“What About Resurrection?” by Rev. Stephanie Cooper

Listen to the sermon from Sunday, November 6, 2016 titled “What About Resurrection?” by Rev. Stephanie Cooper.

This week, history was made.  You’d have to be living under a rock not to hear that the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years. Now, I’m not particularly a huge baseball fan, but I stayed up to root on the Cubs as they rounded the bases to make history.

There is something within us all that loves a good comeback story.  The Cubs, down in the series 3-1 at one point, clawed their way back to an historic victory.  Something within us loves these “rise from the ashes” stories.  We like the underdog-comeback kid.

The legend of the phoenix captures us as she rises from the ashes of death and is given new life and renewed strength.

And this is the centrality of our Christian story.  We proclaim that Jesus came and walk among us, was crucified and then after three days, was raised from the dead.

We sing victory in Jesus and Christ the Lord is Ris’n today.

And I know some who would say that the Cubs winning the World Series and Christ being raised from the dead are equivalently as likely.  But all joking aside, they really aren’t within the same realm.  Resurrection is a bold claim.  And we as Christians make some very bold theological claims when it comes to resurrection, heaven, hell and the afterlife.

So, what about resurrection?

Well, I think I’d like to start with a line from a song by Gregory Alan Isakov called Second Chances: 

“I’m all bloody knuckles, longing for home
If it weren’t for second chances, we’d all be alone 

I’m a shot through the dark
I’m a black sinkhole
If it weren’t for second chances, we’d all be alone”

As a pastor, I’m faced with this idea of resurrection a lot.

When I first greet people who don’t know what I do and we get into polite conversation, one of the first questions that always comes up is “So what do you do?”

It’s always a little amusing to watch people choke on their drink when I say, “Oh me? I’m a Pastor.”  And when they’ve had time to process that, I usually try to ease the tension by offering “Don’t worry- I just marry and bury ‘em”.

And I’d hope that by now you know that isn’t all that I do, but in all realness, a lot of pastoral work is being with families through major life transitions- including death.

And in the Christian context, talking about death is often met with the conversation about resurrection.

During college, I spent summers working a summer camp in the southeast called “Passport”.  A fairly moderate Christian camping association that draws young college students together as a way to “minister” to middle and high school students throughout the summers.  We would lead games, bible study and worship, for 10 weeks out of the summer, with one day off each week.  From 7 in the morning until 11 at night: we are inundated with this Christian story and these Bible lessons we were teaching.

One day, over lunch, as we often would, we were talking about one the bible studies we were teaching that summer. You probably know the one, doubting Thomas: “Let me put my hand in your side, Lord, so that I know that it’s really you.” The risen Jesus has come to greet his disciples and Thomas needs to know for sure with physical evidence.

And during this lunchtime conversation about doubting Thomas, my friend Kevin suggested that Jesus never actually rose from the dead.   That all of these stories about seeing Jesus after he had risen were all made up.  That there was no bodily Easter resurrection.

So, I sort of put it all away in the back of my head and sort of wrote it off… “Kevin’s just on his liberal tangent again.”

Fast-forward to the following Easter, as I found myself in church singing “Up from the Grave he arose!” I had this moment:

What if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead?

What if Jesus was left on the cross like all of the other criminals?

What if all of these accounts of the risen Christ are just stories?  Made up?

What can we count on if we can’t count on resurrection?

So I sat down after the hymn and I texted Kevin, “No resurrection?  Then how do you believe in this Easter story at all?  How do you believe in Jesus at all?”

And I watched my phone for his response and he texted:  “I’ll call you after service.”

Thus began my journey of asking hard and real questions of my faith and of this Christian story laid before me.

So what about resurrection?  Our Bible says a lot of strange things about resurrection and in fact, there has been some pretty developed theology that has spun out of that.

And maybe we’re not even talking about Jesus’ resurrection, but what about you and me?

What happens after we die?

I had a youth minister who explained away a lot of things and told me that when we die we don’t experience time any more so we immediately fast forward to the time of judgement and Christ’s return and the faithful are raised from the dead.

Is that just my spirit? Or my body too?

And what about people who are unhappy with their bodies.  And I had another minister suggest that everything about our physical bodies will be made perfect in the resurrection.  So does that mean that I will have the body I always wanted?  Will I be given the American perception of the “perfect” body? Will amputees be given limbs that they’d lost?

Does any of this even matter?

Here at UBC every week Senior Pastor Larry Bethune offers the invitation to become a Christian through baptism- identifying with Christ through his death burial and resurrection to new life.

So what if I don’t believe in resurrection?  Does that make me somehow a less faithful Christian?  Does my faith hang on the premise of resurrection?

