Sunday, April 4, 2021

The resurrection and Alice Roberts' reminder

Rather than write a separate resurrection blogpost, I may as well share this sermon which I preached at our Transitional Cathedral on Sunday 4 April 2021. Next week I hope to come back to the "wrath of God" theme from last week ... seeking to relate "cancel culture" to "total depravity" ...

Easter Sermon at the Transitional Cathedral 04 April 2021

Readings: Acts 10:34-43    1 Corinthians 15:1-11   John 20:1-18 Psalm 118:1 – 2,16 – 17,22 – 23

Professor Alice Roberts, a University of Birmingham scientist, is President of the charity Humanists UK, an organisation which campaigns for state secularism and for "a tolerant world where rational thinking and kindness prevail".

 On Good Friday she Tweeted,    “Just a little reminder today. Dead people – don’t come back to life.”

That Tweet sparked lots and lots of responses, many of which chastised her for being unkind to Christians. Some responses were quite smart and witty along the lines of “well, one did come back to life and that’s why we make quite a fuss about him.”

But the best reply, I think, was from Tom Holland, the historian (not Spiderman) and author of Dominion,

Tom Holland makes the point that Alice Roberts may not be a Christian but she thinks and acts like a Christian: she wants to convert people from what she thinks is darkness to what she thinks is the light of truth.

 But perhaps we should also say, on this day, Easter, the Day of the Resurrection of our Lord, that Alice Roberts is not making an accurate claim about Jesus.

What she Tweeted could apply to Lazarus – a dead man whom Jesus brought back to life.

But the resurrection of Jesus was not God bringing Jesus back to life.

The resurrection of Jesus was God bringing Jesus forward to life in a new realm – life in a new body,

-          to be sure with marks of the old body (the nail marks in his hands and feet)

-          and the ability to eat and drink,

-          but no longer constrained by the usual constraints of space and time (see how in the resurrection stories, Jesus comes and goes from his friends at will).

The raised to life Jesus was – in language Paul uses later in 1 Cor – the first fruits of the resurrection of all baptised.

And those of us looking forward to that resurrection are not looking forward to being resuscitated after we die.

No, we are looking forward to a new resurrection body and life in a new world, in which we worship God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – eternally.

In other words, when we talk about the raising of Jesus from the dead, we are talking about much, much more than what Alice Roberts denies, that a man can be brought back to life.

We are talking about our Christian conviction that because God raised Jesus from the dead we dare to hope that Jesus’ death was transformative for our relationship with God – that through Jesus’ death we who believe in him might have peace with God – a reconciled, healed relationship with God.

Let’s go back to Friday. What happened on the cross? Michael Bird, an Australian Anglican theologian sums up the whole understanding of the New Testament when he says:

“On the cross, Jesus is the Passover lamb, the Levitical scapegoat, the suffering servant, the mercy seat, for on him God unloads the sins of the world, he bears the transgression of others, and the judgment of God against our wickedness falls upon him.”

Why would we think that? The plain fact of the matter is that if Jesus died on the cross and that was the end of his life, the end of his mission and the end of his movement, we would have heard no more about him.

If his death had some kind of eternal, universal significance, we would never have known it.

But something happened on that first Sunday after Jesus died and was buried. Our Psalm gives a hint, for instance,

 Psalm 118: 17: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 15 offers a list of appearances of Jesus to his followers.

John 20, in common with the three other gospels, tell us of an empty tomb and of an appearance of Jesus – a resurrected Jesus who has left the tomb.

When Mary goes to tell the other disciples that she has seen the Lord, as the apostle to the apostles, she sets in motion the possibility that the meaning of the death of Jesus will not be lost to the world but will be proclaimed to the world.

Acts 10 makes a very interesting point – let’s hear verses 39-42 again:

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.”

That interesting point is that God permitted appearances of Jesus to those who would share his message with the world. The resurrection appearances would embolden and encourage those who would share the significance of Jesus’ death.

 Paul – in later verses in 1 Corinthians 15 – leaves us in no doubt as to the importance of Christ’s resurrection:

1 Corinthians 15:14: “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.

1 Corinthians 15:17: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

We are not still in our sins because of what Jesus achieved on the cross; we know what Jesus achieved on the cross because his death was not his end: God raised him from the dead and so – especially according to Luke’s Gospel – the risen Jesus was able to explain the meaning of his death.

