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the risen Christ
In this article I want to take some steps towards a clearer understanding of the relationship between Jesus death and his resurrection, in order to see how the reconciliation and forgiveness which Christianity claims were won in the death of Jesus can become available to people today.
The approach I will be taking will involves, amongst other paths, exploring how it is possible and intelligible to speak of experiences (and in some senses even meetings) with the risen Christ today - weaker versions of the Damascus road experience. These awarenesses, which Martin Buber famously included under his category of I-Thou encounters, often arise in the context of worship but also occur unbidden.
I want to stress that these are not elitist, or spiritual highs, but have the quality of invitation: inviting us to take a new step. In a sense the approach I take here is phenomenological, and I believe it helps us towards a theology of presence as the giving of a gift - in other words towards understanding presence as active and dynamic rather than passive.
For the early witnesses to Jesus resurrection, the whole encounter as an experience and as a meeting was directed towards the future. The context of a lively contemporary Jewish hope in the resurrection of the dead promised soon meant that Jesus own resurrection was seen as the
Perhaps more than anyone, Jurgen Moltmann has guided the contemporary church to think systematically in terms of the future, and that the future life of Gods Kingdom is already breaking into our present. Of Jesus resurrection he says:
In this, we are encouraged to return to the faith of the early church. Resurrection is to be understood and encountered as more than simply a present-day experience of the meaning of (or the benefits of) what God has achieved in the death of Christ. Karl Barth famously debated with Rudolf Bultmann: Are the death of Christ and the resurrection two separate events, or one event (including its interpretation or hermeneutic)? The reductionist position was summed up by Bultmann when he said:
I want to explore here how preferable Barths approach and subsequently that of Moltmann and others is to Bultmanns. And not only to Bultmanns, but also to the more familiar reductionist idea, recognisable in so many childrens sermons and teaching aids, that death and resurrection form a single unity or process, like chrysalis to butterfly, winter to spring.
Moltmann points to the resurrection as revealing the future, today. But at the same time, Jesus resurrection is not merely an experience of the future, rather than an experience of the past. Were this the case, we could never really know that it is Jesus himself the same person who ministered publicly in Palestine, who is present. It is perhaps because of this apparent lack of criteria for identifying the experience as an experience of Jesus that many committed Christians would share Wolfhart Pannenbergs belief that it can only be fantasy to speak of experiences of the risen Jesus today (Jesus: God and Man, pp 27f and 112f).
I trust that not many critics, however cynical, would deny that many people who claim experiences of Jesus today experience something. Hope, illusion, wish-fulfilment, vision, empowerment ... put in these terms the explosion of experience-based Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity in this century seems intelligible, even if to sophisticated observers it may seem suspect and even dangerously like an opiate of the masses.
However, I would suggest that Pannenberg and others have not gone far enough into the full meaning of Jesus self-giving, even though Pannenberg has done so much to expound it for us, and going further will provide us with a way of approaching the content of many Christian experiences and evaluating them.
In Christian terms there is nothing new in speaking of an evaluation: "You will know them by their fruit." (Matthew 12.33) Not all religious experiences are experiences of meeting with the risen Jesus. Many experiences are not of a presence at all; and others may be of a different presence. But we should find that we may indeed affirm at least one dimension of experiences of the risen presence of Jesus today, as being experiences of both the future and the past together.2 What glory do we seek to see?
Many people have a picture of Jesus in his public ministry as well as exalted as being someone obviously important and powerful. A man who could have done anything he wanted, to the rulers of nations and their armies, so that even though he chose to emphasise his poverty, somehow everyone knew he was hiding his real strength. We often cling to such ideas about him, even though we will have read that such power and earthly glory were offered to him by Satan, and rejected by him. Many people in the church and not only the leaders maintain similar assumptions about power and glory in their own ministries in the church. even while preaching about Jesus bias and favour towards the weak.
Jesus was, according to much contemporary New Testament scholarship, one of a number of Jewish peasant prophets and faith-healers in a backwater of the world stage. If we feel we want to resist such suggestions, or if they seem to weaken our faith, I would suggest this indicates we are still secretly under the sway of earthly ideas of pomp and glory. What was unique about Jesus, among his contemporaries, was his parable teaching, and his extraordinary openness, taking down divisions, barriers and assumptions, removing every possession or prop which folk usually hold on to, for example in his call to leave possessions and in his command to love your enemy.
