Why should the life, death, and even possible resurrection of one man 2000 years ago matter to my life today?
This is a very good question, one I hear asked explicitly by some but implicitly by far more.
Last week we also talked about the rider and the elephant. In church our riders confidently declare “he is risen!” while the elephant beneath rolls his eyes “that chatty rider will believe in anything!” and the elephant rumbles along like all the other elephants.
What about Lazarus?
It’s important to remember that Jesus’ resurrection in John is set up by his raising of Lazarus. When we talked about this in church we imagined how the public raising of one of our members would change us. How we would seek out Jesus, want to be close to him, position ourselves to advantage ourselves with this new found source of power.
The events at the end of the week let all the air out of the Jesus balloon in Jerusalem. The display of power at the tomb of Lazarus seems to be hollow in the dark of night with the temple guard and the dark of day at the cross. All of the greedy, power-hungry hope excited in us by the resurrection of Lazarus is destroyed on the cross with Jesus.
John’s Easter Account
In John’s Easter account all the men get is an empty tomb and a story by a women whose mental health record is clearly suspect. The big reveal comes later Sunday evening.
John 20:19 (NIV)
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”
“Peace be with you” is no mere greeting. Jesus has to know the kind of reaction this appearance will elicit.
John 20:20 (NIV)
20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Among Them Again
It is clear in this text that the wounds serve to connect the Jesus they knew as their master and friend with this man who appeared among them while the doors were locked. It is also clear that the stone was rolled away at the tomb not that Jesus could get out but that we could get in.
The disciples are overjoyed at seeing their friend. That is their emotional reaction. To them, of course, the events of this man’s life, their friend, had the greatest impact on them. Jesus had changed their lives when he called them to follow him and they have left their jobs and their families to sit at his feet, to serve him, and to be witnesses to everything he said and did. The cross they had supposed destroyed their ability to be with him but now in that room the cross looks undone. He is among them and it is him.
Mission, Spirit, Power
John 20:21–23 (NIV)
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
In three short verses Jesus changes his relationship with them and them with the world.
So much theological ink has been laid because of these verses.
- New Creation! Jesus pings Genesis 2 (creation of Adam) and Ezekiel 37, the resurrection of the dried bones.
- Holy Spirit Given! But how does this relate to Luke’s Pentecost story?
- Forgiveness of Sins! But is this power to forgive sins limited to the disciples or to the church or is it given to all Christians?
The Universal and the Relational
Part of our difficulty in understanding any of this are the deep assumptions with which we approach the world.
If this scene had been scripted like the mount of transfiguration our elephants would understand it better. As I listen to debates about the Bible, debates about sex, debates about the reality of miracles, debates about the existence of God I hear an implicit assumption that becomes a demand that God take us out of regular time and space, destroy the particular and make everything ethereal. The disciple’s reception of the Holy Spirit should give them halos or make them sparkle in the sunlight. Their power to forgive sin and bind them in it should be clear and obvious to all. No more debates about right and wrong.
The Magic of the Elves
What Jesus does here is less like the magic of Harry Potter and more like the magic of the elves.
JRR Tolkien had plenty of magic in his masterpiece The Lord of the Ring but he distinguished different kinds of magic. The magic of Sauron and others exhibited a mastery of nature often against the imagined purposes of nature. Sauron and his ring was used to bind others in the darkness as slaves to his will.
The magic of the elves, however, was subtler, quieter stuff. Elven magic strengthened nature, made it stronger, more beautiful, more life giving. Elven rope held fast but knots would release. Elven food gave strength and mental sharpness in ways beyond the ordinary. Elven cloaks gave warmth and in need camouflage. Elven boats were light for portage yet stable on the water while also swift.
Jesus appears the among his disciples the masters of time and space yet what he gives them is dramatic theologically yet pretty much unnoticed even to the recipients.
John 20:24–25 (NIV)
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
In a lovely piece Russell Satlzman wants to rescue Thomas from our label of him as a doubter. Did he doubt the resurrection? Was it his fault? Not really. Even after 8 days there wasn’t a sufficient enough behavioral difference among the ten disciples that met with Jesus to warrant such a belief.
Isn’t this at the heart of question we began with? Shouldn’t the disciples have been changed enough by that first encounter to turn the world upside down? The disciples, their elephants included, were all present and rejoicing at seeing their risen friend. What Jesus said and did must have simply blown by them. It’s the reverse of the police officer showing up at your door to tell you a loved one has died in a car accident. The ears shut off and in shock you resume normal activity, the kinds of things the elephant is good at. Their chatty riders could tell Thomas about the event, but Thomas’ elephant was watching their elephants and perceived no reason do to anything than what he would have expected them to do.
John 20:26–29 (NIV)
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Jesus approached the disciples in the way that elephants learn. Touching him, seeing him he too believed. But would it change him?
