“He is risen indeed!”
Sunday 21 April 2019
Every now and then, I read a book on scripture or theology and think to myself: “I wish I could somehow summarise what this author has said and share with as many people as I can.” The problem is that, part of the appeal of the book has often been the fact that the author has well-worked arguments and authorities to develop the new insights and it is impossible to present them in the concentrated form of a sermon and still do them justice.
The book that has placed me in this quandary is one entitled The Resurrection Effect and it was written by an Australian theologian, Anthony Kelly. While I realise that I cannot do justice to a summary of the work in a sermon, I do want to share with you some of the key insights that Kelly has brought to the understanding of this central event in the life of Jesus and the Church.
One of the basic premises of Kelly’s book is that our understanding of the pervasive influence of the Resurrection on all areas of Christian theology has been limited because as he states: “The resurrection of Jesus is, in effect, so embedded in Christian tradition as to have never required ‘definition’ in the way that mysteries of the incarnation and the trinity eventually needed to be defined.” In other words, because there were never any doctrinal disputes surrounding the notion of Jesus’ resurrection, the Church’s councils have never had to try to sort out a defined and agreed position. The resurrection just was, and needed no further defence or support by a major Church council like the definition of Jesus’ divinity and the trinitarian nature of God.
Consequently, Kelly argues that we have more or less taken the resurrection for granted and failed to acknowledge the way that, in Kelly’s word, it ‘saturates’ Christian faith.
I think that is a powerful image – saturation. We know what it is liked to get caught in a sudden downpour and to be entirely waterlogged as a consequence. It is as if we have been totally immersed in water. That is the all-encompassing effect of resurrection on our faith. As St Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Cor 15.17)
I would like to share with you just four of Kelly’s insights that you may find assist you to a better understanding of the pivotal role of the resurrection in the Christian faith.
Firstly, he suggests that the resurrection as experienced by the disciples was never anticipated. And, because the type of resurrection that Jesus experienced was never anticipated, it was most certainly not some made up idea. Kelly points out: “While the hopes of Israel looked forward to a resurrection of the just on the last day, no one was expecting the resurrection of this executed criminal on this particular Easter day. Something thought of as happening only at the end of time had been disconcertingly anticipated in what had occurred in Jesus of Nazareth (p 133)”.
In other words, none of the various strands of apocalyptic writing within Jewish culture had prepared the disciples for what they experienced. Their defeated composure immediately following Jesus’ execution witnesses to this fact as well. So even though Jesus predicted his resurrection to them, the disciples did not have a structure on which to hang the notion of individual resurrection, here and now. So their belief in a resurrected Jesus was not prompted simply by reflecting on some part of the scripture and what Jesus had predicted – because they would find no expectation there. No, their faith was the result of personal experience of the risen Jesus, pure and simple.
Another insight that Kelly develops is that the resurrection witnesses to the universal scope of God’s plan of salvation. He argues that “…a divine initiative beyond any mundane expectation or possibility has occurred” (p135). As a consequence, he argues that: “The original wonder of God’s raising the Crucified unsettles the closed system of the world with a new contingency: (P137)” And what is that new contingency? “…for God, all things are possible (p137).” God is not limited to the issues and concerns of the Jewish people only. God is able to do all and so the whole cosmos comes into God’s horizon. Jesus’ resurrection has consequences for all creation, not just for you or I individually. The resurrection is a cosmic event.
Thirdly, Kelly points out that, although the risen Jesus is not immediately recognised when he is seen by various disciples, he is ultimately recognisable as the human Jesus of Nazareth. He is not a ghost or some heavenly figure that is no longer related to the human Jesus of Nazareth. The followers of Jesus knew what was meant by a ghost. But they do not use ghost imagery to describe the risen Jesus. He eats and can be touched, his wounds are discernible. He is in some way corporeal, physical. So, while Jesus is plainly changed in some way so that he is not immediately recognised, he is ultimately recognisable as the human being Jesus of Nazareth. This provides us with the conviction then that Jesus of Nazareth, the prophet who was executed by brutal crucifixion outside Jerusalem, has in fact been vindicated by God – Jesus’ life and death has been viewed by God as the authentic life of obedience to God.
The fourth insight of Kelly’s that I would like to refer to is that Jesus’ resurrection appearances are characterised by his forgiveness. We should not forget the cowardice and failures of the disciples to remain with him in his Passion. And yet, the risen Jesus does not come to condemn them. Kelly writes: “He does not return as a judge to expose the betrayal and obtuseness of the disciples … he comes as the embodiment of a gift and a love without condition (p139)”. In John’s gospel, the risen Jesus specifically offers Simon Peter a threefold opportunity to repent for his three times’ denial of Jesus prior to his death on the cross. It is an encounter of deep forgiveness.
As I stated at the beginning, it is hard to do justice to the work of an author in a sermon-length presentation. But perhaps you might like to take one or other of these insights of Tony Kelly to deepen your understanding of the resurrection of Jesus this Easter.
Those insights are:
1) The resurrection of an individual in the present time was never anticipated in Jewish religion and the nature of the revelation of the risen Jesus to his disciples in not something that they could have anticipated or dreamed up on the basis of Old Testament expectation.
2) The fact of the resurrection means that, for God, all things are possible and his salvation is not something limited, but something which engages the whole cosmos.
3) While we don’t know in what way Jesus’ appearance had changed following resurrection, we do know that in the resurrection appearances, we are hearing of experiences with the same human being who was Jesus of Nazareth.
4) The risen Jesus appeared to his disciples with a message of forgiveness, not condemnation for their failures in the times prior to his death.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
Christ has risen. Alleluia! Alleluia!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Fr Allan Paulsen
Priest in Charge