“Christ is risen!”
And they all replied….. “Christ is risen indeed”.
Although a good part of the world’s Christian population would probably be comfortable making such a response, if there should be a supplementary question, “What do you mean by that?” do you think this might leave more than a few struggling to find the words to explain exactly what they meant?
Clearly different people use the word “resurrection” in different ways.. For example the leader of the Rise Up Australia Party claims to have performed the miracle of resurrection on a small girl who had recently died and for whom he had prayed. Others would say Jesus was bodily resurrected, then later taken up to heaven and that this resurrection could only have happened to Jesus. Still others claim that the mortal remains of Jesus almost certainly will be decaying somewhere in Israel and that although Jesus lives on, he does so through those who are inspired to live out his principles. Just for the record, in recent years, archaeologists have made at least two separate claims to have found the ossuary containing the bones of Jesus which, if their claims should ever turn out to be true, would seem to suggest bodily resurrection may not have been an option.
Even when we turn to the experts, we find it is not exactly settled. Many books on the topic have been written by many very wise scholars. On one side we have those like the wonderful but conservative scholar Bishop N T Wright (perhaps known by many as Tom Wright from his more popular writing) arguing persuasively for the Biblical support for Jesus dying and being brought back to life and on the other, those like Lloyd Geering and Tom Wright’s friend Marcus Borg who are equally persuasive arguing for a more rational and scientific interpretation. Unfortunately as well as these warm hearted and sincere scholars there are those whose beliefs on both sides of this debate lead them to be derisory and dismissive of anyone whose belief differs from their own, and in this I would have to admit liberals are no better than the Bible literalists.
There is no shortage of scholarly breakthroughs and yet, if anything the mystery of the resurrection has deepened and the debate has become steadily more schizophrenic with the passing of the years. Collective wisdom is sometimes worse than individual wisdom and the church in its history has also had times when those obsessed with glimpses of truth have allowed their true selves to become distorted in the extreme. Henry the eighth having the monasteries burned and having key supporters of the Roman Church executed was not exactly acting in the Spirit of Christ – and nor were the witch burners of Salem or the torturers acting on behalf of the inquisition.
About three years ago Todd Freeman with a picturesque turn of phrase suggested some of the Church proponents in the debate have been somewhat akin to Gollum, that wretched obsessed creature in the Lord of the Rings, who in one scene in the Second film of the Trilogy is caught up in a debate with his own alter ego. Gollum recognises in the ring with its magical writing of truth there is something precious – “my precious” he calls it…. yet in his desire to possess the ring he has lost sight of the gentle hobbit-like creature he knows he once has been and instead has become a creature possessed. And it isn’t a pretty sight.
I don’t know if you are familiar with the scholarly and careful academic bible lecturer David Frederick Strauss. David Strauss was the young 19th century German theologian who in writing his book entitled (in translation), the life of Jesus, patiently and painstakingly examined the gospels, showing how the various story threads had been constructed from previous fragments, how the gospel stories had woven in myth with truth, how they had borrowed from one another, how they contradicted in detail and yet how they were true to their main themes.
In its day it was truly a great work of scholarship – and since he first published his work other theologians have built on his work, and many, if not most serious Bible scholars now acknowledge his part in helping them through to what we have learned since. However what is rather sad is that he was far from appreciated at the time. When he published his work it outraged some of the more conservative thinkers who demanded that he be dismissed. The Earl of Shaftesbury assessed the 1846 translation of David Strauss’ book into English as being: “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.” And many in Europe would have echoed his words.
I would like to make it clear that I am not trying to argue David Strauss was correct in all his claims. For one thing, thanks to the scholars we have now have much clearer ideas about Jesus’ life and setting and understand far more about how the gospels came to be assembled, yet the one thing Strauss had got absolutely right was that his journey was to find out for himself what it meant.
Certainly each of the Gospels, as Frederick Buechner points out, tells a different story. The Gospels don’t agree on all the facts, but instead give us, in Beuchner’s words, a “narrative (that) is as fragmented, shadowy, and incomplete as life itself.” And just as David Strauss tried to clarify his thinking on what it meant to him, each of us, in our turn, have to do the same. Many have walked this same path and are still on this journey – their lives enriching the lives of others.
In that our own individual grasp of the truth will always be fragmentary, I am not altogether sure that it matters that others may suggest that our current understanding is wrong or incomplete. Yet given that some have also responded to this challenge in the past by being thoroughly unpleasant about others’ interpretations, one way of self checking on the value of the resurrection to us as individuals is to reflect on the changes it has wrought in our own lives. For example, has the gospel for us given us a form of liberation of the Spirit which causes us to see our fellows in a more compassionate light? Or have we seized selfishly on the message in such a way it is encouraging us to be mean spirited?
Recently I attended the funeral of one I believe to have been the oldest Methodist minister in New Zealand, the Rev Ted Baker, a man I had come to know as a man of simple faith with a highly developed sense of compassion. He was widely respected and indeed although I was his minister only for the last few years of his life, I can’t say I ever heard anyone criticise Ted. One of Ted’s favourite sayings is one that I am coming more and more to respect. “The messenger is the message”.
Although Ted was well read he was not himself a published scholar. He was however inspired and committed to the gospel and even when I thought him to be poorly informed about whatever topic we happened to be discussing at the time, it was clear to me he was a very good ambassador for Christ. He encouraged others to follow on the same journey he was walking and several ministers told me that it was Ted who had first challenged them into ministry. He was an excellent visitor in his various parishes and very good at counselling the bereaved. I am sure that like all travellers on that particular journey he was making the best he could from the narrative, despite the fact it was “fragmented, shadowy and incomplete as life itself”
How do we know Easter is true then? Not from the historical or scientific analysis of the shadowed – and dare I say partly contradictory fragments. Nor, I would stress, do we know the truth of Easter even from the gospels – for there the record is clearly incomplete. We do however learn more from the long lives of those like Ted who have taken the gospel message seriously and give it integrity by the way they live as gospel messengers. We also learn much from the much longer story of the Church where the history of the best (and worst) followers is on show for all to see. The messenger is always more than a disinterested reporter, and indeed unless each messenger has come to be telling a story which is a part of their own life, why need we listen?
Those first witnesses of the empty tomb and those who followed were ordinary people encountering Easter, not in a carefully contrived service of worship where the presentation of truth is organised for religious effect, but rather in the midst of their own personal settings among all their realities and worries. Some were clearly puzzled and disturbed by what confronted them, some were frightened and some wanted to know more. Yet the truth that they perceived only took shape as they took their experiences and challenges and shared them with others.
So is the resurrection a truth the world needs? Although there may be wildly different interpretations of the actual resurrection event –I want to suggest that from all corners of the Christian Church there would be agreement that the main consequence of resurrection is to believe that Christ is still truly relevant to life. The problems of life don’t sound particularly religious in that they have to do with such matters as human squabbles, with inequalities in the distribution of food and other vital resources, with economic problems, with the environment, disparities in trade, refugees and all the threats and consequences of war. Yet the solutions to all these problems are very much to do with issues of justice, tolerance, freedom, compassion and care for generations yet to come. In short to do with the message introduced and lived by Jesus and now the continuing gospel message. To show by our thoughts, words and actions that we too value these issues, which happens to be the very same message Jesus put on the line when he faced the cross – surely this is to become a part of the resurrection message.
The statement “Christ is risen” is affirmed most clearly by those who live the message.
“Christ is Risen”.
And we reply……
“He is risen indeed”.