It is rather easy, I think, in this day and age, to discount the resurrection of Jesus.
We know too much. We understand too much. Or at least we think we do.
Over the last week in NE Ohio, we have had some glorious thunderstorms. Thunder crashes, lightning flashes and the earth is deluged with the outpourings of the heavens.
I can imagine our early ancestors, faced with floods and hail and tornadoes, huddling in the back of their caves, only to emerge to offer sacrifice to the gods for whatever offenses brought forth their wrath.
Or possibly, once the storms stopped, offering sacrifices of thanksgiving for the generous rains that would refill their springs and yield abundant nourishment for them and their prey.
But we modern men and women – we understand how weather works. We know what causes thunder and lightning. We can predict our El Ninos and La Ninas. We don’t need a god to save us.
Or, at least, it is easy for us to think that we don’t.
As we accumulate more and more knowledge, we begin to think that all of those “miracles” of old can all be explained by science and psychology. Even if we don’t understand it completely yet, eventually we will.
Healings, it can be argued, are largely psychosomatic. We know about hysterical blindness and paralysis (now referred to as conversion disorders). There probably was nothing organically wrong in the first place. We know about placebo effects and that simply believing we are going to feel better often makes us feel better.
And we know that someone who has been dead for three days doesn’t suddenly become alive again. It simply does not happen – if they were really dead. And, if someone thought to be dead turns out to be alive after all, they most certainly cannot walk through walls or vanish into thin air.
Yet we modern folk know that often people see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe.
It is not so unusual for the bereaved to hallucinate visions of the deceased or feel their “presence”. It is all part of the grieving process and eventually passes.
In much the same way, the disciples probably thought they saw Jesus or felt His presence – but after a while, they didn’t anymore. Naturally, at first, they didn’t want to let go. But eventually they had to – He was gone.
No doubt they meant well in spreading the story of His resurrection. But it is just a story. A story about a good and loving man who had much wisdom to share – but it is naive (and rather silly) to believe that it is anything more.
Yet there are a puzzling number of modern-day believers who, every year, celebrate this resurrection story and proclaim it as Christ’s “victory”.
What kind of victory do they claim this to be?
In one of their hymns, they sing that Christ “trampled down death by death” (from the Paschal troparion). In one of their Scriptures, they allege that, through Christ, they are given “victory over sin and death” (from 1 Corinthians 15: 57).
But what sense does any of this make? People continue to die every day. And they continue to sin every day.
Death and sin surround us in abundance. They seem, sadly, rather unaffected by the “victory” claimed by those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus.
Believers may try to cover this embarrassing reality by stating that it is spiritual death that has been overcome, not death of the body. But one doesn’t have to look far to see that many in our world show no signs of life spiritually. Spiritual death does not seem to have disappeared either.
And then there is the claim that it will all be straightened out in the end. Jesus will come again and sort out the good from the bad, assigning both groups of people to what they have merited by their lives.
While an interesting claim, there is no proof whatsoever that this is going to occur. If Jesus was truly victorious, why didn’t He sort it all out during His first coming? Why wait?
So then they tell us we must have faith. But why must we?
Why believe in a victory that appears to be no victory at all?
It is surprising how alluring these arguments of the modern mind may feel, even to those of us who believe. They fit so comfortably with what we “know” to be true about the world, like a textbook we have read so many times that its facts seem obvious.
If you found yourself feeling uneasy as you read them, you are not alone. I actually made myself nervous.
I had to take a break to pray. I must always remember that I cannot do this alone. It is not just that I cannot write without God’s help; I cannot believe without God’s help.
I am weak. We are all weak.
At the same time, while certainly we should not look for trouble, neither should we be afraid to look the enemy in the face.
For the face we see may be that of a brother or sister who is in the grip of the evil one and does not know it. If we do not know what holds the other captive, how can we hope to set him free?
So, indeed, what kind of victory? What is it that we believe about the resurrection of Christ and why?
First, I think it important to concede that what we believe is, in a sense, “irrational”.
If God and all His Truth could be explained by human reason, He wouldn’t be much of a God at all. It is part of our ancestral sin of pride, the making ourselves out to be gods, that leads us to think that if we cannot explain it, it cannot be true.
While we may well understand it all at some point in the future, it will not be so as a result of our own efforts. His gift, to share in His life, will inevitably bring us to an entirely different level that we cannot yet comprehend. “At present I know partially; then I shall know fully…” (1 Corinthians, 13: 12).
Yet, to concede the “irrationality” of our beliefs is not at all the same as suggesting that we do not use our minds in our faith or that we are content to believe utter nonsense simply because it is appealing.
There is, in fact, very good reason to believe in the historicity of Christ’s resurrection.
The difficulty lies not in a lack of basis for belief but rather in the irrationality itself, i.e. that such an occurrence as “rising from the dead” falls completely outside of our personal human experience and ability to explain.
It would be so much easier to believe if I had seen it with my own eyes.
