A few years ago, I began to struggle with joining in churches while they recited the creeds of the church. This experience was made easier by the fact that in the United Church of Christ where I serve, we choose simpler, more modern confession at baptisms, at confirmation like the UCC Statement of Faith, listed here, and at other points where a confession of faith is needed, or sometimes joining in the confession of our cousins in the north, the Uniting Church of Canada, which says,
“We are not alone,
we live in God’s world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.”
Yet still at some other churches I am asked to join in such bold confessions as the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, which ask me to say things like “I believe … in the resurrection of the body”.
Can I be honest, here?
Even though I don’t deny these words are true, I wince a bit, or at least used to do so.
Working as a chaplain, seeing body and body fall to illness, and especially in hospice where so often I bless the bodies of those who have prayed for physical restoration and healing in this world as they accept it will not come this side of death, there is something about saying I believe in a resurrection of those same bodies which makes me flinch. I am so full of questions about what it means, and the more I sit with the dying and grieving, the less I have answers and more I struggle with question.
In truth, I don’t know. I don’t know what happens beyond the veil. Though I sense deeply, in my spirit, each time I say ancient words of blessing from my Book of Worship over those on the brink of dying that they do in fact usher into a new life beyond the veil, I do not have words for this experience. Are they in some literal place called heaven? Are they ushered into a new world similar but different than my own? Do they live on in new bodies, reincarnated, into another leg of some spiritual pilgrimage I cannot conceive? Are they given some kind of body, literally or figuratively, in some new world beyond my ability to imagine? That last seems truest to my own experience and the Christian story, but if so in what way is that a body at all? If that body before me, over which I prayed, lays empty of life, spirit, and that blazing light of personhood which bears the image of God upon death which I have witnessed as I sat with this dear one hearing them weave their stories of their life together into a precious blanket of truth before me, in what way is this new life they enter, if they do enter a new life after death as I believe, resurrection of the body?
And, to be honest, I struggle too, over the Easter stories. For they sound so much like what the bereaving I help describe. They sit bereft at the death of one they love, having witnessed their long and painful death and burial. They are without hope. And they look up — in any number of places and ways –and there before them is the one they’ve mourned, whole and well. At times these experiences seem barely material but often they feel their hand on their cheek or shoulder, hear their voice in their ears. They are certain that whatever happened to their bodies, these precious ones still live on, in a deep profound way, in a new way in God’s world.
Though I know based on my own faith that it is more than this, those Easter stories sound so like this common occurrence among the grieving — one I, too, have experienced myself not a few times — that it is hard to wrap my mind around what exactly happened that Easter morning, and how it differs from what I see others experience every day. Clearly, since all who have such experiences — including me — attest them to be true, walking away certain that something surely lies beyond the pain and loss of death, and the disciples’ witness is seeing Jesus alive beyond and victorious over death. Like many, I too have felt the touch of a Risen and Living Lord, though my mind doesn’t seem able to fully grasp or explain what this resurrection means. These experiences attest to the fact Christ lives and is risen, and is still present to us today.
So some days I feel guilty, my mouth dry and tongue heavy, when asked to recite those words of the creed. Or I did until I heard these words of Peter Rollins, who writes,
“Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think… I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system. However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”
As Father Marcus Borg says in his The Last Week, “the passion of Jesus was the kingdom of God,…” making present “for all a fair share of a world belonging to and ruled by …. God …”, and as such the resurrection of Jesus, is the announcement that the ultimate reality is not death and oppression, injustice and disease, but a power to change us, our world, and our communities, beyond pain.
My own trepidation is our usual fear: that what God calls us to focus our attention upon is what we cannot know, cannot understand this side of heaven. Yet, as Borg and Collins remind us, ultimately the challenge we are called to embrace or reject is what God makes clear to us, what we do understand without questioning or denying.
For me this means the real question I am asked “do you believe in the resurrection of the body?” is this: I am confronted with as I ask myself how to live into the Easter miracle today, and every day I face, is not what I believe happened to Jesus’ earthly body, nor exactly in what form resurrection is made known to those whose bodies I have seen expire, but whether I choose to trust that the pain, anguish, and injustice before us each day is God’s final word.
Theologians and mystics and saints can theorize and argue, question and try to pin down, this mystery that is beyond me: how exactly resurrection of the body worked for Jesus and will work for you and me in our deaths. I don’t have to let such questions keep me from answering the call to be faithful to Christ’s resurrection and our own.
Whatever our questions about the in’s and out’s of the afterlife, which Scripture itself says “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard”, we can say “yes” to the question “do you believe in the resurrection. When you and I believe in resurrection power, we take God’s hand and work toward justice. When we live into Easter, we choose to join in the same liberating work Jesus announced in the start of his ministry, when he said
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” — Luke 4:1-19
How have you experienced and lived out this reality today? This week? This month?
Your progressive redneck preacher,