Raised from the Dead
A sermon on 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11 by Nathan Nettleton, 4 February 2007
The encounter with the resurrected crucified Jesus enables us to see the absolute love, mercy and non-vengefulness of God.
Some of you have probably seen something of the little controversy in the media this week aroused by a sign put up outside of a number of Churches, many of them Baptist. For those who haven't heard about this, the sign, which was produced and distributed by a group called Outreach Media, has a picture of Osama Bin Laden, and the caption simply says, "Jesus loves Osama." It has had coverage in most newspapers. At least one TV panel show ridiculed it at length, without the presence of any Christians to offer their perspective on it. John Laws on Sydney radio speculated that it might be an example of the reasons for the "dwindling attendance" in Baptist churches, obviously unaware that Baptist are one of the only denomination who aren't dwindling. And Neil Mitchell on his radio interviewed the creator of the sign and concluded that what the guy had to say helped one to "understand why the institutional church is increasingly irrelevant in the Western world."Suffice it to say, the sign has not been popular!
For myself, I think that, on the one hand, the sign simply states an undeniable truth about what God is like, but on the other hand I think it is misdirected. I don't think it is a very helpful starting point for engaging with those outside the church, as effective as it has been in grabbing attention. Rather I think it is the sort of message that we inside the church need to be confronted with. The problem of people thinking that the church is automatically supportive of our nation's attempts to destroy its enemies is firstly a problem inside the church, not just a matter of outside perceptions. Even inside the church, this sign is controversial. Many can concede that theologically the sign is correct, but worry that it is insensitive to those who have been the victims of terrorist violence. And that is a fair concern. The sign is guilty as charged on that score. But we need to go further in unpacking the nature of the relationship between the merciful love of God and the experience of the victims of violence because it is natural to assume that the two are in conflict.
There was a time early in the first century when a sign saying "Jesus loves Saul of Tarsus" would have aroused similar mixed feelings among Christians. At that time, Saul, who was later converted and went on to become the Apostle Paul, was violently persecuting the Christians. He wouldn't have been regarded as a terrorist, because his actions were sanctioned by the political and religious establishment, but among Christians he would have been regarded with horror. Jesus did, of course, have Simon the Zealot among his twelve disciples, and the Zealots were regarded as terrorists. But let's stick with Paul. In the words we heard read from him tonight, he said of himself, "I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain." So Paul is acknowledging that to some, the idea that Paul is loved by God and has been appointed as one of God's leaders in the Church will be quite offensive, and perhaps considered grossly insensitive since in all probability there were people around who had been victims or relatives of victims of his violent assaults on the Christians. He knows that to them, "Jesus loves Paul" will sound something like "Jesus loves Osama."
Now what is important for us here is to recognise the main thrust of the passage in which Paul says this. It comes as a footnote to his pocket summary of the the core content of the gospel: "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, he was buried, and he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. He appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, he appeared also to me." What we have got here, in what Paul describes as the things of first importance, is a quick cataloguing of the witnesses of the resurrection. Now what is so important about that, and what has it got to do with "Jesus loves Paul" or "Jesus loves Osama". Well, it is the resurrection experience that ties together the meaning of God's love and forgiveness with the experience of the victims of violence. Let me explain.
One of the things we know from those who witnessed the risen Jesus is that resurrection was not some kind of cure for death or an undoing of the killing of Jesus. The Jesus they encountered was not all healed and made whole again. They encountered a man with open wounds, fatal wounds. This is expressed differently in the later book of Revelation where we see Jesus as a victorious king on a throne, but a closer look shows that he appears to be a slaughtered lamb; simultaneously the dead victim and the victorious king! Now put yourselves in the shoes of the disciples for a moment. They are hiding behind closed doors, terrified, grief-stricken, and guilt-stricken because they ran and left Jesus to his fate when the lynch mob closed in. And suddenly the man who is the focus of their grief and their guilt - the man they betrayed, denied and abandoned - is standing there among them! Paul too, in his later encounter with the risen Christ is on his way, with search warrant in hand, to hunt down another group of Christians. And what does Jesus say when Paul says, "Who are you?" He says, "I am Jesus, who you are persecuting." Not "I am Jesus and you are picking on my followers." "I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting."
Now this is terribly important for understanding the kind of forgiveness and love that the risen Jesus comes offering. And note that all the guilt-stricken witnesses of the resurrection experience their encounter with Jesus as extravagantly forgiving, even though Jesus is not reported to have said "I forgive you" to any of them. This forgiveness is an unmistakable action, not words. But it is not the kind of action that covers up the consequences of the wrong-doing and says, "There, there, it doesn't really matter." The man is unmistakably fatally wounded. There aren't even any bandages. "I am Jesus, the one you are attacking. The one you are abusing. The one you are killing. The one you are targeting with your bombs and your planes and your suicide missions. I am the victim of your actions."
This is no cheap forgiveness. This is no meek let-yourself-be-abused-some-more and maintain your complicit silence. This is a daring love and forgiveness that forces you to look into the abyss of your own actions and decide where to from here. This is the sort of terrifying encounter that has you falling on your face and thinking you are going to die or screaming "Get away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!" This is a stance which reveals who God is and where God stands. It reveals that God does not sanction anyone's violence and abuse. God does not sanction the abuse of the violent husband who claims a God-given mandate to rule his home. God does not sanction the jihad of Osama Bin laden as he claims a God-given mandate to destroy the infidels in the name of God. And God does not sanction the war-mongering of the arrogant governments who claim a God-given mandate to "make the world safe for democracy".
You see, far from being insensitive to the victims of extreme violence, Jesus' expression of love for the perpetrators is a feisty public exposure of the wrongdoing and a radical expression of solidarity with the victims. What that sign outside those churches failed to communicate is that it is as the fatally wounded victim, standing arm in arm with those who died at Ground Zero and in the Bali nightclubs, that Jesus expresses his offer of love to Osama Bin Laden. There is nothing permissive about the love and forgiveness Jesus offers. No one can begin to enjoy the love and forgiveness while continuing their victimisation of others unchanged. The risen Christ confronts Osama, and all of us, with the choice of continuing to make more victims and being consumed by our own whirlpools of hatred, bitterness and hostility, or of changing and taking sides with the victim, with Jesus, and seeing the world through the eyes of the victim.
And for us, as those who claim to have united our lives with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the challenge is to live that out. Because the sign that the world needs to see if it is to be saved from its self-destruction is not a theological abstraction about who Jesus loves; it is the sign of a people who have learned to love Osama themselves, who have learned to love the persecutors, the crucifiers, the war mongers, in ways which fiercely confront and expose the violence, callousness and greed while boldly modelling the new culture of love, mercy and peace. If the world is to have any hope of understanding the sign, we need to BE the sign.