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/