The Physicality of the Resurrection

The Christian faith, taking its cues from Jesus, is insistently material, corporeal, anthropomorphic, muscular, and incarnational. “The Word became flesh.” God’s Word has become a person, a person in motion. Jesus is God Almighty daring to get physical; God with a body, a body in action. After his body was brutally crucified, Jesus moved, not out of a body but rather into a body of a very different sort.

So at last we come to maybe the most offensive part of the story—Jesus has a body. I didn’t say that Jesus had a body. Everybody knows that Jesus slept, ate, wept, and bled and then agonizingly died. What everybody doesn’t yet know is that, though the tomb was bare of Jesus’ body, Jesus was back—in a resurrected body. He came and went in an instant, unconfined by time and space, passing through doors and appearing at the most awkward moments. But it was nevertheless a body in which Jesus was recognizable to those who had known him before. His after-Easter body enabled him, invited or not, to share a number of meals and arguments with his astonished followers, which became for them irrefutable proof that “Christ was raised from the dead.” When Christians affirm the Creed, “We believe in the resurrection of the body,” we’re saying that we believe that the same God who raised Jesus from the dead shall somehow, someday raise us, but not as ghosts or disembodied spooks. Paul said that our perishable body will put on an “imperishable” body, whatever that means. The dead shall be raised just as Jesus was raised. “We will all be changed.” We’ll have spiritual bodies. There’s no person without a body and, in saying that we believe that God will raise our dead bodies to new bodies, we are saying that we believe in the resurrection of persons with recognizable personalities. Specifics of that grand resurrection, such as date and form, are still matters of speculation.

I’m in the business of words and I think the world of words but I doubt that Jesus would have been crucified—I’m sure there would be no church— if all we had were the words of Jesus. From the first, the thing that really attracted some people and disturbed others (usually people in authority) were not the words of Jesus, it was Jesus himself. Herod tried to exterminate him when he was but a babe, even before he could say, “Abba.” He was God in the flesh, here, now, but not the God we wanted. What attracted the hapless, helpless, hurting multitudes, what convened the church, was not the assorted writings about Jesus; it was Jesus. His resurrected presence (“I’m back and I’ll never let you go”) birthed the church. Not the church’s pumped-up memories of Jesus or sentimental notions about Jesus; it was Jesus.

Why Jesus? Because abstract, general truth does not stir much among us. When truth becomes embodied, up close and personal, present truth, then truth becomes interesting and we know for sure that “the kingdom of God has come near.”

The way Luke tells it, in the darkness, three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, a group of women went out to Jesus’ tomb. They were stunned: The tomb was empty. Two men in dazzling clothes appeared. The women were terrified. They ran back to Jerusalem to tell the apostles. The disciples concluded that the women were nuts.

Lead apostle Peter went to the tomb later in the morning, had a look-see and was amazed, but none the wiser. Sometime later, when Jesus appeared to the men, Luke says that they “were startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost.” Note that in all this commotion nobody yet believes the crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead. The women seem to have concluded, at first, that someone had stolen the body. The men thought that they had seen a spook. The idea of resurrection occurred to none. Resurrection was something that they neither wished for nor expected.

Only gradually they came to the conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead because the risen Christ returned to them. The empty tomb told the astonished disciples almost nothing. Saint Paul makes much of resurrection appearances but never mentions an empty tomb. Though Luke narrates a story about the empty tomb, he mostly delights in telling how the followers of Jesus enjoyed a full forty days of meals and conversations with the risen Christ before he finally ascended to God the Father. It was not the empty tomb that led to their belief that the crucified Jesus had been raised from the dead. Rather it was Jesus’ return to them, his presence with them, his undeniable intimacy with them in bread and wine, in sermons and acts of love and mercy, that led them to fling in the face of the world’s objections that the crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead.

Our chief proof of the continued presence of Jesus Christ is the continued presence of his church. God is able to produce a new people, “by water and the Spirit” (baptism) who confound the ways of the world, a people whose convening is so against the wisdom of the world that there’s no way to explain their existence other than, God has raised crucified Jesus from the dead and he has returned to his followers, commanding them to go into all the world to tell the world the whole truth about God.

Not many of these early preachers said “Jesus is raised, now we’ll all get to go to heaven when we die and live forever.” Rather, they said Jesus is raised; what Jesus said about God is true. Despite what we thought about his defeat on the cross, God’s great new world is breaking in right now, before our very eyes. Now we’ve got to show and tell the whole world the truth.

An excerpt from Why Jesus? by William H. Willimon
Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.

Feeling most at home behind a pulpit, William H. Willimon’s deepest calling is to be a preacher and truth-teller of Jesus Christ. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke University Divinity School and retired Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church, after serving for twenty years as faculty member and Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He lives in Durham, North Carolina