(My mom died in March of 2014 and my dad in April of 2007. Today I ran across this, which I used in a Sunday School class in the fall of 2007. It seems good to share it on Easter Monday.)
Generally, I teach and preach out of where God is prodding me to grow. The death of someone you love has a focusing effect on a topic that may have been more theoretically interesting before. The question my parents' deaths has focused for me is what difference does it make that I believe in the resurrection of Jesus from death?
It made a huge difference for St. Paul.
1 Corinthians 15: 3, 4. 14, 15, 17-19 (TNIV)
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins…, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day, and that he appeared to Cephas…the Twelve…more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time…James…all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless, and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that [God] raised Christ from the dead… And 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.
I had two discussions with people about the resurrection, one with a Christian friend from OSU who does not feel any necessity to believe in it and the other with a Quaker friend who does; both of them said that their present lives were so worth living they did not insist on being personally resurrected. They acknowledge that if life were more presently miserable, the hope of a blissful life after death would be more meaningful. And I have asked myself, if the human being is not eternal, does that make life here necessarily miserable? I too have thought that the world is so lovely and the relationships so precious that it could be enough, and then I lose someone to death or tragedy strikes within my awareness, and I hope for some way beyond death and tragedy.
The eternality of the human soul was not taken for granted in the Old Testament—that’s why the psalmist often pleads with God to preserve life for God’s own sake, because the psalmist will not be able to praise God in the grave. The best expression of this with a bit of hope is in Job 14: Mortals, born of woman, are of few days and full of trouble. They spring up like flowers and wither away; like fleeting shadows, they do not endure….At least there is hope for a tree…but a man dies and is laid low; he breathes his last and is no more…If someone dies, will they live again?...You will call and I will answer you; you will long for the creature your hands have made. The only hope is that God will want to continue relationship with the creature rather than lose that to death. The immortality of the soul and the possibility of resurrection were topics of debate in Jesus’s day between Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus enters the debate decisively on the side of the eternal human soul, justifying the faint hope expressed by the writer of Job.
Scripture records five “returns from death” prior to Jesus’s own resurrection. None of them has the history-changing effect of Jesus rising from death. Two are in the Old Testament. 1 Kings 17 tells the story of Elijah, the widow at Zarephath, and her only son. When the boy sickened and stopped breathing, the widow accused Elijah of bringing judgment for her sin on her. Elijah took the boy and prayed, “O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him.” The boy revived, and the woman took the miracle as a sign that Elijah was a man of God who spoke God’s truth.
2 Kings 13 tells a very odd story about desperate Israelites throwing a dead man into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life.
Moved by compassion, Jesus raises a widow’s only son from death, saying, “Don’t cry” (Luke 7:11-15). He also raises a little girl, saying, “Stop wailing, she is not dead but asleep” (Luke 8:40-56). And most famously, Jesus raised Lazarus from his grave after 4 days entombment, saying, “Your brother will live again…did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” For some, these miracles established Jesus’s credibility as a prophet and perhaps even the Messiah.
However, these miracles also had great potential for getting Jesus in trouble for sorcery, and they did not prevent the crowd from chanting “Crucify him!” As Jesus himself said in a parable, “They have Moses and the prophets, listen to them. If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen just because someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:29, 31).
After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus into heaven. Peter raised a woman named Dorcas/Tabitha from death and Paul restored Eutychus to life after he fell out of a window.
So the main point of these stories is that those God sends as Messiah, prophet or apostle can also return the dead to life on occasion, though of course, not always. None of these stories requires belief in the immortality of the soul, only in the efficacy of God’s spirit working through God’s messenger.
The Bible teaches us that God is alive and eternal; God gives life and death; God’s spirit raises [some] dead people in the Bible; life and death are mysteries; and the return to physical life is not the same as the resurrection. In fact, Paul says that coming back to human life is not the very best outcome for the dead person (“to die is gain”). Paul says this because Jesus’s resurrection changes everything. And it does so because it is unlike all these others and unlike the near-death experiences or even death-and-resuscitation experiences that occur each day. It is one of a kind, or, better put, the first of its kind.
Paul argues that if Christ didn’t rise from death we are not saved out of our sins and those who have died are simply dead. If Christ didn’t rise from death, we are more miserable than those who disbelieve in Christ and the resurrection. Paul is not talking about simply regaining breath and a heartbeat, but entering an entirely new life through the doorway of death.
Romans 5: 10
For if while we were hate-filled, the death of God’s Son changed our hearts toward God, much more surely, having changed our hearts, his life will save and restore our lives.
Romans 6:3-4, 10-11
Do you not know that baptism signifies our participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Baptism buries us with Christ in death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life¼ Jesus’s death severed all relationship with sin, all at once and one time for all; but the life Jesus lives, he lives in relationship with God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God through and with and in Christ Jesus.
Paul works to help his readers and us understand that Jesus’s death takes away any basis we thought we had for hating God, for turning our backs on God. Jesus’s death turns our faces toward God and makes loving God possible. Jesus’s death breaks our relationship of slavery to selfishness, contrariness, malice, moral laziness, despair, over-indulgence, and possessiveness. We die with Jesus. A slave who dies is free—out of the reach of the whip and chains of unresolved fear, shame, and guilt. But there’s more and even better news. We are free to relate uncomplicatedly to God, like a child who trusts and loves a parent. We can respond to God’s unconditional love with unconditional love of our own. Pay attention to this truth, says Paul, so you don’t fool yourselves into living like slaves. Instead, live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for our sakes.
Essential to Paul's understanding of the work of Christ is the GLORY of the resurrected Jesus. Now we are holy through Jesus and the resurrection, rather than the law. Jesus’s resurrection shows that he has the power to make us good, something the law could not do. Now we serve God guided by God’s own Spirit, rather than by law; our lives are characterized by the central question, “What does God want from me in this moment?” This is the life Jesus lived—"I do not do my own works but only what my Father tells me to do." Now we know that God is the best of all possible parents, and we are God’s sons and daughters. God is more intimate and accessible than our real daddy or mommy. The resurrection of Jesus means to us that nothing can separate us from God’s love.
The life of Jesus shows us what a life of intimacy with God looks like. We can see in Jesus how the wind of the Spirit blows wherever the Spirit wants, how God’s own self responds to restrictions and rules, how God feels about children and women, how God’s own self loved this good life even while he KNEW he would be resurrected; how impossible it was (and how hard it is even now) for ordinary humans to grasp the whole picture, to get the difference he was living before them on a daily basis. So let's be merciful, just as God is merciful. Let's love God and love our neighbors.
The final seal of our adoption is the redemption of the body—the resurrection we look forward to, when the mortality of our present bodies is swallowed up in the immortality of new bodies, bodies like the resurrected Christ. We live in hope that when we see Jesus we will be like him; and, for now, in our present weakness, the Spirit intercedes for us. Now God works for our good, God calls us, God justifies us, God glorifies us, and if God is for us, who can be against us? If God is on our side, who will condemn us? It is not Christ’s death alone but Christ’s death AND RESURRECTION that sets us right, sets us free, and sets us on fire with love for God Almighty.