In terms of preaching experience, I’ve got a baker’s dozen.
Somewhere along the way I discovered that the most contentious, disputed doctrine among the every Sunday pew people isn’t homosexuality, abortion or biblical authority.
It’s belief in the resurrection of the body.
The literal, physical, historic and material resurrection of Jesus from the tomb as the first fruits of our eventual literal, physical, historic and material resurrection from our tombs, caskets and urns.
I know many more Christians who cross their fingers during that part of the creed (‘…and the resurrection of the body…’) and who are willing to argue with me about it than I do Christians willing to debate the ‘social issues dividing the church.’
The (mainline at least) Christians get their panties in a bunch like no else when you suggest that belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is the lynch pin of Christian orthodoxy.
Don’t believe me read the Book of Acts. Every sermon of the first church revolves around the resurrection. Peel away your penal substitution prejudice and read Paul again- it’s resurrection through and through.
Times may change but you can be damn sure cowardly Peter didn’t let himself get crucified upside down because he held a ‘Search for Spock’ doctrine of the resurrection (when we remember him, it’s like he’s still here with us).
I’m not even arguing science or history right now. I’m arguing linguistics.
Christian speech falls apart without Easter.
Resurrection’s the verb that makes sense of all Christian language.
Without it, Cross and Incarnation and Sermon on the Mount are all unintelligible, free-standing nouns.
Jesus might’ve thought all the law and the prophets hang on the greatest commandment, but- think about it- we’ve absolutely no reason to pay any attention whatsoever to anything Jesus said, thought, or did if God didn’t vindicate him by raising him from the dead.
Actually. Really. Truly.
If the REZ is just a metaphor, then Jesus’ teaching and witness is just another way that leads to Death.
Even worse, if you still insist that Jesus is God Incarnate, the Image of the Invisible God but deny the resurrection you’re arguing that violence, suffering and tragedy is at the very heart and center of God’s own self-understanding- rendering a God not worthy of (mine, at least) worship.
In other words- in John Howard Yoder’s words- without the actual, physical, literal resurrection of Jesus we’ve no basis to assert that the way of Jesus goes with the grain of the universe.
In other words- mine this time- if God did not vindicate Jesus’ words and way by raising him from the dead, we’re in absolutely NO position to say his teaching about the Kingdom (see: cheek, turning of) corresponds to any present or future reality.
Near the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s war novel, Slaughterhouse Five, the narrator envisions a bombing mission in reverse. Fires go out. Homes are repaired. Bombs that were dropped over towns and cities are raised back up through the sky into the bodies of the American planes. The bombers fly home backwards where they are taken apart rivet by rivet and, eventually, even the soldiers become babies.
Vonnegutt’s vision is one where the violence and death of war is undone. Original beauty is restored.
While Vonnegutt was himself one of the 20th century’s most articulate atheists, he might be chagrined to discover how thoroughly biblical was his version of hope. Slaughterhouse Five reads like it was ripped off of the prophet Isaiah (65) or St John (Revelation 21-22).
Christian faith is expectant faith.
Christian faith expects for God to undo what Sin has done. Christian faith awaits and longs for God to complete the creative aim begun in the Garden. It anticipates God to consumate the redemptive work begun in Jesus Christ.
Christian faith is expectant faith. Just think of what little would be left of Jesus’ preaching if you excised those passages that look forward to the Kingdom of God. Consider how the prayer he taught us to pray is rooted in anticipation of the coming Kingdom.
Dusty yet impressive word to wow your friends and family: ‘eschatology.’
Literally, it means ‘talk of the last things.’
Eschaton means ‘End.’
It’s the basis for our hope, and even though we’re examining it last we could have just as easily begun our sessions with eschatology because it’s our vision of the End that orients our understanding of the remainder of our beliefs. Not just Christian service but our worship and devotional life become masquerades if they’re not rooted in what is going to do.
As Jurgen Moltmann says, tweaking a famous line from St Anselm, Christian faith is ‘hope seeking understanding.’ We have a hope of what God will do; we struggle to understand how our other beliefs relate to our hope.
Hope is a word that perhaps has too many miles on it in recent years, but that doesn’t change the fact that the bible is from beginning to end a testament of hope. If the bible were a novel then the dust jacket would summarize it as a book about how God gets what God wants, how God gets what God wanted in the very beginning, how God restores his creation to fellowship. It’s this hope that is the unifying thread throughout the disparate books and genres of the bible. The bible is a book of hope because, as Robert Jenson says, the God of the bible is essentially a promise-making God. The characters in the bible are people who place their trust and hope in the promises of God.
The concluding line of the bible, after all, is ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (Rev 22.20). To speak of scripture or Christian faith in the absence of hope is to make both unintelligible.
Of course, that’s exactly what has happened.
As the letters of Paul and the Book of Revelation make clear, the early Christians were a community who anticipated Christ’s return and the inauguration of the Kingdom.
Their present was lived in light of the imminent future.
As the Church expanded, however, and adapted to its cultural environment, eventually becoming the state religion of Rome, the biblical hope in the coming of Christ and the transformation of the world by his Kingdom became marginalized. As the faith of the majority, no longer did Christians long for a Kingdom that would transcend, defeat or replace the Roman kingdom- which Christians now enjoyed, thank you very much. Who needs a New Earth when the one you have is treating you rather well?
With this transition, the Church became the dispenser of individual salvation (through the sacraments) rather than a community whose very life was a sign of their anticipation of the End.
Christian HOPE, as articulated by Isaiah, Jesus, Paul and John, increasingly became a hope for one’s personal survival beyond death. No longer- or not nearly as much- did Christians hope for the transformation of all creation.
Throughout history pockets of apocalypticism (belief in the end-times) have crept up within Christianity, usually in dark or trying times. The plagues of the Middle Ages, Millenial anxiety, the peasant wars in the 16th century, the American Civil War, the Industrial Revolution and the Nuclear Age have all fertilized the apocalyptic imagination. Nonetheless in mainstream Christianity biblical hope has been either neglected or altogether forgotten.
When you marginalize the authentic biblical hope, you also unintentionally render Jesus an incoherent teacher.
As Karl Barth said: ‘If Christianity is not altogether thoroughgoing eschatology, there remains in it no relationship whatsoever with Christ.”
That is, Christianity doesn’t make any compelling sense if it’s not rooted in the conviction that the words, way and witness of Jesus about the Kingdom were exactly what God raised from the grave.
The majority of Jesus‘ preaching and teaching is apocalyptic, geared towards God’s End. The Kingdom dominates Jesus‘ concerns. The community of disciples lived Jesus‘ teachings not because it made ‘sense‘ or because it promised to make the world a better place. They lived Jesus‘ teachings to be a sign and foretaste of God’s coming Kingdom.
What do you do with Jesus‘ teachings once they’re divorced from Kingdom hope?
Beginning in the Enlightenment and running up to the present day, many Christians and critics alike saw the New Testament’s apocalyptic language as archaic. As a result it was deemphasized and in its place Jesus’ teachings were construed in such a way so that any enlightened, rational modern person could applaud them.
The Gospel’s teachings, however, were unmoored from a community’s anticipation of the End. Instead they were treated as principles, encouragements, for an individual’s life or, at the other end of the spectrum, they were seen as descriptors for our future life in heaven: impossible to live now (because who wants to suffer for their beliefs?) but possible in the future.
Jesus’ teachings then do not require a correlative hope for a future Kingdom nor do they require a community in the present living towards that future.
And this how Christian service becomes unintelligible to someone like Bob. Divorced from our future hope, we have no other grounds on which to judge our acts of mercy beyond the criteria the world gives us: realism or idealism.