Toorak Uniting Church

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If Christ has not been raised…

Isaiah 65: 17 – 25     Luke 24: 1 – 12     1 Corinthians 15: 12 – 15
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
11 April 2004

And if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ - whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.

Strong language this, from Paul, and right up the street of those who find it very important that, in the Church we adhere to a historical and literal interpretation of the resurrection story: If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and our faith has been in vain……. And right he is, would some of us say, feeling that the ever shifting sand of modern exegesis offered, for a moment at least, a firm spot to stand on. Others however might turn away with a sigh and say, like the famous biblical scholar Bultmann:
"What can’t happen never has.. "

Now, am I going to preach on the historicity of the resurrection story this morning? No, not really.
Simply because I think that even if we could determine exactly what happened on that Sunday morning, even if we could indisputably prove that the grave was empty, the stone rolled away, even if Jesus appeared here, this morning, in this Church in our midst and let us touch his hands and side (but that is another story), it would not really mean anything other than that things we hold to be impossible can in actual fact happen.
But would it make any difference to our faith??

It is pretty sure that something out of the ordinary happened between the crucifixion of a Jewish rabbi and twelve or more of his followers becoming convinced that his execution spelled a new beginning rather than a sad ending. So convinced that 2000 years later their message and conviction that God had not left Jesus in his grave but gave him a name above all other names still resounds around the world, changing millions upon millions of lives in the process.

It is pretty clear that the first to bear witness to this were women. People whose witness would not have stood up in court at the time. But that all the same their witness started a chain reaction that nobody has been able to stop until the present day.
Also, Jewish sources at the time do not seem to deny the tomb was empty. Instead they seem to be looking for an alternative to the resurrection to explain it. Which would suggest that it probably was empty.

The gospels seem to be in two minds about the physicality of the resurrection. On the one hand they tell us of an empty tomb and report about Jesus eating and drinking with his disciples, on the other hand they tell us that Jesus was, in a physical sense, different to what he was before. He seems to appear and disappear at will and does funny things like moving through closed doors. This clearly does not go with an actual ordinary bodily existence.

However, how important are these issues really? I would like to suggest that even if the resurrection of Jesus was a bodily, physical, historical event, it does not mean anything if that was all it was.

Think about it! What difference would it really make if we were to find 100% sure evidence of Jesus’ bodily resurrection? And what would we need as evidence before we believed?

Apparently it wasn’t the empty tomb that did it. Although the Jewish authorities knew it was empty, they did not believe a thing about the resurrection. The women, very willing to believe I am sure and probably as superstitious as can be, saw the stone rolled away and the grave empty but they didn’t believe to start with. And later on, when two men are on their way to Emmaus they manage to walk beside the resurrected Jesus for quite a while without recognizing him, even after they heard the story of the women.

So what was it that made them believe if it weren’t the physical, tangible signs of a body no longer held in a grave?

For Paul it was that very violent, life-changing encounter on the road to Damascus, where suddenly lightning struck and he knew with overpowering and undeniable certainty that he’d met the Christ he was persecuting.
For the women it is two figures clad in light that make them see the passion of Christ in a completely different way.
Not a sad end, but a new beginning.
For Peter it is the considering of the rolled up cloths, signs of an orderly and leisurely departure from the grave, that brings him to faith. (Mind you, he’ll need another couple of appearances, according to Luke, and a dose of living fire before he finds the courage and conviction to speak about it and share this mind boggling change of insight at Pentecost).
For those two in Emmaus it was the ritual of the breaking of the bread that suddenly released their inner eye and helped them see what they had not been able to see before…….

So for none of those early witnesses, eye witnesses if you like was the physical truth, were the physical facts if you like, decisive. The women were perplexed, but nowhere near faith when they are first confronted with the empty tomb. The men, who hear their story, think they are raving and deem their tales to be idle talk. The two disciples on their way to Emmaus do not come to faith through the encounter with Jesus, but gain a deeper understanding because of a gesture loaded with meaning.
And Paul? Those around him must have seen the same light, but nothing ever happened to them!
More than the physical or non physical shape that the resurrection may or may not have taken, the miracle is that people actually, after that, have found the courage to speak about it, were so deeply changed that they could not help themselves speaking about it, even though they could expect the same reaction the women got from the men: They are telling tales, so don’t pay attention, they are raving with grief……….

What then is the resurrection?

Perhaps it is a historical fact, perhaps not. I would love to get in a time machine and have a look for myself at what actually happened, but as far as my faith is concerned, the physicality of the there and then is not that important. What is important to me is what Paul says: "If Christ was not raised from the dead, there is no hope and our faith is in vain….."
My faith is in vain, and there is no hope, if I cannot believe that in Christ God reversed the implacable reality of death into the living truth of a new creation in Christ.
A belief founded on the witness of others. Others who from that first day of the week onwards have testified that they have encountered Christ in their lives, either in direct encounters, through enlightenment from above like the women, or a slow dawning and the calm considering of the signs like Peter. Or perhaps through ritual or sacrament like the men in the Emmaus story, or just through the lighting of a deep and decisive truth striking them with undeniable force like happened in Paul’s case.
And lived by it.
If the women had gone back, told their story and laid down their heads at the unbelief and derogatory remarks of the men, nothing much would have happened.
If Peter had not stood up on the day of Pentecost to give his testimony, still nothing would have happened. It would all have been long forgotten or at the most a side note in the books of history: One Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Romans and some of his followers believed him to be alive after three days….. Similar stories have been told about others at that time and after, but they did not change anything.

This story did. It changed the world. It changed and continues to change our lives. Somehow, someway we experience it in our own lives or we see it in the lives of others taking shape.. This is how we truly know that Christ is raised.

On that first day of the week the direction of the world changed and nothing was ever the same again. A new heaven and a new earth came into being where death has no longer the last and final say in everything. The first day of a new creation where we know that God’s love is stronger than any death or any disaster, any human failure and inclination to destroy what is good and of God. The first day of a Jerusalem where the sound of weeping is no longer heard, the first day of a creation where nobody dies before their time, where war will no longer ravage home and livelihood, and all people will be able to enjoy the work of their hands. That is what resurrection is about.

A new creation happening in the here and now, where people are touched and moved by the living reality of the life of Jesus, who lived a life of justice and peace, of mercy and love, and was obedient unto death, proving that even death will not stop God creating a new beginning. About He who was crucified with the lowest of the lowly but lives on through his Spirit in the lives of people who have been changed by him. People who have changed the direction of their lives and have started to live by hope and faith in a God that, in his mercy, holds the world in his hand and is at this very moment still busy resurrecting from the dead. A work He invites us to be part of. Giving us faith, insight and courage to make it happen in our lives. Offering us, like the women, the occasional angel to help us see, giving us like Peter, signs, here and there that show us what is happening, what has been happening, what will be happening, how death can turn into life. Revealing to us, like he did to Paul, light and truth that strikes us like lightning, or gently making himself known in the breaking of the bread like he did with those two in Emmaus.
Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2004


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