Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 15, 2018
“I Believe in the Bodily Resurrection.
(Wait! Hear Me Out)”
Luke 24: 36b-48 – The Message
Jesus appeared to them and said, “Peace be with you.” They thought they were seeing a ghost and were scared half to death. He continued with them, “Don’t be upset, and don’t let all these doubting questions take over. Look at my hands; look at my feet—it’s really me. Touch me. Look me over from head to toe. A ghost doesn’t have muscle and bone like this.” As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. They still couldn’t believe what they were seeing. It was too much; it seemed too good to be true.
41-43 He asked, “Do you have any food here?” They gave him a piece of leftover fish they had cooked. He took it and ate it right before their eyes.
44 Then he said, “Everything I told you while I was with you comes to this: All the things written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms have to be fulfilled.”
45-48 He went on to open their understanding of the Word of God, showing them how to read their Bibles this way. He said, “You can see now how it is written that the Messiah suffers, rises from the dead on the third day, and then a total life-change through the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed in his name to all nations—starting from here, from Jerusalem! You’re the first to hear and see it. You’re the witnesses.”
If we say someone is a fundamentalist, it’s often meant as an insult. A way to dismiss them or their beliefs as ignorant or judgmental. In my less than better moments, I’ve done it too. Once. Or a thousand times…
There are moments, however, when I cringe at the judgmentalism thrown back in their face. The number one definition of a fundamentalist on urbandictionary.com says this:
“They have ridiculous, childish defenses to intelligence that borders on insanity. The level of hypocrisy and stupidity most of these people exhibit is truly profound.” That’s not fair.
So, what is a fundamentalist? Or perhaps, first, what was a fundamentalist?
The roots of fundamentalism started in a relatively benign way and in a pretty genteel place – in a speech at the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1910, before the word even existed in the dictionary. But the concept quickly took hold and a movement formed around which there was agreement on five fundamentals:
1)The literal interpretation of the Bible, including creation in literally six 24-hour days, 6,000 years ago
2)The absolute historical accuracy of Jesus’ miracles
3)The substitutionary atonement of Christ
4)The virgin birth of Jesus
5)His bodily resurrection
Today it would seem to include opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and a belief in free markets, and so on and so forth. But the roots of Christian fundamentalism began as a protest against increasing rationalism within Protestant Christianity. It was an embrace of the supernatural, largely a reaction against people known as modernists.
Among their other sins, modernists embraced biblical scholarship that included various methods of inquiry such as historical and literary criticism. Modernists, for example, would say, sure, creation may have happened in six days, but each day might have represented a millennium. Modernists embraced scholars who debunked miracles, suggesting, for example, that Jesus was able to walk across water because it was low tide. Modernists attempted to accommodate new scientific reasoning. For example, as the field of psychology developed, it brought about such suggestions that when Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well,” perhaps their affliction was all in the mind of the individual.
That kind of “wishy washy” approach to scripture explains the fundamentalists insistence on such things as the literal virgin birth and the literal bodily resurrection. These were not interpretations. And they were not negotiable. If the Bible said it, then it happened in exactly that way. Fundamentalists, of course, have never liked the fact that, for example, there are two creation stories, the kind of thing scholars of historical and literary criticism point out. Two versions of Jesus’ birth. Four different lists of who saw Jesus first…
During the early 20th century, all sorts of denominations were thrown into turmoil, none perhaps more so than the Presbyterians. But, largely, in nearly every case, the fundamentalists were defeated. They lost control of mainline denominations and their colleges and seminaries, so they started alternative institutions.
Congregationalists were largely modernists, proponents of an educated clergy and founders of such schools as Harvard and Yale. But not all lay people liked the education of their clergy, or at least some of their methods of scholarship which took away some cherished memories. Then and sometimes even now. As fundamentalism continued to take hold, some split off in the 1930s to form the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference.
