'Risen Indeed': The Resurrection in the Gospels
Thursday 28th February 2008Part one of 'Bishop of Winchester's Lent Lectures' given by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the bishops, clergy and laity of the Diocese of Winchester during a Pastoral Visit to the Diocese
The lectures were held in The Guildhall, Winchester
Read the transcript of the lecture below, followed by the questions & answers - or click here to go directly to the Q & A transcript.
Transcript of the lecture:
'Risen Indeed': The Resurrection in the Gospels
In the first of these sessions I am going to reflect on the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, on what it actually means for people in the New Testament era to say they believe Jesus is risen from the dead; and also to say a few words about the foundation of that belief, the historical foundation of resurrection belief. And then later today I shall be reflecting a bit on what it means to preach that message in our contemporary society.
So, let us begin with the resurrection in the New Testament, and with the question of what the claim that Jesus is risen from the dead is meant to say. I am going to talk about four aspects of this, and I begin with Acts 2 and with St Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost to the crowds. Whether or not this is exactly what St Peter said on the day of Pentecost, we don't know, but, as many scholars have suggested, what we're dealing with here is a very early stratum of Christian preaching. This is the sort of thing, at the very least, that people were saying. And it's particularly striking that St Peter begins with a quotation from the prophecy of Joel, about the last days. This is what's going to happen in the last days: the Lord's spirit will be poured out on the earth. If you're wondering why the apostles are behaving so strangely on Pentecost, it's because the last days have arrived. How and why have they arrived? Because of the life and death, and resurrection of Jesus. And that, I would suggest, is the starting point.
Believing in the resurrection is believing that the new age has been inaugurated, the new world has begun. And that new world is, as you might put it, the final phase of the history of God's relation with his people. So to say 'Jesus is risen', is to say that we have now entered on the last days, on the final decisive phase of God's interaction with Israel and through Israel, with the whole world.
Those of you who know the Bishop of Durham's [Bishop Tom Wright's] wonderful book on the resurrection will know how very clearly he's spelled out the mistakes people have sometimes made in reading New Testament texts. The end of the world, for people in Jesus' day, didn't mean quite what placard-wearing people on street corners might now mean by it, nor indeed what a great many American fundamentalists seem to mean by it. The end of the world meant that God was establishing this final phase of his action; God had brought in a new age, but a new age that was still historical and earthly. It opened out onto eternity, but it represented in itself a great transition from the old to the new. And so if the resurrection of Jesus means the last days have begun, that also means that after the resurrection there's never going to be any new framework, any different way of seeing God in the world. This is it. God and the world are now, you might say, settled in the full and final shape of their relationship. The decisive difference has been made. The end has begun. The kingdom has come. Jesus has advanced out of mere history into God's future. Jesus inhabits God's future fully, so that we who are drawn to be with Jesus in his resurrection are there with him in the future which has already been inaugurated, so that that in itself opens out onto the perspectives that St Paul more than once mentions, of how the Holy Spirit given to us is the foretaste or the down-payment of God's future, the age to come. And so, since this is the beginning of the last phase of human history, since the resurrection of Jesus has made the decisive difference, there's also a sense in which the destinies of all human beings are now bound up with Jesus. From now on, every human being finds who they are, who they may be, where they will be, in relation with the figure of Jesus. The future is in his hand and his resurrection gives him that authority. It's described again very clearly in Acts 17 in Paul's sermon in Athens: 'He has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all by raising him from the dead.' Once again, the resurrection, the future, the judgement, God's decisive fixing of his relationship with the world is all connected with Jesus and with Jesus' resurrection.
So there is what I believe to be the bottom line in belief in the New Testament about the resurrection. It is a belief that history has changed and that we are in the new phase. Now, as I have already indicated, that establishes (and here's my second point) that in this new and final phase of human history there is one and only one ultimate authority in the universe that we know: and that is Jesus. He has been set free from all that holds back the growth of humanity towards God. He has been set free from the consequences of sin in the world, from the corruption, the downward spiral, of human history. He has been set free from death. He is alive, and there is nothing now that limits his action, his liberty. 'Christ, once raised from the dead is never going to die again', says St Paul in Romans 6. And likewise in I Corinthians 15we see how the resurrection is connected with that freedom and authority of Jesus, all things are given into his hands.
