Experiencing the Risen Christ

‘He Lives’ is an experienced reality, yet cloaked in mystery.

By Molly T. Marshall

The scent of lilies and the return of “alleluias” means that Easter has arrived, and we are reflecting on those tender encounters of the Risen Christ with his followers. Whether unrecognized in a garden, recognized in the breaking of bread or recognizable with his wounds, the appearances of Jesus startle, gladden and puzzle.

New Testament traditions point to varied resurrection encounters. One, Mark, simply points to the empty tomb. We know that these events are difficult to nail down in a sequential history.

Indeed, history as previously known has been altered by the transcendental reality of resurrection. The culmination of history has broken into the present. Christ’s resurrection demonstrates God’s intent for redeemed humanity.

One of the texts of resurrection encounter that lingers with me is Jesus’ rejoinder to Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29b).

We are included in that company -- persons who believe in the living Christ, yet did not have the primal opportunity to observe his wounds, hear his further teachings or receive in person his final commissions. We are dependent upon this early apostolic witness, and we often wish for such palpable confirmation that he is alive.

After our service on Sunday, one older woman said to me: “I know that it is really Easter because we sang “He Lives.” You remember the climax of the refrain: “You ask me how I know he lives, He lives within my heart.”

Knowing this woman and her self-giving ministry in our community, I took her piety seriously. Others might require more evidence of the resurrection of Jesus, and pastors and theologians want to reassure without over-talking the mystery of what has happened.

Famed New Testament scholar, C. F. D. Moule of Cambridge University remarked about the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection: “The New Testament doesn’t show us all the outline of the meteor, but is a crater that shows the impact of Jesus’ life.”

This image has helped me engage the multiple attestations of the New Testament. Without resurrection, we would not have these impassioned texts that accompanied the evangelization of the Roman Empire.

While scholars exhort us to “practice resurrection,” that only makes sense if we can also claim a mode of experiencing the Risen Christ. Our feelings are transitory, and our empirical demands can betray us. What are we to do? Perhaps there are clues within the Gospel and Pauline narratives themselves.

With few exceptions, Jesus discloses his risen identity in the faithful community. While Mary of Magdala and Paul have unique experiences of encountering the Risen Christ, their experience is recounted and tested by the larger ecclesial witness. I would contend that the gathered community, a strong Baptist construct, corrects or abets the mystical individual experience.

When Jesus demonstrates that he is alive to believers, it is often to restore them in some way: Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas over dinner (she would notice his manner of breaking bread); Peter at the lakeside; Thomas in the upper room; Mary in the garden; or Paul on the way to Damascus. His resurrection presence brings healing, even as he rose with his wounds, as Moltmann reminds us.

Another way of encountering him is by joining him on “the way.” This is the way of compassion and justice, the personal and political transformation he was inaugurating in his proclamation and demonstration of the Reign of God. As Albert Schweitzer wrote at the end of the Quest for the Historical Jesus:

He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old by the lakeside
He came to those men who knew Him Not. He speaks to us the same words:
“Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time.
He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple,
He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His Fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He Is.

It is this last way of experiencing the Risen Christ that can sustain faithful belief. He will reveal himself as we seek to follow in our day. Knowing that Christ can heal our lives and, with him we can heal our communities, demonstrates his power over evil and death. He is risen, indeed!

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.