Many of you know that the UCC is a union of four major traditions, declared in 1957. Congregationalism, of course, and two German immigrant denominations: the Reformed, who came from war-torn, poverty-stricken Germany in the late 1700s and early 1800s. And the Evangelical Synod, again immigrants from Germany during a time of crisis and chaos in that country in the mid to late 1800s. Among those who, as I mentioned last week, were given free land to settle in the Midwest and West while newly emancipated slaves were given nothing, no land, no economic base upon which, unlike these immigrants, could build their new life. Freedom, but only for hunger, as Dr. King put it.
As I’ve said before, these were not today’s small “e” evangelicals but big “e”, capital “e”, Evangelicals, members of a relatively tolerant and open-minded united church back in Germany. Also known as unionists. Their counterparts, the other side, back in Germany and here today, are Missouri Synod Lutherans.
The fourth group in the UCC is the least known, in part because they were very small and because their name was simply “Christian;” period. Their name made them largely indistinguishable, except that their beliefs were in sharp contrast with much of Christianity at the time, in the early 1800s. In such sharp contrast that, in one case, an angry mob in New Hampshire tried to burn down a church with its members inside because they did not insist on adherence to such doctrines as the trinity. This was before fundamentalism! They’re kind of the anti-fundamentalists.
I admire these Christians in our family tree. They were staunchly anti-creedal and anti-hierarchical. They simply had “Principles,” which included these things:
1) Jesus is the only head of the Church, not a bishop or pope or any other authority. In fact, my favorite joke is the woman who said, “Jesus is the head of this church, pastor, not you!”
2) The name Christian is sufficient, not such divided sectarian names as Methodist or Baptist, etc.
3) The Bible is a sufficient rule of faith and practice. “A” sufficient rule, not “the” only. That is because they insisted on…
4) The right of private judgment and the liberty of conscience, something our “Big E” ancestors insisted upon too. The motto of the Evangelical Synod was “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, diversity. In all things, charity.” What was essential and non-essential? That could be debated.
5) Back to our Christian family, they believed that Christian character is a sufficient test of membership and faith, not having the right doctrine. A quite post-modern point of view. And clearly, anti-fundamentalism.
These Christians were often so out of step for their times with other Christian groups that no one would cooperate with them. They did find collaboration with the Unitarians, with whom they founded Antioch College. Unitarians were another group dogged for their unorthodox Christianity. Of course, you do know that Unitarians began as protest against Congregationalists who asserted the divinity of Christ. We’re the trinitarian conservatives on that divide. Isn’t church history fun!?
Ironically, given all their difficulties, the Christians sixth principle was the union of all Christ’s followers, “that they may all be one,” which they did with the Congregationalists in 1931, all while the modernist-fundamentalist chaos was still in high gear.
For those who wonder why I find any of this interesting, in the category of “who cares,” I teach this stuff at Iliff, our local, very liberal seminary. But still, what does any of this have to do with the Gospel reading for today?
Remember Smokey read this morning: “The disciples thought they were seeing a ghost, so Jesus told them – touch me. Look me over from head to toe. He showed them his hands and feet. A ghost doesn’t have muscle like this,” the Gospel writer says. And then he ate some fish. In another Gospel, Jesus was on the beach cooking fish for the disciples while they were still out on their boats. There are several occasions of such appearances meant to prove that Jesus was bodily resurrected, not just a figment of their imagination, people deluded by their grief. Such stories include when he told Thomas, “Here, put your fingers into the nail holes in my hands.”
It appears that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was just as important to the Gospel writers as to fundamentalists. Leaving those of us in the modernist camp, today’s liberals and progressive Christians, in somewhat of a quandary. What do we do with this?
UCC pastor Dwight Welch said: “I used to say no, I didn’t believe in the resurrection. And I still don’t believe that the laws of biology can be suspended in our favor, that a dead body can be physically resuscitated. I don’t believe religious faith [requires] the suspension of our critical faculties nor a requirement to believe things we know aren’t so. That is a form of magic, not an expression of faith. But my answer has changed now. Today I do believe in resurrection. It is a kind of resurrection that happens when there is a transformation of our lives such that our old self dies and a new self, a more authentic and real self emerges.”