So that to believe in his resurrection is to believe in Jesus – in the great phrase of John Masefield, 'alive and at large in the world'; Jesus set free, he's not going to die, nothing prevents him acting, he is always going to be active and not passive, always at work. And so, to say he is risen, is to say he is now free to act eternally, unceasingly, without limit. Death and its effects cannot hold him back. It's not only, then, that we are brought into the new age, brought into this final phase of human history. That final phase is shaped, controlled by the liberty of Jesus. To say he is risen is to say he is free to act. Wherever we are now in human history, after the resurrection, Jesus is active.
The new age, Jesus' freedom within the new age to act universally and eternally; and so, a third point: who is it that acts eternally, universally and without limit? Well, God. And so in this new age, this final phase of human history, the action of God is bound up with the action of Jesus. What Jesus is doing is what God is doing. If Jesus is free to act wherever he wants, to be wherever he wants, to be with whoever he wants, then his action carries in it the freedom of God himself, that freedom from death and limit, from the downward spiral of human sin and failure. Jesus is free to act for God and in God, and God in him. In the new age you can't disentangle what Jesus is doing from what God is doing. But it means that from now on, Jesus is therefore in the position of what the New Testament regularly calls a mediator. He stands between God and humanity: not keeping them apart, but bringing them together. He is, in the language most associated with Hebrews in the New Testament, the Priest who alone passes backwards and forward between the inner mysteries of God, the inmost sanctuary, and the world of human interaction. And more than that, Jesus brings us to be where he is. His freedom to be, at one and the same time, wherever he wills to be in the world and – in the language of St John – 'in the bosom of the Father', next to the Father's heart. His freedom to be in that way also opens up for us a place to stand in relation to God and the world. We move into the space that Jesus has cleared, as people have sometimes put it, the new and living way that's opened up to the Holy through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus has created for us a space that we can occupy, in his name, his identity. He's made it possible for us to live where he lives. And of course if you occupy the same space, you can say you share the same embodiment; we are the Body of Christ. We occupy Jesus' identity in the world and before God. We are where Jesus happens in the world and before God. He has gone to prepare a place for us, as St John's Gospel puts it. So not only is he acting for God and in God, that action for God and in God makes space for us to live in God's presence and to live for God and the world, to be the Body of Christ, the place where Christ's identity really is in the world: we embody the new age in the one Lord of the new age who has the freedom to act for God and to bring us to be where he is in relation to God.
And fourthly, God himself therefore comes to be defined in relation to Jesus. He is the God who raised Jesus from the dead, that phrase which recurs so many times in the letters of Paul: God who raised Jesus from the dead. What God is it we're talking about? that God. The fact that God has raised Jesus becomes the identifying characteristic of God. So, just as you can't really disentangle the action of Jesus from the action of God, so you can't now disentangle the identity of God from the identity of Jesus. And the resurrection tells us, again as the New Testament puts it, that God has refused and overturned the verdict of the world on Jesus. The world in the shape of the political and religious authorities, has said 'no' to Jesus, and God has said 'no' to that 'no'. In other words God has said 'yes' to Jesus, he has endorsed all that Jesus is, does and says. He has put his stamp of authority on Jesus and so defined what Jesus does and says and gives, as what he, God does and says and gives. What Jesus does is what God does and what God does is what Jesus does. God is the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and if you want a definition or characterization of God you're going to have to do it in those terms. The God we're talking about, is the God who said 'yes' to Jesus, that's the Christian God.
So, four themes, which as I have indicated, are actually very widely spread throughout the New Testament: it's not as if you're just taking one or two isolated texts, these are themes which of course run right through the letters of St Paul; they're there in Hebrews, St John, Acts. And while obviously it takes a while to spell out all these themes – and they're being spelled out gradually and painstakingly in the pages of the New Testament - at the very heart is that devastating realization from which it all unfolds, that we're now living in a new phase of the world's history which is the final and decisive phase of God's relationship with the world he's made. But all that I have said suggests that, of course, the leading themes of Christian doctrine ever since have their root very specifically in the claim that Jesus is raised from the dead. This is where Christology—doctrine (or teaching) about Christ—begins. What you say about Jesus is now determined by all these aspects of thinking of the risen Jesus. You can't simply have a theology about Jesus which is about the Jesus who walked in Galilee and no more. Now, you have stimulus and opportunity, indeed, you might say, an imperative to think more fully and more deeply about Jesus. Because the Jesus whose resurrection has inaugurated the new age, who is alive and at large wherever he wants to be in this new context, that's a Jesus who can't just be contained in the terms of a human biography. And that is why Christianity is not the Jesus of Nazareth Society analogous to the Alfred Lord Tennyson Society or something like that: looking back to a great, dead, genius. The Church was never that and (please God) never will be. Whenever we find ourselves drifting into that mode of thinking or feeling, we have cause to worry. But if the resurrection is the basis of our thinking about Jesus, then it's the basis of our new thinking about God, it's the basis of the doctrine of God as Trinity. God acts fully and freely in Jesus his son, and one dimension of that full and free action of God in Jesus is the giving of that life-giving breath that makes us alive in a new way: otherwise known as the Holy Spirit. So it's asthinking about the resurrection unfolds that we see how we move towards speaking of God as Father and Son and Holy Spirit. The resurrection is the seed of the whole theology of Christian orthodoxy: and it's also the seed of the theology of the Church. Belief in the resurrection is what makes the Church more than just the Jesus of Nazareth Society. Because, believing in the resurrection and the new creation, the new age, the final phase of God's action, means that those who relate to Jesus, relate to him as a contemporary, not as a memory: as a reality over against them, not just in their heads and thoughts; relate to Jesus as being drawn to stand with him in his present life, the life he now lives to God. And that's why the Church speaks and acts as if Jesus were alive.
