THE RESURRECTION REPORT: Why the Easter Story Is the Greatest News Event in History
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The Passion of Christ
It is specifically on the relationship between Scripture as revelatory text and the saving event of the Resurrection that I propose to reflect with you this evening. But it is much more challenging to try to fit that confession of faith into the experiential world of a twenty-first century person who encounters this mystery through a text that was written thousands of years ago in a world vastly different, culturally, religiously, and intellectually from our own. The question in the title of this lecture derives from my experience in ministry, namely, that many believing and practicing Christians who sincerely profess their faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus draw an imaginative blank when they try to put modern, scientifically credible flesh on these theological bones.
In other words, they live in the tension of realizing that what they can imagine cannot possibly be true namely, millions of resuscitated corpses dwelling somewhere outside our experience , and what they believe is true cannot be imagined namely, that Jesus is bodily risen from the dead. In what follows, I hope to offer some resources for reflecting on this problem for Christian faith, namely, the imaginative plausibility of bodily resurrection.
Our first question is about what we really believe; that is, what our faith in the Resurrection really means.
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Are we claiming that something really happened on Easter that is absolutely unique in human history and which is the key to our salvation, and, if so, what? What justifies that faith? Or did something unique, namely, bodily resurrection from the dead, happen to Jesus on the first Easter? I am going to invite you to go beyond the way some catechetical, homiletic, or even theological presentations of the Resurrection invite us to think.
We have been taught that truth consists in the correspondence of our mind to a freestanding, factual — that is, objective — reality, like a traffic accident, that is outside of us and independent of our opinions about it. Truth is recognition that something really exists, like a car, or really happened, like an accident. But certain kinds of truth, indeed the most important kinds, actually are products of our imagination, which constructs the truth-world in which we live and participate.
For example, we do know what it means to be in love in a different way than we know that a traffic accident occurred on the corner of Elm and Main. But being in love is every bit as real as an event, like a traffic accident. Some very real reality, such as beauty, what it means to be a family, our self-image, or a friendship, is available only to the holistic operations of the imagination.
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The Resurrection is this kind of reality. Approaching the Resurrection imaginatively is, on the one hand, not about fantasizing about the imaginary, nor , on the other hand, about establishing objective facts, like the details of a car crash. So, to our first set of questions: What do we really believe about the Resurrection, and why does Paul say that if the Resurrection did not happen, then Christianity is empty and we are still in our sins cf. First, as we all know, being a Christian is not primarily about morality, obedience to Church authority, acceptance of dogmas, or even our role in the transformation of the world.
All these things are important, but they derive from something more important. But the connection between love of God and love of neighbor, for the Christian, is Jesus. It is God the only Son…. In this brief synopsis of the heart of Christian faith, love of God, who is manifested in Jesus, and love of neighbor, who is Jesus present to us, you note that the verbs are in the present tense: Whoever sees me, sees God, and I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.
So we are not talking about a past historical event, a theological theory, or some kind of pious make-believe to motivate charity. The Christian is one who here and now sees Jesus, and relates to God and to his or her neighbor in Jesus. This Jesus is not a remembered person of the past but a real person living today. In other words, Christian faith is centered in Jesus who is here and now alive and who is a very specific human being.
However, because we know that Jesus of Nazareth died by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate in Palestine sometime around 30 CE and was buried in a tomb that was securely sealed, we can only talk about him as personally present to us and in us and among us here and now if he has overcome death and is now alive and present to us.
In short, the first thing we mean by our faith confession in the Resurrection is that, here and now, Jesus is personally alive. But the second thing concerns what we are not saying. The focus of our faith is not simply the ongoing influence or example , through memory, of someone who once lived, like Paul or Teresa of Avila.
Nor is our faith commitment simply to a great project initiated by Jesus in the past which continues today, like the Civil Rights Movement initiated by Martin Luther King, Jr. Nor is our faith simply membership in a community which gathers around the memory of Jesus , the way fans of Elvis Presley gather at Graceland.
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Although an ongoing historical influence, a great world-transforming project, and a faith community — that is, Christianity — is indeed rooted in the memory of Jesus, what we confess by Resurrection is not simply about the past that we remember and perpetuate in the present, but about the rootedness of this present reality in the Risen Jesus himself in his specific and personal identity who is now alive and now enlivening his community and its mission. It is not enough that Jesus once lived. The question is whether he is, himself, alive now.
There are at least three reasons why this fact that Jesus is bodily risen from the dead is significant. First, it means that a real, mortal human being, Jesus, passed through human death and emerged into new indestructible life as himself and now lives in the fullness of his humanity. We have no historical or theological analogues, that is, no similar or comparable events or realities that we can use to help us imagine or understand it.
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That is the reason Paul met with such incredulity among his Corinthian see 1 Cor. The Resurrection of Jesus inserted something absolutely new, unprecedented, and unique into human history. That is why it is both so important and so difficult to grasp. Second, not only did Jesus personally overcome death, but he assures us that we, who will all pass, as he did, through the portal of human mortality, will share in that victory. So, the second point is that the Resurrection of Jesus is the assurance and basis of our own bodily resurrection. In other words, our resurrection, like that of Jesus, is not the conclusion of an investigation or a reasoning process.
