Sunday, 24 April 2011
Easter Sunday, Shaftesbury
We gather here today to celebrate the feast of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. As we know, many people do not celebrate the Resurrection, many people treat it as just some kind of myth. So, if we are to celebrate today's feast with conviction then it's worth recalling some of the many reasons why we can be certain that Jesus rose from the dead. I want to do this using not some of the traditional arguments (for that see handout sheet http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/04/16/how-easter-killed-my-faith-in-atheism/) but I want, instead, to note a couple specific arguments contained in Pope Benedict's new book –the book which I have quoted from in a number of our Easter Triduum services.
The Pope, very obviously, starts his reflections on the resurrection by referring to the Empty Tomb. And he makes the point that the emptiness of the Tomb was "a necessary condition for Resurrection faith"(Jesus of Nazareth, Vol 2, p.254). When the disciples went about Jerusalem proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead their statements would have been meaningless, and instantly contradicted, if someone had pointed to the body of Jesus lying dead in the tomb.
And it's an important point to note that nobody in antiquity, none of the Jewish high priests and Pharisees who opposed the early Christians, none of these people ever disputed that the tomb was empty. Nobody ever claimed to know some other place where his body was.
But the emptiness of the Tomb does not in itself prove the Resurrection. We know of the Resurrection because of an additional factor: the fact that Jesus, in His resurrected state, APPEARED to His disciples. They saw Him, they “ate and drank” with Him, as we heard St Peter say in our first reading. (Acts 10:41).
Pope Benedict makes the point that "for the disciples the Resurrection was just as real as the Cross"(p.245) –both events were experienced by them as something definite, tangible, and this is the key point: as something life changing, the way your life changes is the result of a real experience, not an illusion.
The Pope points to 2 significant things that indicate the reality of that experience, things that we might be so familiar with that we mistakenly take them for granted: the fact that Christians meet on Sunday, and the fact that the early Christians said that Jesus rose on the "third" day.
For us, it might not seem a big deal that we meet on Sunday. But we need to remember that the first Christians were Jews, they observed the Sabbath, on Saturday, and this was a practice that made them different to all the peoples roundabout them, this was a practice that defined their Jewish identity. So, they would only have abandoned that practice on the basis of something definite and solid and important. And it is only reasonable to conclude that the only reason they did this was because of the truth of their claim that their Lord Jesus Christ had Risen on a Sunday.
This is a powerful indication that their claim to have met the risen Christ was a tangible experience.
Pope Benedict makes another interesting point when he reflects on the fact that the disciples were clearly NOT EXPECTING the Resurrection to happen. He notes that just as nobody expected the Messiah to come in the form of a CRUCIFIED Messiah, similarly, no one was expecting a bodily Resurrection(p.245). While the many passages in the Old Testament prophesying the Messiah seem clear to us in retrospect, it's nonetheless significant that there were no rabbis at the time who were teaching about and expecting a Crucified Messiah and a Risen Messiah. So, for example, although the New Testament says that Jesus "was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures"(1 Cor 15:4), there is no word-for-word Old Testament reference to a "third day" (p.257). Why then did the early disciples insist repeatedly that it happened on the "third day"? Surely, only because their experience of the event connected it to that day.
What have I been saying? In summary, that the Gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances of our Lord are historically credible because there are so many aspects of the early Christian Church that only makes sense if those first disciples had experienced an encounter with their Risen Lord as profound, real, and unexpected as they claimed it was.
And for us today that means we can celebrate the Resurrection, despite the scoffing of some sceptics, we can celebrate the Resurrection with confidence as a historical reality.