Think of those typical identifying actions of the Church: the reading of the Bible; the proclamation of the Gospel; the baptizing of people; the sharing of bread and wine in Holy Communion. None of these would begin to make sense unless we believed that Jesus was contemporary. We might read the Bible in other terms. If Jesus were not alive and contemporary we would read it as an historical document, we wouldn't read it listening for a word which would create a present encounter. We might have initiation ceremonies – plenty of people do – but we wouldn't have an initiation ceremony which claimed that we were somehow entering into, here and now, the abiding reality of a Jesus crucified and raised from the dead, of receiving life-giving breath from him – the Holy Spirit. And we might have a memorial meal, a commemoration banquet like Oxbridge colleges, but we wouldn't, I think, see it as the partaking here and now, of a life that would make us alive. And that's why a theology of the Church takes for granted the resurrection, and if you don't have a vital belief in the resurrection you lose your theology of the Church. That's just a little bit of an indication of how these inter-weaving themes about the freedom and authority of Jesus, the inter-weaving of Jesus' action and God's action through the resurrection, start off the process of thinking, praying and reflecting that finally bear fruit in the Christian creeds and sacraments.
In the time that's left, I want to turn to my second set of questions: how did it actually start? Where is the historical core of all this? I won't go into the great plethora of scholarly debate that's been around this in the last hundred years or so. But there are one or two things which I think I need to say in relation to that. In spite of every effort, it's proved extremely difficult to identify in the New Testament any stratum of tradition or belief that doesn't have the resurrection at its heart. And there have been efforts: those who've attempted to reconstruct the supposed document that lies behind Matthew and Luke—the 'Q' document of Jesus' sayings—have sometimes argued that there must have been a primitive Christian document of some sort which simply listed the sayings of Jesus and had no theology of the Cross or the resurrection. This ambitious theory has been shipwrecked several times over on the unhappy fact (in the point of view of some scholars) that the very earliest and most impeccable layers of tradition in the Gospel, as far as every scholar has been able to discern, include Jesus' invitation to take up his cross and follow him, and include an obstinately irreducible number of reflections on the passion and the resurrection. We can't, it seems, get behind this. It's not as if somewhere there is a straightforward pre-resurrection form of Christianity that allows us to think that Jesus was a very nice person, and lets us off the hook in other ways. It can't be excavated: no faith, in the New Testament, seems to be definable or identifiable independently of the resurrection. Even if you look at those documents like the letter of James and the letter to the Hebrews where the language of resurrection is not obviously around, the references to the lordship and the glory of Jesus, the joy of Jesus, the entry of Jesus into heaven, pre-suppose that something has happened and something has changed. And it seems there's quite good ground (given the rest of the New Testament) for calling it the resurrection until we think of something better.
The Christian community exists, in New Testament terms, because of the conviction that a new age has begun, that something decisive has happened and a change has been made. And so it's very hard to see how that new age faith—faith in and because of the resurrection—could come into being without an event that people could point to: an event, not just a transaction in people's minds. Again, there have been some very interesting, subtle and complex suggestions about how the belief in Jesus' resurrection might have evolved over a longish period; as the believing community reflected on the sayings and doings of Jesus and on the meaning of his execution, gradually there came into focus a conviction that he was in some way, alive. (Those of you who've seen that brilliant if rather perverse film Jesus of Montreal will recognize that story.) And that, in itself would be quite and interesting and compelling story, but it's not the story that any element of the New Testament puts before us, and you have to suspend a great deal of disbelief in order to suppose that that rather than what we actually have is primitive and prior.