Short of that, we have the next best thing: ordinary people, no different from ourselves, who did indeed see it with their own eyes – and recorded what they saw.
Not only do these ordinary people tell us in the Scriptures that they were eyewitnesses, but many of them were killed because of their persistence in sharing with others the truth of what they had witnessed.
And in the sharing, they were so utterly convincing in their testimony that those they told were also willing to forfeit their lives rather than renounce what they had learned.
This is not the stuff of mere grief or hallucination.
This is something worth paying attention to…
But can we really believe that Jesus died the same human death that all people die and then rose from the dead?
It is in our Creed. And we claim to believe it.
But just what is it we are saying we believe? What does it mean to “rise from the dead”?
This is, I believe, one of those things that our human minds cannot fully comprehend – and thus, it is a mystery. We should not expect to fully understand it.
Yet we have been told some very important details, details that point to the meaning and reality of Jesus’ resurrection, even if meaning and reality on a higher plane than our intellects can wholly grasp.
Scripture accounts inform us that the rising of Jesus was not merely a spiritual event, but also a physical reality. In other words, He had a Body that people could see and touch. In His risen state, we know that He even asked for food. Was He hungry? We cannot know. But it is very likely that He asked in order to establish to His stunned followers that He was not a ghost or apparition.
It is also revealed to us in Scripture that Jesus’ risen Body was not identical to the human Body in which He had lived 33 years and which had been crucified. It was a new Body, one that was no longer limited by time, space and the laws of nature.
And yet Scripture simultaneously informs us that it was Jesus’ Body. The report that His Body bore the wounds from His crucifixion makes clear that it was His Body and no other.
How can this be? How can the Body of the risen Lord simultaneously be the same Body and a different Body?
This makes no sense in the realm of human logic. Up until this point in human history, the only known type of human body was an earthly body. While its workings were not (and still are not) fully understood, it was known to have certain stable properties.
Spirits or ghosts were (and still are) commonly cited phenomena. However, they have been depicted as spiritual beings not bound by the stable properties of earthly bodies. And it is precisely the absence of these bodies that has defined them as a different sort of being.
Hence, if true, the resurrection of Jesus introduces us to something altogether different from the earthly body: a spiritual or “glorified” body.
In so doing, it reveals to us to a New Life. The old life, the only one known until this time, could not accommodate the notion of the spiritual body that was encountered in the risen Christ.
And this is how St. Luke describes how the apostles were doing shortly after the coming of the Spirit – instructing people about the New Life (or simply “the Life”, in some translations).
They were not teaching the people about a new religion or a new church – but about a completely different Life, sometimes called “the Way”.
The apostles themselves did not have glorified bodies. But their lives in the Spirit were different; clearly they had been transformed. When following Jesus, we are told that they sometimes healed the sick and cast out demons.
But now they did so boldly, publicly and without hesitation – invoking the name of the risen Savior.
Even when repeatedly arrested for doing so, it seems as though these disciples could not stop. And they were not afraid to lose their earthly bodies to death in the process.
They knew there was more.
They knew that the hold death previously had on humanity had been trampled down.
The resurrection of Jesus was absolutely real to them.
Not only did it make them aware that there was a new Life, it revealed to them that this Life was now available to them and to all who would come to accept the Truth through them.
The teaching of this Truth thus became the single most important reality of their lives and they willingly, even gladly, suffered and died to carry out this mission.
And in their sufferings and deaths, they recognized bodily death as a mere transition – the Way to full union with the risen Christ who loved them and drew them into His Love.
Rather than fearing death, as man always has since the Fall, they longed for it. They longed to be with Christ.
It is now 2000+ years later and Christianity appears to have become another “religion”. Its adherents gather in churches and carry out specified rites and rituals. They celebrate their greatest festivals, Christmas and Easter, much like nonbelievers do.
They have split into numerous factions because they cannot agree with one another. Miracles are claimed occasionally but a certain number of them turn out to be hoaxes. And one does not have search far to find sin and hypocrisy among their membership.
What has happened to the New Life? Did it ever really exist? Or has it simply grown old and died?
If one attempts to answer these questions by watching or reading the news, it might be easy to conclude that there is no “New Life” or that it was a fad that fizzled out. We see people who call themselves Christians involved in all kinds of things that seem too much like the old life. We see a lot of sin.
Yet, we must bear in mind that it has never been claimed that the resurrection of Christ removed the enemy from our world.
Therefore, it should not surprise us to see that sin has infiltrated the ranks of the followers of the Way. The enemy did not discontinue his efforts because of the resurrection. Most likely, he intensified them.
But why did God permit the evil one to remain among us, challenging us – and sometimes overcoming us? And why Jesus didn’t sort out everything immediately after His resurrection?
Thus the question remains: if Christ was and is victorious, how is it that we on earth are still at war?
What kind of victory?
The answer to these questions lies, I believe, in revising all of our notions about victory.
