An interesting article in the Washington Post about “Disbelief in the Pulpit” has prompted quite a bit of discussion about how far pastors can dissent from the basic teachings of their particular church or denomination and still in good conscience continue as a leader in the denomination. Several times in these conversations pastors have admitted that they do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. And they seem to me to have expressed this in a way that suggests that this is not problematic.
I confess that I am baffled by the idea that one can be a Christian, much less the leader of the church, and not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. It seems to me that if Christ was not raised from the dead, then Christians have no hope. Each time I have read someone casually dismiss the importance of the resurrection I have thought of 1 Corinthians 15: 12-19, where Paul does not mince words about what is at stake for Christians regarding the bodily resurrection of Jesus:
But if it preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all others.
The implications of what Paul thinks is at stake are clear – If Christ has not been raised from the dead, Christians are the most pitiable people in the world. We are to be pitied because if there is no resurrection, death has won and it is the final word. If it is the final word, the world should pity Christians because we are wasting the finite amount of time we have to live on something that isn’t true.
But more than that, we are to be pitied because we have no hope if Christ has not been raised from the dead. If there is no bodily resurrection, then when we stare death in the face, we have no grounds for hope because it is the last word. It will ultimately win. Everyday should be Ash Wednesday.
But, thanks be to God, Christ has been raised from the dead. And because of this, Christians can look death itself in the face and have hope. Pastors can read 1 Corinthians 15 in the presence of a dead body and tell the congregation that there is hope, that God is more powerful than even death itself. Paul says it much better than I do.
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Cor. 15:54-57)
Reading this passage at funerals has been one of the most powerful things I have done as a pastor. Left to ourselves, death will overwhelm us. But with Christ, we can look even death itself in the face and dare to have hope. We can tell death itself that it will not win, its sting has been taken away.
As we draw nearer to Easter morning, this Lent, we will confront the last days of Jesus’ life. We will read of his passion, we will hear of the crucifixion. But Christians always have hope, because Easter is coming! This is not a metaphor. We celebrate Easter for eight weeks because after the Son of God was nailed to a cross, on Easter morning the tomb was empty. At the heart of the gospel is the good news that the one whom we crucified is risen, and that very one continues to seek and to save the lost.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is at the heart of the Christian faith. Without it, what is left is a mere shell. Indeed, without the resurrection I am not sure there is anything left that can be recognized as Christianity. Proclaiming the Risen Christ is the heart of the gospel message itself.
When the disciples said to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!” He responded, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” You probably know the story, but here is what happens next:
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’
Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’
Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:26-29)
What an awesome gospel we have been given! Even during the midst of Lent, we celebrate on Sundays, because the resurrection of our Lord is such good news that we cannot contain it. It is the reason we come together to worship God every week. Our faith is not futile, because the one who was crucified lives! Jesus is risen, praise God!