The Truth on the Other Side of the Resurrection

Easter Sunday
Acts 10:34-43
Colossians 3:1-4
John 20:1-18

Easter is a good time for doubt. It’s a time when people occasionally dare to ask the pointed questions: “Jesus was good and all, but – you don’t really think he rose from the dead, do you?” They want the truth – and rightly so.

So consider what it means to read the Gospels in terms of what is true. The passion narratives grip us, filled as they are with raw emotions and experiences. Like all good stories, they invite us in, and at the least we can probably admit that the emotions are likely to be true.

In my Roman Catholic tradition, we call this practice of putting ourselves into the story the “Ignatian Method” of reading – but I think that many Christians confronted by the pathos of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection put themselves there at the cross naturally.

So at last week’s Passion Sunday service, when I heard Peter denying Jesus before the cock crowed three times, I thought, “Yup, I probably would have denied him too.” In order to make myself look good (or so I thought) I’ve been Peter, told people I wasn’t really – not really – connected to whatever unpopular group that was bearing the brunt of criticisms in my own life.

I’ve been in Pilate’s shoes, too – confronted by questions I can’t answer, wanting proof that I’m never going to get. I’ve felt at the brink of regret for making a decision that I think isn’t great, but that is “just the way things are.” I’ve wondered, “What is truth?” and used that as an excuse for my regretted decisions.

I’ve been there with the women and the other disciples at the Cross, watching someone I love suffer or die and being helpless to stop the pain and the journey into the unknown that is death.

I even identify with Jesus in some ways. I’ve sometimes felt forsaken and wondered, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” has been my own cry, sometimes for paltry stuff, and sometimes for gut-wrenching stuff.

At the end of the story of Jesus’ death, I’ve been the women waiting outside the tomb, standing in disbelief that a person I love has died. “How can this be?” I’ve thought. I’ve felt the shock of the aftermath of death, not knowing what to do with myself, but wanting to be close to the one who has died.

Is it harder to enter into the story on the other side of the Resurrection? Probably yes.

The thing is, there’s a difficulty with the Resurrection right in the story itself. In great contrast to the story that has come before, we don’t ever actually hear about the resurrection. We don’t have any details at all about what happens in the tomb.

Our scientific age wants those details. We want to be able to parse out whether and how the atoms and molecules could have arranged themselves behind the cold stone. Our desire to know whether the resurrection “really happened” in history is also a demand to know how dead feet came alive and touched the floor. What did he say? Where did he go? What did he do?

One of the Christian creeds proclaims that Christ descended to the dead, or as some versions have it, descended into Hell after he died. Yet, even the creed doesn’t say anything about how he rose – it just proclaims that we believe he did.

This makes sense. No one else has experienced a resurrection. Even if we knew the details, we wouldn’t know anything. As theologian Rowan Williams remarks in his book Resurrection, “Holy Week may invite us to a certain identification with the crucified, Easter firmly takes away the familiar ‘fellow-sufferer.’”

If we only identified with the parts of the story we can confirm as part of our experience, we’d simply be saying we’re pretty much like Jesus. As Williams notes: “To stop with Good Friday is simply to see the crucified as reflecting back to me my own condition.” Without the resurrection – which we cannot verify on our own good sense or will – Good Friday becomes an occasion simply to see myself, my own suffering, my own doubts.

So we don’t get to see the resurrection. Instead, the point where we pick up the story is after the resurrection has already happened. As with the pre-resurrection stories, we might find we can assent to other disciples’ experiences and emotions. We experience the shock of the women who go to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body. We in the twenty-first century are acquainted with stories of morgues losing bodies or things not being where we expected them to be. We can also imagine ourselves running with Peter to see for ourselves whether the story we heard is true. Even today, we want to verify what others say, especially when it’s something as strange as, “His body’s not there! Could it possibly be?”

Yet there’s more. The fascinating thing about the Easter story is that we aren’t just asked to imagine ourselves into the scripture. This story isn’t just like a gripping murder mystery, where the dead body is Jesus’.

The difference is: God physically invites us into the story, to become one with God himself. God asks each of us, very deliberately, to become participants in this story – to receive the bread and wine at the Supper of the Risen Lord. In baptism, we become members of his Risen Body, now stretching throughout the time and space of 2000 years. We minister to Christ himself, by “doing to the least of these” what Jesus asked us to do: to share our food with the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and those in prison, to preach the year of God’s favor. We become part of the story itself, threading along 2000 years.