Perhaps that doesn’t exactly address the whole “body” thing. But it does contend that resurrection is real.
But Rob Bell articulates something I find even more helpful: “Resurrection says that what we do with our lives matters, in this body.”
Bell is an evangelical now excoriated by fellow evangelicals for having turned to the dark side, becoming one of those people whose mind is so open, his brains have fallen out – in other words, he’s become a liberal. (gasp)
But Bell’s statement allows me to proclaim, though I can hardly believe it (hands held around my head): “I believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.” Hear me out. It matters that we don’t just think things about Jesus but that the body of Christ becomes real. And that’s you and me. Because, we are his resurrected body.
Do we want people to say of us, gee, what a nice guy, or is it that we put our bodies on the line? It’s not that Black Lives Matter existentially. It’s that black bodies are sacrificed on the streets, and as we saw this week in the movie Marvin Booker Was Murdered, on the streets and inside the jails, alongside Michael Marshall, here in Denver, by people meant to protect our bodies and theirs.
When Jesus spoke with Thomas, did you ever notice that even after he was resurrected, Jesus was left with scars on his body? Scars gained for standing against the Roman Empire, standing with and alongside the poor, oppressed, marginalized, and vulnerable people of his time.
Therefore, his bodily resurrection, then, also includes the cuts and gashes he received from being beaten as he too walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma. And six gunshot wounds in his back for standing in his grandmother’s back yard with a cell phone in Sacramento. Red marks around his neck from being placed in a choke hold in New York City while crying out “I can’t breathe.” And again in Baton Rouge. Holes in his flesh, not from nails but shot while holding his hands above his head in Ferguson. Buying Skittles in Florida. And reading a book in Minnesota.
Sure, that’s not exactly, or not at all, what fundamentalists mean by bodily resurrection, so I’d still expect to get hate mail from them. And maybe a few odd glances from fellow progressives, looking at me eschew for such blasphemy as saying, “The bodily resurrection of Jesus is real.” But actually, that’s all I really want. I’m just looking for something that is real. For faith to be real. In our bodies, not just our minds.
What about the other fundamentals? Can I accept them too?
1) A literal six-day creation? I’ll accept that as soon as fundamentalists consider that feeding the poor is literal too. And loving your neighbor. Your gay neighbor, your Muslim neighbor, your homeless neighbor, your transgender and gender non-conforming neighbor, your immigrant neighbor, our Mexican neighbors… If we all believed in a literal “treat others the way you want to be treated,” then I’m all in.
2) The historical accuracy of the miracles? Sure, when we remember that all history is interpretation, about which accuracy can never be absolute.
3) Virgin birth? Well, the word used by the prophet Isaiah concerning the coming Messiah is actually “young woman.” So, yes, but I choose the “historically accurate” translation of the original language.
4) Substitutionary atonement? I need to skip that one for now because it’s a lot more complicated than I have time for today.
5) The bodily resurrection of Jesus? Absolutely. But it’s only true when we put our flesh in the game for the people whom Jesus loved and sacrificed his life. Then the body of Jesus, with all its scars, bullet holes, cuts and gashes, will have been resurrected in full.
But what’s the point of such belief? That there is hope. That suffering is not the final or only answer to the chaos and cruelty of our times. What’s the point? That not everything can be understood on the physical plane. You might even say I believe in the supernatural, but I would rather say it’s an embrace of mystery. We can’t limit God to what we can understand.
So, sign me up as a fundamentalist. But remember, a fundamentalist is just someone who declares what is fundamental. My fundamentals include love and justice and compassion to be made real in the mind, soul, and bodies of Jesus’ followers. That Black Lives Matter. I could keep going, but what would you say are your fundamentals? Your absolutes.