Responding to the Resurrection
Luke reports the aftermath of the first Easter, he tells us:
With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
Everything that follows in the Church’s history and in the lives of all the Christians begins with this and is build on this foundation. Christianity begins and is build on the foundation of Jesus’ Resurrection and the apostles’ testimony to it. There is no getting round this. The Resurrection is central to Christianity. It is not too much to say: no Resurrection, no Christianity. This observation is true in a double sense. If there is no Resurrection then there is very little content to Christianity. Paul recognised this quite early, he says:
“. . . if Christ has not been raised then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:14)
But in another sense, no Resurrection, no Christianity, because the Church is an immediate response to an historical event. From an historical point of view, if the Resurrection hadn’t happened, the church wouldn’t have happened. It is not just that Christians are “followers of Christ.” We are fundamentally different from the followers of other illustrious (but now dead) teachers/leaders of the past. Christianity is of a fundamentally different order from those other movements that exist in the world. We are not the same as say, Marxists. Our commitment to Christ is not the same as the their commitment to Karl Marxists. Though it has to be said that our commitment to Jesus’ teachings should be at least as strong as theirs is to the teachings of a dead German economist and philosopher! We not only follow the teachings of Jesus, we also respond to something that happened to him. Jesus is alive! That is the witness of the apostles, and that is the testimony of the Church ever since. The demand which that witness and testimony place before us is: how are we, how are you going to respond? What are you going to do about that?
The Resurrection shows that the universe is not as we usually assume it to be. What we thought about the world turns out to be false. The way the world works is not as it appears at first sight. How things are, are not as the “World” is determined to tell us. The event of the Resurrection, and our knowledge of it fundamentally changes our understanding of the world, and our understanding of our place in it. After the Resurrection we do not and we cannot see ourselves and the world in the same light. Jesus was dead, but he hasn’t stayed dead. We acclaim: Christ is alive!
Death does not have the last word about Jesus. The central promise of the gospel is that those who place their trust in Jesus will share in that life. Death will not have the last word over those who follow Jesus, who commit themselves to him and his teaching, who allow his risen life to determine their lives. Which always leaves us with the question, what should that life look like?
How are you going to respond? What are you going to do about that? One might claim that the answer to that question is individual and it is spiritual. That the answer to that question is what we might call “existential.” How we might respond to the Resurrection has to do with ourselves, our own being, own existence.
In particular the Resurrection has the power to change our attitude to our own mortality. The Resurrection of Jesus at the very least gives us grounds for hope about that. The gospel has the power to release us from the fear of death and to live happier and more fulfilled lives. All this may be true. Indeed perhaps if we were to compare the lived experience of Christians with that of non-Christians you would perhaps discover that is the case. Overall, probably, you would find that as a rule Christians do live happier more fulfilled lives. But at the individual level, which of course is what we’re talking about, you would also find plenty of counter examples. There are many non-Christians who live perfectly happy and fulfilled lives, just as there is no shortage of Christians whose lives are burdened even blighted by what live actually brings to them in spite of their faith.
And it has to be said, this individualised, what we might call “existential” take on the Resurrection and on Christianity, is exactly what we might expect to find in a society and culture produced by advanced consumer capitalism. Such a take on the Resurrection and such a response to it owes as much to the individualism of our times as it does to the gospel itself.
How are you going to respond to the Resurrection? What are you going to do about that? One way to answer that question is to ask another: what happened? How did those who had direct experience of the Resurrection respond? What did those who heard the testimony of the apostles do about it? This is, of course, why Luke the book of Acts in the first place, to provide us exactly with that, a picture of how the followers of Jesus responded to the Resurrection. He shows us what happened.
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and of one one mind and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions but everything was owned in common. . . and great grace was upon them all. There was not any needy person among them.”
The first thing that has to be said about Luke’s picture of the first response to the Resurrection is that it is “social.” The impact which the Resurrection has, contrary to how people now might think to respond, was not simply individual and confined to a realm we might call “spiritual.” The Resurrection is a real event in the real world, and it has real world consequences. Whilst it does change individual attitudes of people to themselves, their lives and their mortality, it plays out most importantly in relation to others and in the formation of a community. What happens after the Resurrection is the Church. How to respond to the Resurrection is the Church. The Resurrection has social consequences, it leads to the formation of a distinctive community. This community has two very clear features: It is a reconciled community, they “were of one heart and one soul.” And it practised economic justice, “there was not a needy person among them.” The truth is you can’t have one of those without the other. The contemporary slogan: no justice, no peace, is not wrong. What the Resurrection produces, the immediate response to it is a revolutionary social transformation.
