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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What Christians Believe – and Why: Did Jesus Really Rise?

Acts 10:34-43

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”


Mark 16:1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.


That’s it.  That’s how Mark, in the most ancient manuscripts, ends the story.  Later, scholars think, as the original manuscript of Mark was copied over hundreds of years, the last twelve verses were added, telling about encounters by Mary Magdalene, and then two disciples, and then the eleven with the risen Jesus.  But the stronger evidence is that Mark’s gospel ended as I’ve just read – with an empty tomb, instructions to head north, and three very confused women.  The story has an open ending.
There are some very good stories that end that way.  Gone With The Wind ends with Scarlett’s skirts waving in the breeze as she stands under a tree at Tara, gazing into the sunset.  Or is it a sunrise?  Will Rhett ever come back?  Will she keep Tara, or turn it into a subdivision?  In the 1990’s Alexandra Ripley tried to answer those questions with her widely panned sequel, Scarlett.  It didn’t work, because there’s a reason why some stories have open endings.
The book and movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles, has two – or, depending how you count, three – endings.  The TV show Seinfeld ended its nine-year run with Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer in a jail cell having been found guilty of criminal indifference, which was the point of the whole series.  What happened to them from there?  And, the most recent case of an open-ended story was the finale of The Sopranos on HBO, where the mobster Tony Soprano, whom everyone expected to be rubbed out in the last episode, is seen eating onion rings with his wife and son in a New Jersey restaurant.  No machine guns, no concrete overshoes.  Just onion rings.
Why would an author, especially the author of a gospel, leave the ending of this story open?  Scholars generally agree that Mark’s gospel was the first one written – wouldn’t it have been more helpful for him to put forth evidence that Jesus had risen from the dead? For two thousand years, Christians have argued proofs for the resurrection – that neither the Romans nor the Sanhedrin produced a body; that believers don’t die for things they know to be untrue; that the tomb was guarded; that the disciples are transformed from frightened sheep to great lions of God.  Believers in the shroud of Turin say that the image of the crucified man on the cloth could only have been produced by a brilliant light from within him “photo-copying” onto the fabric.  Why wouldn’t Mark leave us with something besides terrified women fleeing the scene?
Fred Craddock, who has been the great model for preaching for the last generation, delivers a sermon the way Mark wrote his gospel.  The first time I head Fred preach was at Minister’s Convocation at Blackstone.  Fred was weaving together a story about a trout stream in the mountains of North Georgia with the story of Abraham and Sarah looking for the Promised Land.  He drew us deeper and deeper into the stories, and I found myself literally sitting on the edge of my seat in the balcony as the sermon rose to its climax.  Just at the point where a run-of-the-mill preacher like me would say, “Now, this is what all this means, and this is what you need to do,” Fred turned from the pulpit and sat down.  I almost fell off the front of my seat.  I turned to my neighbor and said, “WHAT?”  But Fred wants the congregation to work out for themselves, with fear and trembling, what they’re supposed to do.  Because, Fred says, what he believes God is saying to him might not be the same thing God is saying to me, or to you.  He believes that the gospel story is so powerful, and the work of the Holy Spirit in that story so moving, that if we listen with open hearts, then God will help us find our place in that story.
Maybe that’s what Mark’s doing, too, with this story about women running from the tomb in terror.  He wants us to figure out for ourselves what the empty tomb means for us.  Sure, he could tell us about the road to Emmaus, or about Thomas doubting, or about Jesus cooking breakfast on the seashore like Matthew, Luke, and John do.  Mark knew those stories, too, as did the scribes who added them in verses 9 through 20.  But the proof that Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning isn’t there.  There is proof, but it’s somewhere else.
A couple of years ago I was having a discussion with a man who is not a Christian about what I believed.  His belief system, he admits, revolves around himself:  everything he believes comes from within his heart and mind.  He believes that religion is about ideas and spirit, not about anything physical.  I said that, as a Christian, I didn’t believe in a disembodied spirituality – that we couldn’t separate body and soul and spirit, which is why when Jesus rose from the dead, people could touch him, he carried his wounds, and he cooked and ate fish by the Sea of Galilee.  “So,” this man said, “do you believe God has a body?”  I thought a moment before answering, “Yes.”  He raised his eyebrows and asked, “Do you mean, a physical body that you can touch?”  Without hesitation, I replied, “Oh, yes.  Absolutely.  And I’ve touched, and been touched by it, many, many times.”  “Well,” he responded, “that’s very interesting.”  And that was the end of the conversation.
I never explained to him what I meant by that.  But Mark’s open ending to the Easter story tells me that the proof for Jesus’ resurrection from the dead isn’t in a shroud in Italy or in a missing body or in arguments about the placement of grave cloths.  The proof for the living Body of Christ is all around us this morning.  Hold the hand of the person next to you:  we are the Body of Christ.  Like Jesus, we are scarred, we are damaged, we are broken and weak.  But this Body has outlived every nation in history, it has outlasted every political and economic philosophy, it has survived every attempt to kill it and to mangle it and to render it irrelevant and useless.  It continues to work miracles of bringing dead hearts and minds to life, it feeds the hungry and heals the sick, it gives speech to the speechless, sight to the blind, and helps the lame rise and walk.  It loves the unlovable, forgives the unforgiveable, cures the incurable, gives hope to the hopeless, and life to the dead.  Did Jesus rise from the dead?  Look around you. 
Do I believe that somehow, by the power of God, the crucified carpenter of Nazareth came back to life on Easter morning, appeared to his disciples, walked to Emmaus, cooked breakfast by the lake, ascended into heaven, and appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus? Absolutely.  But the proof, for me, and, I would suggest, for the world, isn’t in the gospel stories.  It’s the other way around:  the proof for the gospel stories is in the very much risen and living Body of Christ that we touch every time we hold each other, weep with each other, rejoice with each other, eat with each other, work with each other, study and pray and sing and sacrifice with each other.  The proof is that for all our scars and brokenness, the world has been transformed more by that one solitary life living through us, than by all the kings and queens and soldiers and politicians and teachers and philosophers and athletes and actors who have ever lived.
Did Jesus really rise from the dead?  The world is hungering to know.  Look around you – there’s the answer.

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