The Promise of Resurrection

[This sermon can be read by two or three persons. With two persons, one should read both the NT1 part (concerning the gospels) and the NT2 part (concerning Paul’s letters), and the other person should read the Narrator part. Chapter and verse citations in parenthesis need not be read, but are given as references that may be helpful if there is a discussion afterwards. Quotes from scripture are from the NSRV.]

Narrator: How are we to understand the resurrection of Jesus? There is no more basic teaching than this in the church, yet it seems preposterous to think of a dead man actually returning to life. None of us, I expect, would want a friend or a child to ask us for an explanation of our belief about resurrection, and we would probably be hard pressed to make an intelligent reply. If we read the New Testament carefully, however, we might be surprised . . .

NT1: The gospel of Mark has the shortest account of the story, which is one of the reasons it is probably the earliest of the New Testament gospels. It reports that Mary of Magdala (often known as Mary Magdalene) and Mary, the mother of James, and Salome come to the tomb, find the stone rolled away, and are told by a young man in a white robe that Jesus "has been raised" and has gone to Galilee, where he will meet them. The oldest manuscripts end by reporting that the women "fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." (Mk. 16:1-8)

Narrator: If these women didn't tell anyone what they'd seen, then no one would ever have known about the resurrection.

NT1: That's probably one reason why other gospels were written. Overall, it looks like the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke edited the gospel of Mark by adding teachings and making various changes.

Narrator: How do these two later gospels revise the story of the resurrection?

NT1: In the gospel of Matthew, an earthquake opens the tomb and an angel delivers to the two Marys the message given, in the gospel of Mark, to them and to Salome. As the two women run to tell the disciples, Jesus "meets" and speaks to them, and the gospel reports, "they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him." After the women tell the disciples what they have witnessed, the eleven disciples go to Galilee, see Jesus, and worship him. But "some doubted." (Mt. 28)

Narrator: Some doubted? Does it actually say that? After Jesus appeared to them and they worshipped him? Some of the disciples doubted?

NT1: Verse 17 of Mt. 28 reads, "When [the eleven disciples] saw him [in Galilee], they worshipped him; but some doubted."

Narrator: I didn't remember that. Is that confirmed by the account in the gospel of Luke?

NT1: The gospel of Luke says that two men in dazzling clothes told the two Marys and Joanna that Jesus has been raised. In this account Jesus doesn't appear to the women near the tomb, but he appears to two followers on the road to Emmaus and to Simon, which is the Hebrew name for Peter, before Jesus appears among his disciples in Jerusalem. There he says: "Look at my hands and my feet, see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." (Lk. 24:39)

Narrator: Who's claiming that Jesus is a ghost?

NT1: It doesn't say, but someone must be. Maybe this is what the gospel of Matthew means when it says "some [of the disciples] doubted?" The gospel of Luke also says that Jesus ate a piece of fish and explained to them how the scriptures prophesy his death and resurrection. Then he told them to remain in Jerusalem, led them to Bethany, blessed them, and was carried up into heaven. (Lk. 24)

Narrator: Wait a minute. In the gospel of Matthew the risen Jesus told the disciples to go to Galilee, and that's where they saw him.

NT1: Yes, but in the gospel of Luke the risen Jesus tells the disciples to remain in Jerusalem, and that's where they see him.

Narrator: Both of these gospels change the account in the gospel of Mark in different ways. What does the gospel of John say?

NT1: In the gospel of John, Mary of Magdala comes alone to the tomb and finds the stone rolled away. She does not see an angel, a young man, or two men, but she does meet Jesus in a nearby garden. Jesus says to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father." Then Jesus sends her to his "brothers" with the message: "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." The gospel of John also tells a story about the doubt of Thomas, who is invited to touch Jesus, and an appearance by Jesus to some of his disciples by the Sea of Galilee, where he eats fish with them and talks with Peter. (Jn. 20-21)

Narrator: Did Mary of Magdala come to the tomb in the other three gospel accounts?

NT1: Yes. In the gospel of Mark she was with Mary, the mother of James, and with Salome. In the gospel of Matthew just the two Marys come to the tomb. In the gospel of Luke the two Marys are accompanied by Joanna and other women.

Narrator: So, Mary of Magdala is a witness in all four gospels, and the two Marys are present in the first three gospels.

NT1: Yes.

Narrator: Who is Mary, the mother of James?

NT1: Actually, this is Mary, the mother of Jesus. James is the brother of Jesus. Acts describes him as the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He was renowned for his righteousness.

NT2: Paul not only meets James and Peter after the resurrection of Jesus, but Paul also experiences the risen Christ.

