Day 254: Final Thoughts

Enjoying My Freedom

Enjoying My Freedom

 

If you are new to my blog – the best thing to do is to go to the beginning.  You can do this using the “Index” tab.  It also enables you to navigate to specific scriptures.

(This is the last post in the series).

And now the journey through Matthew ends. I feel like I accomplished what I set out to do. I finally got to speak my peace about what the life of Jesus means to me. It has been extremely liberating to have the opportunity to freely express my thoughts. It’s been my own little declaration of independence from the church and conventional teachings. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

I really feel Jesus has spoken to me and it has been incredibly enlightening.  It has also been a healing experience.   It was difficult at times.  Sometimes my hands shook as I expressed things I’ve never dared to say out loud before for fear of either initiating an unpleasant argument or being rejected.

I entered into this not sure about how I would feel by the time I got to the end of it.  I must say that I am even more inspired than ever to be a faithful follower of Jesus of Nazareth.

I strongly encourage everyone to express their own unique thoughts and beliefs.  The purpose of self-expression is not to change anyone’s mind.  We all have a right to share our true thoughts and feelings, so we should be bold and add our voices to the conversation!!  What are your own your real thoughts about Jesus?  What are your thoughts about God?  How do you feel about the church?  What feeds your spirit?  What touches your soul?  What do you think God likes and dislikes about our society and our world?  Are your beliefs really your own, or are you just following someone else’s teachings?  If so, who are you following?  To some extent we have all been influenced by other people’s theology, some good and some bad.  Remember that if someone tells you that there is only one way of thinking or interpreting the Bible or anything else related to God – they are wrong.  Any real theologian, any church historian, any pope or cardinal, would agree about that.  Everything is subject to interpretation within the context of our own time and place.  It’s not as simple as some people would lead you to believe.

We have a great capacity to encouraging others simply by sharing our opinions.  I believe one of our important tasks is to listen to what God is saying to each of us and pass it on.  Your interpretation of the Bible, what God is doing in the world, and what Jesus is all about is as good as anyone else’s.  We ALL need to exercise our freedom of speech and freedom of religion by sharing our personal wisdom and perceptions.  God reveals a unique bit of himself to each of us, and the sharing of all these bits enriches us all.  And so when you hear someone saying something that you don’t agree with – especially if it’s mean or domineering ….fear not and speak up!  Let your voice be heard!

What do all of these scriptures say to you?

 

 

Day 253: Matthew 28:20

And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.

Here we have it.  The final words of Jesus in the Book of Matthew. Fini!

This, along with the Great Commandment, is one of my favorite scriptures.  If it’s anything I don’t like, it’s being alone.  I lived alone for about five years and it was difficult for me.  So to me, it’s always comforting to hear that I’m not alone.

Of course none of us is ever really alone.  All of us have people who care about us at some level, especially if we make a little effort to connect with others.  We live in neighborhoods and cities and states and nations.  We have families and friends and acquaintances.  We connect with people at church and work and school.  We are connected to all of the people who serve us and those we serve as we go about our daily lives.  We connect with others through social media and television and radio and literature.  We are surrounded by people each and every day.  There are 7 billion of us at this time.  Being alone is a state of mind, not a reality.

We also have relationships that transcend time and space.  We are part of the great company of people who have gone before us, all of the men and women and children who have ever existed.  We are not alone.  We are one of many.

And then we have spiritual relationships that are based on our common origin.  We are connected to God our creator, to the plants, to the animals, to the earth itself.  We are part of the universe in which we live.  As Carl Sagan once said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star-stuff….. We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness.”

We are alone only in our uniqueness as individuals.  Our task as the church should be to facilitate reconciliation that celebrates uniqueness instead of trying to impose uniformity.  Our task as the church should be to establish relationship at the godly level, honoring each individual, encouraging each other to find their unique path to the heart of God, reporting to each other what we see along life’s path.  Actually, we are uniformly unique, united by our uniqueness.  The church should be teaching us how to connect with everyone, including those with whom we profoundly disagree.  We need to honor our differences and celebrate our intrinsic oneness. Jaeda DeWalt says it well: “Each of us is a unique thread, woven into the beautiful fabric of our collective consciousness.” We are never alone.  We are a unique part of the whole.

