The first thing that the followers of Jesus told about him was not where he was born, nor what he said and did, nor when and how he died, but that he was raised from the dead, that he appeared to many of his friends and that he was alive at that very moment. Why do you suppose they began at that point? The reason is obvious, if given the choice of having a record of everything someone we loved and said and having the person, what would you choose?
It was Jesus himself that made the difference to his friends. Not that they didn’t appreciate what he said or did, but it was his presence among them that transformed them. When he made an appearance everything in the room was changed. And it was Jesus who appeared to them, a few days after his death. He appeared to Peter and James and John; to Mary in the garden; to a group of apostles who were meeting together; to some of them by the side of the lake; to some of them in the upper room; to two of them on the road to Emmaus, and to Paul, long after the resurrection appearances.
In Galatians, Paul is recorded to have said: When it pleased God to reveal his son “in” me, not “to” me (the word reveal is exactly the same Greek word, as “appeared”). So Paul felt that Christ was alive “in” him, strengthening him, enabling him to do all things. Others felt that he was in the room with them when they broke bread together, and they felt the power of his spirit enabling them to do the impossible when they prayed together, and some of them like Paul felt that he was alive in them.
This is what they wanted to tell the world about. Their Lord was not dead but alive: his life was not over and done with as they had supposed it to be. His words were not the remembered words of a dead person, but the words of a living spirit. His deeds were not something to be stored in the archives of history; they were the actions of a living Person. His presence that once stirred them out of death into life had itself become alive.
They never described what the presence was like in too great of detail. To some it was a presence as real and material as flesh and blood, and breakfast by the lakeside; while to others his presence was more a spiritual thing that could come and go through locked doors; be in Jerusalem and Galilee at exactly the same time, and then vanish in thin air. But to all it was a presence; and this was the point. This is what they could not wait to tell people, and this is what people wanted to hear.
It’s perfectly easy to see why. What is it that we need when we’re up against things, or when things are up against us? We need a person, not a principle; we need love, not law. And we need that love expressed in some tangible way. That is why people all over the Mediterranean basin listened so intently to the preaching of the first Christians. At this point, there is possibly in some minds a question beginning to shape. Why don’t we begin with the resurrection? Why do we begin with the historical records, rather than with the resurrection experience that can be sensed and felt here and now?
One of the reasons may be that people are uncomfortable with the empty tomb. It brings up question they would rather not have to answer. It’s difficult for people to take in that the physical body of Jesus was at a certain point resurrected and then gathered itself together and walked out of the tomb in which it had been so lovingly laid. It’s almost impossible for them to take that in seriously. And the result is that they shy away from the resurrection experience because of this story that they can’t quite handle, with their contemporary instruments of thought.
Perhaps they might be content with a statement of infinitely smaller dimensions.
And that is, that though the story of the empty tomb is repeated in various forms in all four of the gospels, thus showing that it was a part of the tradition of the earliest Christian community, nevertheless it is significant that the sermons and letters of the early Christian disciples from the Acts through the Epistles to the Revelation of John the Divine, never mention or refer to the empty tomb – they always talk about a man being alive.
Different people will draw different conclusions from this fact. My conclusion is this: the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t depend on the story of the empty tomb, and we would do well to follow the example of the first Christians and began where they began with the fact of the presence alive and among us now! Some have seen him in vivid and dramatic form. Others of us have seen him with the eyes of our understanding. We have seen suddenly, as we see a truth, that Christ is alive, real, strong, and present.
Our friends may tell us that this is the work of our imagination, and our response may be that of Joan of Arc, in Shaw’s play about her when her inquisitors said, that the voices she claimed came from God came from her imagination, Joan answered, “That’s how the messages of God come to us.” Some of our Christian sisters and brothers will insist that this is not an objective experience that it all takes place within the four walls of our wishful thinking. I wonder what they would say about Isaiah’s experience in the temple when he saw the Lord “high and lifted up”. Was that purely a subjective experience, and if so, do subjective experiences, normally come to pass, with nothing from without to incite them?
Others who have not seen him in any sense like this have felt his presence when two or three are gathered together in his name. Some may sense the Presence as they watch the rehabilitation of human lives that come to Christ for help: they see people who have left their future behind them take a new lease on life; they see people as hard as nails, softened by the love of Christ; they see people with apparently no sense of responsibility suddenly change their ways and grow up; and they see people whose life is all but lost gradually begin to open like a flower.
Now, this may be the work of some dead, lifeless force. But it’s harder for me to believe that than it is for me to believe that Christ was raised from the dead. And when in spite of my inadequacies and failures, I know that my own life has been used by the Christ spirit, used for purposes beyond anything I ever dreamed of then I know that Christ is alive. It’s hard for me to picture it in physical terms, yet I keep an open mind about the story of the empty tomb. It has spoken to generations of Christians and the chances are it will speak to countless yet to come.
A story that speaks powerfully to me is the story of how some friends of Jesus, discouraged, disappointed and defeated, decide to go back to their fishing. They fish all night and catch nothing. Jesus unrecognized stands on the shore. He asks them if they’ve caught any fish. When they answer No, he tells them what to do and they catch so many fish they are unable to haul them in. Then John, probably remembering that Jesus had called them to fish for people “recognized the Lord!”
I’ve never seen the empty tomb, but in the night hours of my life when I’ve been discouraged, disappointed and defeated I’ve felt the presence of One coming to me “as day was breaking” and have remembered that Jesus has called me to “fish for people” and I have recognized the Risen Lord.
Dr. John Sullivan <)))><