Yet astonishingly, even seen at this comparative level, these qualities are enough to show us unparalleled glory. Lets consider how this might be. When someone takes a barrier down, things or people on both sides are changed they flow into one another. To live in complete openness means barriers are constantly disappearing. A kind of vacuum-sequence is begun: the pressured compartments of peoples lives pushing walls out into the complete space provided for sharing and unity. Even if all we felt able to say about Jesus was that he gave himself completely into Gods mission and name, this will show itself to be sufficient to reveal his immensity.
Human ideas about glory are reflected in the meaning of the Hebrew word for it, kabod, meaning weightiness, bulk. In Africa leaders are often spoken of as having belly, with the same idea. Honour is due to the powerful one, to whom is given glory. Yet one strand of meaning in the Hebrew term became more important than these ideas of power, substance and honour. Moses asked to see Gods glory (Exodus 33.18f) but the brightness would have been too much, so instead, as the "beauty" of the Lord passed by him, he was allowed to see Gods back.
Glory, kabod, also includes a meaning of light, and this awareness was to have new life in the early church. Throughout the New Testament the word for glory doxa is used 230 times, almost always as noun or in the verb form "give glory" or glorify. By contrast, the adjective glorious is used only 3 times, and of the church or pagans, not of God. Glory belongs to the very essence of God, it seems ... to reveal himself, to bring light. The profound sense of the visibility of God which Jesus had given when teaching his followers was to mean to the writers of the New Testament that the God who is present in Jesus is also visible in Jesus. Paul wrote:
In Johns gospel, glory in this sense of disclosure, revelation of God is taken to a new level as John showed Jesus death to be his glory. The linking of death and glory in a sacrificial sense is a familiar one from military warfare, where the readiness to die for ones country is portrayed as the greatest (earthly) glory; and it is powerfully active in contemporary Islamic fundamentalism. What is unique to Johns awareness of God here is that Jesus does not glorify himself by dying, but glorifies his Father, so that the Father may glorify the Son, and so on. Glory is not only sacrifice of oneself, followed by reward or praise; but a revelation of God. The very openness of Jesus was also a disclosure of God in him: the author of the gift, present in the gift who gives himself.
The same parallelism that we have already noted about self-giving applies to glory. God does not simply confer a halo of honour on his Son; he gives him his own greatest glory, which is his generosity, his self-giving.
The understanding of Gods glory as involving his total self-giving, his readiness to sacrifice himself to himself, was developed in the eastern Church into a profound understanding of the life of the triune God. The term perichoresis going from each to each was used by John of Damascus to express the way in which God gives himself fully to himself, Father to Son, Son to Spirit, Spirit to Father, Father to Spirit, and so on. (De Fide Orthodoxa, MPG 94, 789-1228)
It means that the unity of God is not a single will or subject, appearing in three personal modes. Nor is it the common substance possessed by three distinct people, which would anyway lead to tritheism. Nor is it the authority of the Father, originating the Son and Spirit, which was the earlier eastern Orthodox belief. The divine nature is, exactly, self-giving; and this giving-over of oneself to live in each other, while still remaining the giver ready to receive, constitutes the unity of God. It is a divine dance of light.
The glory of God is not merely the form of God: a radiance emanating from someone else. In his glory, both form and content are united. Gods glory is that he gives himself; and what he gives is his glory ... the ability to give himself.
Let me return, then, to the question I posed about Moltmann, Pannenberg and what future we might glimpse in a resurrection appearance.
What we see, in the unity of Jesus with his Father defined by complete self-giving, is that Jesus resurrection is a separate event from his death it is indeed a breaking-in of the future glory but at the same time the glory which breaks in is identical with the glory Jesus displayed in his public earthly ministry and above all, as John tells us, in his death.
