Monday, April 12, 2010

Appearances of the Risen Christ (1 of 5) for 2010


I am a Christian theologian. A form of this essay was first published in April, 2009. It is part of my Christian Calendar Series; and I have redacted it substantially for 2010.

This series of five essays focuses on one of the key elements of Christianity: the Resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.

These essays are not short. Understanding faith is not a series of sound bites. I write them so that my readers can use them as an aid in their own spiritual reflection. Each person must make his or her own decisions about the meaning of faith, including Christianity. Hopefully, by reading these essays the fundamental claim of Christianity, the Resurrection, can be better understood.

In this essay we will explore three things.

First, the importance to a Christian of belief that the Resurrection is true.

Second, conclusions which I have come to after years of study of the Resurrection.

And, third, the importance of the appearances of the Risen Lord after his Resurrection.

We begin with the importance of the Resurrection to Christian faith.

If, at some point in a Christian's life he or she cannot believe that the Resurrection of Jesus is true, then that person's faith is incomplete. What distinguishes Christianity from all other religions is the belief in the truth of this event: the raising by God of Jesus of Nazareth from the grave.

I know something about trying to skirt around, to rationalize, this issue. I did it for years; telling myself I really was a good Christian, going through all of the right motions. But I doubted that a Resurrection happened. And I desperately tried to study my way to that belief; but I couldn't get there that way. Finally, after much anguish and prayer, literally for years, God gave me the faith to believe.

Having finally, after years of struggle, come to believe in the truth of the Resurrection I was able then, after God gave me the faith, to study and to better understand some of the basis of that belief. I want to share that understanding with you in this series.

I do this with two goals in mind.

Foremost, I wish to share it with those Christians who may still be struggling with the truth of the Resurrection. I know the struggle you are going through, because I have been there. Yet, it seems to me wholly possible that the Holy Spirit can convict you of the truth of this most important event in history, even as I was eventually convicted.

Second, I would like to share with those who believe the truth of the Resurrection some of the conclusions I have come to that shore up my own faith. I do this in the hope that your faith might also be further strengthened.

Now we look at conclusions I have come to regarding the truth of the Resurrection. And I believe that the appearances of the Risen Lord after the Resurrection provide the key to my understanding it.

I have stated many times before what I firmly believe: that belief in the Resurrection of Jesus is a primary necessity of Christianity. With St. Paul I believe that If Christ be not raised, then we Christians are fools.

Here are my conclusions, based on decades of study.

One: that the Risen Lord attested to in the Bible is the same Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, dead and buried. In other words, that the Risen Lord is not some abstraction, some hope, some ghost, some result of group hysteria, or a vision or a dream; but is, in fact, the person, Jesus of Nazareth.

Two: that there can be no Resurrection without death. That is, that Jesus of Nazareth really died, that nothing was faked, that this was not some resuscitation of a person who was in a coma or deep sleep, or other such nonsense.

Three: that death is the total, complete and irreversible sundering of human relationships. That is, that Jesus' death was not different than our own, and that it was a complete, absolute, final ending to Jesus' earthly life.

Four: that Resurrection is a pure gift from God, a pure grace, which overcomes the finality of death. And nothing, absolutely nothing, that anyone does, beyond having faith, modifies that grace in any way.

Five: that death has absolutely nothing to do with the freeing of an immortal soul from a finite and evil body; the concept that the soul is immortal is a Greek idea and is foreign to the Biblical idea of Resurrection.

Six: that Resurrection has to do with the raising of the entire being who has died. That is, body and spirit, or "soul," are integrally united in what we call today, the "self" or the "person." In other words, that an individual, identifiable, discreet, conscious person is raised, not an abstract, ethereal wisp, a mere shade or shadow of the whole person.

Seven: that the Resurrection of Jesus cannot be understood apart from the Cross. That is, that the Resurrection apart from the death of Jesus and his sacrificial (agape) love for us is at best a meaningless anomaly, a one-time-only curiosity which holds no useful insight for us.

Eight: the resurrected body is not "human" as we know it, but rather is, as St. Paul attests, in a way we cannot perceive, "glorified," all the while maintaining the same personal identity it had before death.

Nine: Resurrection in the abstract is meaningless to us. It is meaningful only as it relates to the specific purposes of God. Just so, Christ's Resurrection would be meaningless to us without the purposes of witnessing to the glory of God and instructing the faithful, through the statements of the resurrected Lord, on the intentions of God for the lives of the faithful.

