Preached 4 May 2003 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
Acts 2:14-24, Luke 24:36-49
‘“Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.’
Well … if familiarity with them hasn’t dulled our sense of awe and wonder, those have to be some of the most amazing verses in the New Testament. But … are they true? Did it really happen? Last Sunday I was saying that the resurrection is the great FACT … the engine that pulls the carriages of FAITH while the guard’s van of FEELINGS follows on behind. But is the resurrection the great fact … or the great fable? That’s the question that started a great theological war of words in nineteenth century Europe. A war of words which then grew ever more intense during the twentieth century, and which is still being fought today.
The war is over this one simple question: Did Jesus really rise bodily from the dead after being crucified by the Romans on the first Good Friday? The creeds are clear that he did. And, since the very beginning of the church, the bodily resurrection of Jesus has been a central article of the Christian faith; but throughout the lives of most of us in this congregation, liberal theologians have been openly and unashamedly challenging the truth of it … on radio, on television, in newspapers. And what is almost as bad as their denying that the resurrection really happened is their insistence that it doesn’t really matter whether it happened or not … that all that matters is the message that Jesus proclaimed.
It was a German theolgian called Rudolf Bultmann who started it all … back in the early 1940s when he famously announced that the Resurrection was “not a historical event.” And since then, many have added their voices to his.
I’m sure many of you here remember the public outrage that David Jenkins provoked in 1984 when he publicly dismissed the idea of Jesus’s bodily resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones.” Later, you will recall, Jenkins was consecrated in York Minster as Bishop of Durham — the fourth highest office in the Church of England. And when, some days after the ceremony, a lightning bolt severely damaged the Minster, there were some who wondered half seriously whether God himself was weighing in on the other side of the argument.
But the lightening bolt didn’t stop Jenkins, and it hasn’t stopped others over the twenty years that have followed. Periodically, prominent churchmen say similar things, and every time they do ordinary Christians like ourselves are once again disturbed, puzzled and upset … and maybe even find our faith shaken more than we care to admit. Are we just being stupid to believe that the resurrection happened in the way that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John say it did, when all these incredibly intelligent and learned men say it didn’t? Are we kidding ourselves when we say on a Sunday, as we shall say again this morning, “on the third day he rose again …”? As recently as in yesterday’s Times, a correspondent wrote to say that the primary religious belief in the UK today is little more than atheism and the reason is that the central claim of Christianity … presumably the resurrection … is simply beyond belief. Well is it?
Let me tell you, for a start, that by no means all leading theologians, and senior churchmen think that it is at all beyond belief. Our previous Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, certainly had no doubts whatsoever about the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and neither I’m glad to say does our new Archbishop of Canterbury.
Though Rowan Williams has famously described himself as “a hairy leftie”who is far more liberal in his outlook than his predecessor, he takes the same traditional view as Dr Carey on this foundational article of the Christian faith. “I am completely committed to the bodily resurrection of Jesus,” he told an Australian interviewer, “and to the empty tomb.” Well, he couldn’t put it more clearly than that!
And even in Durham, belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus will be restored very shortly (if it hasn’t been so restored already) when one of today’s greatest theologians, Tom Wright, is consecrated in York Minster, in July, as the new bishop of Durham. Tom Wright has just produced a massive 817 page defence of the resurrection; confronting and defeating every doubt about what really happened on that first Easter day. I have it here — bought, by happy coincidence, with book tokens that my father-in-law Peter gave me before he went off to discover for himself the truth of all that this book sets out to say.
Now I cannot do justice to Tom Wright’s arguments in 10 minutes here in this pulpit — and I wouldn’t attempt to anyway as I’ve only just skimmed through the pages of his book. But I do feel that, given the Gospel reading set for today, this is a good opportunity to tackle head-on this question of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Of course, we may unquestioningly believe it, simply because we were taught to do so. But that is really not enough. St Peter tells us that we must “always be prepared to give the reason for the hope that we have,” and that includes our reasons for believing in the resurrection of Jesus.
And I should say right now that, however true it might be, a proper answer to the question: “Why do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus?” is not “Because I was talking to him this morning!” Whoever it was you were talking to in prayer this morning, it was not someone who was saying to you: “Look at my hands and my feet. Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have!” It was not someone who then asked to be allowed to join you in a bowl of cornflakes! No … the Jesus you met at breakfast does not have flesh and bones. You met him in the realm of the spirit. And as the theologian James Dunn puts it: “It is because you already believe that Jesus is alive from the dead that you recognise your experience in prayer as an encounter with Jesus.” That experience is in itself not evidence that “on the third day he rose again.”
So what objective evidence is there for the bodily resurrection of Jesus? Some would say, “very little,” and would point to the handful of documents we call the New Testament and say: “Look at them. Inconsistent, fanciful reports written by a biased bunch of fanatics. Evidence? Don’t make us laugh!”
That was the approach of Frank Morison in 1924. He set out to put the documentary evidence for the resurrection under the microscope and to prove it worthless. But he ended up a Christian, totally convinced that the Christian claim was true. He called his book “Who Moved the Stone” and if you doubt the documentary evidence for the resurrection, I commend that book to you. It is the most exciting and entirely convincing proof, on documentary grounds, that anyone could ever hope to read.
But I’m going to ignore that evidence completely this morning — powerful though it is — and look for evidence from a different quarter entirely. Instead of us asking Frank Morison’s question “Who moved the stone?” I want us to ask the question “What moved the disciples?” And one disciple in particular … the one who was proclaiming the resurrection loud and clear in our first lesson this morning … the disciple Peter.
