From Fear to Hope

Apr 16 2017


If you have ever had a life-threatening experience, you have some idea of how the disciples felt after the death of Jesus.

But for most of us, the emotions usually associated with fear become reality when a loved one dies. That empty feeling in the pit of our stomachs, the panic, the gnawing reality that we will never be able to talk to that person again, and yes, for some of us, the guilt that we did or didn’t do something we should or shouldn’t have.

On Thursday, the disciples fled from Jesus in the garden, afraid that the soldiers would come for them next. As far as we know, the only disciple that ventured out that night after the arrest was Peter, and the only disciple that we find at the foot of the cross was John. Peter ultimately denied Jesus. And to John fell the task of taking care of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

After the crucifixion, the disciples, as far as we know, continued to hide. Did they have second thoughts? Did they feel guilty for not staying and defending Jesus?  Did they feel guilty for what THEY did or didn’t do? Probably. After all, they were only human. At least they might have felt that way until we read the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection where the reality of the Resurrection seems to fall on the issue of an empty tomb they visited. 

Let’s suppose for a minute that the Resurrection occurred in the 21st century. Would the media attempt to explain it the same way as those early writers? The tomb was empty; there were angelic visitors; some said they saw Jesus. Would they attempt to interview his mother, Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, the strangers on the road to Emmaus, Jesus? Probably. But all of this supposes that the reality of the Resurrection lies in the empty tomb.

Now let’s compress time a little after a short introduction. Paul was the first person to write about the Resurrection. He wrote in about 40 AD. The first Gospel, Mark, was not written until around 50 AD. Possibly 10 to 15 years after 1 Corinthians. Paul had no tomb. Paul had only an event he called the Resurrection. Listen to what he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” And then Paul goes on to list all of the appearances that Jesus made - lastly to Paul himself.

But in translating from the Greek, the word Paul used to describe those appearances was ‘ophthe’ which means to have one’s eyes opened to see dimensions beyond the physical. It relates to the nature of visions. It means to have a revelatory encounter with the holy. Paul says that his seeing, written as close as seven years to the death of Christ, was no different from the others, only that his was last.

Now back to compressed time in the 21st century. Instead of the spread of almost seventy years between the crucifixion and Resurrection and the written accounts that have survived, we have 21st century media interviewing the Gospel writers and Paul in real time. Needless to say, their accounts would vary as greatly as they varied in the Bible, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that if we insist on taking the Gospel accounts literally, we are faced with having to explain away the contradictions, and that cannot be done.

The reality of the Resurrection does not rely on whether there was an empty tomb or not. The reality of the Resurrection lies in the emotions and lives of the disciples after the Resurrection. Something happened to turn them from sniveling cowards into courageous teachers 

That there was a Resurrection is not the issue. How it occurred is the issue. And my question to you is – does it matter? If we take the New Testament in its entirety, fully recognizing the ways in which the Gospel writers constructed their Gospels and the circumstances under which the epistle writers crafted their epistles, do we still have an event called the Resurrection? Absolutely.

What does the Resurrection say to us today? That Jesus left for us a certainty that there is some kind of life after death. That Jesus left for us the ways in which we can be in right relationships with each other and with God. That beyond the fears and pain of death, there is also a certainty that this life is not all there is. That when we die a part of us called spirit or soul wings its way into the presence of God. Those certainties were what carried the early disciples from fear into hope. It carried them from the devastation of the crucifixion into the reality that because Jesus lived, they would live after death. It is that message that is the message of the Resurrection.

For all time people will probably continue to argue and debate the reality of a physical resurrection and point to all sorts of evidence that in their eyes is taken from what they think is a literal Scripture that was never written in a literal fashion and never meant to be interpreted literally. But the debate ought not to be whether there was a physical resurrection or not. The debate ought to center around the true nature of the Resurrection of the Christ. The Christian faith rises and falls on the Resurrection; it does not rise and fall on the empty tomb. It rises and falls on the truth that those sniveling cowards went out and preached a message that taught the promise of eternal life.

And while each of us, in our own way, may wonder about what really happened, we need to rely on the faith in our hearts THAT it happened and the promises of eternal life that we have BECAUSE it happened. We are challenged on this day to go forward in the complete assurance that God has provided eternal life for us. That assurance should give us hope no matter the circumstances of our lives. In that assurance lies the truth of the Resurrection. It is a truth that we live in God’s love. In that truth, no matter our circumstances, we can have the same hope that energized those early disciples. It did not depend on an empty tomb then, and it doesn’t depend on an empty tomb now. Amen.