1 April 2018
Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Day
Rudolf Bultmann was a good man. He was a brilliant theologian and one of my professors said about his own published dissertation about Bultmann’s theology that when he wrote his dissertation he had not yet entirely understood the subject which was, so he said, why his dissertation was a rather difficult read.
Every pastor of my generation and earlier studied Bultmann and while he was a brilliant man, I can’t say that he shaped my thinking much. What he was best known for was his program of de-mythologizing the Bible.1 I was not so sure what would be left after such program, or if what was be left would be enough.
Bultmann used the term myth in much the same way it is used colloquially. If we consider something to be untrue, we call it a myth. One could say it’s a myth that mega homes on farmland fuel land speculation, though that is probably not accurate. It is, however, what some people say.
Or one could say that global warming is a myth, even though Antarctica just recorded it’s warmest year on record.
You get the idea.
My understanding of myth is different. For me a myth is something deeper than anything a plain explanation could offer.
So, I can talk about the world in scientific terms, of atoms and cells, and physics and chemistry. And I could talk about the evolution of species. Or I can tell a story of God creating the world with great attention to detail, and God resting at the end of God’s work, and saying that it is very good.
The two ways don’t contradict each other, and they are both fascinating, but the second story says something the first story does not, it talks about intent and purpose, about belonging, about love and about relationship.
The second story I would call a myth but what I mean by myth is that it says more than numbers and formulas can say, which is why I always wondered why people opposed to evolution wanted to reduce the accounts of creation to mere science.
Or I could tell you that Jackie and my kids love me and that I have no idea why. God knows they know that I am not perfect but they love me anyway. And I could tell stories of when Jackie and I met, or of times we spent together as a family. And these stories would be true but they would merely illustrate that my family loves me. And that is more important than any CV, even though a CV may look more factual.
In an interview in 1966 Bultmann stated that one could not use electric appliances, trust in modern medicine and believe in the miraculous world of the New Testament.2 In another interview he stated that he did not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus.3
However, the physical resurrection of Jesus is what the New Testament proclaims, as do the creeds of the church. Not only Jesus’ physical resurrection but ours too. Of course, we too have a hard time imagining this, beginning with questions of how could there be room for so many people?, and so the popular assumption has become the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul. But the Bible does not speak of the immortality of the soul, the Bible speaks of death and resurrection. That the Bible speaks of God’s incarnation in Jesus and of the physical resurrection of Jesus is an affirmation of God’s creation, of our humanity, and of our physicality.
Unlike Bultmann I always had a positive notion of myth and of Biblical myth, it being a truth that was perhaps difficult to comprehend but no less real. The apostle Paul speaks of the peace of God that surpasses all understanding: It’s not opposed to inquiry and understanding but it’s deeper.
Reducing the resurrection of Jesus to merely a resurrection into the proclamation of the church makes Jesus’ resurrection hardly more than the resurrection of say Shakespeare into the performing arts.
Unlike Bultmann I always believed the Apostle Paul to have the final word on the resurrection. In 1 Corinthians he writes, “… if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”
That does not mean that the resurrection is easy to grasp, which is why the first who encounter the empty tomb are struck by fear and terror. Death and execution they could understand, the resurrection they could not. So, if you find this a difficult story to believe, you are in good company.
When I studied in Germany, the study of theology was not only academic – which it is supposed to be – but it was also somewhat separated from the faith of the church. We never had a professor begin or end a class with prayer, that they would do when it was their turn to lead worship in the university church.
And so it was a wonderful moment for me when one of my professors in Heidelberg stated that if Christ had not risen, we would all be at the wrong party.4
It was wonderful because it was true. But for me it was also necessary. Theologically it was necessary but it was also necessary for me personally. I am a Christian not because I believe in some ideas, ideology, or propositions but because I am a follower of Jesus.
Let me say that again, I am a Christian not because I believe in some ideas, ideology, or propositions but because I am a follower of Jesus.
That Jesus had risen from the dead confirmed this.
The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus. If Jesus’ resurrection was his vindication then we may think about what kind of life it was that was vindicated.
A life lived for others; attention and inclusion of those at the margins; non-violence and the love of enemies; the providing of food, healing, and friendship from God’s abundance; forgiveness rather than hatred and retaliation; in short the enacting of the Kingdom of God.
When God raises Jesus from the dead, it is not only that Jesus is among his disciples again but it is the vindication of the kingdom he enacted, the kingdom we rejected when we crucified him.
Those who in the early hours of the day come to the grave are shocked and afraid and do not know what to do or say, which is why the women in Mark’s telling initially say nothing to anyone.
But the risen Christ comes among them, forgives them, blesses them, and renews their call. We will hear about this in the next few weeks.
It is clear now that following Jesus is not just about resurrection, not just about eternal life with God in heaven, but about living in the kingdom that Jesus called us into: A life lived for others, forgiveness instead of hatred or retaliation, generosity instead of coveting, loving our enemies, and attention to and inclusion of those at the margins, all expression of God’s own love. And we are called into this living out of God’s kingdom even if it’s difficult or gets us into trouble. Think of the conversion of Cornelius that at the same time was the conversion of St. Peter as Peter’s cultural norms were turned upside down.
And the best part is that after the resurrection of Jesus we have nothing to be afraid of.
1He was also a formidable Johanine scholar.
2 “Man kann nicht elektrisches Licht und Radioapparat benutzen, in Krankheitsfällen moderne medizinische und klinische Mittel in Anspruch nehmen und gleichzeitig an die Geister- und Wunderwelt des Neuen Testaments glauben.” http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-46408210.html
4Hartwig Thyen, who happened to be Bultmann’s last doctoral student.