(Acts 3, 12-19; Luke 24, 36-48)
Around Easter time, some of the newspapers remember it’s actually a Christian festival, and run a story which relates to faith or the Church.
Several years ago, on Good Friday, The Times reported on a survey in which the diocesan bishops of the Church of England were asked the question: ‘Do you believe in the physical Resurrection of Christ?’ Rather to the surprise of the author, two thirds of them answered ‘yes’. However, about a quarter of the bishops declined to answer (sensible men!) and a further three bishops gave what were called ‘more subtle answers’. This survey prompted The Times journalist to conclude that ‘At least three quarters of the Church of England’s bishops still proclaim a belief in the literal truth of the story of Easter and the physical resurrection of Jesus as described in the Bible.’
However, when you read what the Bishops replied, things are not so clear. One said: “I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus for both historical and theological reasons. The fact that Jesus appeared to over 500 people at one time shows that it was not a subjective but an objective experience”.
A spokesman one of the Archbishops said:
“The Archbishop believes that the physical body of our Lord was raised from the dead on the first Easter morning and that it assumed a spiritual form which continued to sustain the Apostles and the early Church until the Ascension”. And a spokesman the other Archbishop said: “Jesus Christ is risen. That is a fact”.
Another bishop said: “It’s immaterial whether Christ was resurrected in body or spirit”, and yet another: “I stand by the tradition of the church and St. Paul in particular, that we celebrate at Easter the rising of a spiritual body”.
The article did not record what other comments these bishops made. However, it gave results of another survey, of the general public, which showed that one third of 1000 people questioned believed in ‘the biblical version of the resurrection’, and half believed there was another explanation. I was not one of the 1000, but if I had been, I would have been a rather uncooperative respondent. Before answering I would have asked, “Which of the biblical accounts of the resurrection do you mean?” and “What exactly do you mean by resurrection?”
My problem is that we communicate our beliefs about the resurrection of Jesus in words; but words are inadequate to describe any transcendent experience, like Easter. Whenever you put an experience into words, you are already beginning to interpret it, but you must use words which reflect your thought forms and already existing beliefs, and those of the culture from which you come.
The biblical accounts of the first Easter began with the experiences of 1st century Jews and Jewesses, whose world view was very different from ours, expressed in Aramaic, within a Palestinian Jewish culture. When these experiences were written down, it was in ancient Greek, within a Hellenistic Jewish culture. The Bible as we know it was then translated into Latin, and finally into English. Each of these translation processes affected the way the experience was described, because there is very rarely an exact correspondence between the words of different languages.
Let me just give an example of how translation affects our understanding of the Easter story. The Greek noun ‘resurrection’ (anastasis) appears hardly at all in the New Testament, and mostly in connection with the general resurrection at the end of time. When what happened to Jesus is described, verbs are used, and mostly verbs in the passive. That is, the New Testament does not talk about Jesus’s ‘resurrection’ or even ‘rising’ from the dead, but ‘being raised’ by God. But when we proclaim our faith, we never say ‘Jesus was raised’, always ‘Christ is risen’. Interpretation and translation have altered our understanding.
In the New Testament, there are a number of accounts of the raising of Jesus, and his appearances, and these are contradictory. The earliest account, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, written about 54 AD, speaks of Jesus dying, being buried, and being raised on the third day. He appears to Cephas (Simon Peter), to the twelve (12 – not 11- even though Judas was supposed to be dead by now!) then to 500 people at once, then to his brother James, to all the apostles, and lastly to Paul himself. Paul doesn’t mention the women, the tomb, or any demonstration of a physical body, and he gives his own appearance of the risen Lord (at least a year after the crucifixion) exactly the same status as the earlier appearances to the disciples and family of Jesus. What’s more, in the same epistle he argues that the body which is raised is a spiritual body, not a physical one, since ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’.
Mark, writing between 55 and 80, records that Mary Magdalene and two other named women go to the tomb in Jerusalem, find the stone moved away, and are told by a young man that Jesus is not there, has been raised and they are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to see him. No appearances are described. Matthew has Mary Magdalene and another Mary going to the tomb. They see the stone being moved away and are told by an angel that Jesus has been raised and the disciples are to go to Galilee. They then meet Jesus, worship him and the message is repeated. The eleven disciples go to Galilee and Jesus comes to them on a mountain and commissions them to go and baptize in his name.
