March 31, 2013
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Here’s a little a story about a turning point in my life that many of you have heard before. When I was 24 years old, one day I was hitchhiking in Vermont. A rumpled old man - probably my age now - pulled over in a rumpled old VW bug. Turns out he was a Baptist minister. We got to talking about religious figures of the past, and I mumbled something about all of them teaching basically the same thing. He looked at me and said “Well, that may be partly so, but Jesus is the one who rose from the dead.”
I said “Well, that’s true...” and the conversation drifted off to other subjects. But when I got out of the car and walked down the street, about halfway down the block I stopped dead in my tracks and asked myself “What do you mean, ‘Well, that’s true?’ How do you know this, Brian? And what difference does it make to you?”
Those questions led me eventually to claim as my own the Christian faith I had grown up with, and more than that, to dedicate myself to living in God. Within 2 years, I was enrolled in seminary.
The resurrection has always been at the very center of the Christian faith. And it should be - unless you dismiss it as a fable - because what happened is phenomenal. Consider this: a human being, a spiritual teacher, was executed and sealed in a tomb, and laid there dead for 2 days. He then somehow, on his own, vacated that tomb.
Over the next 50 days, he appeared to hundreds of eyewitnesses who later spoke and wrote about it. He walked through closed doors and yet ate fish with his friends, showing up here and there without time to get from one place to another.
So this spiritual teacher had transcended the limitations of time, space, and so-called physical laws. He was victorious over death, having become an eternal spiritual being, alive and universally present in a way that is beyond human comprehension. He was one with God.
If we believe that this might have actually happened, what do we do with it?
For many Christians, the resurrection is simply proof that Jesus was God’s man, a kind of demonstration of divine power given in order to convince. It’s a pretty spectacular feat, and so it gives credence to theological claims about Jesus: that he was God in the flesh, the second person of the Trinity, that he was sent by God to be a sacrifice that would cancel the debt of human sin, and that if we believe all these ideas, he will take us to heaven instead of hell in the afterlife.
The problem is, all these ideas came long after the resurrection. They were doctrines staked out afterwards, over a period of 300 years. So I’m not interested in the resurrection as a theological proof. I want to know what impact it has had on real people’s lives, and what difference it might make to me, to you. I’m still considering the question that Baptist minister raised in me 37 years ago. Let’s begin with the impact the resurrection had on the first disciples. But to do that, we have to go back further, to set their experience in context.
During Jesus’ lifetime, that motley gang of fishermen, independent women, the disgraced and the outcast that we call the disciples heard Jesus teach some pretty specific things:
Don’t just love those who love you; love everybody without regard for merit, the good and the bad alike. Live simply and spiritually, for the pursuit of material pleasure and security in itself is a dead end. Open your heart to those who are poor, in prison, sick, rejected by society - they are the salt of the earth and will lead you into the kingdom of God. Don’t be a slave to tradition and religious rules; be a seeker, looking for your own answers. Die to your ego, your need to prove that you are good and right; look instead to God’s goodness and be humble. Be honest about your shortcomings, but then forgive yourself; you’re only human. Wake up; God is fully present everywhere, here and now, in everything and everyone.
So his followers joined the movement, wandered around the Galilee together, doing their best to follow these teachings. And when we read the gospels, we see that they failed pretty spectacularly. All the way through, and especially at the end when things got hairy, they were just as messed-up as any other random group of humans. But as my rumpled Baptist friend pointed out to me years ago, everything changed with the resurrection.
When I was in the first year of seminary, my New Testament professor shook up the class in the first few weeks of the semester by telling us “Look - We know that Jesus of Nazareth had a following, caused trouble, and was executed in the usual horrific manner of his day. Sensibly, his friends and followers fled for their lives. They were scattered, frightened, and confused.”
“We also know that after a short period of time, these same people were transformed, finding courage, passion, and unity as a community of faith, and even the ability to sacrifice their lives when persecuted.”
“We have no idea, however, what happened in between. Here’s the important thing: they attributed their transformation to Christ’s resurrection. They said that Jesus was with them again, not just in memory, but in reality, helping them live into his message with an even greater power than he did as a teacher.”
Here’s the difference: before the resurrection, Jesus was a leader to follow, a man who presented a coherent body of teachings that could be critiqued, ignored, or appreciated from a distance. After the resurrection, Christ entered into the hearts of any who opened themselves to him. He remade them from within. He fulfilled the ancient prophecy of Jeremiah:
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me.
What does this mean for you and me? It means that like Jesus’ disciples during his lifetime, we can listen to the wisdom of this venerable spiritual teacher and try our best to follow it. And like them, we will fail. There’s no shame in this. But as St. Paul pointed out so clearly, it can become a vicious circle - trying harder, failing again, feeling guilty, never measuring up.
The way out of this trap is what the early Christians discovered with the resurrected Christ: We cannot become like Christ by imitating him. We become like him by embodying him. We do this by listening deeply to his teachings, yes, but also opening our hearts to his presence within; receiving his very Body and Blood into our body and blood in communion; praying with an icon of his image or using his holy Name, like a mantra; hanging around with others who also look to him as their center, their guide; and otherwise letting his companionship seep into us as a transformative influence.
As his influence increases, we become sensitive to the ways that we block his movement within us, and we do what we can to remove those barriers. Over time, we find that we naturally live his teachings, because it is he who is living them through us. Everything about us that is not Christly eventually sloughs off, and what is left is a Brian-flavored, or Elizabeth-flavored, or Don- or Maria-flavored version of Jesus.
It is then that we know what St. Paul meant when he said It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me. And elsewhere, We have the mind of Christ. And as he wrote in a letter to the church in Ephesus, I pray that...Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith...I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Alleluia. Christ has risen from the dead. Christ has risen in all those through the centuries who have welcomed his presence. And Christ is risen through us, in our day. Alleluia, Christ is alive, and always will be.