Tom examines what we mean by the Resurrection of Jesus in the light of the evolving understanding of the Gospel writers and the early Christians, and in the light of common misunderstandings of ‘Risen from the dead’. Transcript of a talk 4153 words
Tom’s opening prayer:
Father we give You praise and wonder, amazement and gratitude for the gift and the presence of your risen Son, the victim, the crucified and living one. May we in our lives ever live more in His presence that You may come to see in us that which You see and know and love in Him. We ask this by the gift and the power of Your Holy Spirit among us. Amen.
I’m going to do a little sort of recap on last time when we were considering some of the early texts in the New Testament about the resurrection of Jesus. Just recall that the way the scripture talks about the resurrection of Jesus is quite different from the way the gospels talk about the raising of Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter or the son of the widow at Nain. In all those cases the people involved would die again, they returned to the life they had before they had died the first time as it were, they’re not raised by God beyond the clutch of death in other words. But in the case of Jesus the language is quite different. He doesn’t return to life in the sense of returning to where and who he was before the resurrection, he is now in a new order, a new way of existing and being which is immortal, he has died once and is risen beyond the power of death. And his resurrection was a manifestation of God’s unique event in our human history. It’s not an example of anything else.
One of the dangers of having Easter in springtime is that people start saying ‘oh well everything dies in the winter and everything comes back to life again in the spring, Jesus died and he came back to life and that’s it, you see.’ Well Jesus is not an example of anything other than the unique event with which he raised to life and we know anyhow with human beings that although plant life sort of dies away in the winter and then is reborn in the summer, that’s not true of animals, they don’t die and get revivified, and it’s certainly not true of human beings in that sense. So don’t let anybody preach to you about how Jesus is an example of things dying and coming to life. And I personally feel a bit of an irritation whenever people speak about the death/resurrection mystery of Jesus being an example or demonstration of some general rule in life when people say it demonstrates that love is more powerful than hate or that life is more powerful than death. I don’t think those things are generally true. If they were in the person of Jesus and if we lived in company with him, then we would discover that the love of God and out-sharing in the love of God and living it, is more powerful than hatred, but there is no evidence that love in general is more powerful.
So we’re in the presence of a totally unique moment in human history, so unique and staggering that those who were the early witnesses quite clearly took quite a long time before they could realise what had happened, and it takes Christians a long time; they can be believers for many years before the full impact and significance that the Lord is risen in the full meaning of that term really comes home into their lives. And that’s especially true for a few of you who are older than a certain age, because you will have grown up with a spirituality about the crib at Jesus’ birth and the mystery of the cross, but not very much reference to the amazement of Easter.
Now it is such a unique event that took place, in God’s mysteriously silent hidden way, on that Easter morning that it’s quite obvious that from the very beginning Christians were bombarded with people telling them either they’re idiots or had made up the whole story and were very devious. When Paul writing to the Corinthians says that this mystery was folly to Greek people and a stumbling block to Jews he means that the whole mystery of Jesus’ dying into new life is incomprehensible to the Greek mind because for them death is the freeing of the spirit from material existence, and of course resurrection faith can’t accept that, and for the Jews it’s a stumbling block because to accept the resurrection of Jesus means to accept him certainly as the Messiah and more and also Son of God, which seemed to them to undermine the, what they called monotheism - the absolute oneness and holiness of God - you can’t have God as multiple in any way.
But for a hundred and fifty, two hundred years the early Christians faced these criticisms. And one of the amazing things is the last hundred to two hundred years in our modern time these criticisms have all come up again, as though it doesn’t occur to modern writers that almost everything they’re saying was already being said right at the beginning. It’s part of the pompous nature of our modern society that it never occurs to us that what we think has been thought before. And the main criticisms, both in our modern time and in those early times, is either that the witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection were deceitful, or they were simple people who were credulous, they’d been carried away by something which anybody who was more wise and intelligent wouldn’t accept.
The deceitful one is that the whole thing was a plot, and you get that referred to in Matthew’s gospel when, do you remember? The soldiers who were meant to be guarding the tomb were bribed to say that when they were asleep the disciples of Jesus came and rolled the stone away and took his body away in order to be able to tell people that he’d risen from the dead. As Saint Augustine commented on that, he said it’s not being very good witnesses if you’re fast asleep, but you can also tell people what happened when you weren’t watching! it’s a bit of a mixed message that one. But certainly that accusation that the whole thing was a set up plot by Jesus’ disciples was around early on and it still reappears in modern criticism of this Christian faith.