One of my academic colleagues in years gone by, used say with some exasperation that there were theologies of the resurrection that really amounted to not much more that saying that at some point on Easter Sunday or thereafter, something in St Peter's mind suddenly went 'ping'! In the first Christian century, people didn't think quite like that. Events were events and what happened in your mind, your attitudes, wasn't an event in quite the same sense as is being taken for granted here. That whole conviction—that God had turned the verdict of the world upside down, had said no to the 'no' that the world was saying—that, for a first-century Jew, would very clearly have meant a belief that something had happened that embodied that new, divine verdict: something not just in the minds of human beings, something outside the psyche of believers. And it's worth bearing in mind that when Jewish people in Jesus' era talked about resurrection, they really meant what they said: they meant the dead being raised to earth rather than to heaven. When, in Daniel, we read the prophecy of those who will be raised from the dust in the last days, it's pretty clear that what Daniel had in mind was people returning to this earth. And nobody has yet been able to find a form of Jewish belief in the resurrection that allowed very much ambiguity on that. This language of resurrection is historical, not speculative: it's about earth before it's about heaven. And a belief in resurrection that did not involved that standing again upon the earth would have been very alien and very strange in the first Christian century. And it's all of that which makes me extremely suspicious of accounts of the resurrection that simply make it internal to the minds of Christian believers. There is something that came to the apostles, not something on which they stumbled as they thought about it. That, I think is what the New Testament puts before us, and one may or may not believe the New Testament's claim, but I think it's important to understand that that is what's being claimed. But as we reflect on what's being claimed, whether or not we want to subscribe to it, it is worth noting some of the features about the way in which the resurrection stories are told: features which ought to give us a bit of pause.
If the Jesus of Montreal story were true, I think I would expect the texts that came from that, to be very polished, literary products, the result of a long period of people reflecting on an old story: using literary allusions and weaving together a complicated picture. What we've got is a series of resurrection stories that are abrupt, confused, vivid and unpolished. I don't think one can over-emphasize that oddity about the resurrection stories. It was once fashionable to sneer at the fact that there are four not-easily-compatible versions of what happened on Easter Sunday and afterwards: as if that were a sign of their untruth. I want to turn that right on its head and say that the untidiness of the resurrection stories is one of their main claims to be taken seriously as historical reportage. What's going on is clearly, I would say, people struggling to find words for something they had not expected. This comes over most clearly in a very interesting way, which I don't think has been discussed all that much in the literature. Read St Mark's Gospel and you will read a long, involved and slightly ritualized account of the passion of Jesus: a story much polished in the telling – a story which, some scholars say, has its origins in disciples literally 'walking the way of the cross' around Jerusalem. You'll notice how place after place is identified, it's almost a kind of route map for Jerusalem. In each place, allusions are made to prophecy, to the Old Testament. This is a story that has drawn into itself the whole penumbra of allusions, echoes, people recognizing patterns, sayings, metaphors, images from the Old Testament. Even the little incident, which St Mark records, of the young man running away naked from the Garden of Gethsemane, some people have said we're meant to think of the prophecy of Amos: 'the strong in heart shall flee away naked on that day'. It's not to say that these details are un-historical. They are thought through: 'as the Scriptures say', 'as it is written', 'as it was prophesied'. And then, St Mark turns to the resurrection in those abrupt, extraordinary sentences in the last chapter of his Gospel, as if it's still fresh, as if nobody has quite told the story before. Something happened that left people dumbstruck. Think if the famous short ending of Mark—'They said nothing to anybody because they were afraid'—where we are left in mid-air. Even in literary style, the abruptness is very clear: 'ephobountogar' in the Greek (16.8), 'they were afraid'. Now that's a very odd way of ending a book. Ever since, people have been wondering what was going on? But, likewise, even in the much more elaborated stories of the resurrection appearances in Matthew, Luke and John, what's missing is that self-conscious literary element that's in the passion stories. You don't have clear allusions to the Old Testament, you don't have literary models on which people are working. You have stories that seem to be squeezed, pressed into being by the sheer pressure of events.
