promise of forgiveness, healing, and new creation. Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Resurrection and New Creation

John Polkinghorne is an English theoretical physicist, theologian, writer, and Anglican priest. For the fourth day of the Octave of Easter, here is something from his book, The God of Hope and the End of the World:

‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything g old has passed away; see everything has become new!’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). There is a clear resonance with the expectation found, found in the exilic prophets, of the acts of God who is not bound to the past, but who has future surprises in store. From the perspective of the New Testament, however, the reference is not solely to the future. The new creation is ‘in Christ’ and it is his resurrection that is the seed from which the new has already begun to grow.

The scope of the new creation is cosmic and it is not limited to human destiny alone. P. 84

. . .

Just as we see Jesus’ resurrection as the origin and guarantee of human hope, so we can also see it as the origin and guarantee of a universal hope. The significance of the empty tomb is that the Lord’s risen and glorified body is the transmuted form of his dead body. Thus matter itself participates in the resurrection transformation, enjoying thereby the foretaste of its own redemption from decay. The resurrection of Jesus is the seminal event from which the whole of God’s new creation has already begun to grow. P. 113

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bodily Resurrection: More than a Christian Curiosity

On this third day of the Octave of Easter, a bit more on Resurrection from Raymond Brown:

In our anticipation of God’s ultimate plan, one of two models is usually followed: the model of eventual destruction and new creation, or the model of transformation. Will the material world pass away all be made new, or will somehow the world be transformed and changed into the city of God? The model that the Christian chooses will have an effect on his attitude toward the world and toward the corporeal. What will be destroyed can have only a passing value; what is to be transformed retains its importance. Is the body a shell that one sheds, or is it an intrinsic part of the personality that will forever identify a person? If Jesus, body corrupted in the tomb so that his victory over death did not include bodily resurrection, then the model of destruction and new creation is indicated. If Jesus rose bodily from the dead, then the Christian model should be one of transformation. The problem of the bodily resurrection is not just an example of Christian curiosity; it is related to a major theme in theology: God’s ultimate purpose in creating.
The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, p. 128-129

A related post: The Matter of Matter and Why it Matters

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Monday, April 9, 2012

Raymond Brown on the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus

Raymond Brown was one of the great biblical scholars of the last third of the 20th century. Brown was a 'critical' scholar who was not afraid to ask hard questions about the scriptures. He was also a faithful Roman Catholic. This is from his historical-critical examination of the resurrection narratives of the gospels:

From a critical study of the biblical evidence I would judge that Christians can and indeed should continue to speak of a bodily resurrection. Our earliest ancestors in the faith proclaimed a bodily resurrection in the sense that they did not believe that Jesus’ body had corrupted in the tomb. However, and this is equally important, Jesus’ risen body was no longer a body as we know bodies, bound by the dimensions of space and time. It is best to follow Paul’s description [in 1 Corinthians 15] of risen bodies as spiritual, not natural or physical (psychos); he can even imply that these bodies are no longer flesh and blood (1 Corinthians 15:50). Small wonder he speaks of a mystery! In our fidelity to proclaiming the bodily resurrection of Jesus, we should never become so defensively governed by apologetics that we do not do justice to this element of transformation and mystery. Christian truth is best served when equal justice is done to the element of continuity implied in bodily resurrection and to the element of eschatological transformation.

The understanding that the resurrection was bodily in the sense that Jesus’ body did not corrupt in the tomb has important theological implications. The resurrection of Jesus was remembered with such emphasis in the church because it explained what God had done for men. Through the resurrection men came to believe in God in a new way; man’s relationship to God was changed; a whole new vision of God and His intention for men was made possible; the whole flow of time and history was redirected. Nevertheless, a stress on the bodily resurrection keeps us from defining this resurrection solely in terms of what God has done for men. The resurrection was and remains, first of all, what God has done for Jesus. It was not an evolution in human consciousness, nor was it the disciples’ brilliant insight into the meaning of the crucifixion–it was the sovereign action of God glorifying Jesus of Nazareth. Only because God has done this for His Son are new possibilities opened for His many children who have come to believe in what He has done.
The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, p. 127-128

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Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Break-in of an End-time Reality