One of the reasons why people say they were deceitful and made it up is also because there’s no mention of that early Easter discovery of the empty tomb or the message ‘go and tell them that he is risen’; there’s no mention of that until the gospels are written about forty years after Jesus. That’s not quite true because in one of Peter’s early sermons he infers that the tomb was empty. In none of Paul’s writings, which were earlier than the gospels, does he show any interest whatever in the evidence of the empty tomb and those early witnesses.
That’s not surprising, and it occurred to me that if somebody came to live in Liverpool from somewhere else and you got to know them to the extent that they were around and they were part of your life, and they were part of your whole local existence, it would never occur to you to be particularly interested in how they got there. And it’s only when somebody challenges their origins or say you’re so much one of us, or we don’t believe you came from Italy at all - it’s only at that point when challenged that you’d go to Speke airport or wherever and try and find evidence that they actually arrived, or that you show any interest whatever in how they arrived in Liverpool in the first place. And I think it’s quite likely that consciousness of the risen Christ in their midst, the crucified and risen One, was so much the heart of Christian faith in those early times after Jesus had apparently left them, that it simply wasn’t interesting to them how he rose from the dead, what happened on that first Easter morning. If He’s so present then you’re not interested in the ‘how’; it’s not that you’re denying it or whatever, you’re just not interested in those early accounts. And it’s only when people still keep bombarding you, saying you’re being a nutter in believing what you believe that you then start saying, well listen we have the memories still around of what happened that Easter morning and you either accept the witness of those who witnessed, or you don’t, but you’ve got more problems not being willing to accept the witnesses than we have in accepting them.
And I think it’s that acceptance of the witnesses that bore witness to the risen Christ that was so important in faith. Resurrection faith is not a thing we make up or that we can work out for ourselves. We receive it initially as part of our tradition of faith, we receive it by hearing and then we grow into it, it becomes us and we don’t need the hearing any more. There’s a lovely phrase in John chapter 4 when the woman by the well - do you remember that story of Jesus and the woman by the well of Samaria, and she has this amazing conversation with Jesus in which he teases and cajoles her into a very profound acceptance of who he is? “I Am is the one speaking to you”. Amazing, a wonderful conversation. And then she goes rushing back to the town and says “I found the One”, and they come out and see for themselves, and the chapter ends by them saying, “at first we recognised him because of what you told us, but we’ve now come to see it for ourselves”, meaning we don’t need you to tell us anymore.
That’s very important in our Christian maturity in faith, that we receive things through hearing but it’s important we don’t remain children, but we grow up, we make it our own, so then in one sense we don’t need the hearing anymore, because it’s us and we’re in a position then to share it with others. And I think that’s true of resurrection faith. It had become so much part of their own thing that they sort of forgot how much it depended on the early witnesses, and it’s only when challenged, when people are saying they’re deceivers and so on, that they then go back and recover the memory of what happened initially. And that may be why, in recovering that memory, they’re so keen to say, that Jesus ticks the men off for not accepting the witness of the women and he ticks Thomas off for not accepting the witness of those, of the others, (how many have we got down to?) the other ten. And it’s as though all the way down they are being ticked off for not accepting the witness of those who can tell them, however hard they find it to believe. So, part of discipleship is knowing how to accept the witness.
The other accusation made against this sort of Easter faith, this resurrection faith, was that they were simpletons, that they were credulous, that they were so fond of Jesus, they’d got so caught up into his preaching and teaching and they’d abandoned so much, that they had a sort of vested interest in keeping him alive as it were. That they used the language of resurrection as a way of speaking about Jesus’ spirit living on amongst them, a bit like, the spirit of some famous manager of Everton football club might live on in the team for many years afterwards, and people would be keen to keep that memory alive and they somehow sort of used the language of resurrection for that. Well that’s forcing. I mean you cannot read the New Testament and force the language into meaning that. But there’s a recent, very intelligent, competent book which is written entirely on that thesis. People will do anything to avoid having to say yes to this centre of our Christian faith.
