In the midst of our denomination’s controversy over marriage and sexuality, it is easy to forget there are issues of even greater weight that divide The United Methodist Church. One of those is our understanding of the resurrection – both the resurrection of Jesus and our own.
Last spring, a United Methodist elder in Colorado, the Rev. Roger Wolsey, wrote a blog post denying many of the cardinal tenets of orthodox Christianity. Among his statements were these: “Going to heaven after we die isn’t what the faith or salvation is about. … Jesus’ resurrection didn’t have to be understood as a physical one for it to be a real and meaningful one (Paul and many of the early disciples encountered a spiritually risen Christ).”
In a recent Twitter exchange, the Rev. Dr. Mark Holland, the new executive director of Mainstream UMC (an organization formed to promote the One Church Plan), was asked, “Do you believe in the bodily resurrection?” His response was, “Yes. Metaphorically. 1 Cor. 15:44 ‘…it is raised a spiritual body.'” He went on to say, “The truth of the Gospel does not hinge on whether you and I read this literally or spiritually. Let’s just live into the mystery.”
Let me hasten to say I am not trying to cast aspersions on these two individuals, nor am I trying to malign the centrist movement of our church. Personally, I know a number of clergy who identify with Mainstream UMC who do believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ in what I would call a literal way. I acknowledge that Twitter is not a good place to engage in theological discussion, and I concede the shortcomings of words like “literal,” “metaphorical,” and “physical.”
The fact remains, however, our competing visions of divine resurrection – often found in differences between those in the pews and those in the pulpits – are among the most cataclysmic fissures within our denomination. “It’s Friday,” the great African American preacher S.M. Lockridge (1913-2000) used to say, “but Sunday’s coming.” That is the crux of our faith – our blessed hope. It cuts right to the core issues of the faith.
Is Jesus Christ God? Is there such a thing as the Trinity? Did Jesus’ death bring about salvation for all who believe? It might shock grassroots church members to find out that there are many United Methodist clergy who would not give an orthodox response to the above questions and others.
Did Jesus rise from the grave on Easter Sunday with a body that was just as real and physical as the body that was laid in that grave on Good Friday (albeit transformed into what the biblical writers would call a “resurrection body”)? The resurrection is the lynchpin on which the whole Gospel depends.
Paul writes in I Corinthians 15, “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 he raised Christ from the dead… And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (vs. 14-15, 17). Peter made the resurrection the heart of his Pentecost Day sermon. “God raised [Jesus] from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him… God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it” (Acts 2:24, 32).
The resurrection is God’s assurance that Christ’s death really did atone for the sins of the world. Without the resurrection, we have no way of knowing whether God’s plan really worked! And the resurrection was the fulfillment of the Scriptures (I Corinthians 15:3-4) – a matter of “first importance.” To take away the physical resurrection is to gut the Gospel of its power. “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know … his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand…” (Ephesians 1:18-9). If there was no power in Christ’s resurrection, there is no power available to us today as believers in Christ. And Christ’s resurrection served as the “firstfruits” guaranteeing our future resurrection (I Corinthians 15:20-23). If he did not physically rise, neither will we.
Was Jesus’ resurrection “metaphorical” or “literal?” Was his resurrection body “spiritual” or “physical?”
When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus (and in other appearances to Paul), Jesus probably did not have a physical body, since that body had already ascended into heaven. But Paul makes the claim that Jesus appeared to 500 of the disciples, including the Twelve, Peter, and James, before his ascension (I Corinthians 15:5-7). And Luke portrays Jesus’ resurrection body as a physical one. Jesus invited his disciples to “touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” In addition, “they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence” (Luke 24:39, 42-43).
Our doctrinal standards guide us in how we are to understand these scriptures. “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day” (Articles of Religion, Article III). There is no question that the teaching of the church is that Jesus “literally” or “physically” rose from the dead with a real body that had flesh and bones. Yes, that body could appear and disappear at the drop of a hat and enter through locked doors, but it was a real body, just the same.
Friends, as we consider the future of our denomination, we must acknowledge that there are issues of even greater significance than marriage and sexuality that divide us. While not everything in the Bible is meant to be taken literally, surely Christ’s resurrection (and ours) is one of those that is. I am concerned about our church ratifying a theological framework that justifies turning physical reality into metaphor. We must not gut United Methodism’s historical understanding of the gospel of its power to transform our lives and our world.