Scriptures: Luke 24:36-49; Isaiah 25:6-9
A while back there was a documentary on television claiming to have found the bones of Jesus. In a cave near Jerusalem archeologists discovered a series of burial boxes called ossuaries, one of which was labeled Yeshua bar Yosef, which would be translated Jesus son of Joseph. The filmmakers speculated that this box might contain the very bones of Jesus. Of course, there is no proof for this. The names Jesus and Joseph were quite common in ancient Israel. This week, out of curiosity, I Googled grave markers for anyone named Kenneth, son of Clyde. I discovered I was buried in Michigan.
But what struck me about this documentary was not the claim to have found Jesus’ bones. What struck me was the number of people interviewed who said it did not matter. They said that finding the bones of Jesus would not at all change their understanding of Easter. They said that Jesus still lives in our hearts, even if his body rotted in a tomb.
Interestingly that was the opinion of one of our recent American presidents. In a book called In the Arena written shortly before his death, former president Richard Nixon says,
Orthodox teachers have always insisted that the physical resurrection of Jesus is the most important cornerstone in the Christian religion. I believe that the modern world will find a real resurrection in the life and teaching of Jesus.
The resurrection symbolically teaches the great lesson that men who achieve the highest values in their lives may gain immortality (p. 89).
In Richard Nixon’s view Jesus’ resurrection meant that he lived on in the memory of his followers, even after his career ended on a cross.
But that is not the story of Easter told by those who first experienced it. I must confess that I have a problem with historians who try to reconstruct the story of Jesus while ignoring the testimony of the people who knew him, or who at least knew people who knew him.
Let me say word here about the gospels. I know there is disagreement among scholars about whether the gospels were written by people who knew Jesus. Was John’s gospel written by John the disciples or a later John? We don’t know for sure. Same with Matthew. And Mark and Luke don’t even claim to be apostles. What we have in the gospels may or may not have been written by people who knew Jesus. But they were almost certainly written by people who knew people who knew Jesus. Even the most critical scholars agree that the gospels were written only 40 to 60 years after Jesus walked the earth. And all four gospels, while not agreeing in every detail, are united in saying that Jesus’ tomb was empty.
According to the Bible, Easter is not the story of Jesus living on in our hearts. It is not the story of people remembering Jesus’ teaching after he was gone. It is the story of Jesus transforming physical earthly life. It is the story of Jesus defeating injustice, conquering death, and launching a new creation.
Luke’s gospel stresses this. On Easter evening Jesus appears to his disciples and says to them, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bone as you see that I have.” Notice the reference to his bones, which are not in an ossuary but raised from the dead. Then, as if to emphasize the point, he asks for a piece of fish and eats it.
That would have been too much for President Nixon. An ongoing spiritual influence does not eat fish. But the gospel writers tell us that Jesus rose from the dead physically, and not just spiritually.
Now here is the question: why does that matter? Why was it so important to the gospel writers that Jesus was alive physically and not just as a memory in our hearts?
Because the resurrection demonstrates how much God cares about human bodily life. A religion which emphasizes our souls over our bodies tends to play down bodily life. If human bodily life is ultimately destined for decay, then why worry about it? We should be out saving souls, not fussing about disease, hunger, homelessness, discrimination, or climate change.
But what if God's ultimate goal for us is not to get rid of our bodies but to transform them? What if God's ultimate goal for the world is not to leave the physical world behind but to make it part of a new creation?
That's what Jesus' resurrection demonstrates. God's goal for us is not to make us disembodied spirits who never have to eat. God's goal is to make us part of a new creation where everyone has enough to eat. Do you see the difference? That's why it was so significant for Jesus, after his resurrection, to eat with his disciples.
We see the same idea in the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Isaiah 25 says,
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines; of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all the people, the sheet that is spread over all the nations; he will swallow up death forever.
The kingdom of God is not a place where people leave their bodies behind; it is a place where their bodies are finally made whole, and so is the world.
At first glance the ending of Luke’s gospel seems to contradict this. At the very end of Luke’s gospel Jesus is carried up into heaven, which sounds like he leaves the world behind?
But Luke also insists that Jesus will return to complete what he has begun. Remember what we pray every week in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” According to Jesus heaven is the place where God’s will is already done in anticipation of when it will be done on earth. And when the Bible says that Jesus ascended to heaven, it means that Jesus reigns in heaven in anticipation of the time when he will reign on earth. That’s why the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, talks about the creation of a new heaven and earth. God does not want only to take us to heaven; God wants to create a new heaven and earth and use us as witnesses of how it will look.
Which means that every time we hand out food at the foodbank, every time we do the Crop Walk or give to the Presbyterian Hunger Program so that people can become food self-sufficient, we bear witness to the resurrection. We anticipate the day when God’s kingdom will come, and everyone will have enough to eat.
Likewise, every time we care for human bodies including our own; every time we care for our planet and try to be good stewards of its resources; every time we help provide jobs for the jobless and homes for the homeless and friendship for the friendless; every time we stand up for someone being bullied or abused or treated unjustly; every time we are faithful in our relationships and compassionate toward those who share our all-too-human weaknesses—every time we do these things we bear witness to the resurrection. We demonstrate that the story of Easter is not over, and it won’t be until God removes the shroud of death hanging over the world and welcomes us to the worldwide Easter dinner hosted by his Son.