I believe in life after death.  I think we carry inside us an energy that persists.  If that is the case, then the energy of everyone who ever lives continues to exist.  I believe this is consistent with the science’s Law of Conservation of Energy which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  I don’t know how it all works, but I believe I saw my father after his death.  I don’t think you could talk me out of that, because I had the experience and it would be silly to deny it.

So, in my way of thinking, Jesus will of course be with us always, along with all of the rest of humanity that ever existed.  Jesus has kept this promise.  Even after the initial resurrection, even after his ascent into heaven, Jesus keeps reappearing.  He reappeared to Paul on the road to Damascus.  There are all kinds of legends about Jesus reappearing in India.  He reappeared to Joseph Smith in the United States.  He reappeared to a friend of ours in his hospital room.  He keeps turning up.  He apparently gets around.

Some may sense the presence of Jesus in the ancient practice of worship where he has been celebrated for thousands of years by our ancestors in the faith; others may meet with him in the practice of acts of kindness; others may meet with him in the pursuit of social justice; others find him on a mountaintop or when they gaze into a starry night’s sky; still others find him in fellowship, or music, or prayer, or dance, or gardening, or sailing, or art, or science, or running, or driving, or sitting on the seashore, or holding a baby, or a million other activities.

I have never seen Jesus myself, but I believe that I might someday.  I think God is present to all of us all the time.  And I suppose the same is true of Jesus.  The logical mind has a hard time understanding how any being, even a spirit being, could “be with” or “be present” to all of us at the same time.  I mean, there are getting to be quite a few of us down here on planet earth, let alone all of the other beings that probably inhabit all of the other planets in the universe.  But I think it’s possible because I ran across “Miracle Eyes Jesus” at a kitschy little store in Saugatuck, Michigan.  I had to have it.   It’s a little plastic statue, and no matter where you are standing it appears to be looking directly at you.  Two people can stand on opposite sides of the statue, and both people observe that the statue is looking directly at them simultaneously.  It’s either very comforting, or very disturbing, depending on how you feel about Jesus.   Here are pictures of the statue taken from different camera angles.

Miracle Eyes Jesus

So, the question is, if a crummy little plastic statue made in China can look at you no matter where you are standing, why can’t God?  Why can’t Jesus?  If it can “look” at two people at the same time, why can’t God?  Why can’t Jesus?

And so, there you have it. “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” How cool is that?

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 252: Matthew 28:19-20 – Part 4

I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.

[This is the fourth of four reflections on this scripture where Jesus gives his disciples their final instructions before he ascends into heaven.]

After my husband John retired from urban ministry in Chicago we moved out to the far suburbs to start a new life.  It was a great experience bouncing around in search of a new church home.  All of it was highly instructive.

One of the churches we attended for a while was Assembly of God.  Like most Assembly churches they had a really great band.  Although Assembly churches are supposed to emphasize the ministries of the Holy Spirit, this one was really an evangelical church with an  emphasis  on entry-level Christian teaching.

While we were there the pastor came up with what he believed was a divinely-inspired mission statement for the church:

At (this church) we exist to glorify God by helping people become Saved, Solid, Serving and Sent.

  • Saved – Entering into a relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ.
  • Solid – Growing and maturing in that relationship.
  • Serving – Finding one’s specific purpose and calling.
  • Sent – Going out to help others do the same.

Saved, Solid, Serving, Sent.  The pastor believed that this was God’s plan for discipleship.  He even had giant banners with these four words made for the sanctuary so we could all stare at them every week.

Another bit of décor in this church was its big “Saved/Unsaved” board.  People were invited to put the names of all their unsaved friends and relatives on the bottom (in the hellish part of the board).  The congregation was encouraged to pray for the people posted on the hell part of the board talk and somehow talk them into making a confession of faith so that their name could be moved, with great fanfare, to the upper half of the board where heaven was.

