An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Open Minds and Narrow Thinking

A reflection on Luke 24:36b-48 by Nathan Nettleton

It is not very often that a theological debate in the church makes front page news around the country. It happens occasionally when it’s a topic that’s directly related to debates in wider society like the place of homosexual people in the church or the church’s views on euthanasia. But in the last few weeks a couple of debates within the Anglican church about the precise nature of the resurrection of Jesus and the role of Christian knowledge in salvation have made the front page several times, and most of the Anglicans I know are rather embarrassed about it all. And given the extent to which the debate seems to be driven by in-house politics, it’s no wonder they’re embarrassed.

I’m not going to solve the Anglican’s debate tonight, partly because on at least one of the two questions they are arguing over, I’m not too sure what I think anyway, although “not knowing” may actually be one of the positions they’re arguing over. But I do think that the gospel passage we heard tonight has something to say about the nature of the argument, and about the grounds on which it is being fought. And since I don’t always get the chance to preach about one of the readings and the front page of the paper at the same time, I thought I’d better take the opportunity.

Let me highlight a couple of things in this gospel reading and then look at how they might relate to the Anglican’s debate. The first thing I’d like to draw attention to is the apparent ambiguity in the experience described. The remaining disciples are together in a room, and they have already heard reports from several of their number that the risen Christ has been encountered. In this version of the story, Luke’s version, Jesus has already appeared to several of the women, but the men wouldn’t believe them. But then we hear the story of his appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and when we picked up the story tonight, those two have just got back to report of their experience and found that Jesus has also appeared to Simon Peter. So just a verse before the beginning of tonight’s reading, the disciples are apparently rejoicing saying “The Lord is risen indeed!”

And yet, right as they are saying this, Jesus suddenly appears among them and we’re told that they were terrified, thinking they were seeing a ghost. And then even after he shows them his hands and his feet and asks them to feel them to convince themselves that he’s the real flesh and blood item, it still says, somewhat cryptically, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” Now maybe we shouldn’t read too much into this. Maybe it is just like saying “they still couldn’t believe their eyes,” just like we might say. But even so, it still seems like the whole event is a bit too overwhelming for anyone to be too certain about just what was happening or what it meant. You can be fairly certain from the recorded testimony of these disciples that they experienced something mind-blowing that turned their world on its head. But when what’s recorded is the witness of those whose whole previous knowledge of what was and was not possible was just being blown apart, you’re really clutching at straws to try to reconstruct the physiology and biochemistry of the resurrection from what they said.

Now how does this relate to the Anglican bishops? Well, the Sydney Anglicans, led by their Archbishop Harry Goodhew, are saying that it is essential for Christians to correctly understand the nature of the resurrection. They are saying that unless you believe that the resurrection was an actual resuscitation of the dead body of Jesus, then you’re a heretic and not holding to the true faith. Some of them would even argue that you’re not really a Christian. To them it is essential that you believe that the risen Christ encountered after the resurrection had exactly the same body consisting of the same molecules as his crucified body, but brought back to life.

And because they think that, they are presently up in arms over the views of Archbishop Peter Carnley who has just been inducted as the new head of the Anglican Church in Australia. So far as I can tell from my limited reading on the subject, Peter Carnley is not actually saying that Christ’s resurrection body was not the same body as that which was laid in the tomb, he’s just saying that it’s not possible to know for sure and that it’s certainly not the only theory that qualifies as a Christian understanding. He’s clearly not suggesting that the resurrection didn’t happen, or that it doesn’t matter. But he is saying that resurrection faith is not a theory about the physiological relationship between Jesus pre-crucifixion body and his post-resurrection body. And if I have to begin taking sides I agree with him on that.

There was a time in the past when I would have gone all the way with the Sydney Anglicans on this. I think if pushed on what I think happened at the resurrection, I still lean towards their view. The nature of the incarnation of God in Christ seems to be such a radical honouring of the human body that it seems consistent to follow that through with a raising of the physical body of Jesus. But I am no longer in tune with the Sydney Anglicans on whether it really matters whether or not you believe it this way. For a while I went through a period of thinking that the resurrection probably wasn’t a physical bodily thing, and one thing I learned about changing my views on the subject and then changing them back was that it didn’t actually make any difference to my faith here and now.

Jesus Christ is risen, and Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven to be everywhere present. The risen Christ who you and I can experience and relate to now is known as Spirit, present within us and around us and everywhere. And whatever happened during the period between his resurrection and his ascension, and whatever the physiology or biochemistry of what happened, you and I do not have the opportunity to touch and feel that. And because we can’t experience it that way, the only thing that directly affects our relationship with Christ is how we experience him now. One day I woke up and realized that if it could be proven absolutely one way or the other what sort of body the risen Christ had, I wouldn’t live my life any differently. I wouldn’t pray differently or follow Christ differently. I would still relate to Christ as Spirit, just as I do now. All I’d do is adjust a hypothetical theory in my head and go on as usual, loving God and seeking to love others.

This all brings me back to another point in the gospel story that we heard read. It is a very interesting line in verse 45. It says, “then Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Jesus opened their minds. And it was only with their minds opened that they could understand the scriptures. What does that mean? Well what do we usually mean when we talk about being open-minded? We usually mean that a person with an open mind is open to more than one possible interpretation of things. They may have their own view but they don’t dismiss out of hand other views. They are willing to hear and consider and perhaps reevaluate their own views in light of what others think.

So if Jesus has to open people’s minds in order that they can understand the scriptures, that would suggest to me that if your mind is closed on certain issues, if it is too made up and settled, then you’re going to have trouble understanding what the scriptures are saying. And further more, and perhaps even more importantly, if you have a genuine encounter with the risen Christ, it will be an experience that opens your mind rather than one that narrows your theology.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is, first and foremost, an incredible mystery. It will always be a mystery. God is a mystery and God’s workings among us are full of mystery. No matter how much we manage to know about it, it will still be a mystery. And at the end of the day, those whose minds are opened by Christ embrace the mystery and entrust themselves to the mystery, and don’t lose too much sleep over trying to reduce the mystery to something they can get their minds around.

The risen Christ invites us, not to explain his mystery, but to enter into and be embrace by his mystery. You can no more explain the resurrection than you can explain how it is that the risen Christ meets us here at this table. But he does, it’s a mystery, and its the truest thing you’ll ever experience.


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