Living I – Believing

Living - Main Graphic
Click here for the video version of the sermon.

The Deeper Magic

On one of the shelves in our study at the house is a tattered, taped up copy of an old children’s book. It is the first in a seven-part series of books that originally belonged to my brother-in-law who gave them to me several years ago. The second through seventh volumes are in pretty good shape to be forty-eight years old but the first volume has been through it. Marty, my brother-in-law read it, then his brother, then Marty’s sons. After that, he gave the books to me and I reread it and then my daughter got old enough to read it and then my son. Suffice it to say, the book is used; loved, but used.

The book tells a story that we all know: a world is in crisis, great heroes come to its aid, great villains oppose them, the greatest of heroes makes a great sacrifice and vanquishes the force of evil, and all ends well. It is a favorite of children and adults all over the world and has been since it was written by a certain professor of medieval literature at Oxford. In the story, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, four children make their way into a magical land by stepping into a wardrobe and they go on a grand adventure. They meet talking animals, creatures from mythology, one of siblings betrays the others, the sibling is captured and rescued, and finally a great war is declared.

As preparations for the war are made the great king and leader for the good meets with the evil queen who would take away his throne. She declares that the brother, who betrayed his family, is hers since the law demand that she is given all traitors to punish. The great king calls her aside and they come to an agreement, unknown to the others. Later, it is revealed that in order to appease the evil queen, the king has offered himself in the traitor’s place. As two of the children watch in hiding, the king is humiliated before a crowd of the queen’s minions and put to death before the enemies leave to plan their attack on the king’s army. The children weep and are left alone with the body of their friend and king. As the sun begins to rise, they get ready to leave. They turn to walk away from the terrible scene when they hear a great cracking noise. The stone table that held the body of their king is broken down the middle, the king who was dead is not there. One of the children asks, “What does it mean? Is it magic?” and a familiar voice responds, “Yes… It is more magic.” They turn to find the king very much alive and restored. The children reunite with the king and the oldest asks, “But what does it all mean?”

“It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”[1]

When C.S. Lewis wrote these words, he was no doubt reaching into a basic and central story of the Christian faith. It is the story we just read from John 20 made over into a children’s fairy tale, expressing its own deeper magic, the power of the resurrection as experienced by the original followers of Jesus. But what is this power of resurrection? Why do we cling to this idea of Jesus the Nazarite prophet dying and being raised from the dead?

Deeper magic still

I think first off, we need to shed the old, old story as we know it. We have brought the baggage of our past and the certainty of our beliefs, along with a host of other things into our ideas of resurrection. I think the idea itself has lost some of its power because we are so familiar with it, so let’s start over. Let’s do our best to be honest with the Bible in its context, the people who wrote it in their culture, and do the job of being good disciples and good students of The Way, the term the early followers of Jesus called their understanding of Judaism.

041.5

The best way to look at this, I think, is to start with the earliest writings about Jesus, the writings of Paul. The oldest letters we have of his are to the church at Galatia, to the church at Thessalonica, and to the church at Corinth. Of these three letters, only the letters to Thessalonica and Corinth have to do with resurrection. The letter to Thessalonica was written in times of difficulty and pain. They had a burning question regarding those who were believers and had died before Jesus return, which they expected in their lifetime: what happens to them? Paul answers by talking about a general resurrection, a time in the future when “the dead in Christ will rise first” and those who live will be met by Jesus and taken to the presence of God.[2]

The earliest account of the Easter event is found in what we call Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In chapter fifteen, Paul says,

3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.[3]

Paul goes on from there to argue that if Christ has been raised, then there is a resurrection and if there is no resurrection and Christ has not been raised then our faith doesn’t have much to it.[4] So, according to Paul, the thing that makes Jesus different from all those who taught a similar message was the claim that he had been raised from the dead; if there is no belief in the resurrection, Jesus is little more than a footnote in the annals of Jewish history.[5] In the years that follow these letters of Paul, others would write Greco-Roman style biographies called gospels. The gospels each add their own expression of resurrection in their time, place, and audience, such as the reading today from John 20, something written toward the end of the first century.