Do I need to be raised from the dead for my faith to be made real?  Does Jesus need to be physically raised from the dead for this Christian story to be real?

And so, what does the Bible say about resurrection?

The most common understanding of resurrection comes from fairly developed Pauline theology.  In fact, in the thousands of years that encompasses our Old Testament text, there is one mention of resurrection.  One.  And that’s in Daniel which is sort of a wonky book anyway.

In fact, for the Israelites of the Old Testament, it was common practice to bury your dead in Sheol.  Now, Sheol is that word that now-a-days gets translated into the word “hell”.

But Shoel for the Israelites was the place where all of the dead go, good and bad alike.  It was the pit, the depths, the underworld.

So there’s no mention of bodily resurrection in the first 39 books of our protestant Bible, only Shoel, except for in Daniel.

So the ideas that we often think of when we hear about bodily resurrection begins to develop in the post-exilic period, after most of our Old Testament is written.

And the post-exilic period, the time between the testaments, if you will, is about 400 years, so think about what sort of development happens over 400 years.

So when we come to the New Testament, as Jesus was walking on this earth, he is within this context of development around these ideas of resurrection, life and death.  Which is where we find our gospel reading for today.

At the onset of our gospel passage, the characters in conversation with Jesus are introduced as “Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection.”  It is evident that there hasn’t been some clean-cut answer around the topic, but there was a conversation still happening about resurrection.

So after Jesus dies and reports of people seeing him raised from the dead begin to circulate, these people who believed in who Jesus was and what Jesus was about, begin to organize.

And some of the earliest writings we have in the NT are letters of church leaders laying down some theology.

1 Corinthians is a letter from Paul to the church of Corinth where he says “there are some among you that say there is no resurrection.” And Paul, a staunch believer in bodily resurrection lays out what will become pretty foundational Christian theology surrounding resurrection.

In Chapter 15, Paul step by step explains resurrection as this: Christ was raised from the dead, and if Christ was raised, then resurrection is possible for all of us and if you don’t believe that then your faith is in vain and you are still living in sin.

Now, I know I can be a little harsh on Paul, but what?  Since when do we have to believe in a certain set of things to be made right with God?  I like to think that we believe in a God who is bigger than our questions and stronger than our doubts.

This would happen in seminary all the time, but sometimes when we get too close to something, we can’t make out the bigger and beautiful picture that we see at a distance.

Now, I didn’t come here this morning to make some big and bold claims about resurrection.  But sometimes, we need buddies like Kevin in our lives to make us think a little bit deeper about the beliefs we uphold to be truth.

And asking questions of God is OK.

So here is what I can say about resurrection:

“I’m all bloody knuckles, longing for home
If it weren’t for second chances, we’d all be alone” 

You see, regardless of where you stand theologically on resurrection- I think resurrection happens all around us every day.  And that’s the good news Jesus came proclaiming.  That’s the good news that what looks like death can bring forth new life.

Eight years ago when I came out to my mom as a gay woman, scared and shaking and not knowing what was next, she hugged me told me she loved me.  Through that, though, we both had to put to death and grieve some thoughts and ideas about what my future looked like and what our future as a family looked like.  But out of death that new life begins.  I am able to be fully and most wholly who I am and who God created me to be. And through that life, my family has embraced a wonderful woman in my wife, Ashley into their family.

Jesus says I have come so that they may have life and have it to the fullest.

And death in our lives takes all shapes and forms.   Man do I have stories of where I have had to die to myself– my ego– to create space for new life to flourish.  And not all dying is comfortable or easy or fast.

A friend of mine had been in an abusive relationship for 5 years.  And just last week she had the courage to take her two little kids and leave her abuser.  Now, I can tell you what, that doesn’t look like life right now, but I can tell you that resurrection is possible where we let some things die.

From death to new life.  This is the story that we hear in our bible time and again.  What looks like death, like a dead-end, like an ending is really the new beginning.  Sarah, an old woman’s womb birthing a nation. The Israelites in Egypt brought to freedom.  A river that splits at just the right time. Ruth and Naomi making a way out of nothing. Job in surrender. A prodigal son who returns home to a second chance with welcome and a party.  And a rabbi on a cross, put in a tomb, that’s found empty three days later.

This cycle of death to new life, the evidence of resurrection is all around us.

The gospel of John says, “Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat.

But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.

In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is- destroys that life.

But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have life forever, real and eternal.”

So back to our gospel lesson:  When Jesus is asked about resurrection, by these Sadducees, his response is this: Our God is not God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of those who have gone on beyond us are alive.”

Jesus points to a God who is beckoning us to see the resurrection all around us and to live into that resurrection.


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