The leadership group never put my husband and me on the unsaved part, but I think they had their doubts about us.  Actually they were a pretty suspicious bunch.  I think they all had doubts about each other.  Like the old saying says, “All the world’s strange save thee and me, and even thou art a little strange.”

Anyhow that’s the way it was around there.  And they had no social justice ministries because they believe that the only thing that was important was getting people saved, so that’s where they put all their time and energy.  Every now and then they would try to do something for people, but they always ended up harassing them about whether or not they had been born again because that was their prime directive.  They didn’t know any better, or if they did it had been brainwashed out of them.

The music was really, really good and there was a nice seniors group, but eventually it couldn’t compensate for the ”strangeness” of it all so we left and went to another church.  Such a good praise band.  What a pity.

Anyway, as I contemplated their plan for discipleship, that “Saved, Solid, Serving, and Sent” business, I had a revelation.  Perhaps God did give these words to the pastor, but I think he got it mixed up.  I think he got it backwards.

 

Here’s the way I see it relative to the teachings of Jesus:

  • You are “Sent” out into the world every day, whether or not you are saved.  That’s a given.  You are part of the world and you interact with people every day.
  • As we go out about our business, Jesus commands us to “Serve” others.  He commands his followers to take care of those in need, encourage others, share our resources, love our enemies, and do all of the stuff in the Sermon on the Mount.
  • Then, when we start doing that for long enough, we start to get “Solid.” We start to get a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is all about and get born again of the Spirit.  We start to live it instead of just talking about it.  Or waiting around for it.
  • And then, having done all we can do, we assume that “Saved” will take care of itself when the time comes.

Jesus didn’t want his disciples to go out and sign up people to be on the Jesus team.  He wanted them to do what he did.  He wanted them to go out empowered and energized, carrying on his ministry and mission to teach (about the proper application of the Law of Moses), preach (about the Kingdom of God) and heal (everyone who needs it).  That’s what he did:

Jesus went all over Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, preaching the Good News about the Kingdom, and healing people who had all kinds of disease and sickness. (Matthew 4:23).

He never asked anyone to make a confession or faith.  He never signed anyone up to go to church.  He just commanded them to love.  We need to keep that in mind as we go out – Sent, Serving, Solid, and Saved.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 251: Matthew 28:19-20 – Part 3

I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.

[This is the third of four reflections on this scripture where Jesus gives his disciples their final instructions before he ascends into heaven.]

After Jesus is crucified he returns and gives his disciples some final instructions.  He tells them to go and “disciple” people by baptizing and teaching them.  Today I’m going to look at his second instruction – to teach people to obey Jesus’ commands.  We aren’t instructed to teach them to believe in him.  We are instructed to teach them to believe in what he had to say.  His commands.

What are Jesus’ commands?  Simple enough.  He pretty much outlines all of his basic teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.  I explored the Sermon on the Mount in depth on Days 7-63.  These are the commands that he thinks are important.  On that last day, he tells us to build our house on the rock (truth) as opposed to sand (delusions).  Jesus’ teachings are the rock solid foundation that will bring us peace, happiness, and fulfilment. They will also create a healthy, nurturing, prosperous society.  When we individually or collectively build on sand, we are in danger of being swept away.  For your convenience I am re-posting my Sermon on the Mount “Quick Start Guide” from Day 63.  Here it is:

Sermon on the Mount

I would also add another couple of foundational teachings to the basic commands Jesus presented in the Sermon on the Mount.  I think his very last teaching on Day 228 in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is also foundational:

  • Feed the hungry.
  • Give the thirsty something to drink.
  • Clothe the naked.
  • Take care of the sick.
  • Visit those in prison.

Finally, there is the “mother of all commandments” – the Great Commandment from Day 193:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40).

Look at that last line again and let that sink into your spirit. “The whole Law of Moses and teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Love, my friends, is what it’s all about.  Jesus wants us to go out and teach people how to love.  That’s his command to us.  He doesn’t want us to teach theology.  He wants us to teach people about the power and importance of love.  As followers of Jesus this is our mission.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 250: Matthew 28:18-20 – Part 2

I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.