I read, many years ago, a book by a distinguished Jesuit scholar, trying to argue for some literary analogues to the resurrection stories in some Old Testament tales: and for all the immense learning that went into it, at the end of the day you were left with about two verses corresponding. Again and again, people have banged their heads on this issue. The resurrection stories as we have them, seem to be a new kind of story-telling. But, whereas elsewhere in the Gospels (in the Nativity stories, in parts of the body of the story of Jesus' ministry, in the story of the passion) people are aware somehow of fulfillment, balance, echo and pattern so that they use the Old Testament in that way, where the resurrection stories are in question you don't have that: it's as if the fact of the new age, the new phase of history, has created a new form of story telling, as if you had to make up your way of telling this story because there were no precedents, because quite literally nothing like this had ever happened. And that of course despite the repeated statements by Paul and others that Christ was raised from the dead 'according to the scriptures'. Even granted that sense that in some way this is a fulfillment of a pattern in God's action, nonetheless when it comes to it the story doesn't fit neatly into any pre-existing pattern.
And for me that is one of the decisive things that makes me take those Gospel accounts of the resurrection with absolute seriousness, as pressed into existence by facts – not literary meditations, not people ten years later trying to make sense of an experience on which they have been reflecting. There is, I have sometimes said, a quality of rawness about these stories of the resurrection, a quality of mysteriousness: the strange but very persistent theme that people do not at first recognize the risen Jesus – the story of the encounter with Mary Magdalene, the story of Emmaus. That is a significant factor once again that no one has ever fully made sense of, and again doesn't fit easily into literary stereotypes. There are cases in the Old Testament when people realize belatedly that they have been talking to an angel, when the angel suddenly reveals his glory; but that's not quite how it works in the encounter with Mary Magdalene or the Emmaus story. And so, in thinking about the historical basis of the resurrection stories, about the empty tomb and the 'apparitions', I would say, look for the way the story is told and begin to see how much of a shock it actually was – and, of course, still is. The story is told in a new way because nothing like this has ever happened before, and we are still finding it difficult because nothing like that has ever happened again. But (to go right back to where I began) that is what you might expect in retrospect, what you might expect if what you're dealing with is an event that inaugurates an new phase in human history, not just another episode in the ongoing story, but something that reshapes the whole way in which we talk about God, and about God's world.
Now there are many points of detail about the resurrection stories—about the way in which the empty tomb is spoken of, about the content and the direction of some of the apparition stories (not least the apparition to Thomas or the apparition to Peter and the Beloved Disciple by the Sea of Galilee at the end of John's Gospel)—on which it would be fascinating to spend more time. But I hope that the main point is clear. There is something about the way in which these stories are told that continues to stand out: a change of gear between the passion and the resurrection story – a sense of the new.
To claim then that Jesus is 'risen indeed' is to claim that we are never going to be able to speak completely adequately about Jesus as risen; we are in this sense out of our depth. And that is quiet a good place to be in Gospel terms. When Jesus encourages his disciples to 'launch out into the deep' that's not just a word for the first century but a word for now.
The books of the New Testament are struggling to find a way of speaking adequately concerning something for which there is no precedent, struggling to find a way to find ways of making real—for the reader and the hearer—a mystery. Not a mystery in the sense of something that is obscure, something deserving to be clarified; but a mystery in the sense of something too big to be contained. We are, in this context, very much the ant crawling round the foot of the elephant trying to work out what exactly is going on in this enormous reality up above. And even the most eloquent and exciting passages in the New Testament about the resurrection—like I Corinthians chapter 15—still have about them that sense of being out of one's depth.
So, in conclusion, I am suggesting that to understand how the resurrection works in the New Testament we have to understand the claim that is being made—of the inauguration of the last phase of God's action in the world's history—and to see that as bound to an event has occurred which has changed the frame of reference. Getting that event in clear focus is almost impossible. We have a tumult of different voices about what happened on the first Easter day, all of them carrying on them just that confusion and unclarity that are the marks of people speaking about life-changing experiences and unique moments. And it's not our job to set up the hidden video camera in the garden on Easter Eve and find out what really happened. What we have instead is the impact of an event that caused people to believe that the world had changed for ever, and that Jesus did not belong to the past. And whatever the nature of that event—and I believe that it was that the tomb was empty, and that Jesus did appear to his friends—whatever exactly the nature of that event, it had that scope to it, that power to it; and in thinking of the New Testament's witness to the risen Jesus I think that we have to return, repeatedly, to asking ourselves the question what kind of event could it be—would it have to be—to produce the belief that the world had changed for ever, and that this particular human being, Jesus, not only didn't belong to the past, but was from now on forever bound up in how we talked about God, that anything we ever said about God again, anything, would have to have some reference to Jesus.
