Lately, I've been something of a one-trick pony. That pony is the resurrection of Jesus. The truth is that his resurrection has gripped me in more concrete ways, and I can't seem to move on from it. Perhaps it's because my body is aging? Maybe so. All I know is that as I grow older, my focus on crossing the finish line in full-stride is more important to me than before.
Decades ago, I ran in a 10k race in downtown Milwaukee. It was named after Al McGuire, the great head basketball coach at Marquette University. I don't remember a lot from that day, but what I do recall is significant. There were about 8,000+ entrants in the race. I remember being so far behind the starting line that, when the gun went off, it took me a minute or two before I even got near the beginning of the race.
When I finally reached the starting line, I took off at a fast pace, literally passing thousands of slower runners in the first two miles. I ran a six-minute pace, entirely on adrenaline. It was intoxicating to leave the pack in the dust. Until I hit the two-mile post. Then, I think adrenaline turned to Pepto-Bismol. My lungs were burning, and my legs were filling with lactic acid. I suddenly began watching other runners passing me! Ugh. I settled into a slow pace and forgot about posting a good time.
As the course wound toward the lakefront, I approached an important jag in the route ... and suddenly realized we were turning toward a distant finish line, up ahead. My mind kicked into gear, overwhelmed my body's exhaustion, and I took off like the Flash! I began sprinting like Eric Liddell, passing hundreds of perplexed (and angry?) co-runners as I spied the finish line. I was full-out, pell-mell, Usain Bolt sprinting as I sailed across the finish line ... in about 3,591st place. But those last 200 yards were Olympic.
Like that race, perhaps the resurrection is so important to me now because, after my rabbit start in the Christian life, followed by tortoise-plodding for decades, I may see a finish line up ahead somewhere. Suddenly I'm filled with new energy to finish the race well. Why? Because ... resurrection.
I've been studying Jesus' resurrection all my adult life, but it has new importance to me now.
We all know that the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) contain eye witness accounts of the resurrection of Jesus. But I began wondering ... what do the other NT books say about the resurrection? Is it a prominent theme or relegated to the back shelf? I've recently read from the Book of Acts (#5 in the NT) through the Book of Hebrews (#19 in NT), and I can confirm: it is quite prominent. Here are a few data points:
- Acts: the resurrection is mentioned explicitly or alluded to 21x. In many of the mini-preaching moments of Peter and Paul, the resurrection was actually the #1 point they're trying to make, even above the cross.
- Romans: 13x
- 1st and 2nd Corinthians: 13x
- Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians: 9x
- And so on. You get the point. It's prominent.
All of which makes me wonder ... why is it that the resurrection was so real and concrete to the early followers, but somewhat abstract and elusive to us today? O sure, Christians will say, "I believe Jesus rose from the dead," but act like it's just another piece of history – mentally keeping it at arm's length. Sort of like, "Yeah, I believe George Washington was our first President." We know about it, but it doesn't really make much of a difference to daily life. Sure, Jesus rose, but I've got meetings to attend and clients to serve.
The early Christians, I'm afraid, wouldn't know what to do with our nonchalance. Perhaps the reason for some of our apathy is that we haven't mused on this very seriously:
- There is an actual gravesite in Jerusalem, circa 30AD, that was muddy, rocky, perhaps filthy, hewn out of a stone enclosure.
- Jesus was as much a person, as much of a human being, as you or me. He had a body with fingers, toes, moles and wrinkles. If you poked him he'd say "ouch." If you cut him, he'd bleed.
- That body was beaten to a pulp. Crucifixion was like killing someone 10 times, then starting over again.
- Some animal, perhaps a donkey, probably served as a wheelbarrow to cart his dead body to the gravesite.
- Is this making sense yet? Jesus was as dead as your grandfather or grandmother that you saw in the casket, before they closed the lid and buried him or her in the ground. Jesus was like that, only worse.
- But, 48-72 hours later, A DEAD BODY GOT UP AND WAS NO LONGER DEAD.
That is what the early Christians experienced. When they say "Jesus is alive," we cannot hear their voices – the tone, pitch, timbre or inflection. But it had to be something like:
"JESUS IS FREAKIN' ALIVE, EVERYBODY! A-L-I-V-E. LIKE, NOT DEAD! I SAW HIM AND I'M TELLING YOU, A DEAD MAN IS WALKING AROUND TOWN! HE IS ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY ALIVE. AND IF YOU DON'T BELIEVE ME, YOU'RE THE ONE WHO IS FLIPPIN' CRAZY, NOT ME. I TELL YOU, I SAW HIM. I SAW HIM."
I bet if we lived back then and saw him, we wouldn't fear death at all. We'd be banking on the fact that if Jesus rose and covered my sin, I will rise too. If we lived back then but didn't see him (but only heard about his apparent resurrection), we'd be certain to hightail it over to the burial site, to make sure he wasn't still in that tomb. And upon discovering it to be empty, we'd sure wonder, wouldn't we? We'd interview all the disciples. The governmental and religious leaders. Everyone.
Today, because 2,000 years have passed, we falsely presume its too long ago to make definitive conclusions. So we "sort of" believe, we assent to a resurrection as long as it remains abstract and doesn't cost us anything. But the early disciples, when confronted with a death penalty, chose death over denial of the resurrection – so sure were they of what they'd seen and experienced.
What about us? Has it fully registered in our minds that Jesus' resurrection means he is alive today? ... and means there is now a sense of indestructibility to us, because we will rise again, too? It is worth it to fight through the mental fog, until the apprehension of the resurrection reality settles into our inner being. Then indeed, we become indestructible! As Justin Martyr put it: "You can kill us, but you cannot hurt us." Amen!