[This is the second of four reflections on this scripture where Jesus gives his disciples their final instructions before he ascends into heaven.]

After Jesus is crucified he returns and gives his disciples some final instructions.  He tells them to go and “disciple” people by baptizing and teaching them.  Today I’m going to look at his first instruction – to baptize people.

The first words that Jesus speaks in the Book of Matthew are at the time of his baptism.  Jesus began his ministry by being baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.  John the Baptist was an outspoken prophet called for people to repent (change their ways) because the Kingdom of God was near.   He also called for people to be baptized as a sign of their intent to reform their lives.   John’s baptism, which involved the immersion of the physical body in water, was a symbol of the cleansing of the inner being in preparation for a fresh start.  Baptism at that time was about leaving the past behind, with all of its baggage, and starting a new life of obedience to God.  I already wrote quite a bit about John the Baptist and the practice of baptism on Day 103.

When you look at both this passage and the ministry of John the Baptist, it seems like maybe baptism is another practice that has been corrupted over the years by Christendom.

First, this scripture tells us that Jesus wanted his followers to baptize people.  I want to be a follower of Jesus, but how many people have I baptized?  None, of course, because I am not a pastor. I am not allowed to baptize people.  Only authorized pastors and priests are allowed to baptize people. The church prohibits me from doing what Jesus said I should do.  Back in John the Baptist day you were baptized into the Kingdom of God.  Today you get baptized into “the church”.  Baptism has become a church initiation rite and ordained clergy are the gatekeepers to the church.  Of course Jesus wasn’t big on religious gatekeepers. (See Day 198).  He was a “power to the people” kind of guy.  And anyone can baptize. It’s not like it requires any special skill to dunk somebody and say the words.

Second, because baptism is about being accepted into the church, it’s not really a symbol of repentance anymore.  Most denominations baptize you as an infant so you really don’t have much to repent about at that point in your life.  Further, you are sent into the world with no recollection of your baptism.  Some, like the Baptists, wait until you are about 12 or so.  In either case people are baptized before puberty and young adulthood were all of the real problems begin.  You are baptized in advance of your most sinful years.

Third, many adults think they are not “good enough” to come to church.  They feel ashamed.  They feel like the people in the church are all holy and they are too much of a hot mess to step into the building. Maybe if all of us ordinary disciples were allowed to get out there baptize people they would come to church, because baptism washes away all that shame.  The current situation is a vicious cycle.  People are too ashamed to come to church, but they have to come to church and (probably) have to be quizzed by a scary clergy-person before they can get cleansed. It’s kind of a roadblock.  It would be better if they could be baptized by someone who they know and trust.

And then, of course, there is the issue of re-baptism for all those people who, like me, screw up and need another baptism to wipe the slate clean because they were baptized as infants and have no recollection whatsoever of the first one.  And re-baptism is, of course, forbidden.  I already told the story about how I was re-baptized on Day 233.  My husband, who is a pastor, refused to do it but one day everything came together and we were both re-baptized when we were on vacation.

Today’s blog includes my husband John Hudson’s current thoughts on the issue of re-baptism. He’s a retired Methodist pastor who tried for years to convince me that I didn’t need to be re-baptized (to no avail).

2002_Rebaptism_John_3

I read Susan’s blog about being baptized as an adult. Yes, I did tell her that the policy was that if you were baptized as a baby that was it. So it was a time until by the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit not only Susan but I received baptism as an adult. For me, now that I think of it, although I appreciate the blessing of baptism as a baby that happened by the act of my parents, it is clear that for me that was not an experiential event.  Even if it was said in a liturgy, “Remember your baptism” at a service, I did not have any conscious remembrance of that event. While at Granville UMC I presided over adult baptisms in Lake Michigan and there is quite a difference in the feel and experience. The baptized adult knows he or she has been baptized and can remember his or her baptism.

2002_Rebaptism_John_2

In the history of the early church adult baptism was the norm. Infant baptism came later as a way of ushering the new born into the community of the church without allowing free will and experience to operate. On top of that the story was that the newborn would go to hell if something did happen in those first months and years in times when child mortality rates were very high. It all became part of the institution and was carried on without question until the Radical Reformation and the Anabaptists, stood for adult baptism even for those who had been baptized as infants. Others who followed this tradition include the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Christian Church (the Disciples of Christ). There may be others as well.