For each of the days of the Octave of Easter, I am going to offer a quote or two on the meaning of resurrection – Jesus’ and ours. (I did something like this for the 12 Days of Christmas)

The following are from The Apostles' Creed in light of Today’s Questions by Wolfhart Pannenberg:

If we ask about the origins of Christianity, not merely in the sense of enquiring what the first Christians believed , but in the sense of a present-day evaluation of what was really at the bottom of the story which started Christianity off, then we have to face up to the problem of the Easter events. P. 113

Can the historian reckon with the break-in of an end-time reality which does not take the same form as other historical events and which rests on a radical transformation of the present world? Can he consider it possible for such and end-time event to make itself felt beforehand, and already to become fully active in the present world? P. 108

The assertion that Jesus is risen from the dead remains a matter of dispute in a special degree because it cuts so deeply into fundamental questions of the understanding of reality. P. 114

The salvation of the individual, the wholeness of his existence which had remained a fragment because of misfortune, error, and death, is linked together with the destiny of mankind in the idea of a common resurrection of the dead at the end of the history of this present world. This also finds expression in the association of the general resurrection of the dead with the Last Judgment and the full revelation of the kingdom of God, which will complete man’s social destiny. P. 175

The kingdom of God embraces the earlier generations of mankind as well as the coming ones, and hope for the coming of the rule of God does not only expect salvation for the last generation; it is directed towards the transfiguration of all epochs of human history through the fire of divine judgment, which is one with the light of the glory of God. P. 178

Next: Raymond Brown on the Bodily Resurrection

Saturday, April 7, 2012

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

On Good Friday, the two Episcopal Churches and three Lutheran Churches of Glen Ellyn sponsored a ‘Tre Ore’ service on the Seven Last Words of Jesus from the Cross. Each church took responsibility for one of the words including a mediation by one of the clergy. I was assigned "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" from Matthew 27:45-49,
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "This man is calling for Elijah." At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him."


Christian Choate’s body was discovered near Gary, Indiana last summer. He was buried in a shallow grave under a slab of concrete behind the trailer where he once had lived. He had actually died two years earlier. He was only 13.

Those were thirteen years of misery. Years of isolation and neglect. Years of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of his father and step-mother. He lived with them because his mother and her boyfriend had been accused of molesting him.

He was kept home from school and home schooled. The essays his step-mother asked him to write are heart-breaking. She asked to write about "Why do you want to play with your peter? Why do you still want to see your mom? Why can't you let the past go? What does it mean to be part of a family?"

Christian spent much of the last year of his life locked in a three-foot-high dog cage, with little food and drink and few opportunities to leave. He was let out briefly to clean and vacuum. And he endured savage beatings from his father.

One night in April of 2009, Christian was too weak to keep his food down. His father beat him to the point of unconsciousness, then locked his limp body in the cage. The next morning, his sister Christina found him dead.

Christian wrote of why nobody liked him and how he just wanted to be liked by his family. He stated that he wanted to die because nobody liked the way he 'acted.' Christian's writings detail a very sad, depressed child who often wondered when someone, anyone, was going to come check on him and give him food or liquid. Christian often stated he was hungry or thirsty.
[Link to the news story]

But Elijah did not come for Christian. And we have no knowledge of his hearing God or being aware of God’s presence. Given the constraints on his life, we don’t even know if he knew enough to cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

It is the most disturbing of the words Jesus spoke from the cross. But, for me it is the most hopeful. The truth is I often find it hard to believe in God. Much god-talk strikes me as little more than sentimental fancy. Talk of god in a baby’s smile or the beauty of nature doesn’t quite cut it. Generic talk of “the Holy” or “the Sacred”? I don’t know what that means. Even talk of god as love, by itself, seems to me to too easily slip into sentimentality. All such talk falls flat in the face of the horror of Christian Choate’s story.

But, Good Friday is different. From the cross Jesus cried with a loud voice, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" What are we to make of that? I want to suggest that there are at least a couple of things we can say.

Jesus, in the fullness of his humanity, experiences the horror of being betrayed, denied and abandoned by his friends and rejected by his people. Jesus experiences all the torture, terror, and tragedy that humanity inflicts upon itself when it turns from God.

