In the news this morning: a wonderful, gentle, man with a passion for Jesus and (therefore) the poor has died. Prematurely, of a blood disease, at 57. His son is a worthy successor. I coached his granddaughter for a couple of seasons in soccer, and the whole family is just delightful, down to earth. They don’t take themselves too seriously, but they do take their work seriously. And they are a community treasure.
Many folks lately have been quoting Dylan Thomas, so qb need not rehearse the lines.
I’m not sure that one actually studies N. T. Wright. One hangs on for dear life. One reads with a boatload of regret for not having invested the lifetime of energy that Wright has invested in knowing not only the canonical works, but the extracanonical literature as well, and in developing a soundly reasoned, coherent understanding of God’s purposes in all of this. Fortunately, Wright is such a magnificent writer – to both of his macroaudiences, the scholars and the laymyn – that one can sometimes capture a fuzzy mirage of the glorious image that Wright undoubtedly sees so vividly.
What is evident about Wright is his desire that all Christians develop what qb likes to describe as a “muscular” faith: a faith that does not need crutches, a faith that is appropriately self-reliant, a faith that corresponds to reality as it is, not as we wish it would be, a faith that can be articulated in such a way that the flabbiness that plagues the institutional, evangelical church can be exposed and expunged. Wright wishes us to think well and soundly, to think historically, to think narratively, and to understand God (to the extent he is accessible to us) according to his deeds in history as recorded by historical witnesses. All of this is over against a god whose nature is created in our image, a god of our imaginations or our wishfulness.
Nowhere is that flabbiness more evident than around the grave. Six books into Wright’s repertoire, one cannot mistake how emphatically Wright insists on the centrality of resurrection to the Christian message. Not revival, not resuscitation, not disembodied soulishness, not Platonic dualism, not Docetism, nothing like any of that. Resurrection: bodily resurrection, tangible, visible, material, newly remade, eternally incorruptible, but nevertheless bodily.
What Wright’s faith requires is muscle, muscle that can admit certain realities before grappling with a creator who has overcome them in concrete existence. (Not, he hastens to add, by fudging or by apology or by misdirection or by sleight of hand.) The greatest of those realities is that of death. For Wright, it would appear that we cannot come to know our creator accurately, to know our lives accurately, without a forthright accounting of death, what it is and what it means. And what it means is that the body is, well, dead. Not revived in some disembodied spirituality, not set free from its bondage to the material world (after Plato), not merely “asleep,” but actually and verifiably and irreversibly dead. Not even “gone to be with the Lord,” whatever that means. Wright says that we mustn’t delude ourselves, and we mustn’t lie to ourselves and to one another about what has happened to us. We die, and we are buried (if we are fortunate) by those who loved us and grieve over us.
Here, for what it is worth, is a graveside sermon that qb wrote but never delivered. This was one and a half years before qb picked up his first book by N. T. Wright, during a period of great loss and upheaval in all phases of qb’s life, when qb could see that the answers presented by popular, evangelical theology (weaned, as it were, on Frank Peretti and his escapist ilk) were profoundly unsatisfying but could not see what the superior alternatives might be.
The grave is a demanding stranger who will not be ignored.
The grave always demands that we confront our fears, our doubts, and our suspicions. It demands that we confront our view of the character and the power of God.
And so it was in Bethany, that little village on the outskirts of the great city of Jerusalem. Just as he had come to dozens of little villages before, bringing the good news of the kingdom of heaven to the poor in spirit, to those who mourn, to the persecuted, to those of low estate; even as he himself had been born in a village called Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth of Galilee, so he came again to Bethany, to the home of Mary and Martha…and Lazarus, their brother, now four days in the tomb.
Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet him; but Mary still sat in the house. Martha therefore said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “your brother shall rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
As we gather by this grave, we are tempted to suppose that ____ was his body. After all, it was through his body that we came to know him. It was through his body, _sister_, _sister_, _brother_, that you came to know him as your baby brother. It was through his body, _son_ and _daughter_, that you were conceived and that you came to know life. It was through his body, _wife_, that you came to have a companion and friend for __ years. It was through his body that ___ was a citizen of his beloved Texas, and it was through his body that ___ served in the armed forces of these United States of America. Through his body we came to know all that fried catfish was intended to be. Through his body, _daughter_ found surprise bags of frozen drumsticks and Russett potatoes waiting for her on the front porch. All of these things came to be, and we came to know him, through his body.
And yet we also know, especially today, how terribly his body waged war against him, how disease and infirmity and weakness in his flesh raged against his spirit. Through the past __ years, ___’s body increasingly became the enemy of all that his spirit was and longed to be. ___ wanted desperately to love all of us, to the full, and in many wonderful ways. It was the gentleness of his heart that held his dear grandchildren, ___, ___, ___, ___, ___, and ___, in the days shortly after each was born. It was his tenderness of heart that welcomed the newborn foal into the warm, spring sunshine, the same tenderness that looked out for many a stray kitten and many a baby bird. Even in his last days, his sweet generosity brought gifts of all kinds to those he loved, generosity that created odd chores out of thin air as an excuse to give his grandchildren a few dollars. All of these things were expressed through his body, but they were not of his body. They were of his spirit. And his body warred against them all. How badly he wanted to enter more fully into all our lives, the lives of his grandchildren, his children, his beloved wife, his extended family, his many friends; and yet his body protested. It had become his enemy.
The apostle Paul knew something about that. In fact, the contest between flesh and spirit, between that which makes us tragically human and that which bears in us the glorious image of the eternal God, is at the center of Paul’s mind throughout his epistles. Let us be reminded of what he had to say to us.
In Philippians, Paul writes, “For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a savior, the lord Jesus the anointed one, who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with his glorious body.”
We also recall these words from his first letter to the church in Corinth: “As star differs from star in glory, so also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body; it is raised an imperishable body. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body…and just as we have borne the image of the earthly, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly…behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”
Or this, Paul’s impassioned cry with the church in Rome: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”
And so we stand before this grave and before God, nakedly exposed in all of our fears, our doubts, and our suspicions about what lies beyond. Our eternal hope is bruised by circumstance, our faith dimmed by loss. But the words of Isaiah speak to us from the depths of the tender heart of God: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not extinguish.” No one who comes to God in humility, openness, and childlike faith will be turned away.
I pause here to note that at this point I am struggling with the jangling cacophony of incoherent, wishful theology that has possessed me for 42 years. I now look back on it, thankful that I did not deliver this sermon and thereby add to the confusion of the age. Here is how the sermon was to end.
And here is what he offers to us, what ___ has now joyfully attained, from the imagination of the apostle whom Jesus loved:
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and he shall dwell among them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be among them, and he shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And he who sits on the throne said, “behold, I am making all things new.”
John would also write these hopeful words: “beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when he appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him just as he is.”
And so Christ whispers to each of us, as we stand before this demanding grave: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
Do you believe this?