What is the Purpose of the Bible?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/18/24, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  Luke 24:36-48. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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For me personally, the resurrection of Jesus is the single hardest thing to understand in the Christian faith. Even the Trinity, which is notoriously impossible to wrap your head around, seems far less challenging to me than the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead – in a real human body – and continues to live as our advocate, friend, and brother in the organic cosmos of God we now inhabit.

Figuring out how things work (for example, the nature of the Trinity, or how Jesus’ divinity works, or the process by which the universe was created) is far less important to our faith than the fact of God among us. However it happens, whatever the explanation, God gets involved in history. The Word becomes flesh and moves into the neighborhood.

Sometimes, we can do damage to our faith by trying to make everything make sense. Life isn’t like that. It’s impossible to fit everything into neat and tidy boxes. Life doesn’t always color within the lines. Life is full of mystery.

In considering how to interact with this mysterious reality we live in, I’m reminded of the words of Frank Herbert in the book Dune: “A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it.” If we are to participate in the life and resurrection of Jesus – if we are to experience the reality of the kingdom of God – we must flow with the process. We must flow with the Spirit as she moves.

For some of us, for those of us with a more intellectual bent, this can be frustrating. We like to have things nailed down and explained. But in this case, as in much of life, we simply don’t know how things work. We don’t know the “physics” of the resurrection, so to speak. But our faith is that God has anointed Jesus as the messiah whose death was transformed into life when God raised him from the dead.

This is a weird story, and one that is easy to get lost in if we try to muscle our way through it. This isn’t a story to be read alone; it’s meant to be read in community. Above all, it’s meant to be read together with the very Spirit who created everything and wrote our whole wild story.

In this scene from the Gospel of Luke, the disciples were lost, confused, and in disarray. It is the fact of the resurrection – beyond all ordinary understanding – that forged them into a positive movement that continued the mission of God in the world. They learned to move with the flow of the process; they joined with it.

The resurrection would be easier to accept if it were not physical. At least for me, it would be easier to say, “oh, sure Jesus is alive in our hearts.” But it’s another thing entirely to say that Jesus is a fish-eating, hands-and-feet-having, five-foot-six Jewish man living his best life in God to this day.

For us – children of the Age of Reason – a metaphorical, spiritual resurrection sounds lovely. A bodily resurrection, taken seriously, sounds absolutely nuts.

Yet this is precisely what the Christian faith – the faith of the first friends of Jesus – would have us believe: The resurrection is not merely a “spiritual” event. It’s not confined to the realm of visions and ecstasy. The resurrection is an event that really happened in time and space and history. It is an event that continues to be relevant to us today.

The Christian conception of the human person is an embodied spirit. We are not just meat. We’re also not just disembodied souls. We are the union of body and spirit; in the human person, heaven and earth meet.

Jesus is a human person. He is the ultimate human person. He remains a human person in his resurrection. He is still one of us. Jesus is the kind of person that God intends for us to become.

Yet things are different now, too. 

I’m struck by the way Jesus says, as he stands and eats with the disciples in Jerusalem, “this is what I told you when I was still with you.” That seems like a bizarre thing to say. After all, he’s right there with the disciples, eating fish. Jesus, if you’re not still with us, how are we having this conversation?

Clearly, something has shifted. The way we experience Jesus in the resurrection is a new way of experiencing Jesus. It’s telling that the disciples at first were convinced that Jesus was a ghost (phantasma). Jesus had to demonstrate his physicality to them before they could understand that it was really him. So, something was different. In the resurrection, something has changed.

Things have changed even more for us since Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Now, we experience the resurrection primarily through the intercession of the Holy Spirit. This can make it easy to lose track of the physical basis of the resurrection. But Jesus has not become a ghost. As mysterious and unjustifiable as it seems, Jesus is still one of us.

In this context, it’s all the more important to realize that God did not intend the resurrection to stop with Jesus. This is a process we are invited to move with, join in. Just as in Jesus God has become one of us, we are to become like him.

Jesus is the person to whom the scriptures point. Jesus does not direct us to the scriptures, the scriptures direct us to Jesus. He is the fulfillment, he is the promise, he is the point. Jesus is the interpreter, and he opens our minds and hearts to the full meaning of the scriptures

As Quakers, we emphasize Jesus’ role as both the inspiration for and interpreter of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. Without Jesus, the scriptures are like the discarded rags found in the tomb on Sunday morning. Like the empty tomb, the scriptures point the way, but they are not the end of the story. Just as the disciples could not comprehend Jesus’ resurrection before he visited them, it is impossible to make sense of the scriptures without a direct encounter with Jesus.

On the road to Emmaus, and now here in this scene, Jesus opens the disciples’ minds to understand the scriptures. This implies that they didn’t understand before. This wasn’t for a lack of awareness of what the scriptures said – but until the resurrection, it was impossible for them to fully understand their meaning.

This continues to be true. The early Quakers taught that in order to rightly interpret the scriptures, we must live in the same life and power that inspired them. That’s what the resurrection means: Living in that life and power.

In this scene from Luke, Jesus hints at the transformation that is to come to the disciples, and the mission that will be opened up for them.

He says that, now that the messiah has suffered and been raised from the dead on the third day, repentance will be preached to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

Jesus will send what his Father has promised. Pentecost is coming. The power of the Holy Spirit is coming. The disciples will be clothed with power from on high. They will receive their mission. They will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone. They will dwell in the resurrection, speaking the word of God to all creation, making all things new.

That’s what the resurrection means: Power, joy, freedom. A mission that may cost us everything, but in which we find all things to be ours.

This is not a mission we can choose for ourselves. We have to be sent. We have to be clothed with power from on high. We have to become witnesses (martys) of what God has done in the life of Jesus.

As we become more like him, we come to know him. We flow with the process. We join with it. We become fully human, partaking in both the spiritual and physical realms that we were created to inhabit, like cosmic amphibians. We become bridges of heaven and earth.

The resurrection is a mystery, and impossible to comprehend without the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Yet, through that Spirit, that “power from on high” that clothes us, we are able to become witnesses to the resurrection. We can participate in it, joining with it, flowing with the process.

This was the experience of George Fox, Margaret Fell, James Naylor, and all the early Quaker apostles in 17th-century England. 

All around them were people who made claims about God and Christ based on the letter of scripture, but the early Quakers had been clothed with power from on high. They had tasted and seen. They had met Jesus himself. God had sent them to preach this good news, starting in the northlands of England and spreading out to all the nations of the earth.

We can have this same experience. We, too, can be clothed with power from on high. We can become witnesses, partakers in the resurrection. We can receive and take hold of the reality that Jesus is alive, and that he is the kind of person we are all called to become. 

Hear him inviting us: Touch my hands. Look at my feet. Come and eat with me. Experience the union of heaven and earth. Have your heart filled with a new song, good news for all people. Even us.