Was Jesus raised from the dead in a bodily resurrection, a resuscitated corpse who walked away from the tomb, who then stood before doubting Thomas and said, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side;”? Or is the resurrection of Jesus part of our symbolic world view, a mythical story like Adam and Eve eating the apple; or Noah’s Ark saving all of the animals in the world; myths that point us to an understanding of God, but are not historically, literally true?
Marcus Borg (who is becoming the most read theologian for members of First Churches, with at least 40 of you buying his book and going to our house churches) was recently embroiled in a resurrection controversy, a 2000 year old lively debate about death and resurrection. Here is what fascinates me about Borg. He is saying both of these theological positions appear to be incorrect and are not spiritually or intellectually satisfying for a modern faith. He is presenting us with a third way to understand the nature of Christ’s resurrection.
Here is how the controversy started. Borg was speaking at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., and during the question and answer period, theologian Tony Jones asked Borg if he thought the tomb of Jesus was empty on Easter morning. Borg clearly departs from classic Christian creed in answering the question. “If I had to bet (a dollar or my life) on whether Jesus’s tomb was empty, I would bet that it wasn’t.” This is not a shocker from Borg, who has more than a decade of publications saying that he does not believe in the resuscitated corpse view of resurrection.
Tony Jones then challenged Borg in a recent book and had a blog post in October entitled: “Dear Marcus Borg: Please Reconsider the Resurrection.” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/2013/10/09/dear-marcus-borg-please-reconsider-the-resurrection/
Jones says to Borg that denying the empty tomb is a break with the historic teachings of the church, it is a denial of the earliest Apostolic witness of the Gospels, which has an empty tomb in Mark first written Gospel, and further witness that Peter saw the grave clothes folded in the tomb, Mary saw Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and in John’s Gospel, Jesus appears to the 12 disciples and invites physical contact. Finally, Jones appeals to Borg that the idea that disciples just had a vision of Jesus does not work. He notes that the vision idea was proposed by David Strauss in 1835, elaborated extensively by Bultmann in the 1940s and 1950s, and again by the Jesus Seminar in the 1990s, and after 187 years of debate, most of Christianity has stuck with the idea of the bodily resurrection and it is just a small bunch of scholars in the ivory tower who see this differently. (I would summarize Jones as saying, what the heck are we supposed to do on Easter morning if tomb was not empty? What songs do we sing? Are you still going to buy and Easter lily if Jesus did not physically arise from the dead?)
At first I thought Jones was a biblical literalist piling on to Borg to sell his new book. But as I looked into Jones background I found out he was someone much more interesting. Jones is part of the emerging church movement that is challenging the church to modernize both its theology and practices. He is not a biblical literalist, accepts that Adam and Eve and Noah are myths, and does not believe God created the world in six days and accepts that the planet is billions of years old. Jones also acknowledges that there are times to break with the historic teaching of the church, as he has done by being advocate for same sex marriage and full acceptance of the GLBTQ community in the church. Jones also wrote a book entitled, A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin, which parallels many of the ideas about the meaning of the cross that Borg says in “Speaking Christian.” So here is a Christian who believes in modern science, evolution, who challenges traditional notions of faith, accepts that not all of the bible is literally true, however he draws his line in the sand on the issue of a material resurrection and the empty tomb. He postulates that with the rise in new physics and the understanding of matter since Einstein, there may be more to the nature of the physical universe than we understand, so believing in a physical resurrection does not make us anti-science or anti-intellectual. I admit that I like this guy and that he states what I have believed and taught as a pastor for most of my 20 plus years of ordination.
So what does Borg have to say about all this? Borg wrote in his blog that he felt misrepresented in Jones book, especially on one point. Jones describes Borg’s view of the resurrection only happening in the believer’s heart. This makes Borg sound like some funeral eulogies that say, “Well, Uncle Jesus has died, but we will always remember him, and as long as we keep his memory alive in our hearts, he will always be with us.” This is close to what many liberal Christians and Unitarians believe, and the doctrine of the resurrection is moved to the sidelines, and what remains of faith is the moral teachings and wisdom of the historical Jesus.
But this is not what Marcus Borg believes and he makes two points about the resurrection in his blog post:
1) “I have consistently affirmed that Jesus was experienced after his death. According to the New Testament, those experiencing him included Mary Magdalene, Peter, the rest of the disciples, James, two travelers on the Emmaus Road, Paul, the author of Revelation, and more. Indeed, Paul refers to “five hundred” who saw Jesus.”
2) “Jesus lives: he is a figure of the present who continues to be known, not just a beloved figure of the past. Jesus is Lord: God has vindicated Jesus and made him both Lord and Christ.”
I end with a question: what is added to the meaning of the resurrection by believing, as Jones does, that it happened in a material physical bodily way? … Do our differences matter? And if so, how? Jones has not written a full response yet, but says he does agree with Borg’s two main points and has a much closer appreciation between the two of them. They may disagree about the empty tomb but they claim nearly the same thing about the resurrection as important to faith.
Here is why I think Marcus Borg is important to the church. Borg is speaking to Christians who are not literalist, fundamentalists who believe every word of the Bible is scientifically true, Virgin Birth to Moses parting the Red Sea. His point is Christ’s resurrection was and is a reality we need to take seriously as a living part of faith. I think Borg takes seriously the full witness of scripture. This is why I had the various readings this morning. Each Gospel describes the nature of the resurrection differently. In Mark’s Gospel, the earliest version, the narrative ends with the tomb is empty and everyone is dumbstruck with fear. Matthew tells the dramatic story of the stone being rolled away in an earthquake and the Roman guards are trembling with fear. Luke tells us the road to Emmaus where two believers see Jesus and do not recognize him at all until they break bread together. And then he disappears and somehow time travels back to see the disciples. John’s Gospel is the last written the most emphatic about Jesus having a physical body after the resurrection, Jesus eats food and says to Thomas, touch my wounded side. But even in John’s Gospel, Jesus seems to come through a locked door, much like a ghost, to appear to the disciples. The Apostle Paul meets the resurrected Jesus, and he is clear that he is having a vision. He doesn’t hug Jesus or see his wounds, it is a spiritual vision. So there is not just one resurrection story about Jesus, but many, and they don’t all express things in the same way. If we proclaim the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed of the bodily resurrection, we are left with the difficulty of explaining Jesus time traveling, moving through walls, so it is not a physical body as we know it.
Borg says here is what matters. We are not stuck between two alternatives – believing the Bible is literally true and nearly intellectually indefensible, or on the other hand that the Bible it is a bunch of made up stories and myths that teach us important points about life. Borg says mystical experiences and visions are real, and that we can have a relationship with the living reality of the Risen Christ. I find this exciting, because I think it calls us back to what Christian spirituality is all about. We are called not just to believe certain things, but we are called to have a relationship with the living reality of Christ. This relationship may come to us in dreams and vision as it did with Paul, or it may be more like a daily walk where we talk to Jesus in prayer and read the scriptures and try to hear his authentic voice. It may be like Emmaus, where we gather in community, and when we engage in the sacred ritual of communion, we find not just an act of remembrance, but sense that Christ is present in love in our gathering.
So what about Easter morning? Was the tomb empty? Is it still worth buying that Easter lily? Circle the date of April 20, 2014 and the answer will be coming to a church near you. Till then remember Paul’s words:
Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed…
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?”…
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.