The resurrection can in no sense be a denial or reversal of this self-giving glory, the "way of love". Therefore the resurrection of Jesus is not only a manifestation of the future. It is correct to say that seeing the risen Christ means looking into the coming glory of God; but Moltmann does not also appear to see also that this glory if we follow Johns gospel in particular is not anything different from Jesus sacrificial lifestyle, which is also the Fathers lifestyle: total self-giving.
Can we really say, then, that when we look into the face of the risen Christ, we see his self-sacrifice, the Fathers glory? Well, this is what the disciples saw, when they saw the wounds in his hands, feet and side. This connection with the past, like his Kingdom-meals with sinners and his repeated exploration on the Emmaus road of what the prophets said about the suffering of the Christ ... these signs of his self-giving were the most important indicators that this was still the Jesus they knew.
Because of this manifestation of the past in the future, we may say that Pannenbergs lack of trust in contemporary experiences of the risen lord is incorrect: we know it is Jesus because of what he gives. In the resurrection of Jesus, God presents to us what such sacrifice is all about an openness which breaks down walls.
The death of Jesus, as an event within Gods own life, reveals Gods total nature to be self-giving ... never problem-solving. This is important for people like us today, both in the way we pray, and in the attitude we take to problem situations around us. (I have explored this more fully in Why does God allow suffering, Marshall Pickering 1996.)
Problems, and also solutions, are parts of the old order of things. Paul speaks with eloquence of the frustration to which the creation or cosmos is subjected (Romans 8.20), as it longs for its freedom (in the loving hands of Gods people when they live in freedom and glory). God wills to take situations into a new level or context his care appears in the way, for example, that forgiveness and love relax a problem, taking away its sting and allowing new levels of love and friendship to enter.
As the Son gave himself into death, the final frontier of all creation, and in so doing stripped away all the barriers, fears and divisions in creation, the Father did not rescue him. But (and no one has explored this more profoundly than Moltmann) we see that the Fathers silence as his Son cried out "Why have you forsaken me?" is not a limitation of Gods ability. The Father was in effect saying to Jesus:
Paul Althaus said, in a powerful sentence:
In other words, the cross is not merely for our benefit; it belongs to the heart of Gods being. God suffers because he opens himself in Jesus to all of his creation, without separation or division. Moltmann writes:
This is often called the kenosis of God, referring to the self-emptying described at Philippians 2.7: Jesus "made himself nothing". There have been many criticisms, in the churchs history, of this approach. Recently however, Karl Rahner, in the Catholic church, has done much to show how self-giving lies at the heart of Gods action as Creator, as well as in the sending of his Son. And in the Protestant churches, Pannenberg finds self-giving to be the real mark of divinity in Jesus:
At Philippians 2.8, Jesus is described as being "obedient to death" a word hypakoe which does not suggest passive subservience but a very active listening and receiving. Jesus did not just win over death he "won it over". (I have explored this in more detail in the essay The meaning of Jesus obedience.)
Pauls theology continued to develop throughout his ministry, and by the time of the Letter to the Romans he understood Christs victory to be more than destruction of the enemies of God. In a wonderful phrase he says we are more than conquerors (Romans 8.37).
What does it mean to do something even greater than conquering? The work of love is more than victory; the work of atonement more than eradicating the enemy. Jesus, having taught his disciples to love their enemies, continued to love the enemy: he entered the place of death, so cut off from God, and gave voice to its cry: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" And in speaking its words he brought it into relationship with God a relationship of unity and shalom throughout creation so all-embracing that Paul could say:
To draw out the relationship between resurrection, death and reconciliation, then, let me first summarise the meaning of the word presence. (For a fuller exploration, see my Eucharist and Resurrection, chapter 1.)
Almost every church tradition has some kind of teaching about the presence of Jesus Christ, usually in or through the action of worship. Presence is a rich and complex word. It takes us straight to a fundamental distinction between things and people. Only people can be present, or have a presence.
Max Thurian of Taizé writes:
Many people have some awareness of Gods presence, but seldom go on to explore some of the wonderful questions this raises. Is God always invisible? Do we ever hear him? So how do we know who is present? Are there other presences, as well as God? Are they benign, or sometimes malevolent?