Alice Roberts is right, normally dead people don’t come back to life. That’s why what happened to Jesus, what Mary and Peter and the other disciple saw – the empty tomb, the burial clothes without a body in them, and then, later, along with many others, an appearance or three of the raised Jesus – is extraordinary. It shouldn’t have happened.

The Christian faith should have died, according to Alice Roberts, stillborn on the cross. It didn’t. Mary told the disciples. They saw and believed. They told many others throughout their world who believed and they have told others through successive generations.

As Ian Paul, a British biblical scholar says,

 Seeing and believing are the foundations of apostolic faith, but believing without seeing, based on apostolic testimony, will be the reality for successive generations. The new reality, that God is Father not only to Jesus but to all who believe, so that we are together brothers and sisters of Jesus, is established here but made real by the Spirit (Romans 8.15).

The resurrection is about you and me: through belief, will we enter into the new reality of God’s love made real for us on Good Friday and revealed to us on Easter Day?


Unknown said...

In many places, Easter poses a dilemma to preachers that lurks beneath many differences of opinion in churches.

Some preachers believe that they *must* defend the historicity of the Resurrection and answer its skeptics. Others ignore the nay-sayers, and lead their hearers in a survey of life in the post-Resurrection world.

That is, some worry more about losing sheep to the anti-metaphysical sort of secularism, and others more about failing to feed the believing sheep still in the pen. Neither is crazy, but either can be out of place.

Where I am, out is out, in is in. The sheep who have strayed will never come back for more of what they left in the first place. And those who remain want to know what it is to be, not just lambs pulled one by one from danger, but a real flock.

Christchurch appears to be a place in some middle between the two. This ambitious sermon speaks to both tendencies.

Christos anesti, + Petros!


Anonymous said...

The vocative of Petros is "Petre".
Alice Roberts was brought up in a strongly Christian home. Her mother taught in a Christian school and her father was a church warden. She is fixated on attacking Christianity and Christian schools but strangely has nothing to say about Islam, of which there is a lot in Birmingham - and in Yorkshire, where a teacher was suspended for showing a class a cartoon of the Muslim prophet and a mob has demonstrated at the school gates. Well, maybe her silence on Islam isn't so strange after all. I don't imagine she will mark Eid by telling British Muslims that nobody ever rode a horse to heaven. Alice's mother has criticised her and defended Christian schools in a letter to a national newspaper.
On the Resurrection, it is noticeable how widespread denial of the bodily Resurrection is in "mainstream" or better said, Enlightenment liberal Protestantism, to judge from the opening survey in Andrew Loke's 2020 monograph on the Resurrection. Marcus Borg, Dale Allison, Dale Evans, Ed Sanders join Australian Archbishop Peter Carnley in denying that Jesus's body was gloriously revivified and transformed on the third day.
Quite impossible to imagine a bona fide Roman Catholic or Orthodox scholar pushing the subjective vision or swoon or Straussian mythology theories beloved of anti-supernaturalist liberal Protestants. But dying Protestant Churches - like those in the Northeast United States and majority secular New Zealand- can only go with the cultural flow. One wonders if secular America's deepening obsession with race is a substitute for the disappearance of Christianity from urban whites.
Meanwhile in the growing world Church a scholar like Andrew Loke will give intellectual heft to the apostolic faith.


Father Ron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Carrell said...

Dear Ron
To be honest I have no idea what you are talking about.
No non Christian has been invited to preach at Easter services at the TC.
My sermon refers to what a non Christian has said in a Tweet.
Not in a sermon!

Anonymous said...

Sadly, Alice Roberts doesn't understand Science (which is about experimentally repeatable events), nor Christianity (Easter is not about resuscitation of dead people), nor humanitarianism (which respects world religions on their holiest feast - Martin, above, is quite correct), nor grammar (is her tweet a plea to dead people?)!!
Χριστός ἀνέστη

Anonymous said...