It is, strictly speaking, revelation. Third, the living Jesus is not only present and living in God, but he is present in his individual followers who are still living in time and space, in history.
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But Jesus is not only living in his individual disciples but among his followers, his community, now making them his real corporate presence in the world. We are now participating in his ongoing salvific work, not just by imitating him the way we might imitate St. Francis of Assisi, but, because we are his real bodily presence in the world. In summary, Resurrection faith is the conviction THAT Jesus is bodily risen from death and now lives in the full integrity of his humanity in God, in the world through his body which his disciples corporately are, and in each believer who, therefore, is and acts in persona Christi.
This is what Paul wanted his converts to realize, that the Resurrection of Jesus was the key to everything Christianity had to offer them. Of course, one perfectly reasonable answer is that we know it because the Church teaches it. But that is not our problem. The real question is not about whether it makes sense to accept what we are told by trustworthy authority, but how our faith, which claims that someone who was dead rose to new life and is now central to my life, can become experientially real to me and existentially meaningful. This is the legitimate question of honest people who want their faith to be, not necessarily apodictically proven, but to be, as John Henry Newman said, imaginatively plausible.
That is, they do not want to draw an imaginative blank when they think about the central reality of their faith. Hence such questions as: Was the tomb of Jesus really empty on Easter morning, and if so, does that prove anything about what happened to Jesus? What, if anything, did the first witnesses really see or hear or touch? Might they have been hallucinating or deceived by wishful thinking? I want to begin by subverting some assumptions that set us up for thinking in ways that necessarily rule out the kind of understanding of the Resurrection that I have just claimed is central to our faith.
At this point we are going to appeal to our text, the New Testament, as mediator of life-giving truth, but not in the way that a newspaper article accompanied by photos mediates the facts about a car crash. A great poem or a love letter can tell us more about the reality of love than any psychological treatise on the subject of emotions or printout of emotional responses to a love letter. Different kinds of texts work differently in our experience. Our textual sources of knowledge about the Resurrection are of two kinds. Then…to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time….
Then he appeared to James and all the apostles…. In both cases, note the historical statement: Jesus was put to death, followed immediately by something that cannot be known historically: God raised him up. The sentences sound like the same kind of language, namely, factual statements about publicly available events.
But they are not the same kind of language. These are not like the narratives of the Crucifixion, a public event that was observable by anyone, believer or not, who was on Calvary on Good Friday. Most people think the proclamations of the Resurrection were short forms or summaries of the narratives which are supposed to be factual accounts of the Resurrection event itself.
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But actually, this is not the case. The Resurrection Narratives are another form, a narrative form that is complementary to the witness of the proclamations. Whatever they are, the appearance narratives are not like traffic reports or even like history books. The narratives witness or testify in their own way to the reality, the meaning, the effects that the proclamations announce.
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We need to attend to how they can, should, and do function in our faith in the Resurrection; but, to begin with, they are not news reports of publicly observable events. Like the proclamations, but in a different literary form, they are witness to revelation.
The Resurrection Narratives, like the Infancy Narratives, are a completely different kind of literature, or a different genre of text, from the accounts of the public life, passion and death, and burial, which are intended to recount the historical life of Jesus of Nazareth as it could have been and was observed by anyone, believer or not, who was present in Palestine at the time. The Gospels are, of course, suffused with profound theological reflection on and interpretation of the significance of these events, but the events themselves are basically historical.
However we explain or interpret the miracles, for example, everyone who was present saw something happen, like a lame man beginning to walk. Some thought the miracles were fakery, others that they were the work of the devil, but everyone saw what happened.
They took place in time and space and according to the laws of cause and effect. This is not true of the Incarnation or the Resurrection. The Infancy Narratives which we have only in Matthew and Luke are not our concern here, but I mention them for purposes of comparison. We might say that the Infancy Narratives, which are history-like stories about the birth of Jesus, are to the mystery of the Incarnation, or the becoming human of the Son of God, what the history-like Easter Narratives are to the mystery of the Resurrection, or the Glorification of the Son of God.
Neither the Incarnation nor the Resurrection is a historical event like a car crash. They are absolutely real, just as my becoming a child of God by baptism is real. But, while my baptism is an observable historical event that took place in a particular place and time and was observed by a number of people, my becoming a child of God, which is what really happened, was not visible.
Underlying the Infancy Narratives is an historical fact: that Jesus was born.
Without that historical fact there would be no story to tell. They are written in a genre somewhat like what scholars call midrash. And like the Incarnation, the Resurrection is a transhistorical reality. At its heart is the event that Jesus, who really died on the cross, was experienced as alive in and among his disciples in an entirely new way.
Without this real experience of the disciples there would be no story to tell once Jesus was dead and buried. The Resurrection is a transhistorical event, something that can only be revealed, not the object of physical observation.