Witnesses of Jesus’ Resurrection


The theme of ‘witnesses’ – people who’ve experienced something – speaks to something that is really distinctive to the Christian faith. Christianity is not a philosophy – though it can incorporate philosophy; it’s not primarily a mysticism – though it can incorporate mysticism; it’s not a religion that comes welling up out of natural experience – though it can accommodate that. Christianity is about something that happened; and there were witnesses of it. Without that, Christianity falls apart.

Pope Benedict XVI said something similar: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (Deus Caritas Est)

What distinguishes the gospels from any other form of religious literature – whether it’s Sufi poets or Buddhist sages or Confucian philosophers – is that the gospels are grabbing you by the lapels and telling you something happened. The other religions might talk about ethical principles and mystical intuitions and deep philosophical ideas – all of which are fine. But there’s something musing, reflective, abstract and ideological about them. Then there is the gospel. The word ‘gospel’ itself, is the Old English translation of Greek ‘euangélion’, meaning “good news”.

Something happened! And there were witnesses to it. And they were so overwhelmed by what they saw, that they wanted to grab everybody by the lapels, and tell them about it. That’s Christianity.
Now, what happened? Jesus happened! Yeshua – this first century Jew; they saw and heard his teaching and his preaching; they saw his healing; above all, they saw him die. And then they saw him risen from the dead.

Let’s consider that they saw him die. That was very important for the ancient Romans, who knew how to put people to death. They were experts at it. And it was very important for them that a crucifixion be public. It was meant as a deterrent. And that’s why Jesus is crucified right outside the walls of Jerusalem. The place – Calvary or Golgotha – where he was crucified, simply means ‘skull’. It’s like a little rise in the ground near a quarry – they think it was a sort of garbage dump. But the idea was to crucify him right by the city gates, so anyone coming and going would see him.

Can you imagine what it was like for the first followers of Jesus? Especially his disciples – to see him die? How devastating it must have been.

Here’s one account found in the Bible – in the gospel according to Luke (chapter 25, verses 13-35). We hear of two of Jesus’ followers travelling out of Jerusalem toward a place called Emmaus, on the Sunday after his crucifixion. And as they speak about this event, you can hear an echo of the thoughts and feeling of his disciples.
Here’s a paraphrase: ‘We thought he was the one who was to rule in Israel…but obviously he was not the one. He claimed to speak and act in the very person of God – the Messiah of Israel, the Anointed one, the great Davidic warrior. That’s who we thought he was. And then we saw him die in this horrific way. He didn’t die in his bed you know – from a long illness. He was brutally put to death by the Romans.’

They’re sad, they’re confused, they’re utterly devastated. But then they encountered the risen Jesus, who walked with them, talked with them and even sat down to eat with them. These first witnesses saw Jesus, who had risen from the dead.

In my last post, I mentioned how Graham Greene, the 20th century novelist said that one of the things that led him to accept Christian faith, was the account in John’s Gospel of the two disciples – Peter and John – running to the tomb. We read of how John outran Peter and got there first; but then waited for Peter. And Graham Greene noted how that was such a weird thing to put into a story, unless it was vividly remembered. The peculiarity of that moment when these witnesses came and first saw the empty tomb. And we read the detail in the gospel of John – of the burial cloths and the head covering rolled up by itself on the side. If you’re just telling a mythic story, why would you include a detail like that? Unless it actually happened and was vividly remembered.

One of the great clues to the reality of the Resurrection, is found in the text of the Book of Acts in the Bible – which tells the story of the early church in the first days after the Resurrection. You’ll find the details in chapter 10.
We find Jesus’ disciple Peter recounting all the things that had happened to Cornelius, a Roman centurion who had called together his relatives and close friends. To paraphrase again: …you know the things that happened up in Galilee, and the baptism that was offered by John; and then the stuff that happened down in Judea…you remember all that stuff – that’s how Peter’s message begins.

It’s like if I were to say to you: You know, last week I travelled up to Canberra from Melbourne. I travelled by train to Southern Cross and then took the SkyBus to the airport. I’m glad I reached there early, because… Would you think for a second, that I was telling you a myth or a legend? Probably not. You’re more likely to say, ‘Oh! What happened next? you would assume correctly I was telling you about something that happened; something real.

Well, that’s exactly how that announcement of the ‘good news’ by Peter commences. All those things about Jesus of Nazareth… And then there’s this line in verse 41 “…we who ate and drank with him after his resurrection from the dead.” Let that sink in. He’s talking about something real; something that actually happened.  Galilee and Judea, John the Baptist – remember all that? And then Jesus – remember all that? Well, we ate and drank with him after his resurrection from the dead.

That’s not how myth-makers talk.  That’s not how people who are trading in legends talk. We know how they talk by the way. ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’ That’s exactly the clue that I’m now going to tell you an archetypal tale. I’m going to tell you a legend, a myth. It’s like ‘once upon a time.’ That’s my clue, that this didn’t really happen; it’s an archetypal story. And then there’s the gospels – that don’t talk that way.
They say things like: it was Pontius Pilate who put him to death – a datable Roman governor. We have physical evidence of his existence. This Jesus we’re talking about – he was crucified under Pontius Pilatus. And we ate and drank with him after his resurrection from the dead. We are witnesses to it.