2002_Rebaptism_John_1I no longer pastor a church but have always baptized infants as well as adults. It is a time of blessing and I pray that all baptisms lead to a full experience. As I have found out, there is not a sufficient recognition of that full experience, if and when it happens. I doubt that churches that promote infant baptism will change, but I think anyone who feels the need to be newly baptized including by immersion needs to have that option. Just for further thought, here are the words of Karl Barth, one of the great Reformed theologians of the 20th century on this subject:

“The real reason for the persistent adherence to infant baptism is quite simply the fact that without it the church would suddenly be in a remarkably embarrassing position. Every individual would then have to decide whether he wanted to be a Christian. But how many Christians would there be in that case? The whole concept of a national church (or national religion) would be shaken. That must not happen; and so one proposes argument upon argument for infant baptism and yet cannot speak convincingly because fundamentally he has a bad conscience. The introduction of adult baptism in itself would of course not reform the church which needs reforming. The adherence to infant baptism is only one — a very important one — of many symptoms that the church is not alive and bold, that it is afraid to walk on the water like Peter to meet the Lord, that it therefore does not seek a sure foundation but only deceptive props.”

As you can see, my husband’s opinion about baptism continues to evolve.  I think the entire church needs to take another look at this.  You see, the problem is that we don’t always live happily ever after, even after we “give our lives to Jesus”.  Things go wrong and sometimes we need a fresh start.  Sometimes more than once.  I remember in that movie “The Apostle” the Robert Duvall character needs to start over so he re-baptizes himself in a lake.  I’ve felt like that.  When everything falls out from under you and you are ready to begin again, re-baptism seems appropriate.  Whenever you really need to turn things around or initiate a new life phase.  Like when you start a new ministry, or are preparing for marriage, or when you emerge from a period of grieving, or when you become an empty nester, or when you give up an addiction, or when you turn 70 or 50 or even 30, or when you retire, or when you move to a new city, or when you’ve had a revelatory spiritual experience or something.  It seems like there could be more than one of these turning points in one’s life.

My current pastor works around this by saying that you should remember your baptism every time you take a shower, or every time you take a bath.  Every time you go into the water it can be a sign of a new life.  Just like Robert Duvall you can emerge from your daily shower renewed and ready for a fresh start.

Nevertheless I think there is a missed opportunity here for the Kingdom of God.  If Jesus says we should baptize, I think we should all be able to do it.  He never imposes any limitations.  The Bible doesn’t limit the number of baptisms.  There’s no shortage of water.  And when it comes to the philosophy of Jesus, he says we must forgive seventy times seven times.  I think he would probably say we should be allowed to get that many baptisms if that’s what it takes to keep us on track.  Seventy time seven baptisms.  And why would God object to re-baptism?  There’s no limit to God’s grace and mercy and the number of fresh starts that he is willing to give us.  So why do we set limits where God does not?

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 249: Matthew 28:18-20 – Part 1

I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.

[This is the first of four reflections on this scripture where Jesus gives his disciples their final instructions before he ascends into heaven.]

Jesus has died, and now he has been resurrected.  He predicted several times that he would rise from the dead and now it has happened.  His prophecy was correct.  Amen to that.  It must have been so very hard for the disciples.  The crucifixion was a terrible traumatic experience.  Sometimes in the “fog of war” it’s hard to separate the good guys from the bad, because people who push for social justice are usually not well received.   Very often the people who are the most hated in their own time turn out to be the biggest heroes from the perspective of history.  Like Abraham Lincoln, for instance.  Or Dr. King. Or Joan of Arc.  Or thousands of others who were misjudged by their contemporaries.

