It’s not that Jesus rose bodily from the grave.
When I visit a church, I notice things. The number of blacks, Asians, and Latinos in relation to whites. Whether women are on the platform. How people are dressed. The quality of the cars in the parking lot. I notice whether the congregation is old or young, and assume that if it’s young, it’s vibrant. As an Anglican, I notice the order of worship and naturally look down my nose at all that is liturgically incorrect. I also notice how much paper is wasted in thick worship bulletins, how much empty air is being heated needlessly above the worshipers, and other signs of environmental friendliness.
I do this because I’ve been catechized to notice all these big and little differences. I’ve been catechized not by one group but by many different groups, each with its own identity and mission. It’s a phenomenon we might call identity churchmanship.
This is a Christian version of identity politics, which has come under severe criticism as of late. But before we join the chorus of critics, we are wise to remember the value of identity politics. Groups that feel oppressed or simply misunderstood find comfort and strength in banding together around their common identity. Many scholars consider the black identity politics of the 1960s as the beginning of this wave, and it was key to the success of the civil rights movement. Black identity politics gave African Americans the courage to work together for their rights. Since that time, we’ve seen identity politics play out in terms of gender, sexual orientation, generations, disability, and many other identities.
My late brother, Steven, for example, was blind from birth. Sometime in the ’90s he joined what was a blind identity politics group, with whom he could vent about public policies that discriminated against his disability. For a time, he found it deeply encouraging to be with the likeminded.
I participated in a kind of evangelical identity politics when I was a mainline Presbyterian. We evangelical pastors recognized we were in a minority in a liberal denomination. Sometimes, frankly, we were a despised minority. So we formed local and national support groups not only to commiserate with one another but also to plan together how we might prod the church in more orthodox directions. Those meetings are some of my fondest memories in ministry.
So identity politics has been a force for good in many arenas, including the church. But as Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, noted, maybe it’s time for us to shift gears: “We are now, I think, beginning to see the pendulum swinging back and saying identity politics is all very well, but we have to have some way of putting it all back together again and discovering what is good for all of us and share something of who we are with each other so as to discover more about who we are.”
I think he was on to something. As I said, one reason I notice all these things about a church is because different identity groups in the church have taught me to notice them. But now I not only notice the differences, I look down on and disparage the church if it has failed to meet my newly adopted criteria.
Given human nature, identity churchmanship seems to inevitably degenerate into judgmentalism and division. Identity based in common interest, experience, or even conviction cannot enable the one thing that Jesus is most eager for us to do: come together in unity in him.
Yet the problem with identity churchmanship goes even deeper than disunity. It encourages me to notice what is passing away while failing to notice the reality that will last: the profundity that lies at the heart of the Good News.
Eastertide is a good time to reawaken to the gospel. But to my surprise, it wasn’t meditating on Jesus’ resurrection appearances that helped me see how faulty my vision of the church has been. It was when I noticed the lack of them.
Jesus roamed Galilee in his resurrection body for 40 days. And yet in those 40 days, it seems he appeared to his disciples only about 10 times, depending on how one integrates the various accounts.
On the first Easter, our resurrected Lord appeared to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11–18), “the women” on the way to tell the disciples about the empty tomb (Matt. 28:8–10), Cleopas and a companion on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35), and the disciples, minus Thomas (John 20:19–25; Luke 24:36-43).
Eight days after Easter, he appeared to the disciples plus Thomas (John 20:26–29), and in the ensuing weeks, Jesus appeared to 7 disciples at the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1–23), some 500 disciples at a large gathering (1 Cor. 15:6), the disciples in Galilee (Matt. 28:16–18), and James (1 Cor. 15:7). And on the 40th day after Easter, he appeared to “all the apostles” at the Ascension (Luke 24:49–53; Acts 1:3–11).
Though only ten, this is nothing to scoff at; these appearances changed history. They demonstrated that Jesus was truly alive again. They opened the apostles’ eyes to what God had promised and foretold in the Scriptures. Paul lists the appearances alongside Jesus’ death for our sins and Jesus’ resurrection as “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). But given the import we rightly grant to the bodily resurrection, one might have imagined that Jesus would have appeared many more times during those 40 days. In fact, during those 40 days, he is absent much more than he is physically present. And when he is present, he discourages people from holding on to his resurrected body.
“Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father,” he told Mary. “Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” When Thomas confesses his faith, Jesus gently scolds him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus doesn’t seem to want his disciples to put too much stock in his resurrected body. What’s going on here?
Reading the rest of the New Testament, the answer seems to be this: While Jesus’ resurrected presence during those 40 days is “of first importance,” so also is Christ’s bodily absence.
The bodily resurrection is not first and foremost intended to dazzle. It’s not a spiritual spectacular designed to knock our spiritual socks off. It clearly doesn’t do that, as the Gospel writers note. When Jesus appears to the 11 to give the Great Commission, for example, Matthew notes that while some worshiped him, some still doubted (28:17). And Luke notes in Acts 1:3 that Jesus had to give “many convincing proofs that he was alive.” His resurrection appearances were not a slam dunk for faith.
Theologically, this helps us see why the Resurrection is crucial. First it is a vindication of what was accomplished at the Cross: the forgiveness of our sins and our reconciliation with God. Second, it looks forward to what our bodily life will be like in the kingdom of heaven. These are the two great truths of the Resurrection. This is why the physical, bodily resurrection of our Lord is crucial to the preaching of the Gospel and why we can never go the route of the old liberalism, which argued that Jesus rose only in spirit or in the hearts and minds of the disciples.
Still, why does Jesus seemingly downplay or relativize his bodily resurrection? Because he knew that what was coming was more miraculous and astonishing still. He was not satisfied to be a mere object of wonder and worship, someone we observe and marvel at from afar. Someone we could merely touch, see, and hear as someone separate from us. He did not want to establish a religion that memorialized this miracle, set it in lifeless stone.
No, the great miracle that the gospel proclaims is not merely that Christ lived bodily after the Crucifixion but that he lives dynamically in us today. The Resurrection is one with the Ascension and Pentecost—we cannot grasp the meaning of the Resurrection in isolation, because these two other events display an even greater miracle: Christ in us, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27).
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SOURCE: Christianity Today – Mark Galli