Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!
Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!
– Charles Wesley (1707-1788), from “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” (1739)
At Easter we celebrate the most important set of events in human history. Insofar as we know, nothing else like it ever has happened, either before or since; and the significance of those events could not have been understood by anyone who witnessed them. Indeed, it is likely that even today we don’t yet know what it all really means! And the fact that a couple of centuries later a new religion created its own dogmas around that extraordinary set of events doesn’t make what happened any less the wondrous possession of ALL of humankind.
Two thousand years ago an element of the highest aspect of the Godhead was born in a human body as God on earth, both to study humanity and to teach us how to achieve the next stage of our spiritual development. To prove to iron-age primitives that death is an illusion, God in human form then allowed Himself to be publicly murdered so His body could lie in a tomb for two days before He re-animated it and rose from the dead. What an amazing story! And now we know that the miraculous events of that extraordinary life were indisputably REAL!
The fact that God chose to be naturally born and to live an entirely human life and death is important. We assume that God knows everything, but in fact my dear spirit guide, Thomas, has told me that once the more spiritually perfected members of the single consciousness that humanity shares cease to incarnate, they pretty quickly lose touch with what it’s like to be a human being. He tells me that Jesus came to us from the highest aspect of the Godhead in part so God could “look through His eyes” and better understand why we were finding it so hard to do what our earth-life is designed to do, which is to help us grow rapidly away from fear and hatred and toward ever more perfect love.
Last Easter we talked about the fact that based upon very extensive modern studies of the Shroud of Turin, the Resurrection of Jesus can be treated as an evidence-based historical event. And in fact, there also is a lot of evidence that Jesus really did live on earth. Astonishingly, there even is evidence that His death in 33 AD was brought about in part by a financial panic (of all things!). And we know now based on evidence that the Gospels are real historical documents, even if they were somewhat altered by later Christian councils. We are fortunate that an army of Christian researchers has been working for more than a century, seeking every possible confirmation that Jesus is a proven historical figure and the miraculous events of His life were real.
Anglican scholar and bishop N. T. Wright is one of those seeking to prove the reality of Jesus and His miracles. He has written a facts-dense and lengthy book called The Resurrection of the Son of God, where he makes a number of evidence-based claims. He specifically notes that the eyewitness accounts contain details large and small that strongly suggest that these were real events. For example:
* The idea of a murdered corpse dead for days suddenly reanimating on its own is found in no other religious tradition. Such an event is miraculous, true, but it’s also ghoulish and off-putting.
* The Gospel Resurrection accounts feel grounded in plausible facts. For example, the mentions of the discarded shroud and the face-cloth lying separately folded seem like genuine details that an eyewitness would have noticed and mentioned.
* Jesus’s body had been damaged by its death, decay, and subsequent reanimation. And damaged in ways that Iron Age people creating a story from whole cloth are unlikely to have considered or known how to describe. People who had been in frequent contact with Jesus didn’t even recognize Him at first, which suggests that two days of decay had altered the body’s appearance and perhaps had interfered with His ability to fully re-animate it. Interestingly, Jesus also seems to have considered His risen body to be so fragile that He asked that Mary not touch it. These are such gritty eyewitness details that even you or I would have been unlikely to have thought of them.
The execution of Jesus was an unexpected disaster for His followers. They had come to believe He was the Messiah, the Son of God, perhaps God on earth. They were so demoralized by the Lord’s death that they hurried to huddle behind closed doors, bereft now of all the excitement and hope that Jesus had inspired in them. He had just been executed as a criminal! And now perhaps they also were criminals? For me, the way so many of them were immediately and altogether transformed by His Resurrection may be the most important evidence of all that Jesus did rise from the dead. Once they saw and talked with the risen Lord, His disciples were infused with implacable zeal! They went from cowering in despair to fearlessly proclaiming what they had witnessed to all who would listen to them, and many of them were eventually martyred. These people were the source of all those Easter stories. And nothing can explain their sudden transformation beyond a certainty that they had witnessed an event so miraculous that it was worth all their lives.
There are other scholars, too, whose work provides further powerful evidence that the Resurrection was real. For example, Timothy Keller is a noted theologian. His brand-new book on the Resurrection of Jesus is called Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the meaning of Easter. One of Pastor Keller’s many insights is that when English translations of the Bible talk about “hope,” the word doesn’t do justice to the Greek word used in the New Testament, which is elpida. Keller tells us that a more precise translation would be “profound certainty.” This may seem like a little thing, but the New Testament contains many references to “hope in the Resurrection of the dead” and “hope in God.” If we read these passages as “profound certainty” in God and in the Resurrection, they are very different and much more positive claims!
I have mostly dismissed the Apostle Paul as a naïve first-century fabulist who never even knew Jesus. And clearly, Paul never had access to anything like the Lord’s whole story! But Thomas has made me see that Paul was Jesus’s very useful servant. Paul organized and inspired His earliest followers as they preserved His earthly life and teachings, and some of what Paul wrote was actually channeled by Spirit. Now Timothy Keller has helped me see that some of the stories told in Paul’s letters are actual contemporaneous accounts! He says of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 15, Verses 3-7:
One of the oldest theories is that the legends of Jesus’s resurrection developed only many decades after the actual events had faded from living memory. But the 1 Corinthians text is itself an important piece of evidence against that view. Verses 3–7 are now seen by most New Testament scholars as not an original Pauline composition but rather an early gospel summary used by the earliest church in its evangelism and instruction which Paul is citing. As he says in verse 3, these words were “received,” not created by him, and then “passed on” to others. Scholars also show that the vocabulary in these verses — “according to the Scriptures,” “on the third day,” “the Twelve” are not terms Paul uses elsewhere in his writings. So this was a gospel summary that was already in widespread use by Christians all around the Mediterranean world when Paul wrote. Since this letter to the Corinthians was written only fifteen or twenty years after Jesus’s death, the eminent biblical scholar James Dunn concludes that “we can be entirely confident” that this summary in 1 Corinthians 15:3–7 “was formulated . . . within months of Jesus’s death” (with thanks to Father Richard Rohr).
So there you have it. Two thousand years ago an aspect of the Godhead was born on earth as a human being and lived as one of us for thirty years while He studied the people around Him and came to better understand them. Then for a few years He publicly taught His flock how to overcome this world’s extreme negativity and use it to better grow spiritually. And finally, to prove to primitive people that human beings don’t really die, God in human form allowed Himself to be publicly tortured, murdered, wrapped in a shroud, and laid in a tomb. Two days later He re-animated His dead body with an extraordinary burst of energy, and He showed Himself to His disciples. The entire life of Jesus is a set of divine miracles unique in human history!
But there is no good evidence that Jesus meant to start a new religion. In fact, there is considerable evidence that He came to end our long dependence on our man-made religious beliefs and teach us to relate to God directly and entirely on our own. Jesus is in fact both God on earth and an adamantly non-religious figure. His amazing life is a timeless gift to all of humankind! And now, at long last, it is time for us to listen to the historical Jesus, and to seek to understand and then willingly defer to the Godhead’s wishes about what should come next….
Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!
– Charles Wesley (1707-1788), from “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” (1739)