Jesus tells his disciples that he has been given “all authority” in both heaven and earth.  That’s a lot of power.  I don’t know what that means, but it’s certainly a statement of validates his ministry and his teachings.  It says, “All’s well that ends well.”  It’s also a big, fat, “I told you so.”  The very fact that he is speaking to them is a sign that there are mysteries that we still don’t understand.  It’s also proof that you can’t keep a good man down.  This time mankind was unable to silence God’s truth by killing the messenger.  The truth will out.

So, having been given all authority in both earth and heaven, what does Jesus do with it?  He gives it away, of course!  He doesn’t want them to sit around and reminisce about the good old days when Jesus was around.  He doesn’t want them to passively wait for him to come back one more time to rescue them.  He takes the authority he has been given and passes it on to his disciples by asking them to carry on his work.  This is often referred to as the “Great Commission.”

Does Jesus demand that his disciples “believe in him” so that they can “receive eternal life” and “be saved”?  No, has asks them to GO.  He wants them to DO.  And what is it he wants them to do?  This scripture says that Jesus wants them to go out and “make disciples.”  It’s interesting that the Greek word here is “mathéteuó” which is not a noun.  It’s a verb.  He is really asking them to “disciple” all of the people.  This, to me, is very different than “making disciples.”

I think we Christians have a lot of trouble with that phrase “make disciples”.  I’ve been to churches where they seem to interpret that as, “force them to be disciples, using any means necessary.”  These are the people who hound you about going to their church or making a confession of faith and threaten you with hell if you don’t comply.  They are the people who treat the church like a business and use high pressure sales tactics to get you to join up and commit your time and money toward the cause of reeling in more people.  They are the people who blithely dismiss anyone who is not in their own church as “lost”, all the while justifying their selfish, immoral, greedy, secularized lifestyles as acceptable because they are “saved.”  They are the people who believe the ends justify the means.  Their goal is numbers.  Butts in the seats, dollars in the church coffers, and notches “for Christ” on the collective belt of church leadership.

This is not something peculiar to our own day and age.  Conversion by coercion has been going on for a long time.  On Day 99 I discussed how Christianity spread throughout Europe and beyond largely as a result of conquest and domination. Examples are:

  • Romans used forced conversion after Christianity became the sole legal religion in the Roman Empire in 392.
  • Charlemagne forced the Germanic Saxons to become Roman Catholics in the late 700s.
  • In the 1300s Lithuanians were targeted and converted by the Roman Catholics.
  • Both Jews and Muslims were forced to become Roman Catholics during the Spanish Inquisition in the 1400s.
  • The Portuguese tortured and oppressed the Hindus in Goa, India to convert to Catholicism in the 16th and 17th centuries, destroying their temples and sacred books.  Resistance was punished with torture and imprisonment.
  • In the 1900s US Christians separated Native American children from their parents and forced them to adopt European-American culture and religion.

I don’t believe this kind of domination and coercion is what Jesus had in mind.  He never forced anybody to do anything.  He was smart enough to know that it never works.  You can never force people to do something they don’t want to do.  You can’t make them love God.  You can’t make them love each other.  You may be able to force them to say it, but you can’t make them to do it.  You can’t “make disciples.”

Conversely, what, does it look like to “disciple” people?  Jesus says that we act this out in two ways – baptizing and instructing them to do what Jesus said to do.  Those things will be the subject of the next couple of blog entries, so that’s it for today.  Check back tomorrow.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 248: Matthew 28:10

Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.

Jesus has risen from the dead and appeared to Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.”  He greats them with a blessing of peace and tells them not to be afraid.  He then instructs them to tell his disciples to go to Galilee where he will appear to them.  He wants to meet them back at his own home territory where he began his ministry.  Then it says, “The eleven disciples went to the hill in Galilee where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him, even though some of them doubted. (Matthew 28:16-17).

Hmmm…. Some of them doubted?  There is a little more detail about the resurrection of Jesus in the Book of Luke, but once again he was not immediately recognizable to two of the disciples who met him on the Road to Emmaus.  Then, when he appears to all of the disciples they initially think he is a ghost, but when they touch him and examine his hands they determine he’s got a resurrected body.  He then has a little something to eat.  There is even more embellishment in the Book of John.  He does a lot more talking and eating and he overcomes the misgivings of “Doubting Thomas.”  But here in Matthew it just says that some of them doubted and there is no tidy resolution as in the later Gospels of Luke and John.  There is a doubting going on in all the Gospels.