So it’s either a sort of collective hallucination thing or a sort of collective wish fulfilment, we want it to be true so that if we use the language we can speak of it as though it was true; or that they were simply mistaken, that they mixed the tombs up on Easter morning. How far can you get away from what the stories tell us about in order to not believe? And as I mentioned before, there was quite an early thing about Jesus never having really died, that he went into a coma.
Well as I say, a lot of these sorts of criticism, which sound modern to modern writers were in fact all there in the first century or two and some of the ways that the stories in the gospels are written are quite obviously written in order to counter those criticisms. So for instance, in many of the accounts you’ll remember that people do not recognise Jesus at the first appearance and something then has to happen before they realise “aha! it’s Him”. It’s true of Mary Magdala in the garden, you remember she thinks that the gardener has taken the body away, and it’s only when Jesus says, “Mary”, names her by name, that she recognises him. And then those two disciples walking all that way to Emmaus, I mean it’s quite a long way it’s from the centre of Liverpool to where I live in Crosby, and they don’t recognise him and then suddenly do when he breaks bread and they realise that his understanding of scripture is sort of revelation and new understanding. And it may be that this is to counter the criticism that they made the thing up, and they’re saying if we made it up and we’re not going to be in his presence and not recognise him, we would say he was there and we knew it. Do you see what I mean, that the way the stories are told are trying to counter the criticism? They are trying to say that it was just as surprising and challenging to the people there at the beginning as it is to anybody today, so don’t say that we didn’t want it to happen. It happened and we had to journey into it.
There is criticism too that the appearances of the risen Christ were really just visions but they then got written up as though they were a real presence of the risen Lord. And that may be why in a lot of the stories they are so keen to say that Jesus says, as he says on Easter evening “you may think I’m a ghost or some vision or make believe presence but come and touch me, feel my hands and my sides. Give me something to eat and then you’ll know that I’m not just a ghost. I’m not just a vision, it’s for real”.
So however clever, and a lot of them are extremely clever and very reasonable attempts to get round the bodily resurrection of Jesus, they simply don’t hold up if you simply get to know your scriptures, if you simply get to know the way those accounts were written. Sometimes people say, well it’s all made up because the accounts don’t tally, you can’t get Matthew’s account and Mark’s account and John’s account to sort of fit together. Well I think that’s a reason for saying it’s true not that it’s untrue. If you are going to make up a story as a plot at least, at least, you get people together and get a coherent account. If you are recalling something which happened to everyone’s amazement and came down by word of mouth for thirty or forty years and people are not quite sure when what happened and who said what to whom, then you’re quite up front about the slight differences of account, but the main truth is there. So to say that it was all a made up job and they didn’t do a very good job of getting a coherent story is all rather muddled and forced.
And just finally, I’m not going to go on about this because it’s a bit, you know, argumentative, and it may not help our Easter faith too much, but one of the great accusations, and again there’s a recent well known modern writer, (unfortunately these people often write extremely well and they are very intelligent so they carry more weight than they ought to), but his thesis is that it’s a metaphorical way of talking, that resurrection language is a way we talk about the presence, after someone famous has died.
It’s interesting that a week or so before he was shot, the Catholic bishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, who I think died about twenty five years ago, shot while celebrating the Eucharist. And in a homily, a talk he gave over the radio to people he said: “if they kill me” - he knew perfectly well that if they could find an occasion they were going to kill him, he’s one of those modern examples of a totally free person also being a victim, which is what I tried to share with you during the crucifixion talks. He said: “if they kill me it will not serve their end” in other words there is absolutely nothing they can do to me which is going to achieve the end they want to. Alright, amazing. It’s what Jesus more or less said to the powers, there’s nothing you can do to me because certainly killing me is not going to get you anywhere. And Oscar Romero said: “if they kill me it will not serve their ends because I will rise again in my people.” Extraordinary remark for a twentieth century bishop to make. Now if you’d asked him do you mean that you’re going to return from the dead and going to be alive amongst us again, he’d say for goodness sake, no. He’d say I’m using metaphorical language borrowed from our Christian resurrection faith, saying that if they kill me I will still be present in our country, still working for the same things I’ve worked for in my life, I’ll be with you and amongst you and therefore, in fact, I’ll be more present if they kill me than I am presently. That’s real Christian faith. And so he’s using metaphorical language in a sense you see, but Jesus wasn’t and Oscar Romero wouldn’t have used the language he did if he didn’t believe that the resurrection of Jesus was for real and not just metaphorical. Well so much for some of the debate that goes on. But I do think many Christians don’t appreciate what a staggering event took place in our history on that Easter morning. That you cannot reduce it to anything other than that unique event, and that as Paul says, “if he be not risen then everything else in our faith falls away”.
