The Resurrection

           If we live long enough, each one of us will experience the regret of having been wrong about someone. It inevitably happens to us all. We reject someone for whatever reason that seems to us solid enough at the time only to discover later that we were totally wrong about that person. A thousand love songs have been written on this theme. A couple breaks up. The woman says to the man who rejected her, "One day you'll miss me." And sure enough, one day he does. But then it's too late; she's moved on. Or a man is sent to death row claiming his innocence, and then one day evidence turns up to prove he really was innocent. Sometimes we don't know the truth until some event opens our eyes and reveals the truth to us; suddenly we see things in a whole new light, and we see also that we were very wrong about somebody.

         The resurrection of Christ is like that. It is like a piece of evidence never before seen that unexpectedly comes to light and changes the verdict. Like a pure universal light that suddenly allows us to see everything clearly, the Resurrection reveals Him perfectly for who he really was all along: God made man (John 1-14). Subtract the Resurrection from the story of Jesus Christ and you have no Christ. All that remains is a man on a cross. Had His story ended with His being executed by the Romans for treason, that's all He ever would have been—just one more crucified victim in an era of brutal oppression that witnessed thousands of crucifixions. He would have been an itinerant preacher and wonder-worker who, for a short while, attracted a sizable following in Galilee before being put to death. Subtract the Resurrection from the story of Jesus's life and you still have an interesting story. How many people can say that they brought a dead person back to life one day by employing sheer will power alone? Jesus did it three times that we know of. That makes for an impressive biography. But if God had not raised Jesus from the dead, no one would have worshiped Him after He was laid in a tomb. No church would have evangelized the world with a message of redemption and forgiveness in His name. And no Gospels would have been written about Him. If God had not raised Him from the tomb, that's where He'd still be—resting in peace. And just like hundreds of millions of others who had dynamic personalities, impressive intellects, and amazing résumés, Jesus too would have been soon forgotten, swallowed up whole in ancient history by a tomb He could not escape.

       But the Resurrection changed everything about how history would remember Jesus. Because God raised Him body and soul from the tomb, the Church came into existence; the Gospels were written to tell His story, the world was evangelized in His name, and billions came to know Him and worship Him. They still do. One may object, "But wouldn't all of that have happened anyway? Jesus was such a uniquely charismatic person with such a compelling philosophy, wouldn't that have been enough to assure that the Church would have been born to carry on his teaching and cause history to remember him?" The answer to that question is, "No, it wouldn't have been nearly enough." Christ's death, under a curse no less, negated any possibility to the Jews of that day that he was the Messiah. Jerusalem that day saw his death as proof that he wasn't the Messiah, that he wasn't even a good man, that he had been what his enemies said he was," a demon." (Mt) That's what makes the resurrection of Jesus essential to the gospel. It's not just that a man came back from the dead. What makes the Resurrection significant is that by raising Jesus to new eternal life, God vindicated Him completely. Jesus died for the crime of saying in so many ways that He was Israel's God-appointed, God-anointed king (Jn.19.21), the Christ: a blasphemy to Jews, an act of treason to Romans.  He was given a chance to recant and save Himself, but He would not recant. He said He was a king with a kingdom but one transcending the political empires of this world, a kingdom of truth (Jn.18.36-37).  His executioners ridiculed Him by putting a (royal) purple robe on Him. Pressing a crown of thorns into the flesh of His already wounded head and bowing down before Him in mock homage, "Hail king of the Jews," they said, laughing at a man going to His death for a kingdom that as far as they could see existed only in His own delusional mind. They did not believe that this pitiful-looking peasant from Nazareth was a king. Who could blame them? Who knew then that the king would prove himself by being the perfect victim?  

