Sunday, 26 July 2015

Resurrection 2: Meaning

The important thing about Jesus' miracles is not their factuality but their meaning.  Jesus' miracles illustrate and reinforce his teaching about the Kingdom of God.  The same goes for the resurrection.  Having summarised what I think the resurrection stories are describing, I'd like to talk a little about how the apostles used the story and what they made of it.

Whole books have been written about this.  I'm just going to give you the highlights under three headings - vindication of Jesus' life and message, a new life for his followers here and now, and a future hope.

In Acts 2, Luke reports a sermon by Peter which centres on the following words.

“Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power."

Peter goes on to relate this to Psalm 16, attributed to David, in which the psalmist says

You do not give me up to Sheol (the grave)
Or let your faithful one see the pit.

Reading this psalm without Peter's interpretation you would simply understand it as a prayer for protection, but Peter uses the established Jewish principles of interpretation to uncover its "hidden" meaning as a prophecy of the Messiah's resurrection.

A number of the sermons reported in Acts follow this pattern.  In Acts 3 Peter tells a crowd, "you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead".  In Acts 5 he says, "The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree."  That pattern is later repeated in both Peter's and Paul's messages to a variety of audiences.

The point here is that the resurrection is God's verdict on the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, and by extension the Roman Empire.  This conflict is shown in the gospels in Jesus' various arguments with Pharisees and Sadducees, culminating in Jesus' cleansing of the temple and finally in his arrest and crucifixion.  While his death appeared to end the question in the expected way, with the powerful triumphing once again, the resurrection provides a surprise ending, a plot twist in which the underdog wins out after all.

The practical implication of this for the disciples, and for those who come after them, is that they should keep going.  This is the chief message that Jesus gives them in the various gospel accounts of his post-resurrection appearances.  In Matthew 28 he says, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations."  In John 20 he gives a more comprehensive commission: "As the father has sent me, so I send you".  This is also the main burden of the dialogue with Peter in John 21.  In a scene many commentators link with Peter's threefold denial on the night of Jesus' arrest, he asks Peter three times, "do you love me", Peter affirms that he does, and Jesus tells him, "feed my sheep".  The last time, he also predicts Peter's own execution.

The resurrection, whatever the apostles meant by it, reinforced Jesus' message of the Kingdom and the things he had taught them during his time with them.  It gave them the strength to continue in the face of opposition, indeed in the face of a real threat of execution by a ruthless and corrupt government, to proclaim the Kingdom which Jesus proclaimed and to continue the work he had begun.

New Life Right Now
The second practical application of the idea of the resurrection, which we have through Paul's teaching in particular, is much more symbolic and metaphorical.  The resurrection should inspire us to become new people.  Paul puts this most clearly in Romans 6.  Baptism, he says, is a symbolic identification with Jesus' death and resurrection.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall surely be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved by sin....  So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 

A little later, in chapter 7, he extends the analogy to a discussion about the law, which he sees as the means of revealing and heightening our sin without having the power to overcome it.

In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.  While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.  But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.

He puts it more poetically in Ephesians 2.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.

The resurrection offers us a new hope and a new beginning.  We do not need to go on being trapped in our old patterns of behaviour, our old failures, our old legalisms, our fruitless attempts at mending our lives.  He offers us the chance to put our old selves to death and begin again, to die only to live again.  This new life is freedom from the dead hand of law, freedom from our destructive ways, and freedom instead to be like Christ, in fact to become him or to become part of him in our new lives.

Future Hope
The final point is seen most clearly in 1 Corinthians 15, which I alluded to in the previous post.  The resurrection gives us hope for a future which will be better than the present, for a final escape from death and suffering.  After presenting the apostolic tradition about the resurrection he gets to the point.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?

And later he goes on.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.  For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

We all have to face our own death, and the deaths of those close to us, We face the ending of things we hoped would go on forever.  We face the ending of our culture, the realisation that we won't achieve all our dreams, and the pain of a thousand griefs leading up to our final end.

The resurrection represents a promise to us that this is not all there is, that God holds out new life to us.  It reminds us not to eternalise things that are temporary, to put them into perspective.

Scientifically, this doesn't make sense, and we find it hard to really believe it.  We can't see how it will happen.  Paul struggles with this himself, groping for words and images which will get across what he means.  The relationship of a seed to the final plant.  The difference between us and the sun, moon and stars.  Earthly dust and the stuff of heaven.  He can't describe it adequately, but he has seen Jesus, and this gives him assurance that it is true.

Often as Christians we are very caught up in what divides us.  Is the resurrection a physical event, a series of visions or a later legend?  Is there a place called heaven, and what is it like?  These are all, in a sense, questions about what is "out there".  They are diversions which keep what is important to us at a distance, and relieve us of the need to talk about our doubts and fears, about what is "in here".

Yet these more personal and collective meanings are something on which we are much closer to agreement.  We all need the courage to keep going, to keep proclaiming justice and mercy when it seems hard, fruitless or even dangerous, just as Jesus' disciples did after their Master was executed.  We all need to begin anew, to be able to put our failures and weaknesses behind us and take hold of a new and better life.  We all need hope to save us from the despair which Paul puts his finger on: "let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die".

If our fears, failings and mortality is all there is, we may as well give up.  Jesus's resurrection gives us hope for more, and so we can keep going.
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