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Sunday, April 20, 2014

An Inaccessible Resurrection

The claim is sometimes made that the bible cannot be trusted, that the gospel stories of Jesus were just that – stories – stories created and told and retold and exaggerated and expanded by the leaders of the early church.  The claim is even sometimes made that the person –Jesus of Nazareth – never actually existed in history.  After all, we have no archaeological evidence that he existed, he left no writings, founded no school, never met with emperors or kings.   The allegation is that the early Christians created him from bits and pieces of the stories told about other legendary figures and their tales of heroic exploits.

These claims are not generally acknowledged by scholars. Even those who are critical of the Christian faith generally accept that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person – that he lived and preached and taught in the region of Galilee   - that he drew crowds of followers and disciples who followed him – that he was believed to have done strange and miraculous deeds (even those who may not believe that he did miracles, will concede that he was believed to have done them) – that he went to Jerusalem – where he was arrested – and executed by the Roman authorities.  But this is about as far as the historians can take us.   The tomb and the resurrection itself are not accessible to us.

During Good Friday services we often sing the old spiritual “Were You there when They Crucified My Lord?”  And, using our imaginations and the gospel accounts we can, in some sense, put ourselves there as they crucified our Lord, as they nailed him to the tree… and it causes us to tremble, tremble, tremble.  We can in our minds hear the groans and screams of the dying men, the wailing of the women, the jeers and taunts of the crowd.  We can feel the wind, and the descending cool as the darkness falls upon the land.  We can imagine the weight of his body as he is taken down from the cross and laid into the tomb.  But when they ask “Were you there when he rose up from the grave?” the answer has to be, “No.”

No one was there.  No one saw it.  There were no observers, no eyewitnesses.  And even the testimony of the gospels that we have of the events after the resurrection is not without contradiction and conflicted accounts.  Were there two women, or five, or more?  Were there soldiers or not?  Was there an angel or not? Were there two angels? 

And the resurrection event is not a repeatable event.  It cannot be recreated in a scientific laboratory.  Those stories of people who have died for a period of time, their hearts have stopped beating, but with skill and modern technology doctor have been able to bring them back from death – this is not a resurrection. This is a resuscitation.  Those who have brought back from death in this manner go back to the same sort of life they had before.  They still have the same body and they will eventually die again.

Resurrection is a different kind of event.  When Jesus came up from the tomb it was not a mere resuscitation.  He may have had the same body – marked with the nail prints in his hands and feet, and the spear gash in his side – but his body was changed. It was different.  He died once for death, and then no more.  Death would never again touch that body.   

So there is no historical evidence of the resurrection.  There is no eyewitness testimony.  And even the circumstantial evidence has its problems (contradictions and conflicting accounts…).  The resurrection cannot be repeated or recreated in a scientific laboratory or hospital operating room.  The resurrection is inaccessible to us. If someone were to say to us “prove that Jesus was resurrected on that Sunday morning!”  we will have to admit that we cannot.  It is like the hymn says of God, “in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.”

Yet this is not said to dismiss, denigrate, or discredit the resurrection of Jesus.  It is the central tenant of our faith. As the apostle Paul said, ‘if he wasn’t raised, then thing whole this is wasted air…’

The resurrection is inaccessible to us…except by faith.

And I believe it.  I receive it with great joy, and, like those who went to the tomb that morning, with some fear.  Fear – because we like certainty.  We want to be able to show cause.  We like Newtonian physics where cause and effect, motion and force, and direction and speed can be worked out with mathematical precision.  We would like to be able to do this with the resurrection.  It is, after all the central point of our faith!  But we cannot.  It exists as an event beyond the realm of space and time and scientific certainty. 

It’s not a song that I’ve ever really appreciated (honestly, I think it overly schmaltzy…) – it was one of those songs that the ‘old people’ of the church always wanted to sing.  But it captures something of this:

I serve a risen Savior
He’s in the world today.
I know that He is living,
Whatever men may say.
I see His hand of mercy;
I hear His voice of cheer;
And just the time I need Him
He’s always near.

He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives?
He lives within my heart.

I cannot prove it.  I cannot show it.  But I believe it, and I receive it with great joy (even if that joy is mixed with some doubt and fear.)  I can see how the resurrection event changed the lives of those disciples who followed.  I can see how the resurrection motivated the early church.  I can see how Christianity has been a force for good in the world (even as I, with fear and trembling, admit that Christianity has faltered and erred far too often…) 

I can know and trust and receive this resurrection of Jesus – and the resurrection that he gives to each of us, this new life, this new full life, this new and eternal life – but only by faith.  I cannot prove it.  I cannot show it.  We still get sick.  We still endure hardship.  We still die.   The resurrection of Jesus (and that promised to us in him) isn’t visible or accessible to our eyes.

But we can receive it by faith – and receive it with great joy.  He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!

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