The Resurrection of Belief
Easter Day 2011
Gospel: Matthew 28
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’
8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” 14If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ 15So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
According to Matthew, there are two sets of people nearby at the resurrection of Jesus. The first people who are told he has been raised are the women who come to the tomb. As they arrive, the tomb is under guard and sealed shut. The body is still in there. There is simply no doubt of this. The women know, and the guards know. The body of Jesus is inside.
Then there is an earthquake and the rolling away of the stone. An angel tells the women, “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.... go quickly and tell his disciples.” As they leave to relay his message, while they are on the way, they meet the risen Jesus. They have seen not only an empty tomb, but have met Jesus himself.
The other people present nearby are the guards! They too see the empty tomb. They were so shaken by the event they were "like dead men.” The power of God shook them. (The Greek word seems to have the same root as the word for earthquake.)
The story of their report to the priests in Matthew 28:11ff makes it clear they were in no doubt what had happened; they “told the chief priests everything that had happened.” The elaborate bribery and deception is only necessary because the guards and their superiors are convinced of the same thing; the tomb is empty. He is gone, and it needs to be explained away. A story must be contrived.
Our culture is predisposed to scepticism about the resurrection of Jesus. We're predisposed to explain the story of the guards as Matthew’s defence against the inevitable claims that the Jesus people themselves just stole the body, and then claimed he had been raised.
We know being raised from the dead cannot happen. Once you are dead, you are dead. Why would it be any different for this man Jesus?
It seems, therefore, that we have two options in our response to the reports of resurrection. One is to treat the whole thing as an untrue myth; a superstition. That is the “reasonable” thing to do.
The second is to interpret the reports of resurrection in a very literal-physical sense that borders on treating them as resuscitation. What I mean is that the resurrected Jesus is a physical human body substantially, or at least recognisably, like us.
If we take this second course, we basically ignore the words of Paul in First Corinthians 15. Remember he was writing well before the Gospel accounts are constructed.
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.... 8Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me....
35 But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ 36Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body
Paul is certain of the resurrection. Christ appeared to him. But he also knows that the risen Jesus is not like us. He is openly ignorant about a resurrection body, and openly agnostic about how it works, or is constituted. This is a marked contrast to our "scientific" attitude, which is determined to understand and explain. When a phenomenon cannot be understood and explained in material categories, we prefer to invalidate it as a phenomenon, by explaining it away or contriving to call it an illusion. When it is too insistent to ignore, like love, for example, we seek to reduce it to the chemistry of our material substrate.
Is it the case that Paul is neither sceptic nor literalist? Is it the case that the Gospel writers are neither sceptic nor literalist, and that we in our culture are often too unsubtle to see a third way of reading and hearing the reports of resurrection?
The holding of Jesus feet, (28:9) and embracing him, (John 20:17) and seeing Jesus eat fish, (Luke 24:41-42 ) and breaking bread, (Luke 24:30) are indeed meant to tell us there is a "physical” resurrection. But it is “physical” in the sense of "material?"
It is physical in the sense that this Jesus is not a spirit or an apparition or an appearance. We are not being deceived when we think we meet him. There was a struggle against gnosticism and docetism faced by the early church, as well as scepticism. Have we brought into that argument, our definition of physical as "material," when perhaps the reality and intention was physical as in real, and trustworthy?
If Jesus’ physical resurrection was so material as we are tempted to make it, why did people on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24) have so much trouble seeing-recognising him? How did Mary not recognize him in John? How did he come through walls, suddenly just being there? (John and Luke)
The stories are about a real Jesus, a very real and powerful Jesus, not some kind of phantasm. When we say he is risen something real has happened. “It is like he was here in the flesh.” He is not some ghost who is no earthly good. But he is different. And the stories are different. They are not telling literal material truth, but truth that makes sense of the real.
If we interpret the reports of resurrection only in the literal physical-material sense then that is what we will tend to defend and look for. Concentration and insistence on the material pushes belief toward “subscription to an idea and proposition.” It pushes belief toward passivity. We will not see another reality and understanding so easily.
Another reality is attested in the resurrection appearances that everyone has. When the believers are together he comes. When the believers worship together, he comes. When the women act on the message of the angel, they meet Jesus. When the disciples (Matthew 28) return to Galilee, to the mountain (and, hint, hint.... the new Ten Commandments that are the Beatitudes) they see Jesus.
This is active belief; belief by trusting and doing. It is the belief called "being on the Way.” It is exactly the kind of belief Jesus speaks about in the body of the gospels.
In Matthew’s narrative of Easter morning, everyone knows that Jesus is risen. The women, the guards, and the priests all know. Only the women meet him. Only the women actively believed.
Is it the case that Resurrection will only make real sense if we return to the mountain of Jesus’ teaching and actually live it out? Will we then meet Jesus?
My own witness in all of this is that physical resurrection, in the material sense, has been a largely barren concept for me. It provided me with nothing but arguments, and the sneaking suspicion that I was proclaiming and defending something that is indefensible. I don’t mean indefensible only in the “unable to defend” sense, but also in the “I am not being honest about this” sense. My own best instincts told me that the material thing does not, and cannot happen. So, in the past, I have tended to concentrate less on Jesus, and concentrate on the nature of “God” in one of those rather not-quite-Trinitarian pastiches we Christians sometimes make of our Faith.
In an interview when I was candidating for ordination someone noted I had said a lot about God, but very little about Jesus. I covered the blunder rather well at the time, but realised I was not that interested in Jesus, in some ways. Easter was too problematic, for one thing.
The trouble was that I ran out of God-language. I could not describe what I was feeling about the Divine and Life in language that was plain Australian English rather than theological jargon; jargon which, I suspected, was an empty shell with no real nutrition inside. My difficulty with Jesus, it turned out, was actually the herald of a difficulty with the whole structure of my theology, and I had finally woken up.
I was forced back to looking at the stories of Jesus. At least there was something concrete on the page which I could look at and talk about- even if I was mostly reducing him to a source of ethics; an exemplar kind of Messiah. So quite accidentally, I went back to Galilee and to the mountain of his teaching, with all its enigma and yet startling clarity! I think I begin to see him, although sometimes I doubt. Certainly there has been a little resurrection in my life, a recovery of confidence and purpose. There is certainly crying in the garden, and I am not at all sure I want the cup being offered me. But the story of that cup and crying, of the death and resurrection, is making sense of my world.
As much as I seek to live out the teaching, and go beyond mere intellectual consideration and understanding, there is a new peace. The correlation between action and the peace is clear, and sometimes startling. Gradually, I am in that place where I am complacent in the more original sense; pleased with myself and at peace with the unknowables of life. I am no longer in the complacency of thinking I know, or could know.
This late convert to Jesus is finding new life.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!