Those who respond to the Resurrection form a reconciled community. People who know about the Resurrection can be at peace with one another. The changed understanding of the universe which Jesus’ Resurrection produces releases those who put their trust in it from the attitudes, the defensiveness and the assertiveness, that sets people against on another. The Resurrection tells us something different about ourselves and about our destiny, that saves us from trying to carve identity and purpose out from one another. Those who are responding to the Resurrection can live at peace with one another because they have a shared purpose and a shared direction. They do, as Luke puts it, have one heart and one soul.
This might be the picture Luke wants to paint of the first Church. And it is perhaps the picture of the Church which exists in the pious imagination of preachers. But it bears very little resemblance to any church which most of us have had experience of. One of the early opponents of Christianity once said: “See how these Christians love one another.” When those word were uttered the were a backhanded compliment. Christianity was hard to dismiss because it had the power to create reconciled communities. The trouble is, when we quote those ancient words now we tend to do so through gritted teeth, recognising their irony, using them only sarcastically. The early Church, the one pictured by Luke, presents a very fundamental challenge to the contemporary Church. If they responded to the Resurrection in that way, why to it seems so hard for us?
If the first distinctive feature of the Christian response to the resurrection is seldom seen, it is at least possible to imagine. We can at least imagine being members of a Church where we have be of one heart and one soul with everyone around us. Not least because it has probably happened for all of us, now and again, at least for a moment. The first feature is possible to imagine, the second is almost impossible to picture. The most startling feature of the first response to the Resurrection was its economic impact. The first Church reordered itself, and most particularly its material possessions, for the benefit of all its members. It created a community without private property and with mutual aid, where all possession were held for the benefit of all, where presumably all economic activity was directed to the well-being of the whole community.
Luke’s focus on money and on economic relationships comes as a surprise to us. But in both his Gospel and in the Book of Acts Luke spends a great deal of time discussing issues we almost never dare to mention in church. It was in fact Karl Marx who pointed out that almost all human attitudes and interactions can be traced back to economic causes. Societies, communities, are ordered according to who owns what, and who controls the production and distribution of human needs. Luke was no Marxist. But there is some sense in which the first Christians were communists. After all it is Jesus himself who says:
“For where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)
The response of the first Christians to the Resurrection is to reorder their life together, and that means their economic life together, to ensure that it works for the well-being of all. In so doing they achieved the ideal to which communism aspires a society which has, in Karl Marx’s phrase, moved from “each according to their ability” to “each according to their need.” The response to the resurrection is a revolutionary reordering of social and economic relationships. The first church in its life together also presents a picture, a model, of the sort of world God intends for all.
But such a picture of Church life bears no resemblance to the churches we have experience of. And the rejection of private property probably makes us rather uncomfortable. We, I suspect, are not prepared to become communists as part of our response to the Resurrection. We don’t see Christianity making that kind of profound difference to how we order our lives together. Though that response to the apostles’ testimony has never quite died out. There has always remained a small part of the church which has been determined to build the new world inside the shell of the old, and was prepared to begin right away. We could still look, if we wanted to, towards the Catholic Worker Movement founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin or the Bruderhof founded by Eberhard Arnold, for examples of contemporary Christians prepared to live out the same response to the Resurrection as the Christians portrayed by Luke in Acts. Even if, for whatever reasons, we aren’t prepared to go there ourselves, yet.
The picture which Luke offers us of how to respond to the Resurrection is a challenge. It is because the Church we are part of doesn’t look like the Church he describes. This perhaps makes us anxious, but it should also fill us with regret. The Resurrection seems so much more powerful to them than it does to us. But Luke doesn’t write to beat us up about ourselves. He writes to inspire us. His testimony is the same testimony as the apostles. “Christ is alive!” he says. “Look what is possible when you understand how the world really is!” The power which broke the bonds of death at Easter is the same power which is at work in us now. It is the power which will reconcile us to another so that we can live at peace, with one mind and one soul. It is the power which will bring about economic justice, that releases the tight grip of private property, and will mean that no on will be in need. Christ is alive, and that power is still active in the world. It holds out both a challenge and a promise. Our prayer can be that like the first Church for whom it could be said:
“Great grace was was upon them all.”
That this become true for us, and that response to the Resurrection become ours as well.
Responding to the Resurrection by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0