Sunday, March 30, 2008

Unreliable Witnesses

by Bryan Owen

In the Sunday school class I'm co-facilitating, we're spending Easter season looking at the post-resurrection narratives in the Gospels. Those narratives are endlessly fascinating, not only for what they say, but also for what they leave unsaid and unexplained (like, how did the resurrection happen?), and also for the similarities that exist in the midst of so many differences between them.

This morning we compared and contrasted the accounts of women finding Jesus' tomb empty in Mark 16:1-8 and in Matthew 28:1-10. I find it very significant that it's the women who discover the empty tomb, it's the women who first encounter the risen Lord, and it's the women who first proclaim to the male disciples and to the world, "The Lord is risen!"

Based upon my own research, I prefaced the session by noting that the Christian claim for the resurrection of Jesus was surprising and "off the charts" in light of the spectrum of possible beliefs about life after death current within the paganism and Judaism of the day. Add to this that in Jesus' day, "women were not allowed to testify in court" and "were not considered reliable witnesses" (cf. Brian P. Stoffregen) and here's what we have: "unreliable" witnesses making an utterly fantastic claim about Jesus, a claim that flies in the face of every (then) conceivable view of what happens to persons after they die. In short, by insisting that the women were the first apostles (eyewitnesses to the resurrection), the evangelists undermine the credibility of their post-resurrection narratives in the eyes of their male-dominated society right from the get-go.

Why would they do that? Could it be because this illustrates how the first are now last and the last are now first? Could it be that this is a striking instance of God choosing what the world views as "foolish," "unreliable," and "weak" to shame what the world considers "wise," "reliable," and "strong" (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25)? Could it be because, the differences in their accounts notwithstanding, each of the evangelists is telling the truth?

Concerning the testimony of the women and the truthfulness of the Gospels, here's what one scholar says: "In view of the prejudice against women's testimony in antiquity, no one would have invented the testimony of the women attested in all four Gospels; indeed, Paul even omits it" [Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (William B. Eerdmans, 1999) , p. 702]. Certainly, this does not prove beyond all doubt the reliability of these accounts. But I'm inclined to agree that, in addition to other factors, this gives further credibility to the evangelists' claim about the resurrection.

So thank God for Mary Magdalene, Mary, Salome, Joanna, and the other women who not only discovered the empty tomb of Jesus, but who also had the courage to proclaim the Good News that Jesus is risen indeed.

William Stringfellow on Jaques Ellul

"[Jaques] Ellul beholds the biblical testament in a way that confesses the viability and vitality of the Word of God in common history and not only "once upon a time" but here and now. Ellul has entered into a confessional relationship with the Word of God in his study of the Bible that illuminates the characteristic and historic activity of the Word of God in our contemporary setting. Ellul represents the recovery of the most elementary attribute of the biblical faith: the discernment of the life of the Word of God in common history, at once verified in the Bible as such and in each and every even subsequent to the biblical era.

In that discernment all things are transfigured.

That is why, as it seems to me, Ellul's words are so threatening and so appealing."

-- William Stringfellow, "Kindred Mind and Brother," Sojourners, June 177, p.12

Saturday, March 29, 2008

New Bishop Elect in Maryland

A good priest was just elected Bishop of Maryland. Eugene Sutton is someone whom I know and respect, and I couldn't be more delighted. Congratulations!

The Rev. Canon Eugene T. Sutton.

Communion, Conflict and Hope

I have spent the past 40+ days not commenting on the many things to have transpired in the Anglican universe -- and it's been very nice. Taking a step back from the bru-ha-ha has been very healthy.

It occurred to me that I would have much to take up in my return to blogging -- such as Rowan's comments on Sharia, or the various machinations of the Alphabet-soup contingent of realigners, or the club-footed way in which TEC has handled this and that.

But I think -- no point in chiming in on all that.

What I have enjoyed however, is the report of the Third Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission which issued the piece entitled 'Communion, Conflict and Hope.'

