Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Or is belief in his physical resurrection childish and equivalent to belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus?
I suppose the answer to those questions depends on what you mean by “really.” Let’s look at what our tradition tells us.
Following Jesus’ death, his disciples gave up hope and went back to fishing and their other pre-Jesus pursuits. Then, according to the synoptic tradition, some women in the community reported an experience that came to be called Jesus’ “resurrection” (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16: 1-8; Lk. 24:1-11). That is, the rabbi from Nazareth was somehow experienced as alive and as more intensely present among them than he was before his crucifixion.
That women were the first witnesses to the resurrection seems certain. According to Jewish law, female testimony was without value. It therefore seems unlikely that Jesus’ followers, anxious to convince others of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, would have concocted a story dependent on women as primary witnesses. Ironically then, the story’s “incredible” origin itself lends credence to the authenticity of early belief in Jesus return to life in some way.
But what was the exact nature of the resurrection? Did it involve a resuscitated corpse? Or was it something more spiritual, psychic, metaphorical or visionary?
In Paul (the only 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience of resurrection is clearly visionary. Paul sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I Cor. 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because he shared the same resurrection experience as the companions of Jesus who were known by that name. This implies that the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than physical.
The earliest Gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women (!) who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus. In fact, Mark’s account actually ends without any narrations of resurrection appearances at all. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.) In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). This means that in Mark there are not only no resurrection appearances, but the resurrection itself goes unproclaimed. This makes one wonder: was Mark unacquainted with the appearance stories? Or did he simply not think them important enough to include?
Resurrection appearances finally make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. Always however there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance Matthew 28: 11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone was sure they did. In Luke 24: 13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.
Even in John’s gospel (published about 90) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (Jn. 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (Jn. 21: 4-8).
All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” It doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (Mt. 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (Mt. 18:20)? Do the resurrection stories reveal a Lord’s Supper phenomenon where Jesus’ early followers experienced his intense presence “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk. 24:30-32)?
Some would say that this “more spiritual” interpretation of the resurrection threatens to destroy faith.
However, doesn’t such perception of threat reveal a quasi-magical understanding of faith? Does it risk limiting faith to belief in a God who operates outside the laws of nature and performs extraordinary physical feats that amaze and mystify? Doesn’t it reduce the significance of resurrection belief to simply another “proof” of Jesus’ divinity?
But faith doesn’t seem to be principally about amazement, mystification and proof analogous to the scientific. It is about meaning.
And regardless of whether one believes in resurrection as resuscitation of a corpse or as a metaphor about the spiritual presence of God in communities serving the poor, the question must be answered, “What does resurrection mean?”
Surely it meant that Jesus’ original followers experienced a powerful continuity in their relationship Jesus even after his shameful execution. Their realm of experience had expanded. Both Jesus and his followers had entered broadened dimensions of time and space. They had crossed the threshold of another world where life was fuller and where physical and practical laws governing bodies and limiting spirits no longer applied. In other words, the resurrection was not originally about belief or dogma. It was about a realm of experience that had at the very least opened in the context of sharing bread – in an experience of worship and prayer.
Resurrection meant that another world is possible — in the here and now! Yes, that other world was entered through baptism. But baptism meant participation in a community (another realm) where all things were held in common, and where the laws of market and “normal” society did not apply (Acts 2:44-45).
In order to talk about that realm, Jesus’ followers told exciting stories of encounters with a revivified being who possessed a spiritual body, that was difficult to recognize, needed food and drink, suddenly appeared in their midst, and which just as quickly disappeared. This body could sometimes be touched (Jn. 20:27); at others touching was forbidden (Jn. 20:17).
Resurrection and Easter represent an invitation offered each of us to enter the realm opened by the risen Lord however we understand the word “risen.” We enter that realm through a deepened life of prayer, worship, community and sharing.
I for one feel a need to think together about practical responses to an Easter invitation understood in this way.