Every Sunday evening these past few weeks, my Twitter feed and facebook page have filled up with messages about a TV show called The Walking Dead. Given that many of those I follow on Twitter are younger and hipper than me, perhaps that’s not surprising. What did surprise me was when an Episcopal bishop I know declared on twitter and facebook that he was settling down this past Sunday night to watch the current episode. In case you don’t know, and I only know thanks to social media, The Walking Dead is something of a cult hit. It’s about a zombie apocalypse. A guy wakes up in his hospital bed and discovers that everyone is either dead or has become a zombie. I watched an episode yesterday so I could talk about it and I’ll admit that I used to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and when I was a teenager I loved the Creature double feature on Saturday late night TV that was hosted by the Ghoul. Our culture, film and tv are awash with tales of the undead, vampires, werewolves, and zombies. We seem to be fascinated by the prospects of life after death, even if we find it hard to believe in it. Continue reading
This week’s readings are here.
The Gospel reading this week is one of the most interesting pericopes in any of the gospels. It offers a view into the world of first-century Judaism and the lively debates that were occurring over the nature of scripture, of scriptural authority, and of the doctrine of the resurrection.
First, a little background. Jesus has come to the end of his lengthy journey to Jerusalem (it began back in chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel; for us it began back in June). We’ve jumped over the Triumphal Entry and the Cleansing of the Temple. Luke has returned to Mark’s chronology here and like Mark, he has Jesus teaching in the Temple. As he teaches, he is confronted by various groups of his opponents–Pharisees, for example. They pose questions to him, they are seeking to trap him in some way so they can bring him up on charges.
In this week’s gospel, the group challenging Jesus are the Sadducees. They are aristocratic, well-connected, conservative. It’s likely that they are among the chief beneficiaries of Roman rule. As leaders of the Temple cult, they are also in position to benefit economically from their position. We know relatively little about them; in fact, much of our knowledge derives from what the gospel writers tell us in this incident. They reject the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. It’s also the case that they believe only the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible are authoritative. That narrow understanding of scripture helps to explain why they reject the doctrine of the resurrection. It’s very hard to find evidence for that doctrine in the Pentateuch.
They come to Jesus trying to force him to take sides on the resurrection (it’s common belief among the Pharisees, for example). So they use the example of Levirate marriage; the custom that if a man dies without an heir, his brother is obligated to marry the widow and provide an heir.
Jesus doesn’t take the bait (he never does in these confrontations). He points out that life in the age to come is qualitatively different than life in this age–that there is no marriage, or taking in marriage. It’s interesting, though, how he argues against the Sadducees. He quotes from Exodus (one of the books of Torah), to make the case that “God is the God of the living and not the dead.” He appeals to Exodus because the Sadducees consider it authoritative. Had he quoted this week’s reading from Job, or any of the other texts in the Hebrew Bible that seem to imply resurrection, the Sadducees would not have considered it valid because they didn’t think those texts were authoritative.
What makes this text so interesting is that it opens up the internal debate within first-century Judaism over the nature of scripture, of scriptural authority, and over the resurrection. It’s easy for Christians to read the Hebrew Bible and Jewish history through the lens of 2000 years of Christian history and theology and to assume that ideas that are now considered central doctrines were contested in earlier centuries. The resurrection of the dead was a topic of much debate in first-century Judaism for one simple reason. It was an innovation. We can see its origins in Daniel and Ezekiel (remember the dry bones?) but even centuries later, in Jesus’ day, it remained a controversial doctrine.
And so it remains today. I wonder how many “good” Christians really believe that one day their physical body will be raised and reunited with their souls.
On this Friday after Easter, I’ve been pondering the resurrection. Perhaps because it’s because I was working in the garden this morning and was amused by the images I encountered. Up by the house, there was still snow and two inches of ice on the path that goes around the side of the house. In the front yard, crocuses are blooming and the daffodils will be very soon. Overhead, a lonely sandhill crane flew and called.
We were cleaning up after a long and very snowy winter. Signs of new life were all around; the bulbs shooting up through the mulch; buds on the trees. But there was also a lot of death and decay. We removed branches that had broken under the weight of ice and snow. There are still some evergreen branches that we can’t deal with because they are frozen in bent the lingering snow and ice.
I’m not sure I saw Jesus Christ in the garden today, unlike Mary Magdalene on Easter. Perhaps a sandhill crane and a robin searching for food on a snowy bank will have to do. And my muscles’ aching after several hours of work remind me of the frailty of my aging body. But the very physical reality of how I spent my time today, the very physicality of the soil, decayed plant material and the new life that is springing up around it is a reminder that the physical world matters in Christianity and that the resurrection of the body matters, too.
I’m not preaching on Sunday but the gospel is one of my favorite texts–the story of Jesus’ appearance to Thomas. It’s wonderful because it faces head on our doubts as well as our faith. Thomas gets a bad rap in the tradition; “Doubting Thomas” he is called. But his refusal to take others’ words for Jesus’ resurrection is not that different than any of the other disciples; Peter and the Beloved Disciple run to the tomb to make sure when Mary Magdalene tells them it’s empty. Thomas expresses what we would all express when he refuses to believe unless he can see it for himself.
A couple of other things to point out in the story: First, although he demanded that he touch Jesus’ wounds, he doesn’t actually touch them; seeing was enough. Second, his confession, “My Lord and my God” is in many ways the gospel’s climax. It’s the clearest confession by any of the disciples of the identity of Jesus Christ and God. Although Jesus had been talking about it throughout the gospel, it’s not apparent that anyone understood what he meant until this point.
Some others’ reflections on the resurrection of the body. From Greg Carey, “Bodies Matter:”
Whatever we believe about the nature of resurrection — how it works, whether the language is metaphorical — early Christians insisted that the resurrection involves bodies.
Very early in Christian history, some believers argued that the Savior could not have inhabited a real human body. Bodies, they argued, come with problems. We all get sick, experience limitations, decay and eventually die. Therefore, what matters is not the body but the spirit. These “docetists” believed Jesus only appeared to be human and to die.
The larger church rejected the docetic view. Bodies are important, the church testifies. When we say the Apostles’ Creed, we do not say, “I believe in the immortality of the soul”; we say, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” To put it simply, we believe that God redeems all of creation. The resurrection embraces all of who we are, body and soul. Indeed, it’s probably a mistake to think of body and soul as separate categories. Bodies matter.
From Sam Wells: Easter and the resurrection of the body tie together forgiveness of sins and everlasting life:
But the resurrection of the body is about us as well as about Jesus. Remember where I began: there is no such thing as the present tense. Well, there isn’t any present tense if there is no forgiveness and no life everlasting. But if there is forgiveness – if the past is a gift – and if there is everlasting life – if the future is our friend – then we really can live, we really can exist, we really are a new creation. Every detail of our lives is then precious and meaningful, rather than passing and pitiful or feeble and futile.
This is our present – God’s present to us, God’s presence with us, now and forever. This is resurrection. This is Easter.
And from Beth Maynard, John Updike’s Seven Stanzas for Easter