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Resurrection Faith (Part 2)

Christ died. This is a historical fact not to be denied. But it is the claim of the apostle Paul that God showed His love for us through Christ dying for sinners; this is interesting. It is interesting because we wonder what was it that encouraged Paul to believe that Jesus' death was for sinners. He could not "see" the love of God at work. Jesus had been stabbed in the back and abandoned by His disciples. His mother and a few women, together with John stood by watching Him die. Near the cross, soldiers gambled. One thief cursed God and man. The other prayed as he died. But who of those around the cross watching Jesus die was suddenly overtaken with a great sense of God's love? Who testified about how much God loved them?

The crucifixion to all outward appearances (i.e. historically) was a bloody, revolting, cruel disaster. Here was a "good man" who became the pawn of power politics - who got caught between the millstones of the church and state - the Sanhedrin and the Roman Prefect - and was deliberately sent by Pilate to an innocent death. Historically, the death of Jesus can only be described as sheer tragedy.

When we pursue further the question of the resurrection and history, we note immediately that nobody actually saw Jesus rise from the dead. Mark and Luke and John merely report that the women found the tomb empty. Matthew reports that there was an earthquake and an angel came and rolled the stone away. But none of the four Gospels say, or even intimate, that the stone was moved to let Jesus out. As a matter of fact, Jesus was already gone when the stone was removed. The stone was rolled back to show that Jesus was not there. Exactly when Jesus rose we do not know. So, getting back to my earlier question, how then can Jesus' resurrection in any sense be called a historical event, when there were no witnesses? How can we validate something that cannot be validated?

If there were no witnesses to the resurrection; if our Gospels do not purport to give us an eyewitness account of the resurrection, we are faced with the question, is the resurrection a necessary conclusion to the empty tomb? In other words, how do we know that Jesus rose from the grave? If history cannot prove it, then why did the early church believe it and why do we still believe it today? What gave rise to the resurrection faith?

Theological scholars have made several interesting proposals. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on the two I find most compelling.

First, we cannot evade Jesus' constant reference to His own death in Scripture. All through the Gospels Jesus is represented as being acutely aware, early in His career, that an untimely death awaited Him. When the people approached Him making inquisitions as to why His disciples did not fast like John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees, "Jesus answered, '"How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.' Mark 2:18-20.

On one occasion, James and John came to Jesus wanting a place of honor in His coming Kingdom. Jesus said, "You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" Mark 10:38.

On another occasion, Jesus declares, "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Matthew 20:28.

Certainly one of the most persuasive intimations of His death is found in the institution of the Last Supper. As Jesus and His disciples were eating, "Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, '"Take and eat; this is my body."' Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, '"Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." Matthew 26:26-28.

These are just a few examples of the many times Jesus refers to His impending death which suggest not only was He acutely aware that death awaited Him, but that somehow His death was the goal of His mission.

Secondly, it is difficult to ignore the disciples' reaction to Jesus' death. The disciples were totally and utterly unprepared for Jesus' death and overwhelmed by it. When Jesus was seized by the soldiers, all the disciples abandoned Him and fled. Peter, out of fear, denies Him. The only friends of Jesus who were present with Him in His last moments were a few women including His mother and John. All the others dropped Him like the proverbial "hot potato" and went into hiding.

The hope the disciples had that Jesus would redeem Israel was lost. Their minds were so clouded with the idea of a conquering Messiah who would subdue His enemies, that when they saw Him broken and bleeding from beatings; a helpless prisoner in the hands of Pilate, and when they saw Him led away to be nailed to a cross to die as a common criminal, all their hopes for Jesus were shattered.

One does not have to be a PhD psychologist to understand that we humans have an enormous proclivity toward only hearing what we want to hear or are prepared to hear. Jesus' predictions of His suffering and death fell on deaf ears. The disciples, in spite of Jesus' warnings were unprepared for His death and equally unprepared for His resurrection.

(continued in Part 3)

Rev. Saundra L. Washington, D.D., is an ordained clergywoman, veteran social worker, and Founder of AMEN Ministries. She is also the author of two coffee table books: Room Beneath the Snow: Poems that Preach and Negative Disturbances: Homilies that Teach. Her new book, Out of Deep Waters: My Grief Management Workbook, will be available in July.

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