We assume all that had been given to the disciples the previous week was also given to Thomas, but that’s kind of the Pentecost question isn’t it. Did Thomas feel something different the week before when he was doing whatever he was doing? Did he have to wait 8 days to get the Spirit? Why couldn’t he detect the change in himself or even in the others?
Thomas comes out with a clear confession and according to the First Things piece lead the way in taking up Jesus’ commands. That lovely piece should be tempered by the witness of Luke, however, that seems to show that even as the Holy Spirit was propelling the gospel throughout the Roman Empire the disciples weren’t necessarily the vanguard. Don’t we see Peter dragging his feet with the Gentiles? Christianity and the church seem to arrive in Rome long before Paul, not to mention Peter.
The Presence of Jesus and the Power of the Holy Spirit
Here is another troublesome thought. What we desperately want is the breaking out of the news of Jesus’ resurrection in the manner that CS Lewis describes.
Then another thing. We, with our modern democratic and arithmetical presuppositions would so have liked and expected all men to start equal in their search for God. One has the picture of great centripetal roads coming from all directions, with well-disposed people, all meaning the same thing, and getting closer and closer together. How shockingly opposite to that is the Christian story! One people picked out of the whole earth; that people purged and proved again and again. Some are lost in the desert before they reach Palestine; some stay in Babylon; some becoming indifferent. The whole thing narrows and narrows, until at last it comes down to a little point, small as the point of a spear— a Jewish girl at her prayers. That is what the whole of human nature has narrowed down to before the Incarnation takes place. Very unlike what we expected, but, of course, not in the least unlike what seems, in general, as shown by nature, to be God’s way of working. The universe is quite a shockingly selective, undemocratic place out of apparently infinite space, a relatively tiny proportion occupied by matter of any kind. Of the stars perhaps only one has planets: of the planets only one is at all likely to sustain organic life. Of the animals only one species is rational. Selection as seen in nature, and the appalling waste which it involves, appears a horrible and an unjust thing by human standards. But the selectiveness in the Christian story is not quite like that. The people who are selected are, in a sense, unfairly selected for a supreme honour; but it is also a supreme burden.
Lewis, C. S. (2014-05-20). God in the Dock (pp. 84-85). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Relational reality unlike the universal kind we demand of science and religion affords Jesus popping in where he pleases to say and do what he wills. How horribly unfair!
The problem of “what could the life, death, and the possibility of resurrection of a man 2000 years ago mean to me today” is horribly complicated by the fact that this man seems to show up only for whom he pleases and only when and where he wills.
This is not the kind of reality we demand. If I get on a plane I can travel to the place where my father is buried and with a shovel (and a court order) locate his remains. This kind of knowledge is public. Jesus, in staying relational, and making himself above the limiting boundaries of stones graves and locked doors refuses to be the kind of person we, or scientists, or armed guards can lay our hands on.
Now if you want to go out and do what he tells his disciples to do it would seem clear that keeping himself available for this kind of public examination would surely help, but he does not. He breathes on them and says “receive the Holy Spirit”. Does a blue mist come out of his mouth that a video camera would pick up? I’m sure Hollywood would add this if they wanted to represent the scene. Or does, to their eyes, nothing happen. Do they feel nothing. Does it seem to make no difference at all like the freshly baptized believer stumbling in their secret sin the day after the big church event.
We want blinding light and doves and tongues of fire but we get none of that here. His resurrection began what seems to have been a rather slow, progressive and sometimes spotty change in his chief witnesses who will learn the ways of their master in fits and starts, often only with fear and blood.
But Some Doubted
In a nice blog post the parallel Matthew passage is looked at. Here we see it isn’t just Thomas that is doubting but all of them, and it’s the kind of doubt that accompanied a good number of exchanges with Jesus.
Furthermore, although the Greek can be translated as “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted,” as it is in the NRSV, if we pay attention to Matthew’s writing style elsewhere, then it is not just some of the eleven that doubt. They all do. Grammatically the second pronoun is not used in a ‘partitive’ sense. In Greek, there is a hoi men . . . hoi deconstruction that means ‘some . . . others’. Hoi de (used on its own) can also mean, ‘some on the other hand . . .’ But Matthew doesn’t use hoi de that way anywhere else. So in 28:11, Matthew is actually saying: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but [they] doubted.”
The word Matthew uses for “doubt” here occurs in only one other place in his gospel: in Matt 14:31, when Jesus, after the ‘walking on the water’ encounter with Peter, says to him “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” In that narrative, worshipping Jesus follows fear and doubt. Here, it seems, seeing Jesus and worshipping him and doubting is something the disciples experience at the same time.
My Rider Can Chat You Up
Now if you ask me why a man coming out of the tomb 2000 years ago is important, especially in the way Jesus did as opposed to Lazarus my rider can get quite loquacious.
