Hello everyone and happy Easter. I know Easter was last weekend but the church quite rightly goes on celebrating it for 6 weeks afterwards. Its so momentous that it requires quite a party. It is unequivocal good news. Death has been defeated, we have conclusive evidence that there is life beyond this one and that evil will not have the last word.
However, we have to acknowledge that its one of those doctrines people struggle with, and not just outside the Church. This is hardly surprising. People do not come back to life every day, despite reports of near-death experiences – the clue there is in the word near. We are not saying in the resurrection that Jesus nearly dies and then revived. We are saying that he died and was resurrected – which is not the same as resuscitated. It’s a completely different mode of existence.
In the last 200 years, with the rise of scientific understanding of how the physical world works, Christians have sought to make the truth claims of the gospel plausible to modern sensibilities. Back in the 19th Century the German Theologian Rudolf Bultmann embarked on a project to demythologise Jesus. This essentially involved taking a pair of scissors to the gospels and excising from them everything that smacked of the supernatural. Unfortunately, when you do that you aren’t left with very much other than some isolated moral teaching, that really makes no sense separated from the life and claims of the person who delivered it. I absolutely commend his motivation, and the motivation of that tradition since. I just think they are mistaken. It doesn’t seem intrinsically unreasonable that if God wants to disclose himself in Jesus Christ then we are going to need some reasonably reliable documentation of what that looked like, in order to make a sensible response. Some parts of these scriptures are clearly meant to be taken metaphorically. The first few chapters of Genesis for example, are not meant to be read as a scientific treatise on human origins, indeed if they are I would argue they lose their power to speak to us. As an analysis of the human condition in relation to God they continue to be a resource to understand ourselves at the deepest level.
However, other parts are meant to be understood historically, in the way we would normally understand history. I place the Gospel accounts squarely in that category. Paul certainly thought so, describing a Christianity without a resurrected Jesus as no Christianity at all. We are not living in a culture today that values proof of truthfulness as much as we did 50 years ago. G.K.Chesterton said, “when people choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” If you doubt that, I suggest you take a moment to watch Ancient Aliens on Digital TV. A bigger load of incredible tosh delivered with a straight face, you will struggle to find. Much popular culture seems to be able to hold 10 mutually incompatible things before breakfast without batting an eyelid.
In the resurrection we see an intersection of the world of faith and scientific notions of proof. It really matters that it happened. Without it there is no Christian faith. With it, the Gospel falls into place as a coherent and credible whole. Even some of our Jewish friends have been convinced. Pinchas Lapide, a German Jewish Rabbi, said, “I accept the resurrection of Easter Sunday, not as an invention of the community of the disciples, but as a historical event. Later in the same book he writes, “I cannot rid myself of the impression that some modern Christian theologians are ashamed of the material fact of the resurrection. For all those Christians who believe in the incarnation but have difficulty with the historically understood resurrection of Jesus, the word of Jesus of the blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel probably applies.”
I leave the last word to Mark Tully the BBC journalist and onetime India correspondent. In 1996 he produced a series of programmes called, The Lives of Jesus. His last quote to camera, sitting in an English Country pub was this, “working as a journalist, my faith ebbed away, and I was afraid that this journey would end it completely”, and talking of Jesus he said, “he was virtually a failure in his lifetime, he prophesied incorrectly (I’m not sure he did, but I’ll let that go), he taught in strange riddles. He didn’t convince his fellow Jews. He didn’t overthrow Rome. But this has forced me to the most important conclusion of all, that the hardest, most difficult historical part of faith: the resurrection, must have happened. If there were no miracle there could have been no grounds for faith in his life. No resurrection; no church. What exactly happened we may never know, but if Jesus historical companions were ready to die in this faith, there is no historical reason why we can’t live in it either.