Well, I imagine Alice would beg to differ with Bosco on whether she "understands Science" since she is the "Professor for Public Engagement with Science" at Birmingham, which in reality means she makes archaeology programs for the BBC. Difficult to think that this is an actual professorship rather than a bit of PR by Birmingham University. Lots of institutions now dish out the title of "Professor" without any salary, department or teaching requirements because they like the recruiting publicity that comes from having a well known TV face in their brochures and websites. The competition for students is fierce and Birmingham isn't a top tier university in the more traditional sciences,
Alice is certainly bright enough: she did a medical degree, tutored anatomy and did a PhD in paleobiology, looking at evidence of shoulder problems in early hominids.
Does science really mean "experimentally repeatable events", as Bosco asserts? If so, that rules out cosmology and all investigation of the unrepeatable past as being "scientific". Geology is not "repeatable" and neither are Origin of Life studies. Or the Origin of Consciousness, as the atheist Thomas Nagel asserts in his book "Mind and Cosmos".
Ironically, it would also rule out evolution by random mutation and natural selection, something that Alice fervently believes in, because this has never been experimentally repeated either. The E. Coli experiment in the University of Michigan has produced 60,000+ generations of E. Coli, and while these have mutated, they remain resolutely E. Coli and have never become anything else.
And I won't even begin to mention whether the human body illustrates design and purpose, as Aristotle, the book of Psalms, Albertus Magnus and Aquinas affirmed and Dawkins (Alice's real mentor) furiously denies!
It's for reasons like these that a few of us who were once theistic evolutionists have now become a lot more skeptical about evolution, whether it can really deliver the goods.
Alice came from a loving upper middle class Christian home that provided her with good private education (Red Maids School, Bristol) and good university education. As President of the British Humanists she is supposedly committed to making the case for atheist humanism "rational and charitable". Mocking your parents' faith on the holiest day of the Christian year may not seem very charitable, but at least they will not issue a fatwa against her. A good rule in life is only to attack those who are not likely to kill you. Middle class Bristol is not Batley, Yorkshire.
If she is actually interested in rationality, perhaps she will investigate the archaeology of Makkah of the 7th century. If she did, she would make some very surprising (non) discoveries that pertain to that religion (let the reader understand).


Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Bowman
A bit of a challenge, of course, discerning what is going on in a cathedral congregation on Easter Day (regulars, irregulars, visitors)!

Father Ron said...

Mea Culpa! Sorry Bishop Peter. I confused the two things you were actually saying in your opening remarks. I was so incensed (not liturgically) about the prospect of Ms.Roberts Sermon appearing on your blogthat I jumped to the wrong conclusion! Please forgive me. I'm not losing my marbles - just mislaying them when stressed.

Christos Anesti, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Father Ron said...

Dear Bishop Peter (and Readers) I found this rather helpful understanding of how the Resurrection Life is already being experienced by Baptized Christian who faithfully sustain their fellowship with one another IN CHRIST by their participation in the Eucharist, (This excerpt comes from CHURCH LIFE JOURNAL)

"..But baptism is only the beginning of our participation in eternity. In the final chapter of 'Is This All There Is?' - Lohfink writes:

In baptism Christians have died with Christ and been raised to the communion of the saints. The real “location” of present eschatology is in the sacraments. Every baptism immerses someone in the fate of Christ and the communion of believers. Every reception of the sacrament of reconciliation means placing oneself even now before the Last Judgment, and in that judgment, through the mercy of God, being set free. Every reception of the Eucharist is participation in Jesus’s Last Supper, and the bread that is broken and eaten is a participation in his death, the breaking of his life, his self-surrender. At the same time, the eucharistic meal is the beginning of the eternal wedding feast with God (253).

All of the sacraments are a participation, here and now, in eternity. And sacraments are nothing if not bodily. They are bodily in that they are physical—matter and symbols, actions and gestures. And they are bodily in their meaning. In baptism, we become members of Christ’s risen body. In the Eucharist we become what we consume, growing in Christ as he feeds us with his body. In the sacrament of reconciliation, Christ heals his body."

I find this exposition of the value of the Sacramental Life In Christ to be most exciting -especially for those of us who happen to be sacramentalists. It does not takeaway our need for 'watchfulness in prayer and social activity' but it does encourage one's participation in the two sacraments that Jesus left to the Church.

Christos Anesti! Alleluia

Anonymous said...

It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. Galatians 2:20

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. Romans 8:11


First, Paul has a profound sense that he is no longer self-contained and that his hope lies in the other personal reality that now inhabits him. He has been *de-autonomized*, and the disruption of his sense of self-subsistence is crucial to his new identity...