The word presence is closely related to giver, just as present is to gift. We can put this relation schematically (using presence in a less familiar active sense) as:
To be aware of a presence is to expect to receive something. Something is likely to happen, stemming from the other presence (person) and outwith our control. The relationship we enter when someone is present to us is charged with the expectation that we will receive something from the one who is present - positive or negative - and charged also with our own willingness or unwillingness to give something back to the other person.
7 Inside the experience of presence
I think it is possible, and even proper, for us to speak of seeing Jesus today. It is no doubt foolish to try, but also essential to start. I claim very little for myself. I have certainly felt his hand on my shoulder, and heard his voice. When I was called to ordained ministry, the call came during a period of three or four hours on my own in a farm cottage in Dunblane, in a room invaded by his presence. This was so clear that whenever I tried to speak to him, a hand came on my shoulder and a voice spoke, Be still, it is enough.
I dont think this kind of experience is that unusual, either, though many of us are not confident about owning up to our awareness. Research figures from Alister Hardys Oxford Institute suggest that up to 80% of people in Britain have had religious experiences involving some sense of an I-Thou or a supernatural dynamic. We are simply sensory creatures, for whom any intense experience has to be interpreted in sensory terms. When we are overwhelmed by the generosity of the risen Christ, as he comes among us and gives us his gifts, we have no choice but to give this some kind of sensory description. It is his love we are being touched by, interpreted through sight or touch or hearing.
These experiences are not illusory, though they may often be misrepresented or badly articulated. They are often group-based, where a whole group or congregation is deeply aware of his presence in some variety of ways. But it is important that, as the first disciples discovered, both in the Upper Room and on the Emmaus road, the risen Lord appears and then disappears. Jesus presence confirms the constant Biblical pattern of promise and fulfilment, in which God repeatedly answers his promises, not literally but with something which turns out to be an even greater promise. Each sign of his presence is important because it creates a new level of expectation in us. His presence is the shape or framework for the new me, the new garment of identity he fashions and then graciously bestows on me when I step inside his presence.8 Commanding spaces creating discipleship
(This next section is adapted from The meaning of Jesus obedience)
His touch and then absence creates what I will call commanding spaces, for his people to enter, inhabit and act in. These spaces, created by his presence and then absence, place a great obedience upon us. We are to step in his footsteps, as the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas beautifully depicts: In his masters steps he trod.
This was Jesus own method of discipleship, at least as Johns Gospel portrays it. Jesus disagreed with the common assumption of his time, formalised in the Priestly scriptures, that God had stopped working in and on his world. Instead Jesus said, My Father is always at his work, to this very day; and I, too am working (John 5.17). He explained: The Son can do nothing by himself: he does only what he sees the Father doing (John 5.19). It is the way in which an athletics coach both encourages and demands more of his pupil. Watch what I am doing... now I will stop, and you begin.
We are humbling as it may be to admit it no more than spiritual toddlers before our Father. Most of us are still learning to walk in the Spirit. How does a father and in human families it is often the father who takes most joy in this how does a father lead his child to walk? He bends down in front of the child, or perhaps slightly behind and to one side, and takes the childs hands, supporting the childs weight (no doubt including a soiled and soggy nappy) and pulls this young person onto his or her feet. And then forward.
So, held by Daddys hands, we take one step forward; then perhaps one more. It is the Father who does this for us. He supports; yet he gently challenges us to step forward. He may do this several times. It feels reassuring and exciting at the same time: to be held in the Fathers arms. Then, what does he do? The next time, after he pulls you to your feet ... he lets go.
He withdraws. He steps out of the way. So that you can take the next few steps all by yourself. And you take a few, then fall over, and complain as loudly as possible! For many of us, this happens a lot, and we tend to get very cross, either with God or with our immediate church superiors. So we may sulk, refusing to even give Daddy our hands the next time, clutching them under our armpits and shaking our heads in mock despair.
Eventually though for some the pain of wounded pride is too embarrassing and it does not happen at all eventually we unclose our hands, and try again, and again, until in a bizarre mixture of confidence and staggering, we discover that we have - and can use - the gift of walking! Walking in the Spirit drunk in the Spirit, indeed! And this doesnt just stop with the walking. Think of the cut knees and bruised egos when Daddy gets us to learn to ride spiritual bicycles, or handle the tools of a spiritual carpenter!
