Easter: beyond facts and faith



e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service
      
 

Easter: beyond facts and faith

April 28, 2006    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011   
tparham@flumc.org     Orlando {0477}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at http://www.flumc.info/photo_gallery2.shtml.




An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**





In his second letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul urged him to rightly explain the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). The Greek word for “rightly explaining” literally means “cutting straight.”

Nowhere is the responsibility to correctly “slice” the truth more important than in proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
 
It is easy to misunderstand the resurrection because it is a unique event. The resurrection of Jesus is the only instance ever of an eschatological event occurring in history. This requires some explication.
 
The term “resurrection” originated in the tradition of the people of Israel as a promise of the God of justice to restore the dead to life. The first instance of a promise of resurrection occurred in the prophecy of Daniel: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). Until this prophecy, there was no hope of resurrection in the faith of Israel. Over time the “many” came to be understood as “all.” By the time of Jesus, the hope of the resurrection of all the dead was widespread among the Jews. The aristocratic party of the Sadducees was the notable exception of Jews who clung to the earlier form of faith that did not include a belief in the resurrection. In Matthew 22:23-33, some Sadducees debated the resurrection with Jesus who declared to them, “You are wrong.” While the idea of the resurrection was widely accepted by most Jews, it was understood as eschatological; that is, an event that would occur to all people in the ultimate future.
 
What happened on Easter is that the resurrection did occur — not in the ultimate future, but then and there; not for everyone, but for Jesus of Nazareth. Or, we might say, Jesus comes into history as the risen One from the ultimate future of the resurrection of the dead. Jesus’ resurrection is a sign that the general resurrection of the dead is more than a concept that arose in the development of Hebrew prophecy, but it is reality. While the general resurrection has not yet occurred, it happened to Jesus as “the first fruits of those who have died” (I Corinthians 15:20). Without his resurrection we would not know if Daniel was right and the Sadducees were wrong.
     
Yet, it is impossible for us to adequately comprehend the character of an “eschatological event in history” since there are no analogies to it in human experience. On the one hand, the resurrection of Jesus is eschatological: it belongs to the ultimate future, which is present to the eternal God. As such it is beyond ordinary means of empirical observation and verification. On the other hand, it occurs in history — or, its effects occur in history. As such, it shares in the characteristics of any other event that occurs and can be observed and verified on the basis of empirical evidence.
 
The uniqueness of Jesus’ resurrection as an “eschatological event in history” explains the complexity of the narratives in the Gospels. On the one hand, the reality of Jesus’ resurrection is known to his disciples by his “appearances” to them. His appearances demonstrate the risen Jesus is no longer bound by the present laws of physics. He appears suddenly behind locked doors (John 24:31) and vanishes suddenly before their eyes (Luke 24:31). These appearances have this character because they are disclosures of the One who comes to the disciples from the ultimate future beyond this life and death. Despite the unusual character of these appearances, they manifest the objective reality of Jesus’ presence with them. On the other hand, the reality of Jesus’ resurrection is demonstrated in the evidence of certain facts. The tomb of Jesus is empty, and the disciples of Jesus are transformed from a tense band of frightened and intimidated associates into a bold missionary community.
 
Some modern Protestant biblical scholars and theologians disparage the stories of the empty tomb as mere legends. Their attempts to debunk these stories are not very persuasive because the disciples announced in public “God raised him up,” in contrast to David whose tomb was still with them (Acts 2:24-32). It would have been easy to refute the disciples’ claim by showing Jesus’ corpse in the tomb. (The assertion of secular scholars like John Dominic Crossan that Jesus’ body could not be produced because it was dumped in a mass grave is only an assertion belied by the multiple attestations in Mark 15:46, Matthew 27:59, Luke 23:53 and John 19:38 that Jesus had been buried in a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea.) Besides, the most primitive tradition of the events about Jesus reported by Paul and dating from no more than 6 years after they occurred was that he who “was raised” had been “buried” (I Corinthians 15:3-7); therefore, the tomb in which Jesus was “buried” and from which he was “raised” would be empty.
 
The unique character of the resurrection of Jesus as an “eschatological event in history” requires that it be an objective reality that manifested itself in an utterly unique manner. Since it is eschatological, the appearances of the risen Jesus participate in the life of the resurrection that transcends the boundaries of existence in this world. Since it is also historical, there is evidence that something happened in the discovery of the empty tomb and the transformation of his disciples.
 
To know the resurrection of Jesus as good news from God to us requires faith: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). By faith we know Jesus as the risen Lord and share in the power of his resurrection. As indispensable as it is, the role of our faith must not be misconstrued. It is not our faith that makes the resurrection real; it is the resurrection that makes our faith real. As Karl Barth explained, the disciples were “not alone with their faith. It was established, awakened and created by God in this objective encounter” they had with the risen Lord in his appearances to them.
 
Easter is more than facts or even faith although it would be meaningless without either of them. While Easter is supported by facts and requires faith, first of all it is the action of the God of Israel of raising Jesus of Nazareth from the dead as the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of the world as the sign of good news for all of us.

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This article relates to Easter/Resurrection.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.




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