If I was to ask you to raise your hand in you believe in resurrection, I wonder how densely-populated the area above your heads would be? Before responding, in St Mark’s fashion, some might seek clarification over what is meant by resurrection?
What indeed. After all, most, if not all of us, can relate to resurrection as a metaphor: a fresh insight, the joy of Springtime, restored relationships, a reviving word, hope in the midst of adversity, the emergence of justice and peace.
But the particularly Christian witness to resurrection does not reside here, as indicative as such expressions of new life are to the Christian Way. Rather, the defining Christian insight, celebrated at Easter, relates not to resurrection in general, whether metaphorical or actual, but to Jesus’ resurrection in particular.
How many of us, I wonder, struggle to muster a response when the president acclaims, ‘Christ is risen!’ or have some part of our anatomy crossed when we reply, ‘He is risen, indeed!’? Yet, here, again, it depends on what is meant by resurrection.
Are we talking, for instance, about an empty tomb and a transformed body that is not only able to walk through closed doors, but also consume food and be touched, as some of the gospel accounts seem to suggest. A body that in due course would ascend into heaven (wherever that is)?
Such an understanding seems alien to the rational mind and a worldview informed by scientific method and discovery. Some, of course, would claim that is precisely the point. Indeed, isn’t it the line Paul takes when, confounding the hubristic incredulity of the Christian intelligentsia at Corinth, he writes:
For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength …But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1.25, 27-29)
And I suspect we could all do with a good deal more humility if we are ever to reach beyond the horizon of our own understanding.
Significantly, though, in the same correspondence, the apostle goes on to say the following about Jesus’ resurrection:
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, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15.3-8)
Notice how he uses the same word ‘appear’ (horao) to describe his own life-changing encounter with Christ as he uses to describe those of Peter and the other disciples. Evidently, he considered them comparable which is poignant given he makes no reference in any of his letters to an empty tomb or to post-mortem bodily manifestations of Jesus similar to those contained in Matthew, Luke and John.
For Paul, Jesus’ resurrection is about his continuing presence and the impact of that presence upon those whom he encounters.
Now presence, when we stop to think about it, is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. For instance, reflect for a moment on your own presence. Were you present at your birth? Will you be present at your death? Are you present when others speak about your or remember you, even if you are not physically there? Or what about when someone plays a recording of your voice or views a video in which you feature or reads a book that you once wrote? And where are you most present when, sitting in church, enduring a terminally boring sermon, your mind and taste buds have already begun to anticipate lunch?
As I say, personal presence is complex. We can be physically in one place even though our attention is firmly fixed somewhere else. Equally, we can be present for another person even when we are not physically there. And there is no reason to think that such complexity isn’t at play among those who continue to experience Jesus’ presence after the crucifixion.
In truth, the resurrection accounts in the gospels bear witness to as much. Jesus is not experienced as present through his body – if you recall, Mary doesn’t recognise his appearance in the garden nor does Cleopas and his companion on the Emmaus Road.
Rather, Jesus becomes present for them through the practices and experiences that were characteristic of his ministry: as hospitality is extended and the bread is broken at a shared meal, as Peter is overwhelmed with forgiveness, as Mary is comforted in her grief, as the scriptures come to life in the light of his teaching, as the disciples continue to share a common life and to minister in his name.
Even, Paul, according to the Acts of the Apostles, encounters the risen Christ in the witness of his followers who continued to meet and minister in Jesus’ name:
I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ (Acts 22.4-8)
Actually, we find the same testimony in this morning’s gospel reading which includes the much-misinterpreted episode featuring Thomas, who has, to my mind incorrectly, been stereotyped as the archetypal doubter. There are a number of words in the Koine Greek of the New Testament for ‘doubt’ (distazõ, diskrinõ). Matthew uses one of them; ‘When they saw [Jesus], [the disciples] worshiped him; but some doubted’ (Matthew 28.17). But none of those words is used by John in this passage; instead, Thomas is admonished for being apistos, faithless or unbelieving. The Revised Standard Version’s ‘do not be faithless, but believing’ is a more accurate translation than the NRSV’s ‘do not doubt but believe’ (John 20.27).
It seems that Thomas can’t get his head around Jesus’ continuing presence unless it is associated with his body, although why on earth the wounds that caused Jesus’ death should evidence his life is not immediately obvious. He is not reproved for doubting the resurrection, but for allowing his doubt to paralyse discipleship; that is, rather than continuing in Jesus’ way of faith and encountering him through doing so, he is looking back to where Jesus used to present, but is no longer – and, according to risen Christ, blessing awaits those who can move on in faith without needing to do so (cf John 20.29).
But there are still many who perpetuate Thomas’ preoccupation – looking for evidence of the resurrection in the wrong place: in an empty tomb and a crucified body, rather than through embracing Jesus’ legacy of faith – encountering him in the midst of the community shaped by his life and teaching, as well as through pursuing his kingdom causes and ministering in his name.
Notice how John the Evangelist merges Easter with Pentecost, as was the practice in the early church – Jesus’ presence is no longer confined to the body of a Galilean who ended up crucified for convictions; he inhabits the faithfulness of those who place their trust in his vision and commit themselves to keeping that vision alive:
Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20.21-23)
I asked at the beginning how many of us believed in the resurrection of Jesus. By now, I hope it will have become apparent that I was not asking for opinions on whether the corpse of Jesus was resuscitated and transformed; but, rather, whether we are willing to make space for him in our lives – to let him, if you will, live on in us and, through continuing his pattern and practice of faith, to be open to his presence within us as well as among those whom we will serve in his name.
For if Christ cannot be encountered in this place and through the witness of our lives, then I fear we have little to offer the world except a story that ends with Golgotha, in the grip of powers that crucified Jesus as well as countless numbers before and since – a gospel of bad news.