I love science and history. I guess it comes from my childhood when long before Discovery Channel, Google and Wikipedia, one of my greatest joys, was to read from the World Book Encyclopedia collection my parents bought for my siblings and me. On any lazy Sunday afternoon in East Tennessee, you could find me with any one of those alphabetical volumes, traveling off into some reading adventure. I always loved the “A-B” volume, because I loved to explore Astrophysics and Atomic Energy or the Battle of the Bulge and Bach, or some other interesting topic. Science and History have always intrigued and captured my attention. For some folks it may seem strange, but in my vocation as a priest, I have come to embrace that science and religion are not at odds with each other. As a matter of fact, both science and religion provide us with answers to the most probing questions of life.
The difference between science and religion seems to be that each provides answers to different questions. Science attempts to answer the how and religion, the why. John Polkinghorne is an English theoretical physicist and Anglican priest. Attempting to explain the questions and answers posed to and responded by science and religion, he once wrote about the origin of the cosmos, “The universe sprang into being about fifteen billion years ago through the fiery explosion of the big bang (the how).” (John Pokinghorne [Is Science Enough, Sewanee Theological Review 39:1, Sewanee, TN] 1995, 12) Alternatively, he added, “The universe came into being and remains in being because of the Word of a Creator whose mind and purpose are behind all of the scientific truths that we perceive (the why).” (John Pokinghorne [Is Science Enough, Sewanee Theological Review 39:1, Sewanee, TN] 1995, 12) Neither answer seems to conflict with the other. They both embrace and complement each other, and both offer answers to our experience of the depth of questions we have about our origin. Science and Religion provide answers based on experience, but both experiences are very different. Religious experience is very personal; it deals with the emotion, the memory, the subjective nature of the spirit. “Science looks at only one type of experience, namely, impersonal experience.” (John Pokinghorne [Is Science Enough, Sewanee Theological Review 39:1, Sewanee, TN] 1995, 12)
On this day, we celebrate, commemorate, and recall the experience of the first followers of Jesus who three days after his death on the cross, went to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty. We consider the resurrection of Jesus as experienced by Peter, Mary and the other disciples, because it has been carried in the hearts of billions of Christians for centuries. Our proclamation, “Christ has been raised,” is not an attempt to provide scientific proof of the resurrection of Christ, but the proclamation that “Christ has been raised” is a proclamation of the reality of the experience itself. The Biblical account initially only gives us an empty tomb, a rolled away stone, and an empty grave. It is only after this discovery, that we have evidence of the experiences of the Risen Christ by the disciples. Mary, Peter and another unnamed disciple went to the tomb, and found it empty. Peter and the other disciple left and went to their homes. Mary remained crying and distraught not accepting the promise that death was not the end. Then suddenly, Mary saw Jesus, and at first, she did not recognize him, but when he called her name, she recognized that he had been raised. Mary experienced the Risen Christ and the promises of God were revealed to her in that moment.
The gospels record many other encounters which the disciples and many others had of the Risen Lord. If Mary’s solitary encounter with the Risen Lord had been it, we might have had the end of the story. We might then make assumptions about her experience, and based on that alone, many folks have done so. However, the story of the experience of the Resurrected Lord does not end with Mary, or even this early Christian community. The ancient Christian faith, the Good News of God in Christ, has spread as people have been transformed by the promise of resurrection, as people have experienced the Spirit who inspires us to proclaim, “Christ has risen.” Billions of people have witnessed through their lives the reality of resurrection in their lives.
The recorded history of the life of the Church, emerging out of a small group in Jerusalem, expanded throughout the Roman Empire, shifted dramatically by the age of the enlightenment and the reformation, and continues to evolve and shift even today. The core of the narrative of our faith remains the same, God entered human history in Jesus of Nazareth; who healed and preached love, reconciliation, peace, and restoration. Because of his message of love, Jesus suffered at the hands of the power wielders of that day; he was crucified and died. Our proclamation of faith does not end with his death, for from the resurrection experience of Jesus in a small community in first century Palestine over 2000 years ago, we today proclaim, “Christ is Risen, the Lord is Risen indeed.”
In the promise of Resurrection, people have faced life’s joy, peace, tragedy, challenges and death. Proving the resurrection as an event is not our proclamation, living and sharing the Good News of the reality of the proclamation is the Christian faith. Evidence of the reality of the resurrection, is evident in the experience of the people’s lives that have been changed, are being changed now, and we live in the hope of new life in a time to come. As a seminarian, I served as a hospice chaplain for ten weeks one summer. I spent many hours at the bedside of those who were actively dying. Each person’s experience was different, but they all shared a common journey. The reality of their own mortality was present in those last days, but strangely, almost every patient shared a sense of peace, a sense of quiet calm and joy. Most of the people I served during this time were people of faith. In our conversations about their journey, the shared with me stories of the hope they had in God. It was the hope of God’s relationship of love that lived beyond the grave that brought them that peace, that sense of quiet calm and joy, that abundant hope, even as they faced their last days.
Imagine life without hope. Imagine facing the tragedies, the trials, the unsettling challenges of life, and facing death without hope. We have hope in God’s promises of grace, mercy and love that have been fulfilled in the resurrection of Christ. The reality of Christ’s resurrection is not about the scientific proof of the event; it is about the reality of the event in the lives transformed by the promise and its reality. The Apostle Paul, one of Jesus’ latent followers wrote, “as we die a death like his, we will share in a resurrection like his.” Our hope is in that future resurrection when God’s kingdom will be present, but new life emerges from death now, from suffering to hope now. God enters the fray of human experience now, death included, and new life emerges. Resurrection is the promise that death is not the end and resurrection is the promise that the daily dying is not the end either.
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Lyle, Jr. once wrote, “We do not proclaim that we are raised to wait around for the hereafter. We do not proclaim that we are finished with the journey. We do not proclaim that there is nothing left for us to do. Rather, in baptism we proclaim that what has happened to Jesus will happen to us. We are raised to walk, right here, right now, in newness of life.” [The Rev. Dr. Kenneth R. Lyle, Jr. (The Living Pulpit, Apr/June 2005),14]
The promise that God’s love lasts beyond the grave and the promise of New Life in Him is for that time which will one day come, but it is most assuredly a reality today. Look around you at those whose lives have been transformed by their living into the promise of God’s eternal love; their hope that in following Jesus Christ who lived love, peace, reconciliation, and mercy, that we will like him will experience new life. The reality of this promise transforms us and it engages us that we like Christ, are to take up our cross and follow him.
Our ministry as disciples is to suffer with those who suffer, to sit at the bedside of the sick and dying, to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the broken, and restore the penitent. The reality of resurrection in our lives should strengthen and empower us to bring about new life in the tragedies and struggles of others. Our proclamation that “Christ is risen,” is the proclamation that from the ashes of despair, tragedy, and pain, we can live in the promise that new life can, does and will emerge anew. “We are raised to walk right here, right now, in newness of life.” The Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ is a reality for us who take on the identity as disciples of Jesus, and with believing in, with faith in that reality, we are able to shout from the very rooftops, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Christ is Risen, The Lord is risen indeed.”