And, mystery of mysteries, Jesus, who knew such intimacy with the One he called ‘Father,’ experienced the awful, bewildering silence of God. Even as we remember that Jesus cried out using the worship language of his people using Psalm 22, there is no escaping that it was a cry of anguish. We dare not try to get around that.

But there is a second thing. In Jesus, we affirm that God’s very self entered into the darkest depths of human experience.
As Madeleine L’Engle wrote,
For Jesus, at-one-ment was not only being at-one with the glory of the stars, or the first daffodil in the spring, or a baby’s laugh. He was also at-one with all the pain and suffering that ever was, is, or will be. On the cross Jesus was at-one with the young boy with cancer, the young mother hemorrhaging, the raped girl [and at-one with Christian Choate and his sister. And even with the broken tortured spirits of their parents].

We can withdraw, even in our prayers, from the intensity of suffering. Jesus, on the cross, experienced it all. When I touch the small cross I wear, this, then, is the meaning of the symbol.

The cross is what makes it possible to believe in God at all. That’s why this is a good Friday.

William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during the first years of WWII, wrote in Christus Veritas,
The revelation of God’s dealing with human sin shows God enduring every depth of anguish for the sake of His Children. . . All that we can suffer of physical or mental anguish is within the divine experience. . . .He does not leave this world to suffer while He remains at ease apart; all suffering of the world is His.

Temple goes on to claim, “Only such a God can be God of the world we know.” Only such a God can be God in a world that includes multiple stories like that of Christian Choate. Only such a God can be God of our own stories.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Let’s be clear. This is not Jesus vs God. This is not God the Father torturing Jesus so he won’t have to torture us. The God we know through Jesus is not like Christian Choate’s father. This is God, the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – working in harmony to address the deepest, darkest depths of human need to bring forgiveness and healing and the promise of restoration.

And we know – thanks be to God, we know – that whatever Jesus experienced in his cry of dereliction, he did not despair and God did not abandon him. We know the rest of the story. We do not need to pretend on Good Friday that we don’t know what happens on Easter. We know that God was in Christ reconciling the world. Through the cross and resurrection God has come to transform the torture, tragedy, and terror. But we will save that for Sunday.

Today let us give thanks that in Jesus’ cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" there is the assurance that there is no human experience – not even the appalling, heart-rending experience of Christian Choate – that is finally God-forsaken.

(The follow-up sermon for Easter Sunday is here: Of First Importance)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Way of the Cross = the Way of Mercy & Forgiveness

There is no lesson Christ loves better to drive home, than this disconcerting fact of our common human fragility: which, when we have truly grasped it, kills resentment and puts indulgent pity in its place. Let the man, the group, the nation that is without sin cast the first stone. God’s forgiveness means the compassionate recognition of the weakness and instability of man; how often we cannot help it, how truly there is in us a ‘root and ground in sin,’ an implicit rebellion against the Holy, a tendency away from love and peace. And this requires of us the constant compassionate recognition of our fellow-creatures’ instability and weakness; of the fact that they too cannot help it. If the Christian penitent dares to ask that his many departures from the Christian norm, his impatience, gloom, self-occupation, unloving prejudices, reckless tongue, feverish desires, with all the damage they have caused to Christ’s Body, are indeed to be set aside, because – in spite of all – he longs for God and Eternal Life; then he too must set aside and forgive all that impatience, selfishness, bitter and foolish speech, sudden yieldings to base impulse in others have caused him to endure. Hardness is the one impossible thing. Harshness to others in those who ask and need the mercy of God sets up a conflict at the very heart of personality and shuts the door upon grace. And that which is true of the individual soul, is true of the community; the penitent nation seeking the path of life must also conform to the law of charity.

This principle applied in its fullness makes a demand on our generosity which only a purified and self-oblivious love can hope to meet. For every soul that appeals for God’s forgiveness is required to move over to His side, and share the compassionate understanding, the unmeasured pity, with which He looks on human frailty and sin. So difficulty is this to the proud and assertive creature, that it comes very near the end of our education in prayer. Indeed, the Christian doctrine of forgiveness is so drastic and so difficult, where there is a real and deep injury to forgive, that only those living in the Spirit, in union with the Cross, can dare to base their claim on it.

- from Abba by Evelyn Underhill