To proclaim that now, to believe that now, has all kinds of implications: I have suggested some theological ones but there are many implication that have to do with our lives, with our understanding of ourselves, our souls and bodies, and the world we're in. But I hope this afternoon to start unfolding a few of those. For now let me leave you with St Peter on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2.16):
'This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit upon all people, your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days; and they will prophesy. ... [v.32] God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, and has poured out what you now see and hear.'
© Rowan Williams 2008
Questions and Answers:
'How does all this stuff about being 'in the last days' now relate to Christ's coming again in glory?'
I think that what I read in the New Testament is that simultaneous sense that in one way the absolutely cosmic decisive event has happened with the Resurrection of Jesus and his ascension to the Father's right hand: and in a way that is it. With the knowledge that somehow the rest of history is going on and is being transformed very very slowly, and that it moves towards a consummation when the Jesus who's gone to heaven in glory will be manifested for who and what he is, universally and finally. So I don't think that anything I said is that far away from the New Testament's feeling of 'living in the overlap'. Christians live in the overlap of the world as it is and the world as God wills it to be. And a scholar once picked up the phrase in 1 Corinthians about 'we upon whom the ends of the ages have come', suggesting that it meant that we were where the two ages – God's future and the historical present – overlapped, and we lived in the middle of that. So it's all very very powerfully in II Corinthians. The appearance that we live with of daily struggle, frequent failure, the lack of success or transparency of the apostle and the Church in particular; the 'living as unknowns and yet well-known', 'dying and behold we live' ... All of that, the routine earthen-vessels-clay-pots world ...And yet, something has happened which makes all the difference and it's there, it's hidden, it's at work, it's utterly real and we wait for a consummation and a completion of that which we don't yet see or understand, and whose date we cannot predict (as Jesus himself says). So I think that's where I'd locate it, in basic New Testament theology of that 'living in the overlap' which seems to be pretty all-pervasive in the letters of Paul and elsewhere. And I don't think that what I've said should be taken to mean 'well, there's nothing to look forward to', simply that the end has begun. It's a very powerful theme in the fourth Gospel and in the letters of John, that there's also a sense in which the believer doesn't have to be afraid of the Last Judgement because if the believer is living now, fully and transparently in the presence of Jesus, judgement has come and gone. That's a very bold thing to say, but it's there in John. If we were able – here and now – to live daily in that absolute presence of the truth of God in Jesus Christ, the Last Judgement would be irrelevant. But we don't: so we pray for a future, we look to a consummation. It's not yet over. But, Jesus has died and has risen and is in Heaven; it's been done; it is finished.
'Can you develop what you mean by Jesus 'giving us space?'
'If the doctrine of the Trinity was born in the Resurrection experience, where does the Holy Spirit fit in?'
What do I mean by Jesus giving us space? What I mean most of all is that –if you think of it dramatically – Jesus who stands eternally in the presence of God and looks God the Father in the face from all eternity to all eternity through the Cross and Resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, says to you and me 'there is actually room where I'm standing. You can be here too: you can look God the Father in the face and call him Abba.' That's the gift of the Holy Spirit as St Paul tells us more than once. So when I speak of Jesus giving us space, I don't just mean that in the modern psychological sense, but a very specific place to be, where he stands and where he looks at God the Father. And it seems to me that the Holy Spirit is constantly defined not just by Paul but by others in the New Testament as that dimension of God's personal agency that brings us to be where Jesus is and that puts into our mouths the words that Jesus speaks. Every time we say 'Our Father who art in heaven' we ought to call to mind that that is what the Holy Spirit allows us to say: 'Our Father'. Every time we utter the words 'Our Father' we're involved in a big theological thing, we are being put where Jesus is.
'Does God refusing and overturning our verdict on Jesus – God's no to our no – imply that the Cross was our verdict not God's plan, or necessary for our atonement? Maybe rather 'Father, forgive them'?
'In the lecture it seemed that the word 'forgiveness' was not actually used: this seems quite central to the preaching and living of the Resurrection of Jesus. Would you like to comment?'
I avoided using the word 'forgiveness' because I want to try and get us to the point where we understand that when the New Testament speaks about forgiveness, it doesn't simply speak about a change of attitude on the part of God which wipes out what's in the past: it's grounded in a sense of God's new creation, God's forgiveness is itself new creation which is why it's connected with the gift of the Spirit. In St John's Gospel on Easter Sunday Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples and says 'Receive the Holy Spirit: whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven'. So that to announce forgiveness is to announce the new creation and if we don't have that I think we have a slightly thin and watery doctrine of forgiveness. Forgiveness is God saying to us 'Whatever you have done, the price is paid and I am now engaging with you in new relationship.' The Holy Spirit is involved in forgiveness because it looks forward, not simply backward. So if I didn't talk about that, it was partly because I wanted to get to that slightly more bedrock level of the New Testament where what's going on in the Cross and Resurrection is like a 'cosmic upheaval' or a kind of earthquake in relationships between God and human beings of which the sense of being forgiven, is one of the most potent and important signs for each one of us.