This is the kind of thing that all of us should be reading and reflecting upon as a global fellowship of independent but mutually embracing churches.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Easter Proclamation and John 20

John 20 is fantastic. For me, for the first time in years – somehow – I feel like I’m seeing Easter fresh again. John 20 – compared with the other three Gospel accounts – shows a different version of what happened on that day, when the tomb was empty – and the Lord first seen risen from death -- and it speaks to me.

Each Gospel is special of course – and each has its own witness.

John’s is – well – very special ... to me. It conveys an insight I’ve not seen before elsewhere.

You see John’s Gospel is the only one of the four biblical Gospels to bear the name and the witness of one of the three people who was there that day.

I believe the author of John is the one called therein the Beloved Disciple, and I believe this is John son of Zebedee, and I believe with the traditional view that he was probably a youngster - who gives special insight, about what it was like that day. Many scholars dispute these traditional views -- but I still subscribe to the ancient perspective on the authorship of John. (Though I wouldn't want to debate Raymond Brown on it!)

John tells us that the first person to see the open tomb – the stone rolled away – was a woman. Mary Magdalene – a woman who came to Jesus broken by sin and guilt and sorrow – and who was shown tender mercy by Him – and forgiven – and restored – and made new.

John says she was first: to see the first evidence of his rising – the open tomb – and the first to see Him – the first to speak with Him – the first to spread the Good News.

John goes on to say that the first one to believe it – was indeed himself – who at that time was barely a man, if he was yet a man at all.

Ancient tradition regards John as that specially beloved disciple who was very young – not yet bearded – and spry enough to easily outrun the elder fisherman Peter.

The first to see and the first to believe on that day – the impossible Good News of resurrection – were an unmarried woman with a shady past and a boy.

Peter – though the first to enter the tomb – was slow to grasp, slow to understand, slow to believe.

Peter – the leader of the disciples – the elder man – denies Jesus three times, is not there at the cross, and does not see the Good News even when it’s right in front of his face.

No – if you read John 20 closely – you see that only John and Mary Magdalene bend down in this story – and where the boy defers to Peter to enter first – and Mary Magdalen stands outside weeping – Peter – who neither bends nor weeps, neither believes, nor sees the risen Christ.

I think the point is this – those who loved Jesus most vulnerably
- the boy he makes a younger brother
- the lost woman he brings into the fold

They are the first to get eyes to see Jesus in his fulness – his glory – and his resurrection from the dead.

That rings true to me. What about you?

I think John is saying that ‘Loving comes before Believing.’


Peter was called Peter by Jesus as a nickname. His real name was Simon – Jesus called him Peter – which means Rocky – perhaps for a reason.

He was like a rock. He was older and tougher. He carried a sword.

And for each denial before the cross – the risen Jesus would ask Peter:
‘Do you love me?’ ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Do you love me?’

I think the point is simple: Only the bent over, the powerless, young, weak, and gratefully forgiven easily see the risen Jesus.

I believe even Peter had to break down his Rocky-ness to finally see what Jesus was all about.

What about us?

An old friend wrote me last week.

Her father’s died, her brother’s got cancer, her family are dyed in the wool agnostics and atheists – but she said, “You know, I love my children, and my family, but I wonder if this is all there is... this mortality – this life which always ends, and often too young – and she said she was looking for some meaning.”

Praise God, but aren’t we all?

Another friend’s mom is sick, another struggling with guilt, another’s a believer, but he’s wondering ‘Can I believe a man could rise from the dead?’

Friends – we’re all looking for meaning in a life surrounded and impinged by death.

We’re all sick with guilt for our sins – whether we own, groan and confess them or not.

We’re all basically reasonable people who wonder how it can be true that Jesus is the Son of the Living God – who died on the Cross – and rose again.


Yes – we’re all in the story of John 20.

Whether we’re good children – or rocky adults – or weeping at the gate of death.

The Good News is that God doesn’t leave us alone – to exercise our free will, get it wrong, and die in our confusion, fear and regret.


Jesus – my God and yours – comes to us, for us, and with us.

Jesus is the lover of souls – the author of salvation – and he will come to all – and he will reach out in mercy and forgiveness and pure saving love – and we will be loved by him.

Some will see Christ fast. Others slow. Some will think he’s the gardner for a while.

But all will see Him on that day – through tears of sorrow for our blindness and tears of joy for our new sight.