What Jesus is essentially doing is declaring that in his resurrection he is restarting humanity and through humanity the entire cosmos. These disciples are to be his agents empowered by the Holy Spirit and given the ultimate authority to mediate the reconciliation between heaven and earth.
How can we understand this if the disciples aren’t given halos or sparkly skin to demonstrate it? Well there will be more miracles, just a few (the definition of a miracle of course) but mostly they will bear witness to this Jesus by the audacious combination of their boldness, love and suffering.
My rider can say all of this but your elephant and mine is doubtful. Even the opportunity to touch Jesus’ wounds didn’t move their elephants too quickly. Elephants are slow to learn but in time they are stubborn about holding onto things.
Born from Above
John 20:30–31 (NIV)
30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
There is a miraculous strangeness to belief that Jesus seems to know but we resist.
The first thing I want to say is that Jesus still shows up in the middle of us.
Now I know you’ll immediately hear this as poetic pastor talk but I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret of being a pastor. People sometimes tell you things they won’t tell anyone else, and we are sworn to secrecy. What do people tell us? Sometimes their sins but mostly the sins they see in others. Often their fears, but also the miraculous things that they have experienced.
Now I know Pentecostal pastors often deal publicly in this but nice Reformed pastors are supposed to keep these things quiet. We can’t have new private revelations happening all over the place, and I understand the reasons for that too. Our private spiritual experiences can be very unstable, erratic, heretical and almost never sacrosanct. In other words human beings are prone to experience lots of weird things and most often the interpretations we jump on for our experiences are a combination of our fears or wishful thinking.
All of that being said I pretty regularly have people tell me of an encounter with God in Jesus. It isn’t usually as dramatic, material or clear as John 20 but the people who experience these things leave convinced but not always changed, at least not all at once. Even the Apostle Paul takes over a decade after the Damascus Road to really get up to speed. Jesus does continue to visit people and change them, our complaints not withstanding.
It’s the Holy Spirit Stupid
The second point is that the consistent Biblical message is that it is in fact the Holy Spirit that does the heavy lifting. Even though we keep wanting to make the Holy Spirit a power we can deploy the Bible keeps pointing out that we are servants the Holy Spirit deploys sometimes whether we like it or not and often as not whether we agree to it or not.
You begin to arrive at a very Calvinist idea that all that is happening is not really under our control but God’s. The moments when Jesus shows up, talks to us, commissions us, and sends us, is all about him being gracious and giving us just a tiny taste of everything he’s up to.
The Opening Question
Why should the life, death, and even possible resurrection of one man 2000 years ago matter to my life today?
The first answer I’ll give you is “not much, if you haven’t met him.”
That puts the onus on me to introduce you to him which I’ve been trying to do. He might come to you in many different ways to introduce himself. He hasn’t put me in charge of this which gives evidence to his wisdom.
I can say that rationally, it is a very big deal if it is true.
The esteemed Yale church historian Jaroslav Pelikan’s musing (as relayed shortly after his death by his friend Martin Marty) comes to mind. Professor Pelikan is reported to have confided, “If the Resurrection of Jesus actually happened, then nothing else really matters. If the Resurrection of Jesus did not actually happen, then nothing else really matters.”
Bruner, F. D. (2012). The Gospel of John: A Commentary (p. 1163). Grand Rapids, MI;Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans.
If he isn’t alive, then Christianity is a lot of foolishness and you’re probably better off trying to be a successful hedonist for your brief meaningless existence than living the kind of sacrificial life he invites us into.
At the same time I’ll warn you to beware if you don’t want to meet him because if he wants to meet you there really isn’t going to be much you can do about it. He will either become for you your great joy and pleasure that leads you to generosity and love, or your great terror and horror that will make you wish him to send you to the farthest corner of the universe to be away from him.
If the Christian story is true than all of us are heading towards this encounter and will be faced with this dilemma. The wise get working on it in anticipation of that day.
That You May Have Life in His Name
John ends chapter 20 (and possibly the first edition of his book) with the lovely line that those who believe apart from these visitations are blessed indeed. John says that he tells us all of this so that “we may have life in his name”.
That life seems to be the slow working of the Peace, the Spirit, and the authority as brothers and sisters who in slow, steady ways grow in faith and obedience to him. It is the life where as our other means of securing what we thought we wanted are stripped away, that we begin to discover, despite doubting elephants that we enjoy and believe in him. It arrives at the same place I just noted. Either we discover in him that there is nothing more beautiful and meaningful or we persist on clinging to our own self and wish him away. He describes himself and us with him as life and the other as death.
So do the events of this man 2000 years ago matter? It matters if you meet him. It truly matters if meeting him is not an option or a possibility but rather an inevitability that we will all arrive at.