A few years ago there was a popular game of Bug the Bishop. Every Easter at least one newspaper would publish a shock story about a bishop who didn’t believe in the Resurrection. They don’t do it much now, because nobody cares what bishops think.
The catch was: if the bishops didn’t believe Jesus rose from the dead they were betraying their duty as church leaders. But if they did believe it they would be out of touch with reality.
This is dogma at its most trivial. We expect church leaders to believe what we don’t believe. The Resurrection has become a badge of identity, like a football mascot. I am a Christian so I believe it. If you don’t believe it, you can’t be a Christian. You are an outsider. So we build walls against each other. The New Testament knows nothing about this trivialisation.
What happened? The two extreme positions are difficult to explain. At one extreme, nothing happened at all. Some people might have mistakenly thought they saw Jesus, but otherwise the stories were just made up. The people who believe this are often motivated by the belief that science can explain everything. It can’t. If nothing happened at all, it’s difficult to explain why so many people were so convinced.
At the other extreme, the risen Jesus had a real physical body, and went around for a few weeks behaving as though he had never died. The people who believe this are often motivated by the conviction that everything in the Bible is accurate history. If this was true, what happened to Jesus would be so different from the kinds of things that happen today, that we wouldn’t know what to make of it. It would mean whatever happened to Jesus was completely irrelevant to life as we know it.
So what does the New Testament say happened? It doesn’t give a single account, let alone a consistent one. Five different authors describe it, each in their own unique way.
The first was Paul. Paul said Jesus was the first person to be raised from the dead. Everybody else was going to be raised too, but later.
The second was Mark. Mark tells us the women found the tomb empty. A young man told them Jesus had been raised, and if they went to Galilee they would see him. That’s all.
The third author was Matthew. Matthew tells us the disciples duly went to Galilee and saw the risen Jesus, though some doubted. Jesus told them to go to all the nations and make disciples.
The fourth and fifth were Luke and John. They give us a lot more stories, and this is when we get physical. Jesus ate a piece of fish, so he couldn’t have been a ghost.
John also tells us about doubting Thomas. The first time Jesus appeared to the disciples Thomas wasn’t there. When he heard the news he didn’t believe it. I wouldn’t have either. So Jesus appeared another time, a week later, and invited Thomas to touch his body.
This leaves us with two questions: how do we explain these very different stories, and what can we honestly believe today, if we care about truth?
Luke and John give a lot more detail than the earlier ones. If everything Luke and John describe happened a few days after Jesus was crucified, why did Paul and Mark leave nearly all of it all out? Why did they tell us so little?
Most likely, stories went round by word of mouth, and over time they got embellished. I don’t believe the risen Jesus ate that fish, but there are reasons why people might have thought he did.
This is how I make sense of it. I have conducted a good few funerals in my time. Sometimes, when I went to visit the widow a few days later, she said something like this.
‘Yesterday I saw him, sitting in his armchair, just like he used to do.’
You may have had an experience like this. Or you may know somebody who has.
I’m guessing that the resurrection of Jesus was a bit like that, but on a much bigger scale.
Some people dismiss it as a mere trick of the mind. People who dismiss it often believe that science can explain everything that really happens, so if science can’t explain it it didn’t happen.
The trouble with that is: 99 percent of what happens in our lives cannot be explained by science. Everything we think, everything we experience, comes to us through tricks of the mind which science is yet to explain.
Unusual experiences we can’t explain are often mistakes, but sometimes there are good reasons for believing our minds have been opened up to realities that are normally closed to us.
My suggestion is based on what biblical scholars tell us about Jesus. He spent his life caring for people at the bottom of the pile: beggars and outcasts. He taught them that they were just as close to the Kingdom of God as anyone else, and he brought them healing and food. The food was the beginning of our Communion services. He persuaded people who were starving to get together in groups so that whenever one of them had something to eat, they would share it with the others. He persuaded them to do it in the name of God’s justice, because God has provided enough food for everyone to have a full stomach. When people went without, it was because others unjustly took more than their share.
So at those meals, Jesus would thank God for the gift of food, break the bread and share it with everyone present in the name of God’s justice. It didn’t have to be Jesus who broke the bread. Different groups will have had different hosts. But Jesus had started the movement up. He was the central character. I imagine that some hosts, as they broke the bread and gave thanks in the name of God’s justice, might have said something like ‘I’m doing this on behalf of Jesus’.
Those meals must have been really important to those starving people. For all we know they may have saved many of them from dying of starvation.
The Romans rightly saw that his movement had potential. They didn’t want that, so they killed him.
What next? One of Luke’s stories is of a couple of disciples walking to the village of Emmaus. They got talking to a stranger. As they reached Emmaus they invited him to stay the night with them. This is how Luke describes it:
So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talkng to us on the road?’
My guess is that this kind of thing happened over and over again. After the death of Jesus those groups of people carried on having these meals. They thanked God for food and shared it in the name of God’s justice. But from then on they added one thing. They were also doing it in the name of Jesus.
Those meals must have been really powerful emotional and spiritual experiences. When they ate at other times, it was either because they were lucky enough to be given a job for the day, at rock bottom wages, by some profit-seeking landlord making money out of their labour, or because as they sat on the roadside begging, some affluent person charitably threw them a coin. But when they ate in the Jesus system, they didn’t have to grovel to anyone. They ate proudly, in the name of God’s justice, reminding each other that God had provided food for them as much as for anyone else.
My guess is that many times, at that emotionally and spiritually charged moment when they watched their host breaking the bread and giving thanks, whoever the host was, the person they saw was Jesus.
This is only my personal guess. You may not like it. You may think I’m reducing the Resurrection to a trick of the mind. I think it was God’s way of telling them that Jesus was right. Jesus was still with them.
What I am denying, quite deliberately, is that the Resurrection was an event so completely unlike any other, that we can safely classify it as a miracle, leave it in a fairytale past age and ignore it. I believe what happened then shows us what can happen to us today.
It’s up to you what you believe. You may prefer to believe nothing unusual happened and the stories were all made up. You may prefer to believe everything recorded in the Bible must have happened as described. You may think you don’t know and you don’t care. My own view in between, my way of explaining those New Testament texts, and what the Resurrection has to say to us today.