By Walter Fenton
In an ultimately rollicking and rousing sermon on the Resurrection the Rev. Kenneth Levingston declared at the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s 2020 Global Gathering in Tulsa, Oklahoma:
“Paul told us, ‘Jesus was buried.’ I think Paul wants to make sure we don’t think about this metaphorically and allegorically. Paul wants us to know Jesus was buried, dead, dead. Not swooned or passed out or catatonic. He was dead, dead – dropped over the shoulder of Joseph of Arimethea, put in a tomb, wrapped up, and walked away from. Jesus was dead. Rock put in front of the tomb. Nobody in. Nobody out. He was dead.”
When Levingston’s words are coupled with the line from Charles Wesley’s great hymn, “And can it be that thou my God should die for me,” one can almost forgive those second century, heterodox followers of Jesus who decided all this was just too much – Jesus dead? God dead? Surely not. Surely it just seemed like he was dead. And the same goes for his suffering on the cross; surely it just seemed like he was suffering. These people were called Docetists, which, roughly translated from the Greek, means “seem-likers.” The more they thought about it, the more they believed – from start to finish –Jesus just seemed to be human, to suffer, and to die.
But Levingston’s penetrating take on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians reminds us of the confession of faith that has actually been handed down to us: the stark truth and the profound mystery of Good Friday – Jesus died, there was no seeming about it.
And the question in Wesley’s hymn – “can it be that God should die for me” – moves us even further down the line. It is, of course, a rhetorical question, and yet one that retains all the wonder and mystery of its answer: Yes, indeed. My God did die for me.
Death was all too common to people in the first century AD; they could relate to what people in northern Italy and New York have been experiencing of late. People died all the time. Infants. Mothers in childbirth. Diseased people. And criminals. Some of whom were stripped naked, humiliated, nailed to crosses, and left to suffer until they died.
It probably seldom if ever crosses our minds, but for at least two or more centuries after Jesus’ death on the cross, Christians would have continued to witness crucifixions: criminals, enemies of the state, dragged out and nailed to crosses. And sometimes, Christian brothers and sisters as well. To witness another crucifixion must have filled them with an almost indescribable mix of horror and shame, of sorrow and grief, and of the mystery of their confession of faith: in Christ’s death on a cross we are saved and set free from our slavery to sin and our fear of death – no seeming about it.
As coffins pile up at mortuaries and as bodies are left on streets in Ecuador, the power of death is staring right at us on this Good Friday. With fear, anxiety, and loud and silent lamentations, this day, we remember Christ’s cross, Christ’s death.
In his wonderful commentary on First Corinthians, the Rev. Dr. Richard Hays reminds us that the Apostle Paul was not the kind of preacher to gloss over death, as if it is some thin, easy, barrier to cross through or over. No, death is an enemy that must be destroyed. And so “Paul’s teaching on the cross and the resurrection stand like bookends – or sentinels – at the beginning and end of the body of his letter to the Corinthians.”
Near the beginning of the letter, Paul reminds the Corinthians, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (2:5). And near the end, he writes, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I, in turn, had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures… (15:3-4).”
And so, down through all the ages, this day stands as a stark reminder that before the Resurrection joy of Easter, Jesus suffered and died, and through his death God saved us.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.