by T.V. Philip
T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India.
The following appeared in The Kingdom of God is Like This, by T.V. Philip, jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Cross Junction, M.C. Road, Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerela, India. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
We have no scientific evidence or rational proof that Jesus is risen from the dead. But the church exists because of the Easter event. Because Jesus is risen, he has become not only our judge in whose presence all of our life is an open book, but also the source of our forgiveness, our healing and our wholeness.
Matthew 28: 1-10
If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. ... If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are all men most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)
This is how St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth about the resurrection of Christ. For Paul, Christ is indeed raised from the dead, the first of all who have fallen asleep. Because Christ is risen, we can receive the forgiveness of sins and the hope of new life not only in this world but also beyond this world. The Christian church everywhere confesses, ‘We believe in the forgiveness of sin, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting’. The resurrection of Christ is the corner stone of Christian faith.
The belief in the resurrection, as in the virgin birth, is faced with innumerable intellectual and theological problems. Many honest people find it very difficult to accept the idea of resurrection from the dead. We need not blame them. Even though Jesus had told his disciples that he would rise again after the crucifixion, they could not understand it. They never expected Jesus to rise again. After the crucifixion they were bewildered and perplexed. They were full of doubts and disbelief. But the situation soon changed. Their encounter with the risen Lord changed the whole situation. The disciples who disbelieved, the disciples who betrayed, and those who deserted him at the time of crisis, were now forgiven by the risen Lord. They were given a new hope, and a new mission. The church traces its origin to the Easter event. It is a community which confesses the resurrection of Jesus Christ and hopes in the resurrection of the dead.
The Acts of the Apostles gives us a number of sermons preached by the first apostles. At the beginning of Acts, there is one preached by Peter on the day of Pentecost. His was a Jewish audience in Jerusalem of those who had witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus He told them:
This man, Jesus of Nazareth, whom you put to death, God raised from the dead and we are witnesses of the fact. Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.
Peter tells those who had collaborated in the death of Jesus that his resurrection from the dead meant that he had now become the Lord, which means our judge. By putting Jesus to death, the Jewish leaders thought that they were the masters and Jesus was the victim. By the resurrection of Christ, their role was now reversed, the victim had now become their Judge. Peter told them that by putting Jesus to death they were guilty of blood.
To be confronted by the risen Lord, to stand before his judgement seat, is to be reminded of our past sins. It is not to ignore or forget our past, but to remember and recollect our past -- our sins and failures, our joys and sorrows, the injustices we have done, our failure to love and serve, and our part in crucifying Jesus. Jesus was the victim of Israel. They mercilessly judged the innocent man. Now, after the resurrection, he is the judge. Before the risen Lord, there is no hide and seek and there is no cover up.
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other disciples, ‘what are we to do?’ Peter told them, ‘Repent and be baptised and receive forgiveness of sins’. The early church did not present the exaltation of the crucified Jesus as a threat to the Jews, as a punishment for their wrong doings, but as promise and hope. In the name of the risen Lord, forgiveness and healing are offered. Because Jesus is risen, he has become not only our judge in whose presence all of our life is an open book, but also the source of our forgiveness, our healing and our wholeness.
The risen Lord is the means of our transformation, our salvation. The early church preached the risen Lord as the source of the forgiveness of our sins because they experienced forgiveness and wholeness in their own life in the encounter with the risen Lord.
The Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and St. Paul mention a number of appearances of the risen Lord to different people and groups. There are certain elements common to all of them. In all the appearances the past is recollected, groups or persons are forgiven, and lives are transformed.
In the fourth Gospel there is an encounter between the risen Lord and Peter. With the crucifixion, the disciples’ hope that Jesus would establish the kingdom for Israel completely disappeared. When Peter went back to fishing, others went with him. Suddenly the risen Lord appeared to them on the shore of the lake. The disciples, at first, did not recognize that it was Jesus.
Jesus invited them to come and have breakfast. After they had finished eating, the risen Lord confronted Peter. To Peter, who had defied him three times before the crucifixion, Jesus three times puts the question, ‘Simon, son of John, will you love me more than these’. In that asking, the whole past of Peter, his boasting that he would never deny Jesus, his lack of love and faith, all are recollected and brought to his memory. By the third time Peter could stand it no longer. It is written that Peter was grieved.
