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Neuhoff Musings

Easter: More Than Jelly Beans and Bunnies

By Jim McGill, Peterson Professor of Applied Ministry, Neuhoff School of Ministry


Date published: April 12, 2020easter-cross

Christianity would not exist without the resurrection of Jesus.  It’s just that simple. The raising of Jesus from the dead, celebrated at Easter, is the most central and important belief held by Christians.

The New Testament addresses the resurrection in two principal ways: by preaching (“But now Christ has been raised from the dead,” I Cor. 15:20; “But God raised him up, having freed him from death,” Acts 2:24) and by narratives.  These narratives are found in the four Gospels and center around two events: the discovery of the empty tomb (“They found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, but when they went inside, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.” Luke 24:2), and the appearances of the risen Jesus to his disciples (“Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” John 20:19).  What are some of the surprising aspects of this Easter faith in the resurrection of Jesus?

  • It may seem puzzling to discover that the New Testament never describes the resurrection of Jesus – only its consequences.  The resurrection itself is not an event that could have been seen and described like the crucifixion. It is an event existing outside of time and space.  Yet because of it, Jesus is available to all times, all places and all peoples.
  • While Christians say that Jesus rises from the dead, the New Testament writers almost always say that God raised him from the dead.  The resurrection is the action of God not Jesus. In the resurrection, God vindicates the faithful life and obedient death of Jesus.
  • It is interesting that the first witnesses to the effects of the resurrection are women. One of whom, Mary Magdalene, is mentioned in all four Gospels.  Since the testimony of women was not highly valued in the ancient world, this emphasis on the role of women suggests their importance as true disciples of Jesus and their significance in the early Christian community.
  • Oddly enough, the accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus are not consistent in the four Gospels.  Does Jesus appear to his disciples in Jerusalem, or Galilee, or both? To whom does he appear and exactly when?  This lack of consistency is less damaging to the New Testament witness than might be first thought. If his followers concocted the stories of the resurrection, they almost certainly would have gotten their story straighter than what appears in the New Testament.
  • Surprisingly, in almost all of his appearances, the risen Jesus is difficult to recognize.  There are various ways that this dilemma gets resolved, but in the Gospels of Luke and John, the disciples realize the person appearing to them is Jesus by his wounds.  Until they see the wounds, all they perceive is a phantom or an hallucination that causes them to react with unbelief, hesitation and fear. But the wounds mark the person as the same Jesus they had known.  The resurrection transforms suffering and death into new life. Transformation is not magic, but rather a maturation into a new creation. Scars remain while life continues.

We cannot say precisely what the resurrection experience was for Jesus’ disciples.  The truth and the meaning of the resurrection must be a matter of faith not proof. However, it can be said that the New Testament has so many diverse traditions about the resurrection of Jesus that they do not appear to be the result of some grand conspiracy or some kind of mass hallucination or some desperate wishful thinking on the part of his disciples.

In the end it may be the existence of Christianity itself that allows us to see that, behind the preaching and stories of the resurrection, lies a genuine experience of God establishing something new.  Belief in the resurrection was not easy for the first disciples. They only gradually came to realize what had happened to Jesus and, just as importantly, what had happened to change them because of it.  In the risen Jesus, his disciples experienced forgiveness, acceptance, love and empowerment. And being thus changed, his disciples were emboldened to share this new reality with others. What had been unbelievable became the very core of their belief – and the belief of Christians down through the ages who continue to share this good news.

 

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