The victory won by Christ was of a very different sort than what we are used to – completely different from when one team bests another in a contest, or when one country defeats another in battle.
The Lord Jesus triumphed by giving up Himself. He voluntarily allowed Himself to be demeaned and rejected, afflicted with torture and then executed.
Unlike the high priests under Mosaic law, Jesus did not offer an animal as sacrifice for Himself and the people. He had no need to offer sacrifice – for He never sinned, never cut Himself off from the Father, the source of all life.
Instead, He became the sacrifice, a sacrifice that was completely for other, seeking nothing for Himself.
His gift was one of perfect humility, perfect love.
The victories of this world requires that the other be defeated. To be a winner makes the other a loser.
The victory of Christ, in which the victor forfeits life so that the other may receive it, makes no sense to the world. It is not logical. Hence, it seems no victory at all.
But it is, in reality, the greatest victory imaginable.
The first sin, we are told, was one of pride – a pride so immense that these tiny created beings thought that they could make themselves gods. And that they could do so by being disobedient to the One Who created them.
The freedom given to the human creature became an opportunity for the evil one to twist and distort, to lure the human creature from the Way of love to a way of wilfulness and self-glorification.
This story would sound absurd to us – except that we surely recognize it at the core of our own sinfulness, as individuals and as a race.
The sacrifice of Christ completely turns this around. The most humble act, the most loving act conceivable was carried out, not just for one or a few others, but for all others.
So let us consider this: if we were to imagine that Christ’s resurrection had destroyed the devil and forcibly removed all evil from our world, how would this have changed His victory? Or similarly, if upon rising from the dead, Christ had immediately passed final judgment on all?
Well, it would have made it seem a lot more like a worldly victory, wouldn’t it? In other words, it would have made Jesus the winner and the devil, his followers and all enslaved to him the losers.
And this could not be – for the sacrifice of the Christ could not be for His own glorification or for the destruction of another and still be the same act: the most perfect, humble, loving act ever carried out by a human being.
But, having completely given Himself, with no expectation of personal gain, He could be glorified by the Father. He could receive the glorification given to Him – and He did.
Hence, in resurrection, Jesus is seen glorified – in His glorified Body, in the New Life.
He appeared – indeed, He revealed Himself – to those who believed, those whose hearts were ready to receive the truth about the New Life.
He did this not to prove His innocence or even to simply introduce them to the concept of a new life. Rather, He invited them (and us) to share in this Way – the Way of giving up oneself in complete humility and love for the other.
Thus, the Way not only enables believers to break free of the old way of sin and death, but it sends them on a mission to offer love and hope for all who remain under the grip of the evil one.
He does not want to lose a single one of us.
Yet He will never force us into the Way of Love – for it cannot be Love if it is not chosen.
Understanding better now “what kind of victory” is at the heart of the resurrection, we are still left searching for evidence of the New Life in our world.
We see so much sin and evil around us – and it seems to only grow worse. And, disturbingly, people calling themselves Christians are too often in the middle of it.
Again I ask, has the New Life grown old? Has it died?
Most certainly it has not.
However, to see it, my heart must be humble and my eyes open. Not because the New Life is so hard to find, but because otherwise I will not recognize it for what it is.
Just as the modern mind with its secular perspective concedes that Jesus was a wise and loving person, so it can dismiss those now in the world who, through the Spirit, follow the Way, carrying Christ in their hearts.
If my heart is not humble and my eyes are not open, I may fall into a similar way of thinking.
Someone like Mother Teresa might be viewed as a sort of hero of the times, an extraordinary person. But from this vantage point, the truth gets lost – the truth that she was not the extraordinary one but rather the risen Christ dwelling within her and through her.
To those who love Mother Teresa, this might seem like heresy, but she herself knew this to be true. And so she emptied herself, to allow His humility and love to dwell within her.
And there are many more like her. Some are well-known to us – St. Therese of Lisieux and St. (Padre) Pio in the western Church, and St. Paisios and St. Porphyrios in the eastern Church. Some may never be recognized beyond the handful of people who experienced the love of Christ through them.
But they are here. They exist in every walk of life and in every country of the world.
If I allow my heart to be humbled and my eyes to be opened, I will see them for who they are – not just “good” people, but embodiments of the risen Christ.
I will see them walking among the poor – but also among the rich. I will see them loving quietly and selflessly, not drawing attention to themselves.
I will see them embracing everyone, regardless of what they believe or whether they believe – even those whose lives appear to be entrenched in evil.
And my life will be enriched – no, saved – through my contact with them and the love that emanates from them.
In fact, it has already happened to me. Many, many times over.
Every time it happens, it humbles and empties me more, preparing in my heart a deep and holy dwelling place for the risen Christ.
I become nothing and His love becomes all.
With His Spirit guiding and sustaining me, I follow the Way.
Stumbling, falling, humbled, emptied, I am almost lost – again.
And He sends yet another to pull me up that I might begin again.
I follow the Way.
May it be so – for all of us.