What does it mean to say “Jesus is Risen?”

by Joy Kingsbury-Aitken

Between Easter and Pentecost, the church invites us to consider what it means to say Jesus is risen.  Today’s reading from the book of Acts reminds us that for many days following the first Easter, the first followers of Jesus periodically experienced the presence of the risen Christ in such a vividly intense way that they could only describe these encounters as occasions when he appeared to them.  As I spoke about in a recent reflection, Paul provides our earliest written witness of the number and nature of these appearances.  He writes to the Corinthian Christians: “I handed onto you as of first importance what I, in turn, received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.”

In scripture, some numbers have a significance that supersedes their numerical value.  In terms of time, three indicates a short time (like the short time between the crucifixion and the resurrection), whereas forty indicates a long time.  So when Luke says that Jesus presented himself alive to the disciples by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during 40 days, he wants us to appreciate the authenticity of these appearances because they were both numerous and occurred over a fairly long time; after which Jesus departed, in accordance with his statement in John’s gospel, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away the Advocate will not come to you.”  In Luke’s telling of this leaving, Jesus is lifted up until obscured from sight by a cloud, which should not be thought of as a cloud as we know clouds, laden with water, by the cloud signifying the presence of the glory of God.  

Luke clearly has Daniel’s vision of one like the Son of Man in mind.  The prophet describes seeing a divine being in human form coming with the clouds of heaven to where the ever-living god, the Ancient of Days was enthroned.  To this being, who was like a son of man, was given everlasting “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” Jesus’ favourite self-designation was “the son of man”, which was a wonderfully ambiguous title, acknowledging his obvious humanity and hinting at his hidden divinity.  It is a title both humble and audacious. 

In contrast, the title Son of God, as used in the psalms, never refers to a divine person, but to an anointed man granted a special relationship with the divine.  Thus the kings of Judah were sons of Israel’s God, just as the kings of the surrounding nations were the sons of their national deities.  It is probable that during his lifetime Jesus’ disciples understood Jesus to be the Son of God in this sense.  He was, as Peter declared, the Messiah (the anointed one), the son of the living God.  However, the apostles’ experiences of the risen Christ must have caused the meaning of the Son of God to be elevated from a figurative to a literal sense.  So it was only appropriate that the ascent of the Son of Man, who was also the Son of God, to the throne room of God should be within the clouds of heaven.   While this aligns with Daniel’s vision there is a significant difference.  Whereas Daniel’s divine being was “like a son of man”, the risen Jesus “is the son of man”, and through him humanness has entered the godhead.

Interestingly, Luke’s story also aligns with the deification of the Roman emperors.   They too were thought to become divine if after death their souls were witnessed ascending to the heavenly realms.  Clearly, this witnessing was purely symbolic, but it further indicates what Luke is trying to express through his story of the ascension of Christ.  Daniel’s vision is now reality.  The risen Jesus has ascended to heaven where he has been given authority to rule the world, meaning that Caesar in Rome no longer has that authority.  Little wonder, that despite his cautionary words, the first Jewish believers thought Jesus was about to restore the kingdom to Israel.  They knew their scriptures and the meaning of the symbolism.

A few years ago a friend of mine, of a somewhat fundamentalist persuasion, asked me where heaven was.  Had I been completely honest in my reply I would have said I don’t know.  However, I perceived that she was struggling with the concept of heaven being “up there” as implied in her understanding of the ascension story.  In ancient times when the stars were thought to be close enough to influence human behaviour, believers had no difficulty in perceiving heaven as being close by, just beyond the nearby stars.  We, however, know that the universe is immense.  To say that heaven is located beyond the stars is to say that heaven is at an incomprehensible distance from us, and implies that God is also.  So my reply to my friend was that heaven is here where we are.  It is merely in a different dimension to the one in which we dwell.  That seemed to give her the assurance she was seeking, and who knows my speculation may be close to the truth.

The gospel of John would allow such an understanding.  Certainly, John speaks of being “from below” or “from above”, but these are synonymous with being or not being “of the world”.  Not being of the world does not mean that one has ceased living on planet Earth.  It means that one has responded positively to Jesus’ teachings.  Conversely being of the world means that one is opposed to Jesus and what he stands for.   In other words, being from above and not of the world is not about being from a location above the earth, but about possessing a spirituality uncommon on the earth.

In his so-called “high priestly prayer” at the conclusion of his farewell discourse,  Jesus first prays for himself, then for his disciples, and finally for their converts.  This prayer is in a vastly different tone to that of the distressed man in Gethsemane that one reads of in the synoptic gospels.  The issue of whether or not Jesus will drink the cup of crucifixion has been addressed five chapters earlier in John’s gospel.  Jesus rejects the option of avoiding this fate, as it was for the purpose of drinking this cup that he was born.  Not only has Jesus’ fate been sealed by Judas leaving the group earlier in the evening for the purpose of betraying his master, but it has also been sealed by Jesus’ own determination to endure martyrdom if that is what’s required.  For him, the deed is as good as done.  That Jesus should choose to sacrifice himself in this hideously painful and humiliating way was for John a glorious unveiling of the totality of God’s love for humanity, and thus it is very important for John that his readers understand that Jesus wasn’t crucified against his will.  Hence the strange story of the arresting troops falling at his feet. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ hidden divinity is revealed not through a transfiguration, as in the synoptic gospels, but through the cross.

John never denies Jesus’ humanity but confronts us with Jesus’ divinity from the opening sentence of his gospel, and throughout the rest of his work, he frequently tells us that Jesus is the man from heaven who must return to heaven.  So, in his final public prayer, Jesus asks that he be restored to his pre-incarnation glory. “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed,” Jesus prays.  Then he moves on to pray for his disciples.  They, like him, are not of the world, and therefore just as he has suffered the antagonism of the world, which is about to reach its crescendo, so will they.  He prays that they will be preserved and will persevere. 

Earlier in his farewell discourse, Jesus had explained to the disciples that he must leave them in order for them to do greater works than he.  There is much debate about what Jesus exactly meant by this, but there is consensus that he is referring to the works of the church.  While Jesus was on earth his teachings were limited to the people of Galilee and Judaea.  But when the sheep of the shepherd were scattered far and wide, the gospel could begin to go to all the world.  This is also the message of the angels in Acts.  They instruct the disciples to stop gazing heavenward after the now-disappeared Jesus. They have more important things to do.  Shortly they will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring glory to Christ by doing his work, just as Jesus brought glory to the Father by doing the Father’s work.  Through the Spirit, Jesus’ prayer that the disciples be one with one another and with the Father and the Son will be answered. 

Would there have been a church had the resurrection appearances continued indefinitely?  Would not the disciples have been too focused on their mysterious risen Jesus experiences to start proclaiming the good news of God’s absolute love for all humanity? Having strengthened their faith, Jesus leaves, and the disciples start to preach.   In John, Jesus also prays for those who will respond to that preaching.  That’s us, and like the first believers, we too need less of a heavenly focus and more of a gospel one.  John tells us that our work involves nothing less than revealing the glory of God on high by demonstrating his love on earth.  I wonder if only by doing that will we truly discover what it means to say, “Jesus is risen.” Amen.