Does History Get in the Way of Faith?

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Paul! That filthy, stinking liar! What do you make of a man who would willingly dupe all of those people in Corinth, and, by extension, all of us today? He had to be a liar, right? How else would you explain his preposterous claim that Jesus, after being horrifically crucified, was resurrected? How else to explain his claim that Jesus appeared to Peter, then to the eleven apostles, then to 500 people (many of whom were alive when Paul wrote to the Corinthians), then to Jesus’ brother James, then to the eleven apostles again, and then to Paul himself? Has to be a liar, right? Human logic says so. God can’t possibly be stronger than the rules of Creation that God created when God created Creation, right? God isn’t powerful enough to overcome the laws of the universe, right?

A lot of people must think Paul lied because Jesus’ resurrection is a huuuuge sticking point for them. Many of these people have no problem with Jesus as having been a great man, mystic, or prophet, but the idea that God could overcome the laws of physics to resurrect Jesus seems ridiculous to them. I certainly used to think this way, back when I was much more mature ☺. When I went into seminary I struggled with the resurrection. I had so many doubts. It took a long time before I was able to say, “You know, I’m not sure all these people would have been such fanatical followers of Jesus if he hadn’t been resurrected. If the resurrection was false, wouldn’t he be pretty much be as well-followed today as John the Baptist is, which is to say, not at all?”

The resurrection is a problem for many. For example, a number of years ago I received an e-mail from a visitor to Calvin Church after the Easter service. I had preached on Jesus’ resurrection during the service. The person asked me, in a very polite way, whether I really believed in the resurrection. I said that I did, and I explained why. The response I got back was that the person was disappointed in me because I had seemed like such an intelligent, open-minded person. How could I then be na├»ve enough to believe in the resurrection? As far as he was concerned, this was a major flaw in my thinking. Suffice to say that he didn’t come back to Calvin Church after that.

So why do so many of us modern people have a problem with Jesus’ resurrection? I have a theory. Simply put, I believe that modern history and science get in the way of truth. We are very sophisticated in our thinking today, but with that sophistication comes some blinders. The main blinder is that we have a tendency to compartmentalize both our thinking and truth. What I mean by that is that we have a tendency to continually compartmentalize truth into categories, and as a result we get caught up in constant either/or thinking. You can see this everywhere in our culture. For instance, we think in rigid compartments such as:
• Republican or Democrat
• Scientific truth or religious truth
• Biology vs. chemistry vs. psychology vs. physics vs. religion
• Black or white or Hispanic or Asian or something else
• Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist
• Atheist or Religious

We’re so used to thinking in compartments that we don’t even realize how much we do it. There is a huge advantage of thinking in this way. The advantage is that it allows to separate things into categories so that we understand detail so much better. Our compartmentalization has led to huge advances in science and technology, allowing us to become world leaders in science and technology. The downside is that it has decreased our understanding of life, God, and the universe beyond the universe.

We may be more sophisticated scientifically and technologically than the people of Jesus’ day, but they were much more sophisticated than us in their ability to see life as a whole and as holy. People of Jesus’ time didn’t compartmentalize. They weren’t stuck in either/or thinking, but could maintain a both/and mindset. The temptation is to think that in their naivety they just weren’t very logical. If we think that way, we aren’t very logical. Where do you think modern, western logic was created? It was created in Greece through the writings of great philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.

Now think about the people Paul was writing to: the Corinthians. Where was Corinth? In Greece. These people understood logical thinking. But they also understood that logic only went so far, and that there were mysteries that transcend human logic. So, for example, they weren’t caught up in seeking only historical truth, a truth based on the truth of “what happened.” When they spoke about what happened historically, they combined it with myth as a way of also showing what God was doing in history. They weren’t just seeking historical truth. They also wanted theological truth. They wanted to tell what God was doing in history. They didn’t compartmentalize. They integrated. But we are stuck in compartmentalization.

Think about some of the ways we compartmentalize today. For example, we tend to see the world as divided into the secular and the sacred. Where is the sacred? In church on Sundays, right? Where’s the secular? Everywhere else at all other times. That’s not the way people of Jesus’ day, and especially the early Christians, saw they world. They saw this world as a God-permeated world. They understood that there is no place that isn’t also bursting with the sacred.

We also tend to divide heaven from earth. We see heaven as the place of God, and the earth as the place of humans. We think that we only enter heaven when we die. That is not how the ancients saw it. They understood that we can live in the kingdom of heaven here on earth. They believed that when we live a life that is open to God in every part, we can live simultaneously on earth and in the kingdom of heaven in this life. From their perspective, there’s no separation between heaven and earth unless we cut heaven off from earth.

They also didn’t separate the ideal from the real. I hear so often people saying that religion is too idealistic, and that we have to live in real life. Neither the early Christians nor the Jews believed this. We can criticize the Sadducees and the Pharisees for a lot of things, but they did not separate the ideal from the real. They strove to bring the ideal and the real together. So did the early Christians, except in a different way. They weren’t focused on living out ideal laws in everyday life. They wanted to become open to God in everything, to let God become alive in them, so that God would allow the ideal to become real. As a result, they believed that Jesus was incarnated in everyone. They weren’t hung up on whether or not Jesus was resurrected so much as they were hung up on how to let the resurrected Christ become alive in them.