Second, Paul's sense of *who he is becoming*-- his future self-- is determined not by who he is in himself but by Jesus. It is not that he will become a better version of Paul, as in virtue theory, but he will come to inhabit the perfections of Jesus. When the Spirit works in him, it is not to improve Paul's better qualities and to eradicate the bad ones, so that Paul will eventually become as good as he will ever be. Rather the Spirit works to unite Paul to the goodness of Jesus, so that *this* goodness manifests itself in the particularity of the apostle's life. The difference may seem to be subtle, but it actually constitutes an absolute distinction between two ways of thinking about the Christian's moral identity.

Third, and as a function of the first two points, Paul considers the potency of his new identity to flow entirely from the presence of Jesus and not from any strengths within his natural self. The natural Paul is entirely impotent to do good, but he is united to one whose potency is irrefutable. In union with him, Paul can do all things.

Grant Macaskill (2019) Living in Union with Christ: Paul's Gospel and Christian Moral Identity, 128-30.

Anonymous said...

So then, Father Ron, how does Grant Macaskill think that St Paul thought about the sacraments?--

"What does this look like for us? At the most basic level, it involves a recognition that we no longer define our own limits, because we no longer identify ourselves principally with the story that we have lived through our lives. I am helpless to break the cycles of sin in my life-- I have seen that over and over again-- and my limbs and neurons lack the potency to live a new story, but I am now united to Jesus Christ, identified principally by his story.

"I have performed this new identity in baptism and in Eucharist, allowing my own history to be redefined by his future as well as my own. I am aware that his Spirit indwells my limbs with all the vital goodness of Jesus himself. And so, when I face my everyday temptations, it is no longer inevitable that my story of failure will play itself out yet again. It is his story of victory that I expect to be reiterated in me. Today, tonight, tomorrow-- the pattern that has always replayed in me (or in you) will be disrupted, because there is a new player involved...

"As soon as I lose this focus and begin to see the moral challenge as one that I face myself, drawing on my own resources, I have failed. I may look victorious, and I may take credit for my performance-- I may, indeed, give credit to myself-- but I have already turned back to my self-centeredness. And if I am not careful to remind myself that what the Spirit is doing is manifesting the goodness of Jesus in and through my particularity and not simply energizing me, then I will make the same mistake again...

"What is striking about Paul's account of Christian growth is that, at every turn, it is directed toward Jesus as the one *in* whom the apostle's Christian identity is growing. That and that alone makes sense of his otherwise bizarre expression, 'For to me to live is Christ' (Philippians 1:21)."

Macaskill, 130-32.

Anonymous said...

A few observations.

(1) This is the experiential meaning of Easter. None of it makes sense if Jesus has not been raised from the dead. If he has been, then one must know this to be in him.

(2) The Lohfink passages that you find helpful and exciting are more so when they are part of a clearer definition of *participation* or being *in Christ*.

(3) Macaskill finds that St Paul emphasizes the Holy Spirit's activity more than most of our discussions of morality, prayer, sacraments, scripture, etc.

(4) Macaskill explains the wickedness of two things that often irritate you--

(a) *Self-righteousness* is the error of thinking that we are saved as selves apart from union with Christ. For example, Macaskill notes that PSA, although true, is often preached in a way that falsely implies that we are saved as autonomous beings. Importantly, one can believe oneself to be a sinner and still be self-righteous in one's continued reliance on one's own spiritual strength.

(b) When means of grace are enjoyed for themselves rather than as modes of participation in Christ, they pose a similar peril. This goes for the dominical sacraments, but also for prayer, study, and other good works.

--and one that irritates me--

(c) To be *in Christ* is to be aware of one's self as it is in a rich sense of him, and aware of the Lord as present in one's own particular self through the Holy Spirit. After all, St Paul knows Jesus as the culmination of centuries of Judaic anticipation, and he signs himself as Paul, not Jesus-clone #861. Yet preachers, teachers, etc rarely talk about the Three except as passing tones on the way to a desired ecclesial or ethical conclusion. Macaskill tacitly shows how this dearth of what some might call devotional preaching makes it hard for believers to conceive of union in personal ways.


Peter Carrell said...

Thank you Bowman
Vital for Christian living, our identity in Christ and Christ's identifying with us.
You have put the case for Romans 6-8 being the most important chapters in the Bible!