At the very heart of the Christian faith is the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. Whatever else we may believe about Jesus, if we have not grasped this truth in our hearts we do not have an authentic faith, indeed our faith is meaningless. Paul the Apostle made this point very clearly when he wrote to the Corinthian church: “if Christ has not been raised’ our preaching is useless and so is your faith”; “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:14, 17). For Paul all hope of sins forgiven and resurrection to glory is pinned on the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, bodily and actually. Our faith can never be reduced to a moral code, no matter how crucially important it is for humanity to live by a moral law. It is much bigger than that. The resurrection speaks directly of the need of a new dynamic that makes genuine moral living possible, and provides that dynamic. It also speaks, on a much bigger canvas, of God’s ultimate purpose for humanity in a resurrection after death and in a redeemed new creation, human and natural.
What this means for us as Christians is that we need to have a grasp of this truth at the deepest level and not settle for an uncertain acquiescence in an inherited doctrinal formula. We need to walk increasingly in the reality of this truth and we must constantly wipe away anything that dulls a clear apprehension of it and robs us of the warmth, joy and hope that it releases in our spirit. There is nothing more releasing and heart-warming than a personal knowledge of eternal life to come (and thankfully, not in this world!)
It is good to know, however, that in grasping this truth we are not simply left to believe in the resurrection of Jesus as a matter of blind faith, as many people, Christians included, often suppose. The contrary is true. There are very definite ways in which we can know that Jesus is indeed alive and walking with us. We need to be aware of these different ways and learn to walk in the assurance that they bring. These ways are focused on what we can and should be experiencing of the risen Jesus in our lives now, and they are clearly demonstrated in the gospel stories of how Jesus revealed his resurrected presence to his disciples. They are not focused on any historical discussion of evidences for the resurrection. I have space to comment on only two of these ways on this blog, but in due course there will time I hope to comment on others.
On the afternoon of the resurrection two disciples were walking to the village of Emmaus. The crucifixion and the reported events around the tomb of Jesus earlier that day had left them completely bruised and perplexed. As they discussed these events Jesus drew near, and without revealing his identity entered into their conversation. He then proceeded to give them what was in effect a bible study, taking them through all the Old Testament scriptures which prophesied and explained the need of his death and resurrection. The length of the journey was limited, but the time spent on it was not; it was clearly a very exhaustive, engaging and profound study. When they had reached Emmaus they pressed him to stay for a meal and he agreed. His identity was still unknown to the disciples. At some point Jesus took bread and pointedly broke it before them. As he broke the bread they realised who he was, and he disappeared. Instantly they reversed their steps to Jerusalem to share with the apostles what had happened.
The interesting question here is why he kept his identity hidden from them until he had given them the bible study and broken the bread? It becomes more interesting in the light of the fact that later on the same evening he appeared to the apostles and followed an exactly opposite sequence. On that evening the apostles were together and actually listening to the two disciples sharing their experience on the Emmaus road when Jesus simply appeared in their midst. It was an immediate, direct, physical and recognisable appearance. For a moment they thought they were seeing some kind of spirit, but Jesus quickly showed them that he was indeed Jesus, raised from the dead. He let them touch and feel him, and actually ate food with them. Thus they came in the most direct and literal of ways face to face with the resurrected Jesus bodily. All the doubts and confusion that had accumulated during the day gave way to mingled joy and amazement. Having physically established his identity, Jesus then went on to turn their attention from his physical presence to the Scriptures. He showed them from Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms all the prophetic Scriptures that spoke of himself; his ministry, his death, his resurrection and his future intentions for all the nations.
It is not merely an interesting matter as to why he should have chosen to keep his identity concealed in the afternoon encounter, but a very instructive matter. After Jesus had disappeared so suddenly at the supper and the two disciples were discussing between themselves what had happened to them on the journey to Emmaus, they agreed on one thing: “were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us”. “Burning” is a very expressive word! As they had listened to Jesus the revelation, relevance and truth of the Scriptures literally seemed to have been inwardly setting them on fire with new light and understanding; Jesus’ exposition was giving the disciples the answers they so desperately needed to hear and giving them so clearly and powerfully. In this they were learning a crucial lesson for the future; Jesus could make the scriptures relevant in the most astounding way. He could make truth that was buried, so to speak, become intensely alive. Jesus would eventually ascend into heaven and would no more be seen, but the scriptures would remain and his ability through his Spirit to make them “burn” would also remain. The lesson was that they needed now to look to the Scriptures and gain strength and wisdom through them and trust him to bring light to them through his Spirit. This was not something that would be given to everybody, but it would certainly be given to those who loved him and followed him.
Perhaps one of the greatest comforts that followers of Jesus have had through the centuries is that of reading the scriptures and finding that from time to time they do actually burn very deeply into the heart, especially at times when, like those two disciples, we are downcast, perplexed, distressed or in need of some wisdom. At all times the scriptures strengthen and illuminate, but there are special moments when, through the Holy Spirit, they have that extraordinary “Jesus touch”; they “burn”. When we experience these moments it is no human imagining at work but a divine reminder of a living Saviour who himself laid such extraordinary weight on the importance of Scripture speaking to us. He is still the living Jesus of the Emmaus road.
A further and complementary thought, however, to contemplate. Why did Jesus choose at Emmaus to reveal himself through the breaking of bread at a very simple homely meal? Why, on the first day of his resurrection, did he pick up so obviously on something that he had made the centre of his last supper meal with his disciples? Amongst other things, he was obviously making it clear that they were not to forget what he had told them to do. He was investing the breaking of bread with great importance – he was making it a medium of revealing his presence. Perhaps we should seek to be rather more aware of that fact and look more for his “touch” as we “do this in remembrance of Him”. Jesus as healer has again and again made himself known in the breaking of bread.
The scriptures and the breaking of bread are pathways to experiencing a living Jesus. They need to be approached with expectation!