2013 redaction: Appearances of the Resurrected Christ, Part One:
The Basic Facts and Christian Beliefs about the Resurrection of Jesus
Last Sunday we looked at the “Why” of the Resurrection and discussed five truths associated with the singular importance of the Resurrection, all building on one essential truth of 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 dangerously incomplete. With St. Paul I believe that if Christ be not raised, then Christians are fools, because a key distinction of Christianity from all other religions is belief in the truth of this event: the raising by God of Jesus of Nazareth from the grave.
I know something about trying to avoid the centrality of this issue. I, at the time steeped in scientific rationalism, was, at best, agnostic to the idea that a Resurrection happened. And, wanting desperately to believe that Jesus’ resurrection was true, I tried to study my way to that belief; but I couldn't get there that way. Finally, after much anguish and prayer, God gave me the faith to believe. I could NEVER have gotten to that point on my own. And I found the most amazing thing: having that new found faith, I was able then to study and to better understand my belief that the Resurrection is true. I want to share that understanding with you in this series.
For me the appearances of the Risen Lord after the Resurrection provide the key to my belief that it actually happened. Here are my conclusions, based on decades of study. They may seem painfully obvious to some of you, but each of point has been heatedly attacked by scholars, often by so called “Christian” scholars, and so I must clearly state the obvious to be absolutely clear the nature of orthodox Christian belief.
– 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 deep sleep, or other such subterfuge.
– Three: that death is the total and complete 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 beyond having faith, nothing, absolutely nothing, that anyone does, 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 of one 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 by a Christian 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 one-time-only curiosity which holds no useful insight for us.
– Eight: that the resurrected body is not our "human" body 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: that Resurrection in the abstract is meaningless to Christians. It is meaningful only as it relates to the specific purposes of God. 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: that the primary effect of Resurrection is to reestablish relationships: between God and humankind and between humans whose relationships were severed by death.
–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 specifically within the context of His instruction to that community to share the Word of God to the entire world.
–Twelve: and while this is the most important of all, it is also the most difficult to understand - that the Resurrection occurred at the intersection of time, or history, as we experience it and eternity, of which prior to our own Resurrection we have no knowledge. Let me repeat that slowly, because this final conclusion is the hardest to understand, but is also is the one that makes it possible for us to really grasp something of how it could happen. (repeat)
In essence, I believe that the Resurrection was so unlikely that it literally occurred at the intersection of what we now know about how the universe works and what we may have theories about but have not proven. Both the Bible and science are clear that time, space, energy, and matter as we know them are temporary phenomena. For example, most people now agree that there was an event we call the “Big Bang” at which the universe as we know if came into being. Call it the “Big Bang” or call it “Creation.” But it happened. We can and do argue whether there was a prime mover of that event called “God;” but science and religion do agree that there was a point when what we know as the universe was not; and then it simply “was.” I will let you chew on that a bit and move into more traditional talk about how Christianity has always viewed these kinds of phenomena.
As an event occurring at the cusp of time, space and eternity the Resurrection falls within a group of events that the Church calls "eschatological events;" meaning that it is an event pointing to the "last days." The Church says that 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 this "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 his 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 from something observable as part of history, to something not observable and beyond history. Yet, at this cusp in time 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.
I will focus the rest of this series on the appearances of the Risen Christ to the disciples and others. The gospels, Acts and First Corinthians all attest to these appearances, and they form the basic fabric from which the belief in the truth of the Resurrection 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. And it is the trust that current communities of faith place in these witnesses that allows us to believe their stories. In other words, when the Gospel writers write what they do about the appearances, we trust that they, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are writing truth, not lies or fabrications. By the same token, 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 bolstered by another fundamental Christian belief: 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; meaning that we judge all other claims of religious truth by how well they conform to the truths revealed in the Bible. Upon its words Christians make decisions about the nature of God and of God's relationship to us.
A brief note about the remaining four sermons in this series: Rushing through complicated theological issues will likely result in very little light being shed, so we will instead walk together in this series through an overview of the appearances of the Risen Lord, and see if we can discern the fundamental aspects of these appearances.
However, because of earned vacation time which I must take, and the way some holidays fall this year, we will have to interrupt this series more than once. When that happens, I assure you that I will begin each sermon with enough background information that you will easily be able to pick up where we left off.
God bless you all.