The risen Christ

March 22nd, 2016

God’s vindication of Jesus

The new film Risen imagines what the Roman authorities’ investigation of Jesus’ disappearance from the tomb might have looked like. The Roman officer Clavius is charged by Pontius Pilate with overseeing Jesus’ burial in the tomb. After his body disappears, Clavius must interrogate soldiers, Jesus’ followers, and others to find out what has happened. In the film, Pilate is worried about a potential uprising that could be provoked by the disappearance of the prophet’s body, especially since the emperor is soon to visit. The Jewish high priest Caiaphas affirms that “without a corpse to prove he’s dead, we have a potential Messiah.”

Professor L. Michael White, director of the Religious Studies Program at the University of Texas, says this of the reaction of Jesus’ followers to reports of his resurrection: “We don’t know exactly how it occurred but what we do know [is] that the followers of Jesus were absolutely convinced that he had been raised from the dead and had been taken away into heaven as a vindication of his messianic identity.” White identifies the Resurrection as what moves the disciples from considering Jesus as simply a prophet to believing he was the Son of God.

Wayne Meeks, professor of biblical studies at Yale University, points out that Jesus’ followers came to embrace Pilate’s sarcastic designation of Jesus as “King of the Jews.” Meeks says that it’s quite surprising that Jesus’ followers in effect began saying, “ ‘Hey, Pilate’s right — he was the King of the Jews, and moreover, God has vindicated this claim, that he is the King of the Jews, by raising him from the dead.” One of the first tasks of the earliest Christian community, Meeks says, was to explain how this was true. 

What does it mean to say, “Jesus Christ is risen”?

Belief in Christ’s resurrection is the central tenet of the Christian faith. Though various Christian denominations and believers may disagree on other matters of doctrine, there’s general agreement that Jesus was resurrected. However, within that agreement, there are differing beliefs about what the Resurrection looked like.

N. T. Wright, a retired Anglican bishop and leading New Testament scholar, is one of the most prolific writers asserting that Jesus’ physical body was raised from the dead. He says that while others will claim that ancient people didn’t understand the laws of nature and were therefore willing to accept Christ’s resurrection, such an assertion is “simply absurd … The ancients knew perfectly well that dead people didn’t rise. We didn’t need modern science to tell us that.” Wright says that the Greek word for “resurrection,” anastasis, was understood to mean “someone who is already well and truly dead coming back into a bodily life of some sort, and they knew that didn’t happen.” Wright asserts that the empty tomb and Jesus’ appearances to his followers caused the early church to believe in his bodily resurrection. He believes that the experience of Jesus’ bodily resurrection was unique in being able to demonstrate God’s triumph over evil.

Other Christians, such as Marcus Borg, a leading biblical scholar who taught at Oregon State University, believe that Jesus’ resurrection is best understood as a mystical or spiritual experience. Borg points out that in ancient times, mystical and spiritual experiences weren’t seen as “less real” than physical experiences, as we tend to understand them in our own time. He says that the texts that detail appearances of the risen Christ to his followers “are not about Jesus being restored to his previous life as a physical being. If such events happen, they are resuscitations. Resuscitated persons resume the finite physical life they had before, and will die again someday.”

John Dominic Crossan, emeritus professor of religious studies at DePaul University, says that the debate over what should be understood literally and what should be understood metaphorically about the Resurrection is a valid one. “But there is something else — the question of meaning.” Crossan believes that those who disagree over what mode the Resurrection took will find common ground on what Christ’s resurrection means for the world. “We are talking about,” Crossan says, “cosmic transformation from a world of injustice, impurity, and violence into a world of justice and peace and purity and holiness.”

What does resurrection mean for our world?

As Christians, we believe that God’s surprising and powerful act of resurrecting Jesus transforms our own lives and makes the world new.

New life

In the painful, public, shameful execution of Jesus, political and religious authorities thought they had ended the problem of Jesus and the movement that was springing up around him. After all, what’s more final than putting someone to death? Jesus’ rising shows not only that God has vindicated Jesus in the face of this shameful punishment, but also that God has conquered death. Scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 15:19–26 remind us that Jesus’ new life includes the promise of resurrection for “those who belong to Christ” (verse 23). We experience the promise of life beyond death, as well as the promise of new beginnings in our present life.

God’s redemption is for all people

Acts 10 details the encounter between Peter and the Gentile centurion Cornelius. Through a vision from God and his conversation with Cornelius, Peter comes to realize that “God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean” (verse 28). Peter goes on to say, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another” (verse 34). While equality of all people is something that we often talk about in our culture, racism, xenophobia, sexism, and disdain for the poor are ongoing realities. The belief that God’s love and redemption are truly intended for all people is one that can turn our world upside down when it’s put into practice.

Defeat of the powers of this world

Colossians 2:11-15 makes powerful connections between Christ’s resurrection, our own death and rebirth represented through baptism, and the “disarming” of the rulers and authorities of this world. On the surface, it may seem that these authorities are still in charge. Jesus’ rising from the dead signifies to us that he is the Lord we are to follow, rather than the false powers in our midst who would claim our loyalties.

God cares for creation

Professor Darrell Cosden points to Jesus’ bodily resurrection as an affirmation of the goodness of God’s creation. Jesus’ appearance in his body, a body that even eats, reminds us that we are more than spirits alone. The world in which we live, and our own material existence, are expressions of God’s glory.

Dr. Bruce Epperly says that “when we least expect it, resurrection happens to us — just as it unexpectedly happened to Mary — and later to those who deemed it an ‘idle tale.’ ” He writes that resurrection must first disorient us so that we can be reoriented to what God is doing in the world. As we allow resurrection to break through in our lives, we become part of the new thing that God is doing. We are transformed, and our world moves from despair to hope. Thanks be to God!

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