Moderator's Comments - Posted 1 April 2018
Burying my aunt – the senior member of the Wilson clan – focussed my mind sharply. Our family met last week in a medieval Cotswolds church, and these words rang out clearly: ‘in sure and certain hope of the resurrection from the dead’. As we laid my aunt to rest alongside her long-deceased husband, and my grandparents, I challenged myself again as to whether I believe this and … WHY?
Don’t panic, the moderator is not in any doubt. But, standing in the face of a biting Oxfordshire wind, I lowered the body into the ground and tested my beliefs afresh. Why do I believe in resurrection? It’s a good thing to ask.
The world has never believed in it. Unbelief always resists it. Doubting resurrection is universal, though the challenge to resurrection belief changes its form and shape in each generation.
I commenced theological reflection forty years ago, and then formal study soon after. In the 1970s the Presbyterian Church of Australia endured the last desperate squirming of theological liberalism – a bankrupt system of doubt that once nearly dominated our church but was then in its death-throes. The modernist challenge of the day was: ‘Doesn’t science render belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead laughable, or at best immature? It’s not rational.’ Indeed, I once engaged in theological study outside evangelicalism, and, as the sole evangelical on retreat with a group of 70, I was told that such views were immature ‘kindergarten’ faith that they had long ago jettisoned.
Today, unbelief in the bodily resurrection (either Jesus’ resurrection, or ours) has a more post-modernist disguise, but it’s still the same unbelief. We’re challenged today with: ‘Don’t our feelings render belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead unnecessary. We believe what feels right for us, don’t we?’ And then, as if to soften the blow: ‘If you feel better with that idea, then good for you.’
The modernist and post-modernist challenges both work toward the same conclusion: ‘buried somewhere in an ancient tomb in Palestine, you’ll find the bones of Jesus’.
My family funeral brought me a moment of clarity. Isolated (17,000kms removed) from all my regular engagements and commitments for two days, I had the opportunity to think afresh. Perhaps it was triggered by the rawness of the event … the solemnity of reverently laying aside the body to the elements of the earth ‘in sure and certain hope of a resurrection’, as the minister kept repeating. The dignity of lowering a casket into the earth, the freshness of being outside in the wind, cold, dampness and dust brought about clarity: ‘Yes, I’m doing this in full expectation that she’ll rise again on the last day.’ My grandfather preached it from this church, my dad taught it to me, my aunt believed it … I believe it.
So, on this day – Resurrection Day 2018 – I ask: why do you believe in resurrection? Why is it believable, when we’ve never seen a resurrected body?
Consider some of our favourite characters from the resurrection story, men and women like us on their journey of faith:
- Mary Magdalene, sceptical at first when she saw the stone rolled away: ‘They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb …’, but then she and the other women remembered the words Jesus had said and became firm believers;
- Peter and John, whose first uncharitable thoughts were that Mary’s testimony was nonsense, but then became life-time witnesses of the resurrection;
- Thomas, who doubted and wanted to be convinced in more tangible and scientific ways before he believed, but then he did and witnessed across the world;
- The Emmaus Road disciples, downcast and confused even while Jesus was speaking with them … later having an epiphany moment of understanding and then returned to Jerusalem testifying.
And this is how faith is passed on to us – through the testimony of eye-witnesses. It was never intended that Jesus stay on earth appearing to everyone so that they can believe. It was never the plan to have him remain until 2018 so that we can see him, touch him and have coffee with him at Starbucks. We, though never seeing, believe. Scripture, in Acts 10, reminds us through the words of Peter to Cornelius that the resurrected Jesus didn’t plan to be seen by everyone, but by select eyewitnesses entrusted with telling others:
‘God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen – by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people …’ (Acts 10:40-42).
His witnesses have become windows for us – through which we see. It’s through the testimony of Peter, John, Matthew, James, Andrew and others that we believe.
Even so, each of our witnesses came to faith gradually, not always immediately or completely. For Mary, Joanna and the other Mary, it was after reflection and after remembering what they’d heard earlier in the year. For the great Indian evangelist Thomas, it was after thinking and reasoning a while. But in the end, belief in the resurrection gripped them. Belief in resurrection changed them from the inside out. Hiding from sight one day to open market-place preaching the next. From denying Christ to testifying of Christ. Peter’s constant preaching theme, as recorded throughout the book of Acts: RESURRECTION. Peter, John and the others were transformed by the knowledge of resurrection. They staked their life on it.
In a book I’ve recently read, Sam Storms says: ‘I’ve staked my life on an empty tomb. Everything I am, everything I own, everything I’ve done or hope to do hangs suspended on whether or not Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead…. If his body and bones are still buried somewhere in Palestine, or have long since disintegrated under the force of time and the laws of physics, nothing has meaning for me, nor do I have meaning for anything or anyone else.’
Is this true for you? There’s a song ringing in my mind:
Because he lives, I can face tomorrow.
Because he lives, every fear is gone.
I know he holds my life my future in his hands.
Rev John P Wilson BSc, DipEd, BTh, DMin
Clerk of Assembly, PCV
(+61) 0418 537 209