Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Jesus Rose - So What?

On the third day he rose again in accordance with he scriptures.
The Nicene Creed

3 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, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters* at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.* 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.
1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (NRSV)

 “Christ is Risen!”  Those familiar words are among the oldest in the Christian Faith.  They date back to the first Easter, as does the response, “He is risen indeed!”

A few years ago, I was in a group discussion of Easter, when someone suggested it might be more contemporary to change “He is risen indeed!” to “He sure is!”

I didn't like the idea, but it was only later that I realized why.  A deed is something one does.  It is a happening, or it is nothing.  We Christians proclaim that at Easter a deed was done - something happened.  Easter is not merely the assertion that I feel good when I think about Jesus; that he haunts my memory, stimulates my imagination, or challenges my understanding.  He is present in those parts of my inner self, of course, but the Easter proclamation is that he has, in fact and in deed, risen from the grave.

This, as Paul puts it so clearly, is the centerpiece of our faith.  If Christ is risen in deed, then our faith is based upon a certain hope.  If he is not risen in deed, if somewhere in Palestine his bones have long since crumbled to dust, then we are most to be pitied of all humankind; for our hope would be based upon an illusion, a nondeed.

First, let’s look at the manner of Jesus' death.  He died publicly, slowly, agonizingly, intentionally.  He spoke of it on several occasions, and in the last weeks of his public ministry moved toward death as toward a rendezvous.  He could have changed the course of events right up through his trial.  He believed, and clearly stated, that his approaching death was the remedy for human sin.

The death on the cross was one Jesus freely accepted, and therefore cannot be classed with the kind of tragic happenings that sometimes simply overtake a good man.  It was voluntarily embraced in the belief that God mandated it.  It was, therefore, either the most irredeemable tragedy that ever occurred, or the greatest victory ever won for the human race.

C.S. Lewis and others have noted that no other view is possible.  Jesus could have been a madman or a fool, pursuing to its conclusion a plan born of insanity or delusion.  He might have been a conscious deceiver, whose plan to convince others of his divinity went badly awry.  It is one of these, unless he was precisely who and what he said he was, pursuing a plan born of divine wisdom.  The death of the cross forces us to choose between these possibilities in a way no other imaginable action ever could.  The answer hinges not on the evidence of Good Friday, but on what happened next.

The next event came on Sunday morning.  Some women among his followers approached the tomb, their minds filled with the tragedy of Friday.  Mourning the dashing of their hopes, the blasting of their dreams, they were nonetheless tender in their regard for the remains of the one who led them to hope, who called forth the dreams.  With herbs and oils they planned to complete, according to custom, the embalming job they could only half-finish before Friday's sunset brought the Sabbath.  Laden with grief, they entered the precincts of death to do the work of death.  There is no hint of a half-suppressed hope that it would all turn out a colossal misunderstanding.  They were with him as he died; they saw the spear thrust.  They held the cold limp form, felt the dead weight.  Now, in the face of their acceptance of Christ's death, they receive the words of life, and confront an empty tomb

And for the disciples, there was no lingering hope either.  They were scared stiff, disillusioned, bitter, sure their hopes had been placed on the wrong man.  Accepting his death doggedly, they hushed the women into silence, and continued to nurse their grief, accepting death, not looking for life.

The friends of Jesus first saw the empty tomb as evidence that someone had removed his body, probably to despoil it further.  The men dismissed Mary Magdalene's report of her encounter with the risen Lord as nonsense.  No wild-eyed dreamers, the disciples feared for their lives.  Even when he was alive, they were so hardheaded in their outlook that Jesus had to explain things over and over to them.  They were not convinced until repeated encounters with the risen Lord made unbelief harder than belief.

The nature of the eyewitness reports requires a few words.  We find the details varied, often in apparent conflict, and more than a little confused.  Some find this a barrier to belief.  One critic refers to the collection of Easter stories as “a Mess.”  But there is another way to see these variations.

