Over the past week we have recalled the last events of Jesus’ ministry. The picture seems to be of a man who had tried to take on the system and had ended up tragically losing. He has been betrayed by one of his own followers, deserted by his disciples at the moment of crisis, denied by his most prominent follower, denounced as a false prophet and blasphemer before the leaders of his own nation, before being executed for treason by the occupying power. It was a miscarriage of justice. An innocent man is condemned and a guilty man is released. It has happened before, and it will happen again. Idealism usually ends up being beaten by the system.
But, in this case there is more to the story. After the Sabbath rest, the women come to the tomb to complete the final preparation for Jesus’ burial begun by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (two well to do symphasisers who had ensured that he had a proper burial). They find the stone rolled back and the tomb empty. They see a vision of an angel who says to them, “Be not affrighted; ye seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified: He is risen, He is not here” (Mark 16:6).
The Gospel accounts of the Resurrection all have the same characteristic, whether they are accounts of appearances to an individual or to a group. The disciples are orphaned, whether by the lakeside in Galilee, in a room in Jerusalem, on the road to Emmaus, on a mountain in Galilee. Suddenly, unaccountably they see Christ present among them. At first they do not recognise him, then they recognise that it is indeed him. Then he vanishes from their sight.
But what does it mean to say, as they did, that Jesus rose bodily from the dead? Much modern liberal Western Christianity plays down the doctrine of bodily resurrection. It sees the resurrection appearances as a picturesque way of describing how the disciples experienced the continuing presence of Jesus after his death. However, this explanation does not make sense within the worldview of the time. First century Jewish thought did not use the term “resurrection” to describe this type of experience. The resurrection of the dead was what would happen at the Last Judgement at the end of human history when the dead would be raised to life to dwell in God’s new world. Before then, they believed (as the Wisdom of Solomon put it) that the souls of the righteous were in the hand of God as they awaited the final resurrection on the last day. Indeed to this day, the prayer of the Church has been that the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace and rise in glory. Rest eternal grant unto them O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them. But of no one would it have been said that their bodily resurrection from the dead had inaugurated that new age already within history.
Something must therefore have happened (Jesus’ bodily resurrection) to convince Jesus’ disciples that in his case uniquely the resurrection that they all awaited at the end of time had already happened to him in the midst of time. Hence, in him they were already living within God’s new order, although the old order of sin and death would continue until the last day when God would be all in all.
However, it is not only modern liberal Christians who repudiate the true significance of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. There are those who make much of their claim to be the self appointed guardians of tradition and on paper assent to the truth of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. But they also reinterpret it, not as a metaphor for a progressive liberal politics as the modern liberal Christian does, but instead they see it as underpinning a socially and politically conservative politics. The resurrection of Jesus is something that they pay lip service to, but in practice they only claim to believe in it because they see the Church as an instrument of social control. They look back with nostalgia on a former age when the Church had more power in Western societies than it does now, and they see the promotion of social and political conservatism as a way of reasserting that power. “The rich man in his castle. The poor man at his gate. God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate.” While they are politically far apart from their progressive liberal opponents, in practice they have themselves fallen into the same trap of seeing fundamental Christian doctrines such as the resurrection of Jesus as metaphors for a particular social and political agenda. The only real difference between them is that the liberal Christian sees the resurrection as a metaphor for liberal politics, whereas the conservative Christian sees the resurrection as a metaphor for conservative politics.
By contrast, Orthodox Christianity teaches that Christian doctrines are not simply metaphors for a particular social and political policy, whether that policy is conservative or liberal, but rather as objective truths about God and man. St. Paul did not say that Christian doctrines were metaphors for a particular social and political policy, but rather “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature, the old has gone, the new has come.” The resurrection of the dead which they waited for at the end of the age had now come true in Jesus’ resurrection in the middle of time. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the central event of all human history. The Jews had expected the prophecies to be fulfilled at the end of the age, but the Christians now knew that they had been fulfilled in Jesus’ triumph of death in his resurrection. Confident in that faith they faced persecution and death, and looked forward with expectation to the final resurrection of the dead at the end of the age, when God would be all in all, in that new heaven and new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians (some of whom said that there is no resurrection from the dead) in answer to those who asked how are the dead raised up and with what kind of body do they come. He said, “that which thou sowest is not quickened except it die: And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not the body which shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat or of some other grain: But God giveth it a body as it has pleased him, and to every seed his own body…So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:36-38; 42-44).
“Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
“Christ our Pasch is sacrificed. Therefore let us feast, not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8).