Sermon for Easter Sunday 2017
Acts 10, 34-43; Matthew 28, 1-10
Easter, like Christmas, is a Christian festival, and occasionally the media remember that, and publish a story that has to do with religious belief, rather than about bunnies and chocolate eggs and what we call them.
Last weekend, the BBC had a story about the results of a survey commissioned by BBC local radio about belief in the Resurrection of Jesus, and life after death. One of the questions they asked of 2,010 British adults was whether they believed in the resurrection of Jesus “word-for-word” as described in the Bible; whether they believed it happened but that some of the Bible content should “not be taken literally”; whether they did not believe in the resurrection, or whether they did not know.
I was not one of the 2,010, 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?’
The problem is that we communicate our beliefs about the resurrection of Jesus in words; but words are very inadequate and often misleading things to describe the transcendent reality that is the Easter experience. Whenever you put an experience into words, you are already beginning to interpret it. Moreover, you have to interpret it according to 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 that with which we operate. They would have been expressed in Aramaic, within a Palestinian Jewish culture. When these experiences were written down, they were written in Greek, within a Hellenistic Jewish culture. The Bible as we know it was then translated into Latin, and finally into English at different periods of English history. Each of these translation processes would inevitably have slightly affected the way the experience was expressed and understood, simply because there is very rarely an exact one for one correspondence between the words of different languages.
Let me just give you one example of how it affects our understanding of the Easter story. The Greek noun ‘resurrection’ amastasir appears hardly at all in the New Testament, and mostly in connection with the general resurrection that some Jews believed would happen 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’ ‘resurrection’ or even ‘rising’ from the dead, but ‘being raised’ by God from death to heaven. But when we proclaim our faith, we never say ‘Jesus was raised’, always ‘Christ is risen’. Interpretation and translation have altered our understanding.
What is more, there are a number of accounts of the raising of Jesus, and appearing to people, and these, like the accounts of Jesus’ birth, are contradictory.
The earliest account, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, speaks of Jesus dying, being buried, and being raised on the third day according to the scriptures. He then appears to Cephas (Simon Peter), to the twelve (note 12 – not 11- even though Judas was supposed to be dead by now!) then to 500 people at once, then to James, then to all the apostles (who are they?) and lastly to Paul himself. There are several things to note about this account. Paul does not 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 or more after the crucifixion) exactly the same status as the earlier appearances to the first followers and family of Jesus. What is 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’.
The Gospel of Mark records that Mary Magdalene and two other named women go to the tomb in Jerusalem and are told by a young man that Jesus is not there, he has been raised and they are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to see him. No appearances are described. Matthew as we heard, has Mary Magdalene and another Mary going to the tomb (no Salome) to be told by an angel that Jesus has been raised and to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to see him. 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 an unspecified number of women going to the tomb, to be told by two angels that Jesus has been raised. They are reminded of Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection, and go back to tell the disciples. Mary Magdalene and others are now named. They tell the disciples who don’t believe them. Peter goes to see the tomb, and sees the grave clothes lying but no body. The first appearance of Jesus is to Cleopas (a hitherto unknown disciple) and his companion on the way to Emmaus. Jesus then appears to the disciples and others in Jerusalem and tells them to touch him and see he has flesh and bones, and he then eats a piece of cooked fish before them. He then tells them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit (no trip to Galilee!) and takes them to Bethany, from where he is carried up to heaven. This last story is repeated in the beginning of Acts, except there it is Mt. Olivet near Jerusalem, and happens after 40 days. The coming of the Spirit happens several days later, on the feast of Pentecost. In the speeches in Acts, again there’s no mention of a tomb or a garden, but there is of the disciples meeting, eating and drinking with the risen Christ.
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 the tomb and sees the grave clothes, as does the Beloved Disciple, who believes (in what is not specified). John says 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 Pentecost gift). He appears again a week later the same way, 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. 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, and 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 word-for-word as described in the Bible’, which of these accounts are they referring to? Quite apart from the discrepancies in the appearances, there are inconsistencies in the descriptions of the burial and the tomb that make it inconceivable that what is being described is an objective historical occurrence.
Rather, I believe, as do many Christian theologians whose judgement I trust, that the Scriptures attempt to communicate, in symbol and myth, reworking the religious traditions of Judaism in the form known as midrash, 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: by the change in the people who were the first members of the Christian Church from frightened men and women who ran home 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 in them from those 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 gateway to eternal life in God’s presence.
So 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 can be experienced by the senses or filmed by a video camera. Rather the questions we need 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 it about Jesus of Nazareth that demanded his story be written and interpreted in terms of the sacred traditions of the Jewish people? What convinced these people that Jesus the carpenter from Nazareth who died as a criminal in a Roman crucifixion, could be acclaimed as the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Suffering Servant, the Logos described in the Jewish sacred writings.
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 I was 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, or after 3 days and nights, 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 different parts in the New Testament and some of whom are anonymous’. If I am asked if I believe that Jesus is alive? I would answer: ‘Yes, in the same way that I believe all of us who have faith in his revelation of God will experience a life that death has no power to extinguish.’
What I personally 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 escaped past a large stone from a 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, about the physical universe and about the nature of God and God’s interaction with human beings.
At one time, the symbols of angels and the tomb, the stone rolled away, the stories of the body that was revived on the third day, the conversations with the disciples, the touching of wounds, eating bread and fish, expounding the scriptures, passing through doors, being in two places at the same time and so on were powerful vehicles of the truth of the resurrection for ordinary people. I don’t believe, that they are any more, and the survey that the BBC carried out seems to confirm that.
For some of those of us brought up within the Church, these symbols still carry a powerful message of the truth of God which Jesus showed us. But if we are to continue to bring that truth to many in our generation and the generations to come, 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 our Lord Jesus Christ’ and will be empowered by their belief, as we are, to live his resurrection life.