When I was a graduate student in journalism, one of my professors specialized in teaching investigative reporting.  Joe delPorto was a cragged old veteran of the Chicago News Bureau, the UPI, and half a dozen newspapers.  He had one cardinal principle, and a favorite warning.  "Beware", he used to say, "of logical stories, told by several witnesses, who all agree on the details."  Such agreement among witnesses, he pointed out, is a dead giveaway that the story has been made up.  Real stories are seen and reported differently by each witness, and it is in the midst of sifting through their accounts that you find the truth.  With Professor delPorto's caution in mind, what of the Easter story?

Written at different times, for different audiences, to make different points, they look just like the collection of primary data that piles up when a big, complicated news story is breaking.  Rather like a reporter’s notebook.  There is, in fact, a fairly clear picture of the progression of events.  Difficulties come less with the broad sweep of the narrative than with the detailed record of appearances.  Even with these, however, the nature of the encounters is such that a strict linear progression of events may simply be inaccurate.  We know very little about the capabilities of a resurrected person.  The objection that Jesus could not have been walking with two disciples to Emmaus, while also appearing to Peter, reflects assumptions that apply to us, but may not apply to the risen Christ.  Taken as a body of reports, the accounts of Easter comprise just the kind of story that has the ring of truth.

Some Biblical scholarship seems to proceed from the assumption that the Early Church invented the Easter story as a hoax.  If that were true, they would have gone at it differently.  They would have tried for consistency.  As it is, a second grader could have invented a more consistent story.  If writers of the caliber of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul were making it up, they would have done a much better job.

What we have is a collection of accounts in which no one has even attempted to smooth over the rough places.  Indeed, there appears to be a decision to let the eyewitness accounts stand, whether or not they all agree with one another.  Fidelity to what the witnesses said, rather than editorially harmonizing their stories, is the apparent organizing principle.

In the end, the Easter story cannot be finally evaluated apart from the change it made in the followers of Jesus.  Even the most skeptical of scholars is forced to concede that something happened.

Something changed eleven men, half as many women, and then whole crowds.  They were ordinary persons, not especially fast-learners, surely not very courageous.  They became strong, joyful, convinced, committed believers.  As a result of Jesus' resurrection, they were willing to stand before courts, governors, kings and emperors.  They even embraced death by torture as an honor, to proclaim as fact the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The men and women we meet in the book of the Acts are greatly changed from the slow and indecisive bumblers of the Gospels.  Significantly, the Apostles are far less concerned to preach about the teaching of Jesus than to announce his death and resurrection.  They point to the resurrection as their only explanation for the changes in their lives.  Their proclamation has a power that persuaded others to change their ways of living, so that the force set free on Easter literally overturned the ancient world.

None of these considerations conclusively proves the resurrection, but all are consistent with it.  None truly stands by itself, but put together, the combined evidence points strongly to the truth of the conclusion.

But why make belief in the resurrection a necessary point of faith?  Why is it, as Paul says, a matter of first importance?   What are the stakes: my stakes, your stakes, the world's stakes in the truth or falsehood of this claim?

I believe the stakes are very high indeed.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, offers hope that in this world, where suffering and violence so often seem to be in control, there is in fact a greater power working toward a solution to the world's problems.  Morton Kelsey used to tell retreatants of a time when he was a teenager, and received from an agnostic uncle a copy of the New Testament.  Inscribed on the flyleaf were the words: "Important if True".

If true, the life and teaching of Jesus are validated.  If true, then no matter how fierce the battle with the powers of evil in this world may be, there is certainty that the final victory is God's.  If true, then no matter how frustrating life may seem, no matter how meaningless it may appear at times, life has meaning.  If true, then living the way Jesus taught us to live will finally make more sense than accommodating ourselves to the world's shortcuts.  If true, then one day all our sorrows will be redeemed, the dwelling of God will be with us, we will be God’s people, Christ himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes, death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying nor pain any more, for they shall all pass away.

The stakes are no less than this: if Christ is risen, there is hope for you, and for me, and for all of God's children, wherever they may be.  If Christ is risen, the same resurrection power that transformed the lives of Mary Magdalen, Peter, and the others, can transform our lives not just in the distant future, but here and now, in the life we live today.  I've experienced the change in my life, and while the Lord still has plenty of work to do on me, he's done enough, and I've changed enough, that I can utter the ancient proclamation as my own: Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!

Howard MacMullen
© April 2013

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