So what’s going on there?  Why did some of them doubt?  You would think that if he was in the same old body they all would have recognized him and none would have doubted that he was alive.  Did he look different?  Did they think someone was impersonating him?  Did they think he didn’t really die in the first place?  Then, as now, there was no shortage of rumors or conspiracy theories.  Look at these shenanigans that Matthew describes after the soldiers guarding the tomb told the chief priests that Jesus’ body was missing:

The chief priests met with the elders and made their plan; they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers and said, “You are to say that his disciples came during the night and stole his body while you were asleep. And if the Governor should hear of this, we will convince him that you are innocent, and you will have nothing to worry about.” The guards took the money and did what they were told to do. And so that is the report spread around by the Jews to this very day. (Matthew 28:12-15).

True?  Who knows.  But you know how urban legends and conspiracy theories work.  They take on a life of their own.

Despite the doubting of those present, the Christian position has always been very certain.  Jesus’ actual physical body was resurrected from the dead and ascended into heaven.  Period.  It has always been an important core belief.  The Apostle Paul is the one who strongly promoted conventional wisdom surrounding the resurrection.  He also linked the physical resurrection to “salvation”.  Here’s a description of Paul’s point of view from Wikipedia:

The Apostle Paul wrote that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”.[1 Cor. 15:3b-4]  Thus the death and resurrection of Christ were proclaimed as belonging together at the very heart of the gospel, forcefully placing “the full weight of faith on both the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ”[5] by stating, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”.[1 Cor. 15:14]  In fact, Paul further claims that belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus is so central to salvation that “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 of all people most to be pitied. [1 Cor. 15:17-19]

In other words, according to Paul it doesn’t matter what Jesus did and said.  His emphasis on the resurrection diverted attention away from Jesus’ teachings.  He offered the resurrection as a remedy for sin, as opposed to Jesus’ remedy (loving God and loving one another).

Despite the official position of the church regarding the “resurrection of the body,” it isn’t a theory that’s universally accepted by independent theologians:

Skeptical biblical scholars have questioned the historicity of the resurrection story for centuries; for example, “nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century biblical scholarship dismissed resurrection narratives as late, legendary accounts”. Some scholars consider the biblical accounts of Jesus’ resurrection as derived from the experiences of Jesus’ followers and of Apostle Paul.  E.P. Sanders states “that Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact”. He writes that when Jesus was executed, his followers fled or hid, but their hopes were renewed when they saw him alive again.

So what actually happened?  In reality no one knows for sure.  It’s all a mystery, and that’s certainly OK with me.  To me, it affects neither Jesus’ credibility nor my salvation.  To me, it’s pretty irrelevant how it all worked and it’s not worth thinking about.  But many Christian’s don’t like the concept of mystery, and they are really attached to the idea that Jesus’ was revived in his actual physical body and that he was still in that body when he was taken up to heaven.  I know for a fact how emotional people are about this because I remember the ruckus that United Methodist Bishop Joseph Sprague caused when he stated his personal beliefs on this particular doctrine.

Ordained as a United Methodist pastor in 1965, he was assigned as Bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference in 1996.  The children’s Gospel Choir that I directed, the Angelic Voices, sang at the welcoming service.  The kids were also invited to sing at Annual Conference, where the bishop washed their little feet.  According to the Columbus Dispatch (2/3/2012) his call to ministry was a call to social justice:

When the Rev. C. Joseph Sprague was in junior high in inner-city Dayton, he didn’t mind being the only white boy on the basketball team. His black teammates were his friends, and he didn’t think too much about it. Then one day, Sprague took a buddy from the team to a store he liked. Each boy bought a bag of chips and a Pepsi.  Sprague was charged 10 cents. His friend, 50 cents.

That was the moment, Sprague said, when he felt God’s call to the ministry. That was the start of a long career focused on justice for minorities, women, gays, and especially the poor.