We find another line like this in the first letter of John, in the Bible. He said: “I speak to you of the word of life…” I can imagine any philosopher or religious mystic saying that. But then he adds: “the word of life that we looked upon; that we saw with our eyes and touched with our hands.”
Now that’s the difference! A witness! A witness, who saw him, touched him, ate and drank with him after his resurrection from the dead. That’s still the shocking, revolutionary novelty, upon which Christianity rests.

Some have tried to frame it as a vague philosophy; or ethical code of conduct or as one religion among many. But it’s based upon witnesses who saw the resurrection. Large numbers of people encountered Jesus risen from the dead; they became witnesses. And their lives were turned around, as a result of those encounters. We read many accounts of this happening in the Bible. Take for example, the story of the conversion of the apostle Paul.

We read of Rabbi Saul – on fire with the traditions of his fathers. He’s an ‘on fire’ Israelite; and he wants to do damage to these Christians, because they’re making all these crazy claims.  And so off he goes – the book of Acts says – breathing murderous threats.  And then Saul saw him. He witnessed the resurrected Jesus. And even from a sheerly historical standpoint, there’s no other way to explain how you get from, “Shaul breathing murderous threats” against these first Christians to the Apostle Paul.
He witnessed something. He witnessed the same thing Peter did; the same thing John did; the same thing the other apostles did.

Now what makes Jesus’ rising from the dead, something more than just an extraordinary one-off event? What makes those early witnesses of the resurrection relevant to today? To my life?

It’s because those witnesses interpreted the resurrection right away, in light of the history of the people of Israel. What is the people of Israel, but God’s rescue operation? Right after the wound of original sin had messed with the beauty and integrity of God’s creation, he sends a rescue operation. This people – Israel, whom he began to shape, according to his mind and heart. He gave them Covenant, Law – Torah, Temple, Prophecy – all these great institutions. And then Israel dreams that one day a Messiah – an anointed one – would come, who would represent the fulfillment of all of the institutions of Israel. Who would be the Temple in its fullness – the place of right praise. He’d be the fulfillment of Law and Covenant. He’d be the Prophet par excellence. He’d be David, the king par excellence, who would finally deal with the ‘enemies of Israel’.

Those early witnesses came to understand that Jesus was that promised Messiah – God himself taking on human flesh and coming to live among us, in His great love for us. Jesus, who came to us through the people of Israel, but came for all people. They marvelled at how God in Jesus, did not try to save us from afar, but drew near to us and entered into the depths of our suffering and pain, allowing himself to be overwhelmed by our violence and hatred and every human dysfunction, even to the point of dying a cruel, painful and humiliating death. We literally killed God and he returned in forgiving love, so that we might find freedom and healing from all the vices of the heart that enslave us and destroy us – those are our true enemies. And they began to understand at that point that God has dealt with the true ‘enemies’ of Israel and of all people, but not in the way they expected (or we expect). It was through his great mercy – the love that we most need, that he made a way for us to now experience freedom and victory over these enemies.

That Roman cross would represent every lousy negative, cruel, hateful, aspect of the sinful world.  It was symbolic of this threat – if you get on our wrong side, we’re going to hang you on this thing until you die. And it’s about the worst way to die, that human beings have ever devised. So, this thing was meant to terrify the world. It summed up everything wrong with humanity – our cruelty and violence and hatred. Yeshua – this friend of Peter and John and James, was crucified on one of these awful instruments of torture. And God raised him from the dead.
Which means that God’s love and mercy are more powerful than anything that’s in the world. More powerful than Rome; more powerful than anything Rome can throw at them. More powerful than any hatred, any cruelty, any violence any injustice. God is more powerful.

This transformed the lives of those early witnesses of the resurrection and of God’s mercy. Firstly, they became beneficiaries of Jesus’ great mercy, as they received the gift of forgiveness and his merciful love, which gradually brought healing and freedom from various dysfunctions in their lives.
Secondly, they became channels of this ‘good news’ of God’s mercy to others through the witness of their lives and words. Others in turn also encountered the risen Jesus in a variety of ways and had the same experience of forgiveness, healing and freedom in their own lives.
Thirdly, they experienced a supernatural ability to love those who – for various reasons – treated them with hatred, violence and cruelty – at time, even to the point of death.

There has been an unbroken chain of these witnesses right up to our present day. In certain times and places, there have only been a few genuine witnesses; in other times and places, large numbers have flourished and influenced the communities around them.

What does all of this mean for our lives today? It means two things.

Firstly, it means that we too can be beneficiaries of this great mercy – this loving compassion of God, that we see in Jesus. This mercy is a gift for you and for me, because Jesus carried all of our wounds and dysfunctions on that Cross, to give us the gift of healing and freedom from these ‘enemies’ of our human flourishing. Jesus is risen from the dead and alive today; and he offers us the gift of forgiveness and invites us into a process of gradually experiencing healing and freedom from all those enemies of our souls.

Secondly, as we experience his forgiveness, healing and freedom, we too become witnesses of his resurrection and of his mercy. Witnesses, not only in the sense of having experienced him giving us the love that we need. But also witnesses of his mercy in the sense, that we allow this love to transform us over time, so that our lives in turn become channels of his mercy to others. We allow Jesus’ compassion and mercy to be expressed through our lives, as we relate to those suffering the wounds of our world – whether it’s because of their own dysfunction or the dysfunction of others. In time, we grow in our capacity to even love those who treat us with violence, cruelty and hatred, because we grow in confidence that God’s merciful love is the most powerful thing in the universe and will always win out in the end – even if it’s not in our own lifetime.

Compiled by: Cassius Soares

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