        Had God not raised Him from the dead, that's how the story of Jesus would have ended. Had His tomb not been found empty and had He not appeared to many friends and foes alike, fully resurrected in a glorified body, no one today, outside of few historians of that period, would ever have heard of Him. But as it is, because of the Resurrection, millions regard Him not only as the true king and messiah of Israel but as the one whom they can confidently call "My Lord and my God!" (Jn.20.28). The Resurrection took Jesus out of the dust of the earth, out of the ancient past and put him squarely in the eternal present, forever alive, forever here and now. By raising Him from the dead, God revealed that He was who He claimed to be: the King of the Jews. He was innocent of the charges against Him. By raising Jesus from the dead, God revealed that they, the Jews who accused him of blasphemy and the Romans who executed him for treason, had killed the wrong man. The man they killed was, they believed, a magician, a false prophet, a demoniac, a pretender; anything but Israel's Messiah. The Resurrection burst into history like piece of evidence turning up late in a trial; evidence in this case that suddenly overturned the verdict against Jesus and revealed Him to be who he said he was: not a pretender cursed by God but the Son of God; not a demoniac but the righteous servant of God foreseen by Isaiah (Is.53.12); not a magician but a worker of real miracles, a man who could raise not only others but even Himself from the dead; not a lunatic but the Messiah, a man possessing the mind of God.

       What the scriptures said would happen happened: "The Lord God helps me, therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up" (Is.50.7-9). God used the Resurrection to totally vindicate Jesus and definitively reveal His true identity: "This Jesus God raised up and of that we are all witnesses... Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified" ( Acts 2.32; 36).

        The very prophecy that Christ said spoke of His suffering and death, the prophecy from Isaiah known as the "suffering servant" also spoke of His Resurrection and Ascension: "See my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high" (Is. 52.13). Similarly, Psalm 22, which foretold His crucifixion in gory detail, also spoke of the joy of His Resurrection: "From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me...he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted, he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him indeed shall all who sleep in the earth below; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity shall serve him and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it" (Ps. 22.21-31). The Easter Resurrection appearances of Christ to his disciples were the proof to them that indeed "he had done it; "he had fulfilled the scriptures. Because He was faithful to be the sacrificial victim for our sins that God required Him to be, God rewarded Him and vindicated Him by raising Him up in glory ( Is.53.10-12).

       When they asked for a sign, Jesus once told some scribes and Pharisees, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except for the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of man will be in the heart of the earth" (Mt.12.38-40). Jonah's miraculous  regurgitation after three nights in the whale/fish was metaphorical, but Christ's resurrection was not a metaphor. He did for real what the story of Jonah alluded to. "Therefore my heart is glad and my spirit rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you did not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit." (Ps.16.9-10). God raised up Jesus's body and soul from the tomb in glory. What God said he would do, he did. In other words, Christ's' death and Resurrection was not a random event. It all happened as God planned for it to happen; as God announced it would happen, "according to the scriptures."

       Most people for good reason find the Bible hard reading and much of its content difficult to understand. But there is a promise all who read the Bible can embrace, even if they cannot fully imagine how God intends to accomplish it. Writing of the resurrection that awaits us, Paul wrote, "He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself" (Phil. 3.21). Two souls hear that; the one looks at her bulging thighs, the other groans whenever he bends his knees, and together they want to shout to Our Maker, "Hurry, Lord! What are you waiting for? I could use the makeover now!" This would seem to be one issue on which there is unanimous agreement; at least no one I know over age forty would argue that we are all more or less humiliated by, disappointed in, or at odds (if not all-out war) with our bodies; continually embarrassed by and upset by the way we look. We almost all wish that we looked better in some way: slimmer or taller, shorter or more muscular, less pudgy or had more hair on our heads, or less hair on our backs. Everyone has a different complaint, but we all have a complaint to lodge. Our bodies that we can't live without give us problems, sometimes serious health concerns. Doctors can give us temporary relief and sometimes find a cure for what ails us, but the basic problem is the human body itself. It's not perfect. We all have physical complaints and discomforts either because our bodies don't look right to us or because some parts of them don't work as they should. We are receptive, therefore, to the promise that one day we will be fitted with a glorious new body, like a bespoke suit from a Saville Row tailor; only this new suit, this glorious body, will be finely crafted for us by the Creator himself, free of charge. It's guaranteed to be a perfect fit, free of aches and pains.