Brothers and sisters – if you believe in Jesus – you’ve got to spread that Good News.

You’ve got to be like Mary Magdalene – John – and even Peter ... who like us finally gets it too.

You’ve got – we’ve got – to be beacons of hope. We’ve got to show the love of Christ for the world. By forgiving people their sins, and ours. By not judging. By helping. By healing. By serving. By loving.

It’s the only way any will believe in Christ – for loving precedes believing my friends – when you’re talking about the Gospel of Resurrection from the dead.

The easter message to disciples – is this:

Go and tell the rest – “He is risen! And now we know the love of God really is for real – for ever, and for us.”


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Easter Thoughts

With the birth of our third girl this month, surprisingly early, we were able to experience the miracle of life at close hand again. We believe that the birth of a child is testimony to the Glory of God and a sign of God's marvelous handiwork in creation.

Seeing the hand of God in nature is hardly some new-fangled thing of course. John Calvin said that there is "by natural instinct, a sense of divinity." Indeed, Scripture itself proclaims that God may be perceived in nature. As the Psalmist says, "the heavens are telling the glory of God." Paul writes: "Since the creation of the world His eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made."

Life itself is a wondrous thing of course, and you don't even need to believe in God to agree. Popular author Richard Dawkins – a convinced atheist – upholds biology as the most complex and fascinating of all sciences. Before Dawkins, George Gaylord Simpson, the famous paleontologist and evolutionary scientist, argued that biology alone "stands at the center of all science, and it is here, in the field where all principles of all the sciences are embodied, that science can truly become unified." Simpson recognized, studied and reveled in the majesty of life in all its diversity – yet he didn't believe in God.

For Christians who believe in a particular story (that God is creator of all things visible and invisible who loves His Creation and especially His children – and who has become one with Creation through the incarnation – and who has faced all we face as mortal beings – and who has defeated death in resurrection) we must careful. For seeing God in nature is fine – but seeing nature as God is not.

Consider the Easter 'holiday' as it now exists in the English speaking world. Like Christmas, Easter has taken on a number of symbols which have a lot to do with fertility and nature – but not necessarily anything to do with God in Christ. The word Easter – first of all – derives from the name of a pagan goddess associated with the rising of the sun. In ancient Britain, the pre-Christian folks of Northumbria venerated this goddess ('Eastre') at the vernal equinox.

Yes, life is important – supremely so – whether one believes in Jesus Christ or not. For those of us who do, it is even more important that we make sure not to see life as the same as God or in the place of God. For those of us who believe, life is not God, but rather the gift of God. Life is not in the place of God, but is rather the place where God pours out his love most fully and completely. Life is not to be worshipped, but rather God who gives life is to be worshipped and adored.

In the Fourth Gospel 'life' is central to the Johannine vocabulary. More than any other book in the New Testament, John talks about 'life'. And it takes on a double meaning. The word 'life' means not only life as you and I normally speak of it. It refers to the indwelling presence of God in the universe – it refers to the presence of the living God in our midst – it refers to the fact that God is not the same as us, but God is with us, and in us, and around us. It refers not only to biological life – as amazing as that is – but also to eternal, spiritual, divine life. Quite plainly, it refers to Resurrection life – the life which includes but goes beyond fleshly life – and extends eternally in full communion with the God of all. Interestingly enough, the Greek word for resurrection does not appear in John's gospel very much. But, in its place, the Greek word for 'life' appears many times as a synonym for resurrection.

What I'm saying – what I've learned from John – is that Easter is not just about the miracle of natural life. It is not really about Spring, and fertility, and eggs, and hatchlings, and sweet little babies. No, it is about those things, and infinitely more. Easter – or Christian Passover – or the Feast of the Resurrection – is about the kind of new life that only Jesus Christ can offer. It is about resurrection life – eternal life – life beyond biology and its undeniable but limited majesty.

This Easter season – remember – that Christ died for you, and rose from the dead, and took on the fullest possible kind of life in his resurrection. It is that kind of life that you and I are called to share, and have begun to share, for when we died with Him in our baptism, we have been given that kind of life to put on – from now on and forever.