All of us are here because we believe that Jesus is risen from the dead. What do we mean when we say we believe Jesus is risen?
One of the Gospel accounts of the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection, that at the end of Mark’s Gospel, tells how he appeared to the eleven apostles and upbraided them because up till then they had not believed the reports of those who had already seen him after his resurrection.
They should, it seems, have believed what they were told. We live most of our lives on the basis of believing what other people tell us. I believe that there is a country named China, though I have never been there. I am told when I was a baby my grandmother took me out at night to show me the full moon, and I was terrified. I suppose it seemed very big and very close and I was afraid it would fall on me. Now I know it is between 225,622 and 252,088 miles away and it isn’t going to fall on me. I can’t work that out for myself. I believe the people who tell me it. I believe fruits and vegetables are good for me, and fatty things not so good. Practical necessity makes me a believer: I need to have some kind of map in my head of the world I live in and the place I have in it and where the other people I meet are coming from; I need to tell the difference between things that will help me and things that will hurt me; and I will never learn all I need to know from personal experience. As a human being I rely on others at every level, including this most important one of the knowledge I carry round in my head.
It is not that first-hand knowledge is the best, but I must make do with the inferior substitute of believing what I’m told. It is in our nature to believe, because we are ordered towards truth as towards goodness and beauty. It is in our nature to reflect beauty, goodness and truth to one another and recognize them in one another. We should expect to receive truth from one another. We should be disposed to believe. The ability to live from truth received, beyond the limits of personal experience, helps our humanity to expand to its full capacity.
The disposition to believe one another is a virtue. So, Jesus upbraids his apostles for not having believed what the women told them. It is a gentle and loving rebuke, but it is necessary that the new life should begin with this clarification. Of course, in the world as it is we don’t believe everything we hear. It is a sinful world, and at the root of all sin is the lie. Jesus taught his disciples, ‘If any one says to you, “Look, here is the Christ!” or “There he is!” do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will arise.’ But they should believe him, who told them he would rise. And they should believe his friends.
On this level, of the belief we should have in one another, and our ability to receive and pass on truth, we should believe and confidently affirm, as a matter of history, that Jesus is risen from the dead. When Tiberius was Emperor of Rome, and Pontius Pilate was Governor of Judaea, he was crucified and he rose, and he appeared to those he chose, and committed to them the news that has been transmitted through the reigns of Caligula, Claudius, Nero and all the successive emperors, kings, presidents and prime ministers to our own time and to us, as true now as it was when reported by the women on Easter morning. Of course our faith is not only this human faith, our faith infinitely more. Our faith rests on God, it is divine, but we must not leave the human behind us on the way to God. At the heart of our divine faith is an event that remains within human, recorded, history.
When the disciples do finally accept that what the women told them is true, because they see it for themselves, when they have the same knowledge regarding the event that they could have had by listening to the witnesses, they do not thereby have the faith that the evangelist John means when he says of the beloved disciple, who saw the burial cloths in the empty tomb, that ‘he saw, and he believed’; that Jesus meant when he said to Thomas, ‘You believe because you have seen; blessed are those who have not seen and believe’; that Paul meant when he said, ‘If you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’
It is by divine faith, faith in God, that we are saved. ‘Faith comes from hearing,’ says St Paul. ‘To render the obedience of faith’, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ‘Means to submit freely to the word that is heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself.’ ‘Faith comes from hearing,’ to return to St Paul, ‘And what is heard comes from the word of Christ.’
‘Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have,’ says Jesus in St Luke to the disciples, who are afraid they are seeing a ghost. And in St Matthew, in tonight’s Gospel, to the women, ‘Be joyful. Don’t be afraid.’ Echoes surely of the earlier time when the disciples were terrified because they thought they saw a ghost, and Jesus, coming to them walking on the waves, said ‘Take heart, it is I; have no fear.’
This calls for a faith far deeper than an acceptance that something once happened. The closest analogy within human experience to this faith is when we believe those who tell us they love us. We cannot believe this without choosing to, and by that choice being changed and having our eyes opened to recognize them as if for the first time. Something then comes to life deep within us. Christ’s word to us, calling for our belief, is an offer of love and an invitation to love. Christ’s word to his own at Easter is: It is I; the same Jesus you knew and loved, not a ghost, real and alive, in flesh that can be touched. It is I, Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.
‘It is right and good to entrust oneself totally to God and to believe absolutely what he says’, so the Catechism. ‘It would be vain and false to put such faith in a creature.’ We put our faith in Jesus. A divine faith, that fulfills all our human desire and capacity for truth.
‘These things are written,’ says St John, ‘That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.’