       This is one promise in the Bible that we all can agree would be great, if it's true. Here's good news: it is true. The bodily resurrection of Christ is evidence of its verity. But that raises another question and concern: If we all receive new and glorious bodies in the Resurrection, how will we recognize each other in heaven? I don't presume to have an answer to that query, no one does. We can rest assured that God will give us an ability to know each other. The many apparitions of the Virgin Mary are, among other things, a reassurance that we will be recognizable to each other in heaven, even though our new glorious bodies will be as unrelated in looks to our present composite of flesh and bone as a loaf of bread is to a seed of wheat. God's grace will bridge the difference between our mortal imperfections by which we are presently known to each other (Oh, you can't miss Fr. String. Look for the guy with a pot belly, crooked teeth and graying hair!) and our glorious new looks in heaven.

       But in a wonderfully ironic way, the fact that we can't be sure what we'll look like in heaven is in itself a piece of evidence that authenticates the Biblical witness to Christ's Resurrection. What I mean is this: When we listen to the accounts of those to whom Christ appeared during the forty days of Easter, their stories all differ significantly, but they agree on one thing—no one recognized Him immediately. Everyone was unsure at first who He was and even after they recognized Him, they were unable articulate exactly what they saw. Mary Magdalene was standing outside of His empty tomb on Sunday morning crying. She was upset that His body was missing. Then a man she presumed to be the gardener came over to her, and it was only when he called her by name, " Mary," that she recognized Him (Jn.20.11-18). Others when they saw Him thought that they were seeing ghost (Lk.24.37). The men on the road to Emmaus were with him for the better part of an afternoon. Even so, they only realized who He was when they began to pray together and He vanished from their sight (Lk.24.30-31). Thomas saw Him with wounds in his hands and side and immediately knew that he was in the presence of the One deserving to be addressed as, "My Lord and My God!"(Jn.20.28). Matthew said that when He appeared to them in Galilee that many believed but still "some doubted" (Mt.28.17). They simply could not believe what they were seeing. And that I think is powerful evidence for the historical reliability of the accounts of Jesus's Resurrection. 

       The eyewitness accounts of Jesus's Resurrection recorded in the Bible are similar to the eyewitness accounts of people who witnessed the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, Portugal, on October 13, 1917. It's estimated that about 70,000 people witnessed this miracle. Interviews with those who saw what happened that day are all similar, and yet they all agree that what they saw was indescribable. How do you put an encounter with the supernatural, a revelation of heaven into words? Honest people would say, "I know what I saw but it was so amazing I really couldn't believe what I was seeing. Even now I can hardly put it into words." The Resurrection appearance stories that have come down to us in the New Testament are like that. They are honest accounts by ordinary people who couldn't believe what they were seeing. Conspirators and hoaxers huddle together and agree on a storyline before they go public. They are careful and coordinated to all "sing off the same page." There is no hint of that in the New Testament accounts of Jesus's Resurrection. Each witness is allowed to tell his or her own story of seeing Jesus resurrected as it happened to him or her. The early church was not embarrassed by the differences in the accounts between those witnesses. Why not? Because they weren't conspirators. They were honest people who saw something no one had ever seen before or even imagined seeing. Which is exactly the point. The Resurrection of Christ is an event that happened, but it is a mystery far beyond our ability to fathom. We can be satisfied to know that God raised Jesus from the dead ( Jesus raised Himself from the dead and thereby revealed Himself to be, undeniably, God incarnate) and that He lives now with a glorious body, a body that is human and yet fully of the Spirit, able to transcend time and space. Try putting the experience of an encounter with a man like that into words. I would be suspicious of anyone who could. Christ's disciples couldn't do it. That is one reason—maybe the chief reason beside their willingness to commit their lives unto death for what they saw that day—that I find their testimony believable and compelling.