It wasn’t just the early church who believed this way. This way of seeing life has persisted throughout Christian history, but we have to constantly be reminded of this. For example, look at the words of St. Patrick’s great prayer, written in the 5th century. It conveys so much how the resurrected Christ can come alive in us today:
May Christ be with us,
Christ before us,
Christ in us,
Christ over us.
May your salvation, O Lord,
be always ours this day and forevermore….

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

If this doesn’t convey the idea of the resurrected Christ becoming alive in us, of heaven being united with the earthly, of the ideal becoming on with the real, and the sacred permeating the secular, I don’t know what does.

Patrick isn’t the only one who experienced the incarnation of the risen Christ in the world. George Ritchie also experienced this. I don’t know if you remember George Ritchie, but I’ve spoken of him before. His story is a remarkable one. Until he died in 2007, he was a prominent psychiatrist in Virginia and Alabama, gaining respect from colleagues around the country. But it was his experiences in the Army during World War II that gave him international renown. In 1941, when he was twenty years old, and a new recruit in the Army, he contracted pneumonia, which progressed to the point at which he died and was clinically dead for over twenty minutes. He had an experience in death in which he came face-to-face with Jesus, who then led him through an experience of hell, the future, and then of heaven. He wrote about these experiences in his book, Return from Tomorrow. This experience changed his life, leading him to live a life of love.

What I find really interesting about his story, and what connects with what I’m saying here, is what happened a few years later. He ended up being an Army medic in the follow-up operation to D-Day during World War II. At one point he was tending to a sergeant major named Jack, who had lost his leg by stepping on a land mine. Ritchie was amazed at how, when he visited him, Jack cared more about Ritchie than his own condition. Over the next few weeks Ritchie saw Jack caring for the other soldiers around him, even though he was hurt much worse than most of them. Ritchie also saw something strange about Jack. Jack’s face looked so familiar, but Ritchie couldn’t quite place him. Where had he seen him before? After a week or so he finally figured it out. The sergeant major seemed to have the same face as Jesus, even though their faces were completely different.

Months later Ritchie was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp to help the victims recover. He noticed one particular man, a Jew, who seemed to be in better health than the others, and who spent all his time helping the others. He discovered that this man had been in the camp longer than all the others, yet there was also something familiar about him. Again, Ritchie realized that this man, too, had the face of Jesus. Over time Ritchie discovered something else that was fascinating. If he chose to look with spiritual eyes, he could see the face of Jesus in people all around him: the concentration camp victims, the other soldiers and officers, the townspeople, and even in the German prisoners. He saw Jesus everywhere. He realized that Christ was incarnated in everyone and everything, and if he chose to look for Jesus in the faces all around him, he would see Jesus. What he discovered is very similar to something Mother Teresa used to say: that she saw the face of Jesus in the poor. She wasn’t just saying this. She meant it. She saw Jesus in the poor because she also understood what Paul was saying: Christ is everywhere. The point of all this is that we get so caught up in the question of whether or not Jesus was resurrected that we miss an even larger possibility, which is that Christ is incarnated in the world everywhere.

Let me close by opening you to possibilities this morning. Can you go beyond the more simplistic thinking to mystical thinking? We’ve all heard that Jesus died for our sins. I don’t have a problem with that belief, although I think there are other ways of understanding Jesus that take us waaaaay beyond this basic idea. Jesus not only died for our sin, but he died because of sin and forgave anyway. Jesus didn’t just die for sin. It was human sin that killed him. It was the sin of people who were religious but didn’t really want to hear God’s word and voice. So, in their sin, they killed him. And Jesus’ response: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

Take a step even further. Jesus lived and was raised to break down barriers between God and us. The point of the resurrection was that God knew that there were barriers of misconception, guilt, and selfishness that separate us from God by causing us to cut God out of life. God wanted to overcome those barriers through Christ, so God broke down the barriers of sin and death through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. God showed us to that whatever barriers we think are there, they aren’t.

Go even further. Jesus was raised to let his Spirit enter and act through us. This is what we learn through the story of Pentecost. Jesus ascended into heaven and the Spirit of Christ descended into his followers. The Spirit became part of everyone who was open to it, and the Spirit still is part of us if we are open to it. The point is that Christ’s Spirit can become alive in us. Christ’s resurrection wasn’t just about forgiving sin. It was about opening us to the possibility of living with the Spirit, and letting the Spirit become alive in and through us.

Finally, Jesus was raised to unite us in body, mind, and soul with God. God wants to be united with us in everything and everyway. Jesus came to show us that way by saying that just as Christ is in us and we are in Christ, that the Father is in us and we are in the Father. There is a kind of divine union that’s possible with God.

The point is that when we get caught up in the question of the resurrection, we miss the possibility of everything else. Are you stuck in the debates, or are you able to open to what’s beyond the debates, to the truth that lives beyond history?