Sunday, May 5, 2013

What happened to Jesus' body?

The entire Christian religion stands or falls on the resurrection of Christ. With no resurrection, we could follow Christ’s teachings and ethics and live fairly good, decent lives. But in the end, Paul says, it wouldn't matter. In the end there would loom before us the cold desolation of the grave and our loss to eternity. If Christ is not raised, we have put our faith in a falsehood. We would have begged for God’s grace on the basis of something untrue. We are still trapped by our sins and have no way out. Truly, we would be pitiful.

But in fact, Christ was raised from the dead. Indeed, Jesus’ resurrection is the central event in all human history. The resurrection is God’s ultimate saving act in the world. All gifts of grace from God are intended to bring us to believe in our hearts that Jesus was raised and to confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord. Having made that confession, God’s grace leads us to live as Easter people.

We are redeemed by God's grace through our faith in Christ because God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s self. Saving faith is in the living person of Christ. Jesus’ teachings are not the object of our faith. Jesus’ miracles are not the object of our faith. The accounts and testimony about Jesus in Scripture are divinely inspired, but the Bible is not the object of our faith. The Christian faith is faith in Jesus Christ as the risen one.

This faith is not merely acknowledging that the resurrection happened. The apostle James observed that even hell-bound opponents of God acknowledge the truth about God. Merely assenting to the truth of the claims of Christianity isn’t the point. Saving faith is to stake one’s life on the Christian claims. It is to place the person of Jesus Christ at the center of one’s own identity, the center of one’s relationship with God and others.

One of the historical facts of the first Easter is that Jesus’ tomb was found empty  and that no one ever explained what happened to the body. Last week I said we still don’t know. While that is true in a forensic sense, it is not necessarily true in a spiritual sense.
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it – 1 Cor. 12.27
No one of us dares claim that he or she is the body of the risen Christ, but we do declare it together as a church. Jesus of Nazareth was God embodied on earth. The Christian church is Christ embodied on earth. If this claim is true, then within our church we should be able to see, hear, feel and do what Jesus did. So let’s look at what Jesus did, and see whether we embody them now.
  • Jesus pointed to God. If there is anything that always bursts forth in the life of Christ, it is Jesus’ extraordinary God consciousness. Jesus did not know God as some cosmic clockmaker who wound the universe up and then went on vacation while creation runs on its own. For Jesus, God was Abba, Father. Actually, it really means “Daddy.” Jesus knew and declared a God of incredibly close relationship to human beings.
  • Jesus proclaimed the Word of God. In his preaching and teaching, Jesus’ overriding message was to return to God. God is to be worshiped and praised, but just as importantly, God is to be honored. To honor God calls for more than worship and praise. It requires a reorientation of life and society. It is a call to justice and reconciliation.
  • Jesus suffered and died. He did not turn away from doing God’s will even at the cost of his life. Jesus’ suffering was not the point of his ministry, but it was unavoidable to carry out his ministry, because the entrenched powers of the world opposed the godly life Jesus proclaimed.
  • Jesus shared his table with his friends. There are one hundred references in the gospels to Jesus eating. In Jesus’ community, table fellowship was one of the chief signs of the Kingdom of God. Jesus knew that it is not possible to cross swords with someone who shares your bread. It is at table that families are formed, which is why our monthly fellowship meals are literally godly gatherings.
  • Jesus befriended the poor and the marginalized. Some people in his day had been discarded by society’s mainstream. Widows, the poor, prostitutes, sinners of every stripe and women generally found that all doors were shut to them. Jesus took them in and made them citizens of his kingdom. He brought in the powerful and privileged, too. He left out no one, even a thief hanging on the next cross over.
  • Jesus healed the sick. People came to Jesus when they had no other hope. They sought Jesus and Jesus sought them. In God’s grace and God’s power, Jesus healed them.
  • Jesus prayed. Jesus was a person of continual inquiry and confession with God. Jesus taught his disciples how to pray. Prayer is the most intimate speech a human being can have. It is to pull open one’s soul before the ultimate keeper of the soul. Jesus prayed in gladness, in action, in love, in despair, in agony and in the last breath of life. There was no circumstance or occasion that Jesus did not pervade and surround with prayer.

There are many more things Jesus did, of course. I’m not trying to make an exhaustive list. When the Christians in Corinth read Paul’s letter reminding them that they knew Christ had been raised, I think some recollections of Jesus’ life like this must have been remembered. And in remembering, they saw in themselves the risen savior, because they did, however imperfectly, what Jesus did.
  • The church points to God. The church calls the world to God and reveals God as one who can be known and admitted into close relationship with every human being. The church proclaims the word of God and worships God. The church honors God in its work for justice and reconciliation. The Word and work of the church calls society to live as God intended.
  • The church suffers and sometimes dies. It is almost incomprehensible that the Christian faith and its works flourish where its persecution is greatest. While we in America don’t suffer for our faith, our brothers and sisters in Christ in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, China and many other places are being imprisoned or killed today because they proclaim Christ.
  • We share our table with one another. More than that, we share our food with the hungry. The works of Christian relief agencies have staved off starvation in Bangladesh, Africa and South America. In any American city today, Catholic and Protestant missions are all that stand between many poor people and terrible hunger.
  • The church brings in the poor and offers comfort to the sinners of the world. We are all sinners, yes, but there are many people who have become so entrapped in sin and falleness that the secular world would just drop them from sight. But inside prisons and drug-rehab centers, in the lives of the chronically homeless, we find the church.
  • The church heals the sick. It was not an atheist association that built Baptist Hospital or St. Thomas hospital. Around the world, medical relief missions work to inoculate children, conquer disease and improve preventive medicine practices in third world countries. Mother Theresa’s order of Sisters of Mercy was the last hope for countless thousands of the lowest caste of Indians suffering in the gravest crises. It is no coincidence that Mother Theresa was a disciple of Jesus Christ and not of some pagan deity or secular humanism.
  • The church prays. We remain in continual confession and inquiry before God. In the sum of our prayers we bare the world’s soul. We overcome life’s tragedy because we know that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and that no thing that exists or can be imagined can block us from approaching God with confidence in his mercy.

There is one thing left. Jesus loved. Jesus was the supreme lover of all time. It is in this love we find Christ’s greatest presence. Without this love we are lost and empty; with it we are a holy people, fit for God’s works. Our love does not evoke the sappy sentimentality of simple romanticism or the giggly goofiness of erotic titillation.

Our love is patient and kind. It is not envious or boastful or proud, it is not rude or self-serving or easily angered. Our love keeps no record of wrongs. Our love protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Our love never fails. In our faith we have hope, but our love is greater than faith or hope. Our love reaches out instead of turning in. It builds up rather than knocks down. It values and cherishes rather than degrades or derides.

The Corinthians knew, and we know too, that this love does not—could not— come from ourselves. It is far greater and deeper than anything we could bring forth. We know we did not have this love or live this life until we encountered the Gospel and took the chance that maybe the most fantastic of all tales could really be true: that the tomb really was empty and that Jesus really does live. 

The Corinthian Christians are long dead, the apostles have turned to dust. But generation after generation of Christian people have suffered, healed, prayed and proclaimed, all on a single declaration, that Christ is raised.

What happened to Christ’s body? Well, look around you, look around. Here it is, all of us together.