In this final part of his series examining the meaning of the Resurrection through modern theological and scriptural scholarship Fr Brian Gleeson CP today draws the threads together to his conclusion. Is the Resurrection so much important today in knowing accurately what happened two millennia ago or "by the experience of his power in our lives which ... alone can convince us that Jesus lives and reigns"?
THE EASTER JESUS: THE CHRIST OF FAITH
It is significant that nowhere does Paul give a single detail concerning what those different witnesses, including Paul himself, actually saw or otherwise perceived. He gives no detailed description of the one who appeared to the different witnesses and no detailed description of the circumstances of the appearances. The appendix to Mark's gospel says explicitly that the risen Jesus appeared to two disciples 'in another form' [16:12]. Cleopas and his companion in Luke 24:16 and Mary Magdalene in Jn 20:14-16 fail to recognize him at first. Paul in 1 Cor 15:42-44 distinguishes between the 'physical body' sown in death and the 'spiritual body' raised from death, a body which Dermot Lane understands as being filled with the Spirit of God. It's no wonder that on the matter of the transformation of the body of Jesus that Hans Küng can claim:
To the question that people are constantly inclined to ask – how are we to imagine this wholly different life – the answer is simple – not at all! Here there is nothing to be depicted, imagined, and objectified. It would not be a wholly different life if we could illustrate it with concepts and ideas from our present life. Neither sight nor imagination can help us here, they can only mislead us. The reality of the resurrection itself is completely intangible and unimaginable.
The resurrection as an experience of Jesus as exalted Lord
In the biblical testimony, the resurrection is clearly something that happened to Jesus. It is God's action — God's raising him to new life, and God's vindication of his person, life, ministry, and death. Jesus now lives on the other side of space, time, and history; he is completely with God. His new life is a mystery that can neither be fully comprehended nor adequately explained. It is different from the resuscitation of the widow's son and of Lazarus in the gospels, both of whom returned to this life and had to face death again. Raymond Brown remarks: 'The life to which Jesus was restored through the resurrection is eternal life that he can now share with those who believe in him.'
The same person as before and yet different
Within the change to the body of Jesus there is the continuity of his bodily person. The living Christ of resurrection faith is the same person as the Jesus of history, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived, suffered and died on Planet Earth. Raymond Brown says that 'if the New Testament stresses that what was seen was a radically transformed Jesus, it was Jesus who was seen'. So the risen Jesus is the same person that he was and yet different. For one thing, he is no longer constrained by the conditions and limits of space and time. So John, for example, notes that when Jesus came and stood among the disciples on the evening of Easter Sunday, the doors were locked. [Jn 20:19]. He can come and go through locked doors.
The risen Jesus appears from glory
The basic testimonies do not imply that when Jesus left the tomb he loitered somewhere on the earth during the time he appeared to different chosen witnesses, e.g. over forty days. On the contrary! The NT implies time and time again that when the risen Christ appeared, he appeared from glory, i.e. from his presence with the Father.
The studies of Tom Wright, as a first-century biblical historian, of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus lead him to conclude: 'We had better learn to take seriously the witness of the entire early Church, that Jesus of Nazareth was raised bodily to a new sort of life, three days after his execution.' But it is hard to say exactly what the first disciples experienced when the risen Jesus 'appeared' to them. Rausch reaches this conclusion:
Neither a purely objective event nor a subjective experience on the part of the disciples, the resurrection is properly an eschatological event, an act of God on the other side of death and history. Thus it was a real event, an act of God on Jesus, raising him to life. If it cannot be demonstrated by the canons of historiography, its mark on history is evident in the witnesses, the story of the empty tomb, and the faith of the Church. The risen Jesus was disclosed to those who followed and loved him, who had opened their hearts to him. They experienced him as present with them in a new way and themselves as sent to proclaim God's new life and hope in him to others.
Paul and the evangelists emphasize that it was the same individual person whom the disciples dealt with after his death as they did before it. But they emphasize just as much that the resurrection means the risen Lord's outpouring of the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the gift which enables people to change their ways, the gift which leads them to become followers of Christ, the gift which sustains them as his friends and followers, and the gift which continually brings them to meetings with the risen Christ. In their compassionate and healing encounters with suffering people, in their reading and hearing of the scriptures, in their celebrations of the Eucharist and of the other sacraments and liturgies of the Church, and in their readiness to forgive all hurts, they keep encountering the risen One and they keep receiving from him the power to live and love as he did.
The significance of such meetings with the risen Christ has been beautifully summarized in a single sentence of James Mackey:
For we will not be made followers of Jesus – the sole purpose for which these documents [of Paul and the evangelists] were written – by any physical seeing or touching of the bodily Jesus on any road or in any room, but by the experience of his power in our lives which these writers so vividly described so long ago, and which alone can convince us that Jesus lives and reigns.
To say this implies that whenever we set out to speak meaningfully about the resurrection of Jesus, we must include those other NT ways of describing what happened to him: viz., his exaltation as Lord, his being seated at the right hand of the Father, and his breathing or sending of the Holy Spirit.
Two other significant conclusions follow from all that has been said about the resurrection. 'First, the resurrection represents God's vindication of Jesus. By his being raised from the dead, what Jesus said and did received God's ultimate sign of approval.' In the second place, 'Jews understood resurrection to be one of the central features of God's renewing of the cosmos. The raising of Jesus was thus viewed by his followers as a sign that the new age has broken into this present dark age, that the kingdom of God is finally appearing in full force.'
Brian Gleeson CP — This commentary was first published with the title of 'The Resurrection of Jesus and the Jesus Movement' in the Australasian Catholic Record (January 2009). Submitted to Catholica on 05 Nov 2011.
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©2003-11Dr Brian Gleeson CP