That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life...we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Imagine what the Christian Faith would look like if the resurrection story in the Gospels simply ended with the words, “He has risen, he is not here” (Mark 16:6). What would Christianity look like if the account ended with just the claim that Christ had risen from the dead? Without any subsequent appearances to his followers or his journey with the two travelers on the Road to Emmaus. Without him coming to stand before the disciples like he does in today’s Gospel. In short, what would the Gospel look like if there were no “witnesses of these things” -- no witnesses of the risen Lord -- but only a claim that the rest of us simply had to accept or reject at face value?
While you’re thinking about those questions for yourselves, I’ll go ahead and cut to the chase. I’ve recently been reading a book on the resurrection which makes the bold claim that “the resurrection of Christ in isolation from mankind would not be a gospel message” . This is worth unpacking a bit. What it’s saying is that even if Christ did in fact rise again, his resurrection would not necessarily be “good news” if it was just something that happened to Christ alone, something that was isolated from the rest of humanity. It’s sort of what I was getting at in my sermon for Easter Sunday, when I said that the resurrection of Christ is only of the utmost significance for us if there is some way for us to participate in it. But before we could ever participate in Christ’s resurrection, it would have to first be revealed to us. And the revelation of something as mysterious as the resurrection demands more than just the claim that Christ had risen. For the resurrection to be a gospel message, Christ himself -- the one who “was from the beginning” -- must also be “that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands.” Someone needs to see the risen Christ.
So, again, if the New Testament had stopped with only the claim that Jesus had risen from the dead -- if that’s all we had to go on -- then the Christian Faith simply wouldn’t be the Christian Faith. What we would have been left with is a mere suggestion, an abstract proposition, something that would only be relevant to those who happen to find it personally interesting or agreeable. The resurrection would not be significant because it’s true, but rather because certain people think that it’s true. And that’s a big difference! It would be like a subjective, personal preference: just like how no one can say for sure that chocolate is, in fact, the best flavor of ice cream, and so what’s interesting is the fact that lots of people seem to think that chocolate is the best flavor.
Unfortunately, I suspect that this is actually what a lot of people think Christianity is like, even Christians. All of the beliefs we have, whether about the resurrection or anything else, are often seen as optional “religious” preferences that Christians happen to have. Faith becomes like a personal choice to affirm a certain set of claims that fall under the label of “Christianity”; and “the Church” becomes that group of people who happen to make that choice. But there can be no Gospel here, because the faith of the Church is no longer rooted in the truth that has been revealed -- the truth that the Lord is risen indeed -- but in the personal feelings of its members who like the idea of that claim being the truth. Any “gospel” that such a Church could attempt to proclaim would only be a gospel about itself; and thus its message to the world being just like any other marketing campaign.
“Then our preaching is in vain,” indeed.
But this is not what we mean by faith or the Gospel or Christianity. To believe in the resurrection of Christ by faith is not so much to believe that he rose from the dead -- though it obviously includes that -- but is rather to believe in the risen Christ himself. “Faith is not first of all accepting certain truths about Jesus,” says Herbert McCabe, because “faith is knowing Jesus for who he is” . And to know Jesus for who he is is to know him as the risen Christ. The resurrection reveals the identity of who Jesus is.
So, the resurrection of Christ has to be revealed in order for it to be “for us and for our salvation”; and something can only be revealed if there are people around to receive the revelation and respond accordingly. And this is why our Lord didn’t keep his resurrection to himself, but rather appeared to his apostles and followers in his risen state in order to reveal to them who he was and is.
We come now to our Gospel reading itself. It begins, “as they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit.” Note how the disciples don’t immediately recognize Jesus. However he appeared before them in his risen state was different enough from how they knew him before his death that they are startled and frightened by him. Their first hunch is that he is more likely a spirit than their master and friend that they had followed for so long. Jesus then shows that he is not, in fact, a spirit, and while this particular passage doesn’t mention a great moment of recognition like St. Thomas had, the disciples presumably come around to recognizing the one standing before them as Jesus himself.
But the fact that they don’t immediately recognize him is really significant. While it’s necessary for someone to see the risen Christ -- for there to be “witnesses of these things” -- it’s apparently not enough at first simply to see him. It takes the disciples some time to realize that it’s him; and not only that, but it specifically takes Jesus “opening their minds to understand the scriptures” before they get it. For the disciples, it wasn’t obvious at first that this was the same Jesus that they had known before; it wasn’t as though the Jesus they were familiar with had just come back from the dead like a friend comes back from a trip. The resurrection wasn’t like a haircut, where you look a little different, perhaps, but everyone still knows that it’s clearly you. Instead, the risen Christ is a revelation of someone so new, so different, that as far as the disciples are concerned, it has to be someone other than Christ altogether.
Now, this actually complicates the matter of our own belief in the resurrection even more than the questions I asked at the beginning. My point then is that we ultimately need more than just the announcement that Christ is risen in order for the resurrection to good news -- and the New Testament itself appears to agree, given the importance of witnesses in both our Gospel lesson and our lesson from 1 John. Someone needs to see the risen Christ. But our Gospel this morning seems to suggest that even this is not enough on its own to induce belief. Even after Jesus shows them his hands and his feet, the disciples “still disbelieved for joy, and wondered.” The disciples did not believe that Jesus had risen simply because they saw him standing among them after his death. Something more, some further revelation, was needed.
When Jesus asks St. Peter “who do you say that I am?” and he answers “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” recall what Jesus says in response: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:15). See here that Peter’s recognition of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God was not based on his familiarity with him as a fellow human being. You didn’t identify Jesus as the Son of God in the same way that you identify someone with red hair, because his identity as Christ -- as the Son of God -- is not an external trait that anyone could see. As Jesus himself says, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Because Jesus is God, because his identity is divine, the recognition of who Jesus really is has to be a divine gift.
Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
It’s at the moment that Jesus opens their minds to understand the scriptures that, I think, the disciples receive this divine gift of recognition; it’s when they receive the faith that knows that the one standing before them is the risen Christ. Though he showed them his hands and his feet, they still needed more in order to be able to recognize him. “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you.” And so it’s only when Jesus opens their minds -- that is, when he increases their faith -- that they become witnesses of who he really is.
The fellowship that we share with the apostles “concerning the word of life” is based on the fact that they were witnesses -- that they heard this Word their own ears, saw it with their own eyes, touched it with their own hands. But because the recognition of the risen Christ is made by faith, which is a gift from God, the disciples’ privilege of being witnesses doesn’t separate them from us. The gospel message of the resurrection is never “you just had to be there.” Again, as our Gospel lesson makes plain, it wasn’t even enough for the disciples to “be there.” The encounter with the risen Christ that made them witnesses was one that was given to them when Christ opened their minds. And Christ still does this even to this day, through his Holy Spirit. Each and every Sunday when we gather together is a feast of our Lord’s resurrection; it’s a day for us to sit in the presence of God and have our own minds opened to understand the scriptures. Because Christ is risen, the identity of who he is remains ever present for all eternity. And so our fellowship with him and the disciples who were witnesses is likewise eternal. The fact that Christ is risen is more than just a claim, it is the person of Christ himself. And it is by faith that we know Jesus for who he really is, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to us, but the Father in heaven. With the disciples, bound in this mystical fellowship, we therefore can proclaim with them the Gospel of the resurrection: Christ is risen! Amen.
 Oliver O'Donovan. Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics. 31.
 Herbert McCabe. God, Christ and Us. 95.