The Christianity Today Weblog had it exactly right: “Few weeks are as heavy on religion news, or death news, as this one.” Terri Schiavo dies, Karol Wojtyla dies, investigations continue into mass shootings at a church and school, executions (both legal and extra-) work their way through the courts. As CT puts it, “See a theme?”
It’s a good time to be reminded of the promise of the resurrection. Again, this is no “pie in the sky” affair: in the gospel accounts, it is emphatically, almost embarrassingly, physical. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” says Thomas, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later, Jesus appears to invite him to do just that.
This is an earthy resurrection, a bodily one. The gospels are vague on the issue, but Jesus seems to reappear to the disciples, wounds and all. This is the same body that was laid in the grave—and yet it is restored, somehow. It is in the process of some further transformation: as Jesus tells Mary Magdalene when he appears to her, “Do not hold onto me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Is this transformation promised to us as well? The gospels are silent on the point.
Skeptics—some friendly, some not—occasionally ask how I can hold a boatload of counter-intuitve beliefs. You seem like a reasonable person, they say, yet you believe things that aren’t rational.
I tell them I believe because I have seen the power of the resurrection with my own eyes.
In my time as a pastor, I’ve been called upon to do a lot of visiting with the sick and dying. One of my favorites was literally a singing cowboy; he’d had his own band back in the 30s and 40s, though for most of his life, he made his living selling insurance.
He was quite possibly the kindest, friendliest man I’d ever met. He claimed to have made a few enemies along the way, but I didn’t believe him for a moment. He died in great pain from lymphoma.
For many months, as he struggled against the cancer, he was cheerful to a fault, telling everyone he met that he was going to beat it and get back to life. His wife would tell me privately that she didn’t think he would, but she didn’t want to say so because she thought it wouldn’t be supportive. When I talked to him, he’d say the same thing about her.
This went on for weeks, even when it became obvious to everyone that he was not going to beat it. I finally spoke to him in private and asked him again how he was feeling about the situation. “Fine, pastor,” he said. “I’m going to beat this and get back to church.”
“See, here’s the thing,” I told him, as gently as I could. “I don’t think you are. And you and your wife need to start talking about it, so you can enjoy the rest of your time together.”
He put up a little more resistance, but eventually fell silent. I pressed him on the issue, and he said, “I’ll take care of it.” He did, and from there, they began the long process of reconciling themselves to his death.
Another woman in the same congregation had been bed-ridden for years with multiple sclerosis. Then she, too, was diagnosed with cancer, an aggressive kind that by all rights should have killed her. (Three years later, she’s still making it.) I asked her if she believed in the resurrection, if she believed her body would be restored someday.
“You bet,” she said. “It’s what keeps me going.”
And there’s the power and the promise of the resurrection: that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
“Peace be with you,” Christ says to his disciples. Not, “you have nothing to fear.” Not, “nothing’s going to happen to you,” but “Peace be with you.” Awful, painful, humiliating, even killing things happen to our bodies. Yet through all those things, God is present with us, working to reassure us that strife and pain and death are not ultimate realities.
I don’t know about you, but that’s reassuring for me in this week filled with far too much news of division and death. We cannot avoid these things, but by God, they don’t have to have the last word.