Through risking ourselves in a commanding space we find that the presence who became absent has given or generated in us a new gift. For some, this space may be a long absence, even a desert ... but the promise has been made by someone (God) who was present. This dynamic of promise and fulfilment, where the fulfilment becomes an even greater promise, has been identified as central to Old and New Testaments by many recent theologians, including Gerhard von Rad and Oscar Culmann.9 Living out the reconciliation today
Once we begin from the awareness of presence as giving, we can also begin to see that Jesus life-style and death were exactly what life in the glory of God in the Kingdom will be like. God wants us to be like himself totally self-giving. So what he gives us is what has been accomplished in the life and death of his Son a reconciliation of all things, a unity or atonement (at-one-ment):
In these, and many other New Testament passages, we see how the church began to view the cross, Jesus death, as not merely an event, a past achievement, but even more a contemporary reality. And not merely a temporary reality, prior to the new life of the Kingdom to come, but what the Kingdom life is.
Thomas Merton put this graphically:
The work of atonement is, in one sense, completed by Jesus. He has overcome every barrier, drawing all things into unity. Yet people must still stretch out their hands and receive the unity he presents, in order to become part of it and one with him. Indeed, the whole of creation is waiting for us to attain "freedom and glory" so that it may be brought to freedom itself (Romans 8.21). The gifts of Christ must be received and used. As the author of Colossians puts it:
Here we can begin to see what is so wrong with what I have sometimes called appropriation Christianity, i.e. the self-concerned possession of Gods gifts for ones own well-being (whether material prosperity, psychological or emotional peace, the energy to cope with the rest of life, and so on). To possess the gift means to close out, to shut out, the relationship with the Giver. The Baptist missiologist Orlando Costas makes a very accurate observation about the theology which underlies much personal piety ... both evangelical and catholic:
This false sense of completeness is represented today by the popular phrase "Jesus is the answer (to all your problems)". It reflects the problem-solving approach to God which we have already considered, and is the contemporary version of a pronounced strand in the church which turns Jesus into a projection of human needs. Paul Tillich summarises this when he said, "Christology is a function of soteriology" (Systematic Theology II, p.150), which means in effect Who Christ is depends on how he helps us.
For while it is quite right to trust our experience of God as the way to know God face-to-face as we have done with the exploration of presence our experience is guarded from fantasy not only by the corrective knowledge of the Biblical, historical Jesus, but by a fuller awareness of what it is Jesus actually gives us, which the Biblical examples of Jesus ministry confirm.For what Jesus gives to us is the ability to give ourselves.
This is what forgiveness means to do the giving-for another which he or she has become unable to do. If we are not giving ourselves completely, we are in no sense fruitfully receiving or using the gifts of Christ.
Although the eucharist has always been seen as a even the sacrament of forgiveness, this has usually been understood in a medical or mechanistic way as the application of a cleansing ... a matter of "what I get out of it". It is essential, in understanding forgiveness, to see it as one of the cardinal ways of receiving and using the gifts which Christ gives. As Jesus parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18.21-25) makes clear, the gift must be used, or it cannot remain with the one to whom it was entrusted.10 Summary
The resurrection of Jesus is, according to the early church, the foretaste of the future life in Gods Kingdom, the life of glory. At the same time, because Jesus self-sacrifice shows us what glory really is, the life of the future glory in the Kingdom is "cross-shaped".
The resurrection of Jesus presents his death, not merely as a past event but as the essence of God. So the resurrection is not a consequence of Jesus death. The resurrection is not an illustration of a natural pattern of dying and rising, chrysalis to butterfly, an idea which appeals so strongly at the levels of morality and beauty. Instead, as Thomas Merton puts it:
God does not solve problems. He overcomes barriers and divisions with love, his unfolding work of reconciliation. Christ has achieved a reconciliation of all things, loving even the last enemy, death ... but we must still receive this gift of atonement and unity in order to be part of it; and receiving it means using it and living it out.n