Now for the related question about the atonement: 'does it imply that the Cross was not necessary for our atonement?' I hope not, because it seems to me that Jesus Christ, coming into the world as the carrier of the entirety of God's love and power and mercy, is rejected and that rejection is itself incorporated into God's plan as a way of 'bringing to a head' the human resistance to, or even allergy to, the truth of God. It's out in the open, this is what our lives are all about, we're rebels against the mercy of God, we don't want to be loved and forgiven as God wants to love and forgive us, and the Cross is at the very least Christ bearing the cost of that human rebellion and evasion and deceit and all the rest of it. But, God's verdict on Jesus is expressed in the Resurrection. Jesus is God's person, his word, his son, and so that overturning means that God displays through the risen Jesus that he will not accept the world's verdict on Jesus but equally won't rest content with the world's rebellion, he works with it against it all the time. 'Father, forgive them' is an essential part of the way in which Jesus bears the cost of our rebellion; he won't 'play along' with the world in which people let their relationships be defined by fear and violence, even at the most extreme moment. Jesus will not join in the human game of blame and revenge, and in that sense that's part of the way he manifests in his historical person the fullness of divine mercy.
'How do we understand the concept of Resurrection as God's final phase/cosmic shift in the context of inter-faith understanding and dialogue? How would you present this to a Muslim audience?'
'If we're in the last days and the world has changed, what relationship is the New Age as the New Testament describes it to other presentations of a 'new age', and how does this affect our relationships with other faiths? – for example, the Jews still continue living in their old faith.'
'Is what's true of God in Jesus definitive for all worlds?'
I'm not sure how to deal with the question on parallel universes! Except to say that what we believe in the light of all this is that God who is uniquely and eternally who he is, is who he says he is, and he's not going to be different in any parallel worlds that we can imagine, because he's not part of any universe, he is the source and meaning and context of any possible universe and if he is the way he says he is in Jesus, well that's the way he is and what happens in parallel universes – who knows? But we're not going to have a different God, because God is God not part of any one little system or one universe among others. God is God.
Concerning the inter-faith question: I have had the interesting experience of talking about Christian fundamentals to two Muslim universities in the last three years or so, and it's been a real exercise of the mind. How do you find language that doesn't instantly cause your audience to switch off, without being unfaithful to what you have to say? And talking about the Trinity and the Cross to audiences for whom these are the ultimately unacceptable things, is quite a headache. But, I would say that the sense of being in the last age, the definitive change having been made does mean that I cannot receive the claim that Mohammed is a prophet who – in some sense – supersedes Jesus. The claim of the Muslim is that Jesus is part of history leading up to Mohammed: and this makes perfect sense within the terms the Qu'ran lays out. I can't believe that. If I believed that I would not be a Christian, QED. And my unwillingness to recognize that Mohammed was a prophet who supersedes Jesus or changes the frame of reference has to do with what I was talking about earlier. Once you've understood how the New Testament sees the Resurrection of Jesus, you see at once it's bound up with the lordship of Christ; Christ is the one in relation to whom everything finds its meaning. And so, however collaborative, friendly and mutually understanding the dialogue is with Islam or indeed with any other faith, the point will come when I have to say that I think it's the relationship with Jesus that makes the ultimate difference. I don't see a way out of or round that, and I don't lose any sleep over it: the Muslim, Jew or Hindu actually respects the Christian who knows where he or she stands on that. In five years of fairly intensive, close quarter encounter with dialogue with Muslims, I've never found that honesty about that stops the dialogue.
To say all that, doesn't mean that I'm instantly saying to the Jew, the Hindu or the Muslim 'I live in the new world that Jesus has constructed and you don't, so that's bad news for you!' What I want to say is 'You too will find who you are eternally, in relationship to Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Where, when and how you're going to meet him, I haven't a clue. But it is him you're going to meet and it's him you're going to have to decide about one of these days, in ways that perhaps neither of us can imagine: not necessarily in terms of whether or not you respond to a missionary proclamation here and now but maybe in ways where Jesus is anonymous for you, and yet it will be him you've responded to (Matthew 25).'
