Saturday, 15 April 2017

Risen indeed?

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said…” Matthew 28:5-6

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” John 20:18

There was a report in the paper the other day saying that a quarter of Christians don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

If you are a Christian who accepts the historic teaching of the church you might find that statistic rather depressing. But I don’t think you need to. Apparently many of the people canvassed had described themselves as “Christians” even though they are not part of any church and don’t have any particular “religious” beliefs, the resurrection or anything else. To them, presumably, their Christianity was simply part of their birth-heritage.

Very likely they were born in Britain, christened as a baby, perhaps even sent to Sunday School. They reckon themselves to be reasonably good people, at least by human standards – honest, law-abiding, hard-working – and they do good to others when they can. Isn’t that what being a Christian means?

And if you were to say to them, “Well, in fact, er, no – that isn’t what being a Christian means!”, they might be quite offended.

But you only have to think for a moment to realise that there are plenty of people – Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, you name it – who are also decent, honest people living good lives. And they might be quite offended if you suggested that they were Christians!

It isn’t for us to rubbish such people, or the people in that survey – all respect to them for seeking to be good people. 

But the fact is that being a Christian hinges on the matter of belief. Christianity claims that certain things are historically true. And if a person doesn’t believe these claims, then they are not in fact Christians in any meaningful sense.

If you were to draw up a list of these truth-claims, right at the top would come belief in the resurrection. When the angel said to the women on that first Easter morning, “He is not here; he has risen!”, and when Mary Magdalene, breathless with excitement, told the disciples “I have seen the Lord!” they were speaking hard facts. Either you believe those facts or you don’t…

What a story it is! – this story of Jesus risen from the dead.

The scene is a garden. The sun is shortly to rise. The new morning is still quiet and dark. A group of Jesus’ female disciples come to pay their respects to his dead body.

But what do they find? The different Gospel accounts vary from one another in a way that it’s not easy to harmonise. (We shouldn’t let that bother us, by the way. If nothing else, it blows right out of the water any suggestion that the Gospel-writers got their heads together to concoct the story – if that were the case, well, they didn’t do a very good job!)

The basic facts are clear in each Gospel: the tomb was empty; angelic messengers told the women that Jesus had risen; and Mary Magdalene and the other women, followed by the male disciples, met him and worshipped him. (There’s more there, by the way, that scotches any idea of a conspiracy – you would need to be incredibly stupid to invent the detail that the risen Jesus was seen first by women, given that a woman’s testimony counted for nothing. That detail can only have been included because, well, that’s what actually happened, even if it amounted, you might say, to the Gospel-writers shooting themselves in the foot.)

Jesus was really dead – and is now really alive again.

Two things need to be said.

First, of course there can be no absolute proof that these accounts are true. But the evidence is solid, as various sceptics with lawyers’ minds have found when they have decided to investigate. They have discovered that it is extremely difficult to account for these stories in any other way than by accepting that they are true.

But second, mental assent (“OK, I accept that things must have happened pretty much as described”) is not enough to make you a Christian. Mary and the others met the risen Jesus. And so must we.

True, we cannot meet him in the same way – they touched him; they talked with him. But we can know him in a personal way: for every believer the Christian life begins with a meeting with the risen Christ. And it goes on like that, day by day, until the day comes when, as John puts it, “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Do we have this hope? If our answer is Yes, then let’s live every day in the light of it! If our answer is No, then let’s humbly seek until the truth becomes clear to us.

Christ is risen. Hallelujah!

Lord God, thank you for the death and the rising of your Son. Help me to understand these things not as just a comforting story or a theoretical possibility, but as hard truths which change my life and the whole history of our world. Amen.

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