If Peter was to be reinstated, he needed to meet the risen Lord just as he was, with all his past, as the one who denied Jesus and as the one who forsook him at the time of crisis. The risen Lord comes to us as our judge before he meets us as our Saviour. Peter was grieved. Jesus forgave him and re-established him and told him three times, ‘Feed my sheep’.
This is true also in the case of St. Paul. Paul had a very dramatic encounter with the risen Lord. Breathing out murderous threats against the disciples of Jesus, he was on his way to Damascus to take Christians prisoners. On the way he was met by the risen Lord. As he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him, and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ Saul asked, ‘Who are you, Lord? Jesus replied, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting’. First Paul had to be shown that he was a persecutor. By persecuting Christians he was persecuting Jesus. Yet the judge is also Paul’s saviour. The risen Lord appeared to Ananias in Damascus and he came to Paul and told him, ‘The Lord who appeared to you on the road has sent me that yon may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit’. In confrontation with the risen Lord, Paul was forced to face the fact that he was a persecutor of Jesus. But the Lord also gave him his sight, filled him with the Holy Spirit and made him his chosen instrument to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.
Of all the resurrection appearances, the one which is the most beautiful and moving is the appearance to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning. In St. Paul’s account of the resurrection appearances, the appearance to Mary is not mentioned. It is also true that the appearance to Mary and other women has not received adequate importance in the church’s tradition. Perhaps it was so because, according to Jewish law, a woman’s witness in a law court was useless and women were not to be trusted.
In the synoptic Gospels Mary, with other women, went to the tomb on Easter morning. Iii the fourth Gospel Mary Magdalene went alone. Luke does not mention an appearance to Mary or to any other woman. But according to Matthew, Mark and John, it was to Mary Magdalene that the risen Lord first appeared. The fourth Gospel gives us a better account.
We do not know why exactly Mary went to the tomb that early. If it were to anoint the body of Jesus, Mary knew that the tomb was closed and there was no hope of someone rolling the stone for her. It is rather puzzling that Mary went so early to the tomb. Whatever other reason she had, there was no doubt that she went to the tomb simply drawn by the love she had for Jesus. She loved her Lord so much that she was simply waiting for the dawn to go and weep at his tomb. Only women are capable of expressing their love and affection with such intensity and sincerity. When she went, she found the stone rolled away.
Mary remained there weeping. It is interesting that Peter and John also came to the tomb and when they found that the tomb was empty, they went home. With her Lord being taken away, Mary was completely lost. She saw someone standing there. Thinking he was the gardener, Mary told him, ‘Sir if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, I will take him away’ .-Even in death she wanted to be with her Lord.
Then she heard her name being called, Mary. In that call, she remembered Jesus, all her past association with him -- Mary from whom Jesus had driven out seven demons. She remembered her past life, when she was under the control of demons, not one but seven. She remembered the day, at the house of Simon the Pharisee, she standing behind Jesus, wetting his feet with tears, and wiping them with her hair, kissing his feet and anointing them with ointment. Simon the Pharisee was very critical of Jesus and was angry, and murmured, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of a woman this is who is touching him’. But Jesus did know, and Mary knew also what sort of a woman she was. Jesus turned to Simon and said, ‘I tell you, her sins which are many are forgiven, for she loved much’.
On that Easter morning, in that tender call of the risen Lord, all her past is brought to her memory. She turned towards him, fell down and clasped his feet. In that act, a new relationship with the risen Lord was established. She became the first evangelist. She was the first witness of the risen Lord. It was she who went and told the other disciples that Jesus was risen. If the apostles were those who were the eye witnesses of the risen Lord, then Mary Magdalene was the first apostle.
We have no scientific evidence or rational proof that Jesus is risen from the dead. But the church exists because of the Easter event. From the time Mary Magdalene met the risen Lord to this day, millions and millions have heard him calling their names and have experienced forgiveness of sins and a new life. They live because he lives.