“Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.” Over the past several weeks, television networks and news. shows such as the Science Channel, Discovery, the Today Show and even CNN are all offering special programming about religion. On Sunday nights, CNN has been producing a show entitled: “Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, or Forgery.” The advertisement for this coming Sunday’s show is, “Finding Jesus discovers fascinating new insights into the historical Jesus, utilizing the latest scientific techniques and archaeological research.” I have to wonder if the writers and producers of these documentaries somehow believe that providing certainty or scientific proof of the story of Jesus death, resurrection, and ascension somehow makes faith more reasonable and acceptable.
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 one another. 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 of things, and religion, the why.
John Polkinghorne is an English theoretical physicist and he happens to also serve as an 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).”_ 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).”
These two statements do not conflict with on another, but both embrace and complement each other, and both offer answers to our experience of the depth of questions we have about our origin and God’s work of creation in it. 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, and the subjective nature of the spirit. Polkinghorne states, “Science looks at only one type of experience, namely, impersonal experience.”_ Science attempts to explain life’s mysteries through the latest scientific techniques and archaeological research.
On this day, we Christians celebrate, commemorate, and recall the experience of the first followers of Jesus, who three days after their Master’s death on the cross, went to his tomb and found it empty. A part of our proclamation as Christians is the truth of the resurrection of Jesus, as experienced by Peter, Mary and the other disciples, while knowing that this reality has been carried in the hearts of billions of people for centuries.
Our proclamation, “Christ is risen, the Lord is risen indeed,” does not in itself aim to provide the world with scientific proof of the resurrection of Christ, but our proclamation, “Christ is risen” provides the world with the Church’s experience of Jesus’ resurrection, which is a reality for all believers.
If you listen closely, the Biblical account of the first glimpse of resurrection was a tomb absent of its occupant and a rolled away stone. It is only after that initial scientific evidence or discovery that we later come to know the early community’s experiences of the Risen Christ by the disciples. If we relied only on science and fact about that event, we might have been left with only other possibilities.
So, 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, but she did not forget the promise that death was not the end. 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 through that experience, she knew the promises of God were revealed to her in that moment. She ran to tell the others that Jesus was risen.
The gospels document several other encounters the disciples and others had with the Risen Lord, but if Mary’s solitary encounter with the Risen Lord had been the only one, we might have been left with other possibilities. If we relied only on science and supporting facts alone, we might make assumptions about her experience as delusional, filled with grief, or maybe she had a psychological disorder.
However, the story of the experience of the Resurrected Lord does not end with Mary, or even with that early Christian community. The ancient Christian faith, the hope of the Good News of God in Christ, has spread throughout the world as people have been transformed by the promise of resurrection, as people experience the Holy Spirit who inspires us to proclaim, “Christ has risen.” Billions of people throughout the centuries have experienced by faith, the reality of resurrection in their lives and the promise of the resurrection to come. That my friends, is a fact.
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 to the world scientific evidence of the resurrection will not bring about faith, but it will serve only as an artifact of a world-changing event. The experience of resurrection in the church, and the faith we have in the reality of Jesus’ reconciling life, ministry, death, and resurrection, inspires in us a desire to live and share the Good News of the reality of that proclamation, a declaration we believe is true, a fact, and which is the basis of our Christian faith.
Hard evidence of the reality of the resurrection cannot be found in archeological digs, ancient historical documents, or carbon date testing. The truth of resurrection is found in the hearts of the faithful, in the experience of people’s lives, who have been changed, are being changed now, and we live in the hope of new life in a time to come.
Eight years ago while in seminary, I served as a hospice chaplain for ten weeks. I spent many hours at the bedside of those who were actively dying. Each person’s experience of their last days 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 as the end approached.
Most of the people I served during this time were people of faith. In our conversations about their impending death, they 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. Can you imagine life without hope?
Can you imagine facing the tragedies, the trials, the unsettling challenges of life, and facing death without hope? My sisters and brothers, we have hope in God’s promises of grace, mercy and love that have been fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus 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. Jesus’ resurrection is the promise that death is not the end, and Jesus’ 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 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 when we believe 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.”