So I don't want to work on a basis that a non-Christian believer is automatically ruled out from salvation: I don't want to say that Jesus can find no ways of accessing unbelievers, except through me and other Christians: I don't know, I don't see it from God's point of view. But I do believe that in the long run, it is in the face of Jesus that people make the decisions that determine who they'll be, where they'll be, what their relation will be to God for all eternity. That's where I see the inter-faith question finally, 'winding down' to a point where I'm bound to say 'Here I stand, as a Christian'. I don't find that that is objectionable to lots of non-Christian believers: they know where they stand and expect the same of us. It's perfectly possible to hold that, with prayerful appreciation for what we can learn from believers in other faiths. Certainly my own contact with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus over many years has, time and again, made me think 'There's something of God that's been given them to see, that I haven't seen' and I'm hugely moved and stirred by their self-giving and their love of the god to whom they pray, and I've got something to learn from that. So you do go into dialogue with some expectation of receiving, not just giving – gifts being shared.
'If Jesus is free to act without limit, why does the world not more closely resemble the Kingdom (is it our fault)?'
If the world as it now is, after the Resurrection of Jesus, doesn't look like the Kingdom, it's because we have decided not to live as if the Kingdom were real. So, yes it is our fault and the New Testament gives us plenty of reasons for thinking that the processes by which the Kingdom embeds itself in this world are not just 'overnight' things in each one of us as believers and in the unbelieving world around.
'We occupy Jesus' identity in the world of the Body of Christ: who are the 'we' in this statement – the Church, those of all faiths or all people?'
The 'we' is those who respond to Jesus' invitation to stand with him, in the first instance. Potentially, it's everyone who can accept that invitation.
'What is the difference between the Resurrection of Jesus and the raising of the widow's son or Lazarus?'
The difference is that we're never given any suggestion that the widow's son or Lazarus doesn't die again: by miraculous dispensation their lifespan is extended. Jesus, on the other hand, is raised into the life of God: he will never die again. The awareness of that gradually getting crisper and clearer as the New Testament takes shape, is what makes the difference. I think it's connected not only with the Ascension but with the gift of the Holy Spirit, it's not only that we're in the last days because of the Resurrection of Jesus but that because Jesus is raised, the Spirit is poured out through him and therefore he stands with God the source of Spirit, not on the side of human beings anymore. He will never die again: he is with God in the heavenly places and the Spirit is breathed out from him in the name of the Father. That's the difference.
'What are we to understand by the Resurrection of the body?'
I think what we're to understand is that the everlasting life with God that's promised to us if we or as we respond to the offer and welcome of God, is an everlasting life for us as a whole. Not for a bit of us not for a sanitized, acceptable bit of us, but for the whole of our memory, the whole of our temperament, the whole of who we are – body, mind and spirit. Eternal life is a promise for everything about us. God can do something with every aspect of our life, transfigure it, turn it to glory, change it 'He will change our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body' (says St Paul). That's what the Resurrection of the body means: God is free to remake us in our wholeness on the far side of death. That's not just immortality, survival or resuscitation, but a real word of creative command which re-establishes us in our wholeness, and I don't know what that looks like or feels like any more than any of you do. But that's what I put my faith in and proclaim every time I say the Creed.
'How do we communicate the Resurrection with an unbelieving often uncaring world?'
My response to this is best summed up in a story I've often told, from working with some of the churches in South Africa during the dark days of apartheid. We got to know some absolutely extraordinary Christian people who were facing huge costs for their bravery in resisting the nightmare injustices of that era. One in particular was called Sue and we shared some work with her over there. When we got back, a couple of months later we heard that Sue had been arrested and interrogated by the South African security forces. And she wrote about her experience of that and how she'd kept herself going during the interrogation by saying to herself all the hymns and psalms she could remember, just to keep her mind focused and not to answer the questions. While she was silently reciting a hymn to herself, one of the interrogating officers bellowed at her 'who the hell do think you're looking at?!' And it's this kind of image that makes the Resurrection real – she was looking at the risen Jesus. It's like Stephen before his judges in Act: the heavens open and he sees Jesus. The High Priest at Stephen's trial might very well have said 'who the hell do you think you're looking at?!' And Stephen's reply is 'I see Jesus standing at the right hand of God'. And what makes the Resurrection faith real, is the people on whose faces there is some reflection of the reality of the present risen Jesus, his lordship and his glory expressed in the courage and fidelity of his friends and servants. Folk like me can go on nattering about the Resurrection, but it's the confessors and martyrs and saints who show it in its reality.
© Rowan Williams 2008