The Gospels are painfully honest in their portrayal of Peter. The picture they give us is a “warts and all” picture — particularly when they come to the events of the night before Good Friday. Jesus had taken supper with his disciples and had then led them to the Mount of Olives. On the way he had warned them that their faith in Him was to be sorely tested and that before the night was out they would have abandoned Him and fled. “Never!” Peter had said. “The rest might, but not me. If you’re going to die, I’ll die with you.” But, as you all know, by dawn the following morning, Peter had three times denied that he even knew this Jesus who was on trial for his life. And the Gospels record that, after the third denial, as the cock crowed, Peter ‘went out and wept bitterly’.
Peter was a broken man. He was not at the cross on Good Friday. The news of Jesus’ death was brought to him, as he cowered in hiding and disgrace, by John and the women who were there. Yet turn now to those opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles from which our first lesson was taken, and see this same Peter, within weeks of the crucifixion, standing in the heart of Jerusalem. See him facing the same priests who had had Jesus executed, excitedly proclaiming at the top of his voice the good news of Jesus to the crowds who were milling around him. See him being thrown into gaol for his preaching, and then emerging from gaol only to carry on precisely where he’d left off!
What moved the disciples? What moved Peter out of hiding and onto his soap box? What moved Peter out of his darkness and grief and brokenness into light and joy and power and wholeness? Peter himself was in no doubt. ‘This Jesus whom you crucified,’ he bellowed, ‘God has raised up and of this we are witnesses’. You heard him in our first lesson. His conviction was unwavering. In the end he died for that conviction, on a cross like his Master’s, but upside down because to die upright, like Jesus, would, he felt, be too great an honour and too great an equality.
Now, to my mind, the behaviour of Peter and the other disciples in the weeks and months and years following the first Easter Sunday conclusively knocks on the head one theory that is advanced from time to time: namely, that the disciples removed Jesus’ body from the tomb and pretended he had risen. And let’s be in no doubt about one thing: the body had gone from the tomb. Peter was preaching that sermon we heard in our first lesson only a few hundred yards from it. If there had been a body there, his proclamation of the resurrection would have been exposed as so much nonsense within minutes. No, everyone to whom he spoke — priests, people, soldiers — knew the body had vanished. Where it had gone was an open (and much debated) question, but we can be absolutely sure that the disciples themselves had not removed it.
Why can we be sure of that? Because perpetuating a lie is OK so long as it doesn’t cost you anything. But can you believe for one moment that someone will allow himself to be beaten-up, imprisoned and ultimately crucified upside down in support of a lie that he himself has fabricated? No! Peter and the other disciples were convinced with every fibre of their beings that Jesus was risen. If there is one thing that is certain, it is that they did not remove the body from the tomb. And neither did the priests and neither did the Romans. Both groups were desperate, once Peter had begun to proclaim the resurrection, to quash the claim. But they could not. And they could not because, quite simply, they were not able to produce the body. The tomb was empty. The body had gone.
But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that it was the mere fact of the empty tomb that had shot Peter and the other disciples out of the wings and onto centre stage in Jerusalem. An empty tomb is not enough to account for that. And indeed their claim was not that the tomb was empty (though it was) but that Jesus was alive.
Peter’s claim was that Jesus, in living flesh and blood, had met him, touched him, talked to him and forgiven him for his denials. And, I submit, that that is the only thing that can account for his, and the other disciples’, behaviour after that first Easter Sunday morning. If you want to deny or even doubt the bodily resurrection of Jesus, you must somehow come up with an alternative explanation of what moved Peter. And nobody, but nobody, has been able to do that in any way that carries conviction.
Sometimes we see on our television screens pictures of molten lava from some volcanic eruption creeping down mountains, engulfing everything in its path. Looking at such mighty, unstoppable streams of lava, can we doubt for one moment the massive eruptions, hidden from sight beneath the earth, that brought them into being? And looking at the massive lava flow of the Christian faith, which, within weeks, claimed Jerusalem, then Judea, then Asia Minor, then Europe, and has since engulfed the whole world, can we likewise doubt the reality of the mighty resurrection of Jesus that lies behind it? Can that vast flow of faith have sprung from a fairy story or, to give it its proper name, a lie?
My answer is a definite “No!” I imagine that yours is too. Jesus was resurrected in bodily form and it is that same risen Jesus that you and I encounter here and now, today, in the realm of the spirit.
But our encounter with Jesus will not always be in the realm of the spirit. This is another great truth of which we need to remind ourselves … that Jesus is what St Paul calls “the firstfruits” of those who have died … That not only has he risen bodily from the grave, but that one day we will too. Many Christians today pay little heed to this and imagine that their immortal soul will simply “go to heaven” when they die and continue to exist only in some disembodied spiritual state. But that is not what the New Testament teaches. Not at all. It says that after death and after an undefined period in the presence of God, each individual who belongs to God will receive a resurrection body like that of Jesus. And I, for one, rejoice to take that teaching on board. I like matter. I like the created, physical world. I like bodies. I like flesh and blood and bones and eyes and teeth and hair. And I look forward very much to the day when I once again get some hair as part of my new, glorious, resurrection body, and when I walk in that new body, in perfect, glowing health, under a new heaven on a new earth.
And the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the guarantee that that is indeed what awaits us, if we belong to Christ. On this one, I’m in full agreement with another former bishop of Durham and Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey. Writing at the end of World War II, Ramsey stated that eternal life without a body would be “maimed and meaningless.” But, he went on, that is not what the New Testament promises. Instead it promises an eternal life of great richness because, like the risen life of Jesus, our eternal life will be a marvellous “blending of old and new.”
Want to know more? Please pick up one of these sheets from the back of church. It’s a wonderful new translation of 1 Corinthians 15. It’s all about the two resurrections — that of Jesus and that of you yourself. It’s exciting stuff, believe me. And it’s true. For on the third day Jesus rose again … and because he did, we will rise again too. Amen