Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 23 May 2010: The Resurrection

23 May 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

In this series of sermons this month I have been asking what we can realistically believe about Jesus, and I must today examine that conviction central to the Christian Faith that Jesus’ death was not the end. All that he was and all that he stood for was not destroyed by his death, but somehow completed by it, and he now remains a powerful and fully alive force in the life of his followers today. That is at least part of what is meant by saying that we believe in the Resurrection.

But if that is what Resurrection faith might mean now in terms of how the Christian person lives, there is of course also an historical dimension to the issue; what actually happened to bring about that belief in the resurrection?

The apparent witness of the New Testament is that there were two things. First when the women, Mary Magdalene and others, and then later two of the disciples including Peter went to visit the tomb they found it empty. Secondly, that the Risen Christ appeared on a number of occasions to confirm that he had indeed conquered death. Seeing those two assertions as historically accurate has been the faith of most Christian people since the very earliest days, and among those who have written more recently on the resurrection the present Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, a former canon of this Abbey, asserts that it was only the combination of those two as actual historical facts that could account for the subsequent establishment and growth of the church.

But anyone who is at all familiar with recent scholarly literature about the resurrection will know there has been great debate amongst biblical scholars about both those dimensions. And the reasons for that are twofold.

First, and I think the church should be honest about this, there are those who are frankly sceptical about stories of bodies disappearing and the dead re-appearing. Obviously that does not apply to all Christians; many are clearly very willing to retain notions of the miraculous intervention by God into the details of history, but others, who have perhaps drunk more deeply from the well of the Enlightenment, at least retain a certain questioning approach about such matters.

But secondly, there are some genuine questions raised by a careful examination of the New Testament itself, questions which I have always believed the church should be open about and should not simply left to be talked about in some academic closet, and I shall try, briefly, to sketch some of those questions now.

Take, first, the tradition of the empty tomb. The earliest evidence of the resurrection comes not from the Gospels but from St Paul’s letters written before the Gospels were written, and particularly in what he wrote to the Corinthian Church, where, it seems, from what Paul says even then some questioned the resurrection. Paul says that Jesus died and was buried, and then gives a list of appearances by the Risen Christ to various people. But even though he is arguing for the resurrection he actually says nothing about the tomb being found empty. Now an argument from silence is always a difficult one, but some scholars, including Geoffrey Lampe, first Ely Professor and then Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge when I was there as an undergraduate and then later as a chaplain, think that silence so deafening that they conclude the tradition of the empty tomb was not something that Paul knew, and that it was probably a later invention by the early church. That historical scepticism is shared by other theologians and biblical scholars, including by the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung. Indeed some scholars even doubt whether the whole tradition of a particular identifiable tomb was historical, and that Jesus’ body may have been thrown into a common burial pit with other criminals. Other scholars would, of course, most strongly contest that. 

A most useful and balanced examination of the evidence is provided by Peter Carnley, until fairly recently Archbishop of Perth and Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia, in a book published in 1987 called The Structure of Resurrection Belief. He concludes there that the evidence is ambiguous, neither strong enough to assert nor to deny that the tomb was empty, a view which he restated in a series of essays on the Resurrection published in 1998. It is not just unbelieving sceptics who wonder about the historicity of the empty tomb, even faithful and serious Christians like Professor Lampe, Hans Kung and Archbishop Carnley think the matter is an open question, although of course other Christians, like the Bishop of Durham, disagree with their conclusions. It is not for me now to come down on one side or the other; I can only report that the debate is certainly there.

And that applies to the second element in the resurrection, the appearances. The earliest accounts of those are again from those letters of St Paul, but they simply say that Jesus appeared to various people, but they give no details of what that actually meant. And the list of the appearances given by St Paul does not easily fit with what is said in the various gospels.

When we turn to the gospels we find that each has a rather different account. The vast majority of biblical scholars believe the last chapter of the first gospel to be written, St Mark’s gospel, ends at verse 8, with the women fleeing from the tomb with trembling and astonishment, and with no original account of any resurrection appearance, the rest of that Chapter being a later addition.

Matthew and Luke have rather different pictures. Matthew has Jesus appear to the women while fleeing from the tomb and asking them to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, and then Jesus appears to the disciples on the mountain in Galilee. But in Matthew’s Gospel the accounts are very brief, only twenty verses in all.

Luke’s gospel has nothing about any appearance by Christ near the tomb, but according to Luke it was angels who gave the women the message that Jesus had risen. Luke then has the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and then the disciples recounting that Jesus had appeared to Peter, and then Jesus appearing to all the disciples and departing from them at Bethany, near Jerusalem, a story which Luke elaborates in the Acts of the Apostles with his account of the Ascension. And, in contrast to Matthew, Luke says nothing about any appearances in Galilee; in Luke’s Gospel all the appearances happen in or near Jerusalem.

It is only when we get to St John’s Gospel, which most but not all scholars believe was a later document, that we get the more detailed stories with which we are familiar; Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene by the tomb, then to most of the disciples in Jerusalem, then to Thomas a week later, and then, in the final chapter, various appearances in Galilee.

These very different accounts are problematic. If one believes, for example, that John’s stories are accurate, and that the appearance to St Thomas a week after the first Easter Sunday historically happened, there is the extraordinary problem that neither Matthew nor Luke mentions it. Why? Did they not know of it, or did they not think it important? Either explanation seems very remarkable, which is no doubt one of the reasons why a number of New Testament scholars doubt the historical accuracy as opposed to the theological value of that particular story.

And then, if one believes, as I think I do, that some sort of appearances must have happened, what sort of appearances were they?  Were they ones that would, if cameras existed at the time, have been caught on film, or were they appearances given only to those who had the eyes of faith? If the latter, as seems likely from the limited evidence we have, then in what sense can we say they were real objective appearances rather than subjective visions, like the visions that people do sometimes have of those who have died but who were very important for them?

Well, those are the sort of questions that lie behind the debates of New Testament scholars. But in the book by Archbishop Carnley that I mentioned earlier there is one other dimension, when he speaks of the experience of the Risen Christ in the later church. When today Christian men and women say that they believe in the resurrection of Christ they are not simply saying something about what happened 2000 years ago, an event or series of events that are inevitably unclear in the mists of history, they are also saying something about their experience today.  They are asserting that the memory and person of Jesus Christ is a profound influence on how they think, and believe and act in the world now. They are saying that the forgiveness and generosity of God is mediated through Jesus in a way that makes a difference to how they think and behave, and that experience of forgiveness and acceptance by God can and often does generate a similar practice self-giving love in his followers. There are, thank goodness, plenty of examples of that to be found in the recent history of the church, in people who lived lives of extraordinary courage and care for others even in the most demanding of circumstances. Just think of the twentieth century martyrs above the Great West Door here, and contemplate people like Dietrich Bonhoffer, or Maximilian Kolbe, or Archbishop Luwum; it was the influence of Jesus in them that made them the people they were, and the blood of the martyrs is still the seed of the church.

I have said before from this pulpit and make no apology for saying it again that I believe a route into that faith can be found in that story the Fourth Gospel tells of St Thomas; indeed it may have been the author’s real intention to provide it as a route. You will recall that Jesus says to Thomas ‘Put your finger here and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.’ And Thomas answered ‘My Lord and my God!’

We can make that story our own by simply gazing on a picture of the crucifixion or holding a crucifix and noting the wounds of Christ, and then reflecting on the nature of  that supreme act of self-sacrifice Jesus made, and then saying to that figure ‘My Lord and my God!’ And I believe if you do that, and mean it, you will then know what the resurrection is all about.

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