Does the resurrection make a difference?

Apr 10, 2021 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

In Matthew’s account of the resurrection, we’re given a tantalising brief description of how some Roman soldiers had an unexpected encounter with a supernatural being:

“…an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it….the guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men”.

Christ the incarnate son of God is held in the inescapable prison of death, with two powerful extra doors as ‘belt and braces’: the sealed stone, and the imperial security guards. We’re not told anything of the mechanics of how the wracked and tortured body beginning the process of decay was given new vibrant life with full divine personality restored. All the human witnesses see is the empty tomb. But death has been overcome by the energy of the resurrection; while the angel brushes aside the weight of physical matter, and the human power structures of Rome.

In the apostle John’s description of his encounter with the risen Christ in the first chapter of Revelation, there is a similar effect of the utter terror of supernatural encounter which renders people unable to stand and semi-conscious: “I fell at his feet as though dead”. But there is a difference. The soldiers are left there on the ground, humiliated before the women as they arrive at the tomb. For John, his master and friend Jesus reaches out his hand, touches him, and says “do not be afraid…I am…go and tell”. Is there an echo of Moses at the burning bush, of Isaiah in the temple? Certainly with the Old Testament prophets, the first disciples of Christ, and then with Paul and John, there is a pattern: the encounter with the risen Lord, the need to be lifted up and restored, the commissioning and empowering for mission.

The contrast could not be greater: soldiers, confident in their strength and authority; John in prison, weak and vulnerable before human power and the onset of death. Both had an encounter with the divine and fell down. The guards later slunk back to barracks, to be hushed up – who knows what happened to them? John went on to write words of divine warning and encouragement to inspire millions down the centuries.

Today, we believe that Jesus rose. Is that enough? In an extract from a recent interview reported in the Church Times,  Jordan Peterson said:

“It’s too terrifying a reality to fully believe. I don’t even know what would happen to you if you fully believed it.”

Professor Peterson noted that, when asked in the past whether he believed in God, “I’ve answered in various ways, ‘No, but I’m afraid he probably exists.’”

He continued: “There’s no limit to what would happen if you acted like God existed. . . It may be it’s not reasonable to say to believers, you aren’t sufficiently transformed for me to believe that you believe in God or that you believe the story that you’re telling me. . . the way you live isn’t sufficient testament to the truth.

“And people would certainly say that, let’s say, about the Catholic Church, or at least the way that it’s being portrayed, is that with all the sexual corruption, for example, it’s like ‘Really, really, you believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and yet you act that way, and I’m supposed to buy your belief?’

“It seems to me that the Church is actually quite guilty on that account, because the attempts to clean up the mess have been rather half-hearted, in my estimation. Christians don’t manifest this — and I’m including myself, I suppose, in that description — the transformation of attitude that enables the outside observer to easily conclude that they believe.”

Of course we could argue that it’s a bit unfair to make all Christians guilty because a few have been abusers and a few have turned a blind eye. But the general point is valid, particularly, perhaps, for the church in the West: where is the evidence of transforming power, spiritual reality in those who affirm orthodox biblical belief? I can think of three areas where this is a challenge to us.

Firstly, in our ministry of the word: John was in prison for his faithfulness to the word of God even to the point of refusing to accommodate to the powers of his time. And also, he was “in the Spirit” on the Lord’s day. Are we familiar with this combination of being bible-centred, charismatic and persecuted? Have we reduced Christian faith to a set of propositions based around a text in a comfortable environment, and perhaps assume it always leads to, or is the same as a personal encounter with the risen living Lord?

Secondly, in our systems and structures of doing Christian life and church. Peterson rightly points out the disconnect between everything seeming to be well organised on the surface, while abuse of power and other sins appear to be tolerated. The last verse of Revelation chapter one shows that the church involves spiritual dynamics – stars and lamp stands – not just administration, human gifts and techniques.

Thirdly, in our attitude to the powers of the world. We can be fearful of reputation-damaging social media disapproval, of threats to our livelihood, even falling foul of the law. Just as the Roman empire appeared invincible in John’s day, and the temptation was to restrict the remit of Christ’s lordship to the church only, so today for many the idea of not gaining the approval of the controlling elites, or not having power ourselves in some way, is inconceivable. But we’re told, “don’t be afraid” – the picture of Roman soldiers lying on the ground should be demonstration enough of whom to fear.

In the next section, John writes to the angel in Ephesus, which perhaps we could say is the group psychology and controlling spiritual power of the church. The message: it has lost its first love – the relationship with Christ, that supernatural, life-transforming encounter, has gone cold. The good news is that there can be a turnaround. Jesus says: “repent and do the things you did at first”. That might apply in all sorts of ways. It certainly speaks to me.

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