More remarkably, this is not my story alone, or yours, or your congregation’s. It even belongs to our enemies, to the people we don’t think much of, to the ones we don’t even know exist. They, too, have this call.

We won’t ever know the details of the resurrection. That appears to be for God alone. But we know the details of the other side of the resurrection. We even know there’s a place for me and you on that other side of the resurrection.
On this Easter Sunday, I think the question for us is: are we living on the other side of the resurrection?

2 Responses to “The Truth on the Other Side of the Resurrection”

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  1. Phil says:

    We can’t “become” one with God, because we already are God. Not in the sense of being separate and above everything, but rather in the sense of being one with everything.

    Catholic doctrine expresses this universal unity in a doctrine which teaches that God is ever present everywhere in all times and places. If God is everywhere always then nothing, including us, is, or can be, separate from God.

    Thus, what we humans suffer from is not separation from God, but the illusion of separation. All serious religions concern themselves with attempting to escape this fantasy of division which lies at the heart of the human condition.

    The resurrection is an engaging story which illustrates the method Christianity offers for transcending the illusion of separation, the act of love, the process of dying to be reborn. When we die to “me”, when we die to the fantasy of separation, the unity with God that has been there all along is revealed.

    You write that we want the truth. And thus we experience doubt as Jesus did on the cross. The solution to these challenges is not to search for proof of ancient stories told long ago, or to huddle fearfully in closed defensive little circles of the like minded faithful, but to look for the truth where it actually exists here, now, today.

    What the profound inaccuracy of the word “God” might teach us is that real truth can not be found in any human creation, due to the distorting filter of our minds. Authentic truth does not exist in stories, books, ideas, words, doctrines, church buildings, tradition, ceremony, clergy or anything else that arises from the human mind. All these things are merely symbols which point to the truth. As example, your name can never be the real you, no matter what name you choose.

    Fully understanding the relationship between symbols and reality will transform our relationship with theology, and shift our focus away from collecting ideas about God, and towards surrendering in to experience of God.

    Truth is the real world, that beyond all symbols. Truth is the single unified reality sometimes called God. The primary obstacle keeping us from experiencing the unity with God that already exists is “me”.

    Jesus died to human illusion and was reborn in to the Truth. We can do the same, today, now, any time we are willing to die to “me” and be reborn in God. It’s not the resurrection of Jesus that we should be concerned with, but our own resurrection, our own escape from the fantasy of separation.

  2. gary says:

    If we allow for all possibilities, the Christian supernatural (miracle) explanation is certainly possible. But why jump over all the much more probable, very possible, natural explanations for why the early Christians arrived at this belief such as this one:

    Jesus is crucified and buried in Arimathea’s tomb. Sometime between the placement of the body in the tomb late Friday afternoon and early Sunday morning, someone moves the body. The women come to the tomb and find it empty. They tell the disciples. The disciples believe that the tomb is empty because Jesus has risen from the dead, just as he had promised. One of the disciples, probably Simon Peter, has an hallucination. In it, Jesus appears to him in the flesh and tells him to spread the Gospel to the world. Peter tells the others. The entire group is overcome with joy bordering on hysteria. Soon other individuals are having vivid dreams, false sightings, and maybe even their own hallucinations of the risen Jesus. Groups of believers begin to claim seeing Jesus, similar to groups of people today claiming to see the Virgin Mary.

    Jesus’ brother James, at one time a skeptic, had converted prior to the crucifixion. He was therefore caught up in the hysteria regarding Peter’s hallucination as a believer. He subsequently had his own experience of “seeing” Jesus, similar to the disciples. Several years later, Paul had an experience in which he “saw” the dead Jesus and thereafter believed that he received numerous, private transmissions (revelations) directly from God. Paul suffered from a “thorn in the flesh”: mental illness.

    And the resurrection belief spread far and wide. The once timid, fearful disciples were emboldened by their “resurrection appearance” experiences and were willing to face terrible persecution and even death for their beliefs.

    Now, I know Christians will refuse to believe this is what happened. But I am not trying to prove that this is what happened. I am only trying to demonstrate that there are multiple plausible, naturalistic explanations for this ancient belief, and I believe that based on cumulative human experience, these explanations are much more probable than a never heard of before or since resurrection/reanimation of a dead corpse.

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