Luke has a number of women going to the tomb, to be told by two angels that Jesus has been raised. They tell the disciples. Mary Magdalene and others are now named. The disciples don’t believe them. Peter goes to see the tomb, and the grave clothes lying there, but no body. The first appearance of Jesus is to Cleopas (a hitherto unknown disciple) and his companion on the way to Emmaus. He explains the Scriptures to them, but they don’t recognise him. They know him only in when he breaks bread. An appearance to Peter is talked of but not described. As we heard in today’s reading, Jesus then appears on the same day to the disciples and others in Jerusalem and tells them to touch him and see he has flesh and bones, then eats a piece of cooked fish. He tells them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit (no trip to Galilee!) and then takes them to Bethany, from where he is carried up to heaven. This story of the Ascension is repeated in the beginning of Acts, except there it is on Mt. Olivet near Jerusalem, and happens 40 days after Easter. The coming of the Spirit happens 10 days later, on the feast of Pentecost.
In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene alone goes to the tomb and finds the stone rolled away. She calls Peter and the Beloved Disciple who run to the tomb. Peter enters and sees the grave clothes, as does the Beloved Disciple. It is specifically said that the disciples did not yet understand the scripture that he must rise up (John uses the active verb). Jesus then appears to Mary, and tells her he is ascending to God (not that he has risen!) That evening, Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem through a locked door, and shows them his feet and side. He then breathes on them and gives the Holy Spirit (no separate Ascension or Pentecost). He appears again a week later through locked doors, and convinces Thomas to believe. The final chapter of John (which many scholars believe to be a late addition) records an appearance of Jesus by the Sea of Galilee to Simon, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John and two other disciples on a fishing trip. The disciples do not at first recognise Jesus. They share a meal of fish and bread. This is described as the third appearance, but seems very like a first encounter with the risen Lord. Peter is then forgiven for his denial, commissioned to lead the church, and the manner of his death is predicted.
So, when people say they ‘believe in the physical resurrection of Christ as described in the Bible’, which of these accounts are they referring to? Given discrepancies in the appearances, and in the descriptions of the burial, the tomb, the ascension & the giving of the Holy Spirit it is inconceivable that what is being described is an objective historical occurrence.
I believe, as do many Christian theologians whose judgement I trust, that the New Testament attempts to communicate, in symbol and myth, the experience of the first disciples of Jesus, men and women, that we know as ‘the resurrection’.This experience was real. We know that by its effects: the change in the people who were the first members of the Christian Church from frightened men and women who ran away and hid, to those who were prepared to face persecution and death for their faith in Jesus as their Lord; by the change in them from orthodox Jews who held that the ‘Lord our God is one’ to followers of a new ‘Way’ who preached that Jesus of Nazareth had been taken up into God; by the change from people who shunned contact with non-Jews to those who preached the Jewish Messiah to all the known world; from those who saw death on a cross as a sign of separation from God to those who saw it as the symbol of reconciliation.
For me, the proper question to ask of the Easter narratives in the Bible is not ‘Did it really happen?’ expecting answers in terms of things that could be recorded by a video camera. Rather the questions to ask of the Scriptures are: “What was the experience of those first disciples, especially Peter, Mary Magdalene and Paul, that led to the dramatic change in them? What was the experience of those first disciples that enabled them to communicate their beliefs with such conviction to people from the Greek and Roman cultures of their time, and for that same conviction to be passed on to other people from totally different cultures down two thousand years and across the globe until our own time?” These are questions that go beyond the arguments about what literally happened into the realm of the eternal and the transcendent – the world of the Spirit.
If I am asked: Do you believe in the Resurrection? I would answer: Yes. I believe that Jesus was raised after his death to glory with God. If asked if the disciples saw the risen Lord, I would again answer: Yes. I believe that at some time after the crucifixion (not necessarily on the third day, since that is ‘religious time’) the disciples saw Jesus in his exalted and glorified body, and that this was an experience shared by many people, some of whom are named in the New Testament and some of whom are anonymous.
What I do not believe in is that somehow the corpse of Jesus was resuscitated after lying in a grave for about 36 hours. I do not believe that his physical body left a sealed tomb, passed through closed doors, ate fish and bread and was finally removed from this planet to an existence in some other part of this universe or outside it. I cannot believe that because it is meaningless in terms of my beliefs about human life and death, the physical universe and the nature of God and God’s interaction with human beings.
At one time, language of angels, tomb, the stone rolled away, stories of the body revived on the third day, conversations with disciples, the touching of wounds, eating bread and fish, expounding the scriptures, passing through doors, being in two places at the same time were powerful vehicles of the truth of the resurrection for ordinary people. I don’t believe that, if we insist on taking them literally, they are any more.
For those of us brought up within the Church, these symbols may still carry a powerful message of the truth about God which Jesus showed us. But if we are to bring that truth to many in our generation and the generations to come, I believe we will need to engage once again in the task of translation, not just of the language but also of the symbols, so that new generations will be able to say: We believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ’ and be empowered by their belief to live his resurrection life.