Narrator: Yes, but that's later in the story. We're trying to understand the resurrection of Jesus.

NT2: Then you'd better listen to what Paul has to say. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 Paul tells the Christians in Corinth: "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, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me."

Narrator: What does Paul mean by saying he "received" this teaching?

NT2: In the first chapter of Galations Paul writes that three years after his conversion he went to Jerusalem and met with James and Cephas, which is the Aramaic name for Peter. Paul must have "received" this teaching from these two leaders of the Jerusalem church.

Narrator: Does Paul distinguish between the resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples and to him?

NT2: No. He says Christ "appeared" to them all. But not all the Christians at Corinth seem to believe in the resurrection.

Narrator: What?

NT2: Paul writes to the Corinthians: "Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?"

Narrator: So, there are doubters not only among the disciples, at least as reported in the gospel of Matthew, but also among the first generation of Christians. How does Paul try to persuade those who doubt of the resurrection?

NT2: Paul says the resurrection of Jesus in three days from the dead is according to the scriptures, but he doesn't explain this statement. By "the scriptures" Paul probably means passages such as Psalm 16:9-10, which says: "my soul rejoices [and] my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, [which is where the Jews thought the souls of the dead went]." And Isaiah 53:5-12, which describes the suffering of God's servant and ends with God's promise, "Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great."

Narrator: These Old Testament texts don't seem to predict the resurrection.

NT2: Paul might be referring to Hosea 6:2, which says that the LORD will judge and strike down Israel, and then: "After two days [God] will revive us; [and] on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him."

Narrator: If this is what Paul means by "according to the scriptures," he is certainly reading the Bible creatively. Might he be referring to the New Testament gospels?

NT2: In his letters Paul never mentions these gospels and gives no indication of knowing anything about them.

Narrator: Were the letters of Paul written before the gospels?

NT2: It seems that Paul's letters are the earliest writings in the New Testament. Which means he's the closest we are going to get to an eyewitness account of what happened.

Narrator: So, what does resurrection mean to Paul?

NT2: Well, the Jewish scriptures I mentioned teach that death is not the end for those who are faithful. Paul explains that resurrection is the fulfillment of God’s will for all creation, not merely the raising of Jesus from the dead. Christ is the beginning of the resurrection of the dead that will come for all those, he says, "who belong to Christ." (vs. 20-23) Paul argues that the resurrection of the Christians in Corinth will be the same as the resurrection of Christ.

Narrator: You mean resurrection isn't just something astounding that happened to Jesus after he died?

NT2: Not for Paul. He says the resurrection of Christ is "the first fruits of [all] those who have died." (v. 20) When Christ comes again to reign, after the rulers of the earth have been destroyed, then everyone with faith will be resurrected with a "spiritual body".

Narrator: A "spiritual body"! I thought Jesus was resurrected in the flesh, as a physical body? The gospels all agree that the tomb was empty, and some of them tell stories about Jesus being touched, talking and eating food, and having a body of flesh and bones.

NT2: When Paul reports on the teaching he's received, that Christ died, was buried, and was raised, according to the scriptures, Paul doesn't say anything about an empty tomb. Moreover, Paul argues that anyone thinking our physical bodies will be raised after death is a fool.

Narrator: No!

NT2: Listen to him. "But someone will ask, 'How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?' Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies."

Narrator: He's explaining resurrection by using the image of a seed that's planted in the ground and dies to grow into a new plant!

NT2: Exactly. And he says, "There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies . . .. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable . . .. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body." (vs. 40, 42, 44)

Narrator: This is certainly different than the gospel stories of a physical resurrection.

NT2: Paul teaches that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God." When the end of the world comes, Paul writes to the church at Corinth, "the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality." (vs. 50-53)

Narrator: How could Paul ignore the witness of the disciples that's in the New Testament gospels?

NT2: It looks like the Christians who wrote these gospels ignored the witness of Paul and the earlier teaching tradition of the disciples. Paul received the tradition of the church from Peter and James. And, according to Paul and Acts of the Apostles, Peter and James were the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. Moreover, Paul testifies that the risen Christ appeared to him not long after he appeared to the disciples. Paul's testimony is as close as we will come to an eyewitness account of the resurrection, and he is adamant that resurrection is spiritual rather than physical. Resurrection is not bodily resuscitation. Paul says only fools would believe that. So why should we?

Narrator: It's clear that belief in the resurrection was hotly contested in the early church.

NT1: The gospels of Matthew, Luke and John all indicate that even some of the disciples doubted the resurrection of Jesus.

NT2: But Paul's life was dramatically changed by the resurrection of Christ, and so were the lives of the disciples who became the apostles.

Amen. © Robert Traer 2016