Like my own dear husband Bishop Sprague was a civil rights advocate who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King.  He was also an outspoken advocate for gay marriage way back in 1984, long before it was a popular cause.  Soon after being appointed bishop he was embroiled in controversy when the Reverend Gregory Dell officiated at a covenant service for to gay men who were members of his church on the north side of Chicago in 1998.  Although he obediently filed charges against Rev. Dell, Sprague was one of Dell’s biggest supporters.  Both of these men believed that homosexuals should have equal rights within both the church and society in general. Sprague himself had performed two homosexual union services, joining couples at a parish in Ohio before the Methodists made it “illegal” in 1996.

It was a big battle. The conference erupted and a deep fissure developed as all of the pastors, churches, and Methodists in general took sides on the issue.  There were trials, debates, emotional outbursts, and church splits, all faithfully covered in detail by both Chicago and national media.  It was a hot mess.  Sprague hoped it would be a “teaching moment” for the church and that all of the policies that discriminated against gays would be changed.

What does all of this have to do with the resurrection of Jesus?  Well, Bishop Sprague fracas he decided to stir up the pot a little bit more.  He decided to publicly share his personal beliefs regarding the resurrection.  Here is an excerpt of a speech given in 2002:

I affirm resurrection, the resurrection of Jesus. God’s essence cannot be killed, buried, or kept from being alive in creation or history. God is from everlasting to everlasting. But, resurrection, including that of Jesus, does not include bodily resuscitation. God does not work this way. The issue is not the absence of God’s power, but God’s own self-limiting role of revelation in history. God works within the boundaries God has established. While I do not pretend to know the limits of these boundaries and realize that we all see but through a glass darkly, I am certain that the miracle of the resurrection, preeminently that of Jesus is not tied to bodily resuscitation. The linking of resurrection with bodily resuscitation is to make a literal religious proposition of a metaphorical symbolic expression of truth itself. This is the kind of idolatry from which I dissent. (http://www.flumc.org/bishop_whitaker/sprague.htm)

This really added fuel to the fire.  Although Bishop Sprague had obeyed the letter, if not the spirit, of Methodist law regarding homosexuals, his unorthodox interpretation of the resurrection seemed to be proof positive to his detractors that he wasn’t fit to serve as bishop.  A lot of people thought he was a nutcase.  A formal complaint was filed against him for “rejecting the Christian faith.”  It made everything even worse.  The whole conference was a hot mess and the controversy created even more negative publicity for the United Methodists.

Joseph Sprague is an inspirational guy.  There is no stopping him.  After his retirement in 2006 he moved back to Ohio with his wife of 52 years and he runs a prison ministry with branches in three Ohio cities.  His inner-city “Shalom Zones” program in troubled neighborhoods continues to thrive with about 100 locations in the United States and Africa. He really is awesome.  74 years old and still going strong.

But sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. In my humble opinion Bishop Sprague is kind of like Jimmy Carter.  Neither was very good at all of the political stuff, but both have leveraged their notoriety to do great things after retirement.  I think it would have been helpful if Bishop Sprague would have remained more focused on social reform during his time in Northern Illinois and held off on the theological stuff until the important work was done.  It was a major distraction.  In my opinion, a very unnecessary one.

While I deeply admire Bishop Sprague and respect his thoughtful personal theology, I still question his timing and judgment.  I mean, when push comes to shove what matters more?  People or principles?  Sometimes you have to choose your battles.  Joe Sprague fought for gay rights because he loved those people.  It’s a good reason to go against the flow and stir up controversy.  But when it comes to the mystery of the resurrection and the details about how that all worked, what difference does it make whether or not we all agree?  I will tell you.  It makes no difference whatsoever.  There is no love in it.  It’s just a head trip.  Why argue about it?  What an utter waste of time in a world that needs us to focus our attention on more important matters.  I am sure that Jesus would say that theology should always take a back seat to kindness.  Theology, like Jewish law, is nowhere near as important as love.

What does this scripture say to you?

For more on Bishop Sprague’s Shalom Zones see http://unitedmethodistreporter.com/2012/09/11/communities-of-shalom-turns-20-amid-challenges/