Some of you may notice in the scripture readings we have in this Easter season, there can be a strange contrast between the readings we have from the Acts of the Apostles, which are the early sermons of Saint Peter, and the others. And it sounds as though Luke the author, writing some time later, has done a lot of very careful homework to get very careful accounts of those early sermons. There is a sort of contrast between the language there and the language, for instance, we have in John’s gospel, and remember that John’s gospel is written right towards the end of the century. So that early preaching, shortly after Pentecost, and by the time John is writing there’s perhaps, sixty, seventy years between them. If you look back over your own life you will, I’m sure discover, your understanding of the mystery of Christ, who he is, what the death/resurrection means, what the significance of his life’s about, has gone on growing as you pray and meditate and share and listen. It’d be extremely bad if you still had the faith you held as a teenager.
But what it meant and how to understand it unfolded for them as they lived with it. There’s far too much to take in all at the beginning. And if you listen to those early sermons of Peter the impression you get is that he’s saying the one who lived amongst us, the Holy One in our midst, you put to death or you had him put to death, but God raised him to life and he became the Son of God. Now it’s a very strange way of thinking, if you see what I mean, for two reasons. One is that it sounds as though Jesus is simply the passive recipient of what God did but that human beings put him to death, totally the victim of that and no question that he provoked it. And then because God loved him specially, he raised him to life. And there are some people who say ‘well if he does that for his son because he loves him specially, why doesn’t he do it for everybody else? Is God selective in his love?’ Very good question. And then if you asked Peter and those early preachers, if you asked Paul in his early writings in his Letter to the Romans for instance, if you say ‘when did Jesus become the Son of God?’, I think their answer would have been, ‘when he was raised from the dead’. It’s not what any of you would say, it’s not what I would say, but it’s what they would say, shortly after Pentecost in those early decades.
If you then asked Saint Mark, who was the first of the gospel writers, ‘when do you think Jesus was Son of God?’ he’d have said ‘um, well probably at the baptism when the voice said ‘you are my beloved son.’ And if you’d asked Matthew and Luke, ‘when do you think Jesus was Son of God?’ they’d have said ‘um, oh at the birth and the conception’, because they’re the gospels that have those early bits. And if you’d asked John, writing right at the end of the century, or the final version of his gospel,’ when was Jesus Son of God?’ he’d have said ‘oh but he always was, the Eternal Word who was God and was with God!’. In other words, it seems that people are pondering these things and they’re saying if God raised Jesus to life on Easter morning then there must have been more in Jesus than just a human being who was specially holy, and that’s why God could raise him to life. And so in a sense it’s sort of pushing it back as time went on. And at the end of the century, as I say, when John is writing his gospel, he’s very keen to record Jesus saying that ‘no one takes my life from me I lay it down as my own free gift, and I have the power to take it up again’.
In understanding the mystery that by discovering more who Jesus was as the century unfolded, the one who is in our midst whom we knew not, we now realise was the Divine presence in our midst. So I want to leave you with this thought and it’s not an easy thought to live with, but that Jesus Christ was the only human being in history who when he gave himself to death couldn’t not have risen again into the new life. God didn’t make an extra decision after Jesus had died. ‘Oh now that disasters happened I’m going to show them and move in and raise Jesus to life.’ Jesus’ resurrection was the work of God in him because of who he was when he died. He is the only human being who has been able to make a totally free loving, gift of himself, the only one. For all the rest of us, the gift of ourselves is overshadowed or under shadowed by, I don’t know, by fear or by showing off or by self-pity or by all those other, you know, we have so many don’t we, layers of things that mess up the gift of ourselves in love. And Jesus’ phrase that true love is to give your life for your brethren and so on, in him that was totally true. But don’t think of Easter morning as a sort of an extra bit that God suddenly decided to do after Good Friday had happened. You could get that impression from Peter’s early sermons.