The importance of the resurrection stories lies in their meaning.[6] These stories recount an understanding of Jesus as one who came back from the dead, but the truth is, we have no actual, physical proof of the event. All that we have when it comes down to brass tacks is a trust that the words about this event passed on to us along with our personal experience, points us toward lives of change that happened in the past and are still happening today. Whether this means Jesus is still physically alive today, because of his resurrection, or indeed whether any such great miracles happened in the past, cannot be known by means of historical or medical study, but only as an  expression of faith.[7] For the writers of the New Testament, the early church fathers, all the way down to the people today, we act as we do, trust as we trust out of our faith. What do we mean by faith? The writer of Hebrews said, “Faith is the reality we hope for, the evidence not seen.”

It is by our trust in God, born out of a relationship with God, that we try to make sense of these things and I think that is the best way is to understand the meaning behind the words we use. I believe the meaning of this story is in the idea of transformation, real life change, and the transformative power of God to change our lives. The Easter story is the central image in the New Testament because it is the story that most points us to a transformed life. This path leads us to die to the old way of living and be reborn into a new way of living.[8] Resurrection does not mean going back to way we used to live but to be changed by our encounter with the life of Jesus. To use Paul’s phrase, it involves us taking up and living into a spiritual focused way of life, not a life of giving into our baser instincts.[9]

So, how do we live into resurrection? We live into it by orienting our life, our way, our being toward God by following in the way of Jesus. We live into his life, ministry, death, burial, and resurrection. We become as Paul said, “new creations,” living into a life of the Spirit where we embrace love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control while crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires, as we live by the Spirit and are  guided by the Spirit.[10]

The greatest value in this is attached to that message, the message of trust in God beyond the words to the reality of our lives. The story of Thomas is told to help us live into that reality of that change. “Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.” The central point of Easter is that Jesus, who was dead, now lives…the truth of the affirmation, “Jesus lives,” is based in the power of the story to lead us to God as people who wish to die to the past of our lives and be reborn into a new life and relationship with God and his children.


References

Borg, Marcus J., and John Dominic Crossan. 2006. The Last Week. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Borg, Marcus. 2009. The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith. New York: HarperCollins Publishing.

Bourgeault, Cynthia. 2008. The Wisdom Jesus. Boston & London: Shambhala Publications.

Bultmann, Rudolf. 1969. Faith and Understanding. New York: Harper and Row.

Campbell, Ted A. 2011. Methodist Doctrine. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Crossan, John Dominic, and Sarah Sexton Crossan. 2019. “Resurrecting Easter: Hunting for the Original Easter Image.” Biblical Archaeology Review 45 (2): 20-28.

Ehrman, Bart D. 2014. How Jesus Became God. New York: HarperOne / HarperCollins.

Ehrman, Bart E. 2012. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Fifth edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Haenchen, Ernst. 1984. John 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of John Chapters 7-21. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Lewis, C.S. 1970. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Vol. 1. 7 vols. New York: Collier Books.

Malina, Bruce J., and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. 1998. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press.

Spong, John Shelby. 1994. Resurrection: Myth or Reality? New York: HarperCollins.

—. 2013. The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Tillich, Paul. 1964. Systematic Theology. Vol. 2. 3 vols. Chicago, Il: University of Chicage Press.

von Harnack, Adolf. 1986. What is Christianity? Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Willimon, William H. 2007. United Methodist Beliefs. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.


[1] (Lewis 1970)

[2] 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17

[3] 1 Corinthians 15:3-8

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:17-19

[5] (B. D. Ehrman 2014, p. 131-132)

[6] (Borg and Crossan 2006, p. 193)

[7] (B. D. Ehrman 2014, p. 132)

[8] (Borg and Crossan 2006, p. 210), see also Gal. 2:19-20, Rom. 6:1-11, 2 Cor. 5:17

[9] (M. Borg 2009, p. 93)

[10] Galatians 5:22-24

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: