Paul Knitter’s Homily for Easter, April 16, 2017

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(Acts. 10:34-43; 1Cor 5:6b-8; John 20:1-18)


This may not be the most appropriate way to begin an Easter sermon, but I have to be honest with myself and you: Scholars of the New Testament can’t really agree about just what happened on the first Easter morning.  They wrestle with two central questions, both of which, as we’ll see, are grounded in our first and third readings. Which came first, scholars ask:  1) The physical appearances of Jesus that enabled his followers to have faith in him, or 2) The enduring faith his followers had in him which produced the symbolic stories of his appearances?

In other words, was the resurrection primarily a physical encounter with Jesus that led to the conviction that he was still present among them? Or was it a spiritual or mystical sense of his abiding presence among them despite his death which his followers then tried to communicate through stories of his appearance?

The report in John’s Gospel today supports the first, the traditional, view: resurrection faith resulted from a physical meeting with Jesus – Mary Magdalene’s moving, almost romantic encounter with Jesus in the Garden. (“Don’t touch me right now as you touched me before.”) But note that even in this account, there is the implicit suggestion that this was not Jesus’ previous physical body, which Mary would have recognized immediately, but, rather, a body that she could recognize only after he pronounced her name.

Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles supports the second view; it suggests that without the faith of the disciples, there would have been no appearances.  The text explicitly tells us that not everyone could see the risen Jesus – only those “chosen by God” as believing witnesses –  that is, only those who already had faith in him. And how did they “see” him?  Verse 40 says “God allowed him to appear.” Perhaps a more accurate translation of the Greek would be “enabled him to be perceived.”  (emphane genesthai) And the next verse clarifies how they perceived him:  they “ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” It was when they gathered after his death to share bread and wine and to remember him; it was at the Eucharistic table that they sensed his continuing, real presence among them.  That the Eucharist is a primary site of the Resurrection is even more clearly implied in the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. “They recognized him in the breaking of bread.” (Lk 24:35)

Well, however the NT scholars might eventually resolve their differences about whether the Resurrection was primarily a physical encounter with Jesus or a personal, mystical experience of Jesus’ presence, the choice for us today is pretty clear. That’s because we have no choice.  Our Easter faith in the resurrection cannot be based on physical encounters with Jesus or on proofs that there were such encounters in the past.  Rather, our Easter faith must be, and it can be, grounded in the same kind of personal, mystical experiences that his first-generation followers had and that have animated Christians ever since.

I’m calling these experiences “mystical” because they are deeply personal and, as David McKee described beautifully in his Easter Vigil homily last night, they bring about a sense of oneness with Christ. Mystical is an appropriate description of the way St. Paul talks about the his and the community’s sense of being “in Christ,” of being the very body of Christ, of putting on the mind of Christ, of the Spirit of Christ living in the community. Such mystical experiences are not reserved for the saints; they are available to every Jesus-follower (just as similar unitive experiences are available to every Buddha-follower, or disciples of other enlightened beings).

Such experiences of being in Christ, of being held and loved by the Spirit of Christ, of being called to carry on the mission of the still-living Christ  — such spiritual, mystical experiences are available to us, as they were to the early Christians, in the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup, in our personal prayer and meditation, in Centering Prayer, in lectio divina, and especially in our efforts and actions to bring greater justice and compassion into our society.  This, I believe, is the heart, the core, of the Easter experience – to feel, to trust, that the Holy Mystery that the historical Jesus embodied in his life and in the vision that he called the Reign or Commonwealth of God – is still alive and powerful, still available, to us and in us.  And we can feel that presence of Christ not as a physical form in front of us, but as his Spirit within us, calling our names as clearly and strongly as he called Mary’s name in John’s beautiful story.

And this is why, as you may have heard me say before, for me one of the clearest and most challenging one-line descriptions of what Easter means is the crisp sentence of the German scripture scholar, Willi Marxsen:  Easter means that “die Sache Jesu geht weiter” – “Jesus continues to do his thing.”   Easter means that the historical Jesus is now the living Christ, the Spirit of Christ, alive in all of us and in each of us.  And because this Christ lives in us, we too, in the words of our first reading, are, like Jesus of Nazareth, “anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power,” we too can “go about doing good and healing all who are oppressed.”

So in the end, the two views of the resurrection merge.  By trusting and allowing the Spirit of the risen Christ to live in us, to act through us, to be us, we become the body, the real physical presence, of Christ to each other, and to the world.  In such faith and trust, Jesus continues to do his thing.  –  Alleluia!

Paul Knitter



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