Almost ninety years ago, Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple got people’s attention by remarking that Christian faith is “the most avowedly materialist of all the great religions.”* Karl Marx would have been surprised at that remark. So would a good many Christians. Our popular piety seems more comfortable with immortal souls than risen bodies. But the Archbishop’s point was thoroughly Biblical. The New Testament message is not about immortal souls. It’s about risen bodies.
Luke’s Gospel agrees. Luke shows us a risen Jesus with flesh and bones, actually having a little snack. Luke shows us a Jesus who cared deeply about the material world. Matthew’s Jesus reaches out to the poor in spirit, but Luke’s Jesus reaches out to the poor, period. You can reach out to both, of course, but Luke wants to make sure we know that Jesus makes a material difference to material people. The good news is not just about making us feel better—it’s about making all of life go better, and not just some day but here and now. It’s about God meeting us in the flesh of an executed criminal. It’s Luke who has Jesus begin his ministry by announcing good news to the poor, release to prisoners, healing for the sick, and an end to oppression (Lk 4:18-19). If that’s not a material difference, what else would you call it? It’s not about immortal souls. It’s about risen bodies. It’s not about posting “thoughts and prayers” when we hear repeated reports of shootings, whether mass shootings or racially targeted shootings. It’s about prayerfully acting to resist our habitual bent toward exclusion and violence.
After two thousand years, we’re still not sure we’re comfortable with risen bodies. It was a perplexing idea in Jesus’ day, and there were lots of attempts among the first Christians to play it down. From early on there were people who worshipped Jesus, but they thought of him as a visiting spiritual presence who only appeared to have a body. They thought the material world was evil just because it was material. Getting saved was getting to leave your body behind and rising up to heaven as a pure, uncorrupted spirit.
Those views were officially repudiated by the early church, but there are still plenty of people today, inside and outside the Church, who prefer to see things that way. I meet lots of people who just assume that the material world is one thing, the spiritual quite another. And they don’t ever want to see them mixed. Maybe the material world isn’t just plain evil, but for lots of people it’s, at best, dispensable, left out of reckoning. Our job, they tell us, is to focus on saving souls and let bodies take care of themselves. Once Billy Graham was asked to speak out on an issue of social justice, and he responded, “I’m a New Testament evangelist, not an Old Testament prophet.” His job was saving souls. What happened to bodies was somebody else’s problem.
But the writers who made it into our New Testament rejected that idea. It was way too tame. They all pretty much agreed that Jesus lived with us in the flesh, died with us in the flesh, and now returns to us with the very life of God in the flesh. That’s got to be one of the strangest ideas that ever got preached in the whole history of the world. It’s one reason why I’m not impressed with people who argue that the risen Jesus is just a hoax cooked up by the disciples to keep the movement going. If they had wanted to make it all up, they would have come up with something easier to picture. No, I’m convinced that they had to have been preaching what they had seen and heard. And it wasn’t what any of them wanted to see. It was too strange for that. They met the risen Jesus. They met God in crucified flesh. Now this world could never be the same.
Several years ago GraceUnlimited sponsored a series of panel discussions at Butler on science and religion. We looked at debates about evolution, about souls and bodies, about how God acts in a world where we visit pharmacists instead of exorcists. Every once in a while I’d find myself cornered by somebody who wanted to know if I could accept modern science and still believe in Jesus’ resurrection. It turns out they were asking me several questions at once.
Did I think the Gospel writers told everything exactly the way a modern historian would? No. It’s pretty clear, if you read them carefully, that they reshaped the stories they heard for dramatic effect. Luke’s a perfect example here. In his Gospel Jesus seems to rise, appear, and ascend into heaven all on the same day. In Acts he hangs around for forty days before taking off. Luke didn’t even try to hide the fact that he gave us two versions that didn’t match. Why? Because each version helped the story move along. He wrote this for people who already knew the basic story. They didn’t need convincing that Christ was risen. Luke didn’t need convincing either. He was betting his whole life on that bit of news. But he crafted the details of the stories he had heard to remind them and us of all that this utterly dumbfounding message meant.
Well then, folks at Butler would press me, what did people really see? Did I think people saw something we could have captured on film? Then I’d fall back on the earliest description we have, from St. Paul. People asked Paul, “What do risen bodies look like?” And Paul answered with something like this: “They look like nothing you can picture. They’re bodies, but they’re spiritual bodies. They’re bodies without limits. But they’re definitely bodies. I know, because I saw the risen Jesus myself” (1 Cor. 15, here and there).
Paul’s answer does, of course, make me wonder if the risen Jesus really ate a piece of fish. Luke mentions it, but we’ve already seen that Luke can get a bit creative. But Luke and Paul agreed that talking about ghosts didn’t come close to describing what happened to those first followers. A ghost was the sort of thing they would have been prepared to see. The “science” of their day left plenty of room for things like disembodied ghosts. But they weren’t prepared for what they saw this time. After Jesus died a shameful death, they ran into somebody. It turned out to be Jesus. It turned out to be God—God in the flesh. God in crucified flesh—it left them totally dumbfounded.
So then I’d finally answer the original question. Could I accept modern science and believe in the risen Jesus? You bet! Modern science doesn’t rule out experiencing the living presence of Jesus as the living presence of God—or the living presence of God as the living presence of Jesus. And that’s what Jesus’ resurrection essentially is.
Modern science doesn’t make this any harder—or any easier—to believe than ancient science did. What happened wasn’t like anything anybody even knew how to imagine—the uncontainable God coming to us in the flesh, with the face of an executed criminal. I don’t know why we’d think that was any easier to accept back then than it is now.
One thing we can say for sure—nobody would have tried making this up. It’s too inconvenient. It sends us into the world to make a material difference, but only in the way that Jesus made a difference. We don’t get to take control. Instead we’re drawn to form communities that welcome outsiders as insiders. It’s a messy and frustrating business. It keeps getting in the way of governments and faith communities who want to equate God’s blessing with the battles they won by silencing all their critics. Jesus, after all, was one of those critics who got silenced in the name of security and business as usual. It’s left us over the last two thousand years with this nagging worry that, whenever we silence people, whenever we shut them out, it just might be God we’re pushing away—God coming to us in crucified flesh.
Jesus began his ministry by announcing good news to the poor, release to prisoners, healing for the sick, and an end to oppression (Lk 4:18-19). It got him killed. Now he’s back, now God is back, calling us to keep making a material difference to material people, calling us to share good news of a common life that delights in every single human being as an irreplaceable gift from God. It’s the news of God’s love on God’s terms, unlimited by ours—Grace unlimited! We don’t get to be in control, but we do get to make a difference.
Because God comes to us in the flesh—in our flesh—we don’t have to go anywhere exotic or do anything dramatic to share in what God is doing. We can see God arriving right now just by opening our lives to the people around us. God is making a difference right here—a material difference to material people. And we get to be a part of it. To those first followers Jesus said, “You are witnesses to these things.” So are we, even today.
* William Temple, Nature, Man and God (London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1934), p. 478. Italics added.