A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
The Message of the Risen Christ
March 27, 2005
Easter Day John 20:1-18 Matt 28:1-10
Of Easter one thing is certain: What came up on Sunday was different from what went down on Friday.
My critics, the bodily-resurrection-brigade, miss the point. It's not that I believe or don't believe in a 'bodily' resurrection. Rather it's that the gospels themselves give us a mixed message about what was experienced. There is in the Bible this deliberate blend of real and unreal, recognizable and unrecognisable.
In the Gospel of John, for example, we have four appearance stories. In the first, Mary one of his closest friends doesn't recognize that it is Jesus until he speaks her name. Then he tells her not to touch him. In the second and third, this Jesus passes through locked doors and, contra Mary, invites Thomas to touch him. The last episode has Jesus, again unrecognisable, standing on the shore of Lake Galilee offering fishing tips to those in the boats. Then, as recognition dawns, he invites them to a barbeque on the beach.
Similarly in Luke's two appearance stories: On the Emmaus Road the two disciples don't recognize Jesus despite walking seven miles with him. After breaking bread and their eyes opening to him, Jesus does this spooky disappearing trick. Then, in the second story, Jesus appears to the eleven disciples, shows his scars, eats some fish, but also catches an invisible escalator into the clouds.
Each of these stories blends recognition and non-recognition, continuity and discontinuity with the past, and evidence that it really is Jesus and evidence that his body is far from real.
One of my favourite verses in all this comes from the second of Matthew's two appearance episodes. Matthew doesn't have any of the spooky passings through locked doors [like Luke and John]. He has Jesus appear to the two Mary's in his first episode, then to the Eleven on a Galilean mountain in the second. In verse 17 we read: "When they saw him [on the mountain] they worshipped him, but some of them doubted."
Think about it. This was the big Eleven about to receive the Great Commission of a holy mountain. Yet some of them doubted. Even there, on the pinnacle of their ordination, doubt walked hand-in-hand with faith.
What I don't like about the bodily-resurrection-brigade is the aura of certainty. I think the appearance stories point us to the truth that doubt and faith are not incompatible. In the face of mystery, in the face of God, we need to exercise a little humility. We don't really know what was going down or up or through.
I was asked recently for a "Progressive view of the Resurrection". It's not that Progressives en mass believe or don't believe things like the Virgin Birth, the Bodily Resurrection, the authority of the Bible… it's rather we prize the virtue of humility in the encounter with the mystery and magnificence of God. Without switching off our brains we say: "We don't know what's going on. Sounds a little weird. But then good things can sometimes be a little weird.' It's the material gang who have life and faith wrapped up and categorized, and who will wrap up and categorize us, which we need to be wary of.
By humility I mean an openness to the unknown and unexpected, and a willingness to suspend belief and disbelief. It is an attitude of engaging with a story, whether it really happened or not, in order to meet with the truth within it.
The appearance stories also address fear. Mark, the earliest account we have, doesn't have a Risen Jesus appearing [i.] but the angelic messenger terrifies the three women. Likewise in Matthew the women are fearful and the Risen Jesus begins by saying, "Do not be afraid." In Luke and John the appearances to the terrified eleven disciples begin with the same sentiment: "Peace be with you."
Fear causes a closing down. It's a shut doors, get the borders secure, approach to living. In John the shut doors are because the eleven are fearful of the religious authorities - with good reason! [ii.] It is not insignificant that the Risen One penetrated those walls, showing them their vulnerability, and challenging their closed mentality.
Fear can also cause immobility. There is a time to weep, a time to grieve, a time to go fishing, a time to come to terms with the past… but there is also a time to move. Fear can give rise to immobility and immobility can give rise to fear. Jesus spoke to this fear in the women by asking them to go, leave the tomb, tell the men, and risk being thought of as fools and liars. Jesus spoke to this fear in the men by getting alongside them, addressing their guilt, and giving them a job to do.
I think the opposite to fear is hospitality. Think about the actions of Jesus in the appearance stories. He made himself vulnerable - revealing who he was and showing his scars. Instead of encouraging his disciples to keep their heads down and preserve the pure message, he told them to leave their enclosures, and their country, their security, and go and share. Good news is only good news if it is shared. Love is only love if it's shared. Otherwise it stagnates and begins to smell.
Then there is food. On the lakeside [John] Jesus is the host, barbequing the fish. "Come and dine" [another of my favourite verses!]. He models fearless hospitality. At the Emmaus Hotel [Luke] Jesus again assumes the role of host and breaks the bread. Jesus was telling his community that the inclusive table fellowship that he enacted and proclaimed pre-Golgotha was to live on.
Hospitality is an attitude. It is about being open to the world and to all that the world brings, saint and sinner and every shade between. Hospitality is about ignoring the walls that divide and reaching out with a message of love and grace. It welcomes all, even those who disagree.
The opposite of certainty is humility. The opposite of fear is hospitality. This Easter I pray that these two hallmarks of faith: humility and hospitality - openness to the magnificence and mystery of God, and openness to one another, regardless of who or what we are - will continue to shape us and challenge us.
i. Please note that the verses from Mark 16:9ff are a later addition by another author.
ii. Note that John, in his usual anti-Semitic prose, calls them the Jews.