Beverly Wildung Harrison was a delightful twentieth century theologian that I held in high esteem. Our paths crossed occasionally, but the first encounter I remember distinctly was a cocktail party near New York’s Union Theological Seminary where she taught. I was finishing my service on a Presbyterian Task Force on Homosexuality that was split on the ordination of “avowed, practicing homosexuals.”
She laughingly asked me if it was true that a member of the opposition on the task force had been paid a million dollars to serve as consultant on a film about the antichrist, The Omen. It was the first I had heard of it. She was right about the consulting, I later discovered, but the compensation was greatly exaggerated.
I tell the story to set in context a later conversation we had over brunch when I served a congregation in West Hollywood. A relative of hers, knowing her as a renowned feminist and body theologian, had been quizzing her about whether she believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus. Finally, with her usual “cut-to-the-chase” practical style, she said to him, “Really, does it matter to you, living in the twentieth century, whether Jesus’ resurrection was a physical or spiritual encounter?” He allowed as to how it didn’t; that a spiritual experience of Jesus’ presence was satisfying enough.
One of my college professors recounted his ordeal seeking ordination before a church committee determined to discover if he shared their understanding of resurrection. “Tell me this,” one queried, “if you were present at the tomb on that first Easter morning with a Polaroid camera, would you have been able to take a picture of Jesus coming out of the tomb?” The professor thought a moment, then replied, “Yes, but only if the camera were equipped with the lens of faith!”
As Christians, we stumble over the resurrection when we confuse a confession of faith for a statement of historical fact. It is when we treat matters of faith as matter-of-fact that we miss the mystery, the meaning, and the extraordinariness of our faith. Peter pointed out that only people of faith were given sight of the resurrected Jesus: “God raised him on the third day and made him manifest; not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses” (Acts 10:40-41).
From the first Easter, Christians have held different views on the nature of the resurrection. The author of the gospel of John apparently believed that Jesus’ body was transformed spiritually, leaving his shroud in place. Several resurrection stories in the other gospels confirm this physical transcendence, reporting Jesus’ request not to be held, his appearance through locked doors, and his disappearance after breaking bread.
Others suggest Jesus’ bodily presence as he eats with the disciples or encourages Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and his side. The latter story combines physical presence and mystical vision, for though the disciples are able to touch Jesus, he appears in their midst through locked doors.
With all these variant descriptions of the resurrection, it’s safe to say Jesus’ first followers were not nailed down to a bodily interpretation! If the early Christians were not of one mind as to the nature of Jesus’ resurrection, why should Christians today expect uniformity of belief?
Watch for next week’s post, “Resurrection Today - Part Two.” The final five paragraphs of today’s post are adapted from the chapter, “Manifesting Christ’s Glory,” in my book, Come Home: Reclaiming Spirituality and Community as Gay Men and Lesbians (Harper & Row 1990, Chi Rho Press 1998).
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