The Resurrection at Easter
Posted on 22 April 2014, 16:06
If we accept the reality of the afterlife, we shall have to agree that Jesus rose from the dead. And we will have to agree with St Paul when he says that we also rise from the dead: “When [our body] is buried, it is mortal, when raised, it will be immortal.” [1 C0r 15:14] Like a seed, Paul says, the physical body is buried in the ground, and what is raised to eternal life is a spiritual body. St Paul would agree with Michael Tymn in saying that the physical body of Jesus would have been buried in just the same way as that of any other person, and that what Paul and the disciples of Jesus saw, was the spiritual body of Jesus. Paul remarked that if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then neither are we, and then we would be much to be pitied for our foolish belief.
If we can agree with St. Paul in the matter, then what we are celebrating at Easter is the resurrection from the dead both of Jesus and ourselves. And that indeed is something worth celebrating.
But there are people apparently whose faith would be destroyed if the bones of Jesus were ever to be found in some forgotten tomb in Israel. Their faith would be destroyed because of the story of the empty tomb in the gospels. And that leads us to the question of how much we can trust the gospels as historical records, and how much we can trust St. Paul.
On the one hand the gospels were probably written after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in C E 70, including all the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. They didn’t have books as we know them the time of Jesus. Writings were preserved on parchment rolls kept in the synagogues, and the early Christians certainly didn’t have gospels in their pockets. They heard the spoken words of Jesus and memorised them as best they could, passed his sayings on to each other and to their children, meditated and prayed about them, and attempted to put what he said into practice in their lives. Quite a few of his sayings may indeed have been written down and circulated. But it is thought that these collected sayings, together with shared memories compose much of each of the gospels. It was thought that Mark was the first gospel to be written, with Matthew and Luke incorporating much of Mark’s text into their own works, combining it with selections from these collections of sayings. There is of course much wonderful material in the gospels, but it does not give us a firsthand witness to what Jesus said and did. The story of the empty tomb, for instance, may or may not be historical.
Nevertheless, always historical or not, the gospels rightly hold a central place in the consciousness of Christians, inspiring them to grow in spirit, and in love and service of others.
In contrast to situation with the gospels, St Paul’s epistles or letters do provide firsthand testimony and were put in writing by Paul himself.
Paul had been a Pharisee, a legalist and puritan version of Judaism, but he had not been born in Israel, but rather in Asia Minor, in what is now called Turkey, in a town called Tarsus on the south-east coast. He belonged to the Jewish “Dispersion”, communities of Jews living amongst foreigners in Spain, Italy, Greece, Asia Minor (Turkey), Syria, Cyprus, and Egypt. There were synagogues dotted throughout these countries. These communities largely kept to themselves, but sometimes there was intermarriage with these various “Gentiles” or foreigners.
The rise of the movement following the teachings of Jesus, originally called, “The Way”, was seen as a threat by hard-line Pharisees, and as a leading Pharisee Paul was travelling to Damascus in Syria, to arrest any followers of The Way to be found there. Some distance from Damascus something happened which had huge consequences: he perceived a bright light before him and a voice that he took to be that of Jesus saying, “Paul, Paul, why are you persecuting me?”. He became blind for a while, and had to be led by hand eventually to Damascus, where he stayed in “the street called Straight.” He was introduced to the Christian community there, where he stayed a while.
After that he spent three years in a desert area of Arabia, absorbing his life changing experience, no doubt receiving much spiritual and paranormal instruction. At the end of this period he had sorted out what his understanding of the Risen Jesus was, and his message. So deep had been the experience, that he was ready for a lifetime of dangerous journeys often amongst hostile people to spread his vision of the Risen Christ, who he saw as symbolising the universal spirit of God. For him, our need was to be “in Christ”, a participant in his spiritual body. (Jesus expressed the same teaching, talking about our being members of the Kingdom of Heaven).
It was only then that he made his first visit to Israel, and to Jerusalem, to meet with Simon Peter and with James the brother of Jesus. From their lips he heard about the events of what is now called “Holy Week”, the story of the Last Supper, and how Jesus had appeared to Peter and James and the rest of the disciples.
So Paul is our first hand witness to the resurrection of Jesus, both from his own experience, and from what he heard from Peter and James. A little surprisingly, Paul gives us little of the teachings of Jesus, or details of his life. What he is interested in is the resurrected Jesus, as experienced by himself and others, and it is this that motivated him for the rest of his life. Scholars may quibble over the historicity of this or that detail of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, but Paul should convince us that some of it at least must be true.
Here is a quote from 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul writes, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to [Peter] and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
All agree that Paul really did write this letter. For him life after death is the same for us as for Jesus: “When [our body] is buried, it is mortal, when raised, it will be immortal.” [1 C0r 15:14]
In venerating the Holy Scriptures, there is a tendency to treat everything there as of equal value, equal truth, equal significance, as if it were a series of recipes to be taken step by step in our path to salvation.
In church we may have an Old Testament lesson speaking of an angry punishing God, and then a New Testament reading speaking of a God of Love. Both are treated as of equal value. Such an attitude leads to contradictory attitudes and confusion, rather than to spiritual growth.
The Holy Scriptures consist of many books, letters and poems, written by different people at different times. Where there is something written there that is true, it will be true in itself, not because it is in the Scriptures. Do I believe the Bible? It is like asking whether I believe the books of the Library of Congress. I need a library, I need the Bible, but not all the library, and not all of the Bible.
Whether we admit it or not, without exception we appeal to passages in the Bible that confirm our point of view and ignore the rest. But if we are doing this, it will not be realistic to appeal to the Bible for self validation. In “fear and trembling”, in the presence of Spirit we have to decide what we can accept as truth.
As Michael Tymn says in his blog, psychic research can take us a long way in such deciding. It will help us accept that the spirit of Jesus could materialise, as described in the Gospels, that the materialised Jesus could be touched, that most of the resurrection stories narrated in the Gospels are credible. I do not know what to make of the story of the empty tomb. Maybe the body of Jesus dematerialised. Maybe someone took it away. But it makes no sense to imagine that this physical body “went up into Heaven.”
The death and resurrection of Jesus is central to the Christian faith, for it helps to demonstrate that as well as having physical bodies we are eternal spirits, and therefore “members of Christ, and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven”. (Anglican Book of Common Prayer) People say more than this about it, and not be wrong, but for me this is central.
HAPPY EASTER !
Church of the living Christ,
People of Easter faith –
Speak to the Man who walks –
From the dark gate of death!
——The Christ who burst the tomb apart
Comes questioning the Church’s heart.
No use old wineskins now,
New wine is here to stay,
No patching up old schemes –
New patches tear away
———Old gear, old concepts have no place
Where Christ’s presence sets the pace.
Women and men of God –
Come, as one church to serve,
Bring all the skills we have –
Sharpen our every nerve:
———-to save the world in bitter need
The rule of love must come indeed.
We are the Body now,
Our feet must mark the Way,
Our speech declare the Word
And live it day by day.
————the resurrection story ours,
Disciples gifted with new powers! [copyright Shirley Murray]
Michael Cocks edits the journal, The Ground of Faith.
Afterlife Teaching From Stephen the Martyr by Michael Cocks is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.
His forthcoming book, Into the Wider Dream: Synchronicity and the Fates will be published summer 2014 by White Crow Books.