Ten: the primary effect of Resurrection is to reestablish relationships: between God and humankind and between humans whose relationships were severed by death. If God had no interest in reestablishing relationships with us there would have been no need for any Resurrection at all.

Eleven: that relationship with God is meaningful for Christians primarily in the context of the faith community which the Risen Lord established, the Church, and within the context of His instruction to that community to share the Word of God to the entire world.

Twelve: - and this is the most important of all, and also the most difficult to understand - that the Resurrection occurred at the intersection of time, or history, as we know it and eternity.

As an event occurring at the cusp of time, space and eternity the Resurrection falls within a group of events that the Church calls an "eschatological event;" meaning that it is an event signaling the "last days."

We are living in a period between the beginning of the last days, signified by the coming of God in Christ, and the culmination of the last days at the second coming of Christ.

We live in what is known in the Church as the "in-between" time; the time of "already" - meaning the breaking in of the Kingdom of God with the coming of Jesus - and "not yet" - meaning the final triumph of the Kingdom of God when Christ comes again.

Just as Jesus left eternity and entered the time and space of creation at his conception, so too, after his Resurrection and the appearances he left time and space as we know it and returned to eternity.

That is the main reason we can't "prove" the Resurrection. It was an event that moved beyond history. Certain aspects surrounding the Resurrection have been made available to our consciousness by God, in particular the appearances of the Risen Lord. Those we will look at carefully.

But, by definition, the very act of Resurrection itself lies beyond human understanding. It simply does not fit what we know about how things work.

I conclude this first essay with a brief introduction to the importance of the appearances of the Risen Lord to understanding the Resurrection. We will discuss the appearances in detail in the following essays.

In my Easter Reflection I told you that there were three basic reasons why people for the first 1800 years or so of Christianity believed the truth of the Resurrection.

First, they believed it because the Bible said it was true. But, since the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution that position has been challenged constantly by those who think that we either have to prove the Bible scientifically or explain a lot of it away.

You already know that I believe that we cannot "prove" almost any important aspects of the Bible scientifically and that there is no reason to try to rationalize away key aspects of the faith.

Second, they believed it because witnesses that they trusted said that they saw the Risen Lord, after his crucifixion and burial. That is, they testified that the Risen Lord, the same Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, appeared to them after he had died.

And, third, those same disciples and many others, even to this day, testified, and still testify, that the Risen Lord is alive and active in their own lives, even as I testify to the activity of Christ in my own life.

The Christians who make up the Church are living witnesses to the truth of the Resurrection. As the body of Christ, Christians within the Church witness today to the truth of the living Christ working in our daily lives.

In fact, it is our witness that keeps Christianity alive, and provides the hope for generations of Christians as yet unborn. Without the witness of his body, the Church, Resurrection faith would die within a few generations.

I will focus the rest of this series on the appearances after Jesus death by the Risen Christ to the disciples and others. The four gospels, Acts and First Corinthians all attest to these appearances, and they form the basic fabric from which the belief that the Resurrection is true is constructed.

It is these eye witness accounts recorded in the Bible that most clearly explain the basis of the faith of the original Christian communities.

It is the trust that the communities of faith placed in these witnesses that allows us to believe the stories of these eye witnesses. In other words, for example, when the Gospel writers write what they do about the appearances, I trust that they, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are writing truth, not lies or fabrications.

And, likewise, when Paul tells me that the Risen Lord appeared to Him on the road to Damascus, and when Luke, in Acts, confirms that event, I trust both Paul and Luke to tell me the truth, and not to lie about it.

And that trust is part of another trust: that the Bible is the inspired witness to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. In other words, Christians believe that the Bible is the primary revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

The revelation of God in Christ in the Bible is the normative revelation of God to Christians. Upon its words Christians make decisions about the nature of God and of God's relationship to us.

When Christians believe that the Bible offers such a revelation of God to us, then Christians not only trust what the witnesses to the Risen Christ say, but also trust that what they said is truthfully recorded by the biblical writers.

Rushing through complicated theological issues will likely result in little light, so we will instead walk, not run, together in this series through an overview of the appearances of the Risen Lord, and see if we can discern some fundamental aspects of these appearances. I will publish only one of the following four essays each week to give you time to read and contemplate each essay.

God bless you all.