There is something inherently unlikely about the Christian Faith ever getting off the ground in the early years of the first century AD. True, Jesus of Nazareth had created something of a stir in his own native land, stories abounded about his teaching and especially his mighty works, and he had a relatively small (around 100) band of dedicated followers. However, the movement he seemed to be starting, central to which was an understanding of his divine nature, was effectively holed below the waterline by his death. If he really was the Son of God, why didn’t God step in to prevent his death (especially a death which involved him becoming cursed in Jewish eyes), and if he really did have God’s authority why did he not exercise it to save himself?
Those who want to dismiss the Christian Faith and see it as a kind of nostalgic movement set up some years later by Jesus former friends in an attempt to preserve his teaching and cherish his memory, show a huge naivety and a profound ignorance of how movements actually start (or stop). The likelihood of a group of thoroughly disillusioned and terrified former disciples getting together to perpetuate the memory of a dead hero, who had disappointed them so seriously by his failure to live up to his promises, is so tiny as to be unthinkable. It’s worth recollecting that in the years immediately after Jesus of Nazareth there was at least one other prominent figure who claimed to be Messiah, who had many more followers that Jesus and, in their lifetime, perhaps more influence, but who was entirely forgotten after his death until recent archeological research turned up evidence of his movement. Something more than affectionate nostalgia had to be responsible for the kickstarting of a movement which ultimately swept through the entire known world, which overwhelmed the Roman Empire within three centuries and which today claims around one third of the world’s population as adherents.
The explanation offered by the Bible writers (who were caught up in the earliest stages of this movement) and echoed by subsequent Christian history is that 48 hours after his brutal execution and burial, Jesus was seen alive by his closest followers and then, over the course of the next six weeks, repeatedly seen by numbers of people, including showing up on one occasion to a gathering of more than 500 at one time. This cataclysmic event, the defeat of death, and the ushering in of a new age with whole new possibilities, was the trigger for the birth of the Christian movement. It wasn’t organized by committee, nor sponsored by the wealthy or otherwise influential. The thing which gave it traction was the witness of very ordinary people who simply spoke of what they had seen and heard. It’s worth noting too that the very first witnesses were women, people who in the society of their own time were barred from giving evidence in law courts on the basis that women were well known to be unreliable! If you were making up a story you certainly wouldn’t have written it that way. You probably wouldn’t have written about Resurrection either (in Jewish and Greek stories heroes were not resurrected but assumed into heaven). The category of Resurrection is introduced into human experience by Jesus and his victory over death.
Today, those who follow Christ do so in part because of the recorded witness of those first believers, but equally because of the witness of others who have met Jesus, not physically as the first followers did, but in an equally compelling ‘spiritual’ manner. Jesus, having presented himself alive 2000 years ago, still today offers direct personal experience of his risen presence to any who are open to meeting him.
Too good to keep to ourselves
How unthinkable it would have been for the first witnesses to the Resurrection to have kept this news to themselves! They were so overjoyed that they couldn’t keep it in, even if it resulted in inconvenience, suffering and even death for them. We today who have come to discover the truth of the Christian faith should experience that same inner compulsion to make known to others the great news that Jesus is alive and that life can thus be completely different when lived with him. As we celebrate the glorious truth of the resurrection this Easter may we grow in our own confidence in the truthfulness of the Christian Good news, and may it well up within us in such a way that we look for every opportunity to share it with others.