Wednesday, May 4, 2016

‘If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.’

 Being in the Pascal period, we want to identify the truths of the Resurrected Christ, found of course in the New Testament books. In the Acts of the Apostles we read: ‘He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.’(Acts, 1:3). Additionally in the Gospels and in a number of the letters written by St Paul, we find out about 11 appearances of Christ, all taking place after His Crucifixion and Resurrection, verifying thus the fact that He did come back from the dead. St Paul points out the Christian belief, claiming that ‘if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.’ (1 Corinthians, 15:14). And later he adds, ‘and if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; and you are still in your sins.’ (1 Corinthians 15:17).
Who did Christ appear to?

1.       The first appearance is found in the Gospels of Mark and John (Mark 16: 9-11 and John 20: 11-18), where Mary Magdalene sees the Risen Lord, in front of the tomb. She spoke to Him, without knowing it was Jesus Christ. When she realised who He was, she informed His Disciples. 
2.       He appeared to the Myrrh-bearers. This happened after the appearance to Mary Magdalene. After an angel told them Jesus had risen, they were on their way to tell Jesus’ disciples when they met the risen Christ. ‘And as they went to tell His disciples,[b] behold, Jesus met them, saying, “Rejoice!” So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell My brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me.’ (Matthew 28:9-10). Again, we have another unexpected appearance. As was true with Mary Magdalene, these women touched the body of Jesus.
3.       Peter is the first person mentioned in Paul’s list of witnesses, and is the first of the apostles to see the risen Christ. This was a private appearance to reassure him, since he had just denied his Lord. The gospels are completely silent as to the details of this meeting. Luke merely wrote: ‘The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’ (Luke 24:34).
4.       Later on Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. ‘And behold, two of them were going that very day to a village named Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. And they were conversing with each other about all these things which had taken place. And it came about that while they were conversing and discussing, Jesus himself approached, and began traveling with them. But their eyes were prevented from recognizing him’ (Luke 24:13-16). As was true with the women, these two disciples were not expecting Jesus to rise.
5.       Later we find the last of the five appearances of Jesus on Easter Sunday. It took place in the evening, probably in the upper room in which Jesus had instituted the Lord’s Supper. It is recorded in both the gospels of Luke and John, giving us two independent accounts as to what happened. John wrote: ‘When therefore it was evening, on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst, and said to them,  “Peace be with you.” And when he had said this, he showed them both his hands and his side. The disciples therefore rejoiced when they saw the Lord. . . But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came’ (John 20:19,20,24).
6.       Eight days later He appeared again - this time with Thomas present. ‘And after eight days his disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, ‘Peace to you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Reach your finger here, and look at my hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into my side. Do not be unbelieving but believing.’ And Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and My God!’ (John 20:26-28). This is a significant moment; that is why the Orthodox Church celebrates this event one week after Easter Sunday, with the Sunday of Thomas.
7.       Another appearance was to seven disciples on the Sea of Galille, also known as the lake of Tiberias. ‘After these things Jesus manifested himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and he manifested himself in this way. There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples’ (John 20:1,2).
8.       There is also the account of Jesus appearing before His eleven disciples in Galilee. ‘But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. And when they saw him, they worshiped him; but some were doubtful’ (Matthew 28:16,17).
9.       Scripture also says that Jesus appeared to His half-brother James. ‘Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles ‘(1 Corinthians 15:7). The details of this appearance are not recorded.
10.   He appeared to the Apostles and the Seventy in Bethany, when he ascended into the Heavens.
‘And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. Now it came to pass, while He blessed them, that He was parted from them and carried up into heaven. And they worshiped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God. Amen.’ (Luke 24, 50).
11.   After Jesus’ ascension He appeared again - this time to Saul of Tarsus. ‘And as he [Saul] travelled he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are your persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’’ (Acts 9:3-5).
These appearances convinced His disciples, beyond any doubt, that He had risen from the dead.
We can say that we, the faithful, who have not seen Christ, observe the Resurrected Christ, live in Communion, in relation with Him through the Church, which is His Body. In order to achieve this relation with Christ, faith needs to exist. Faith allows us Orthodox Christians to observe the realities of our Church. The hymnographic tradition of the Church verifies our belief and what we find in Scripture. For example we sing on Easter day and for forty days the Resurrection hymn, ‘Christ has risen from the dead, by death he has trampled on death and to those in the graves he has given life.’ And the Kontakion, ‘Though you descended into the tomb, O Immortal, yet you destroyed the power of Hades; and you arose as victor, O Christ God, calling to the Myrrh-bearing women, ‘Rejoice!’ and giving peace to your Apostles, O you who grant resurrection to the fallen.’
Many have asked how important is it to actually witness Jesus, during His life, death and resurrection?  The Apostles had witnessed the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, as Peter claimed on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2: 32): ‘This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses.’ Someone was considered an Apostle if he was present from the Baptism of Christ until his martyrdom and death for the Resurrected Jesus. Therefore, a criterion for the apostolicity of an individual was the witness of Resurrection. That is why Apostle Matthias took Judas’ place, because he was present during the life and teaching of Christ and saw him after his Resurrection. In Acts (1:21-22) we read: ‘Therefore, of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,  beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.’ Our bishops and priests today are successors of the apostles, so they continue this tradition. However, witnessing Christ is not important for us today. As Jesus Christ had said to Thomas, who did not initially believe that Christ had come back from the dead, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ This points out the great significance of believing in the Risen Lord without actually seeing Him. In fact this declaration places the believers involved in this case in a special position and makes them "blessed", worthy of a special beatitude. Why are we called blessed?
Believing without seeing first hand, implies an increased amount of faith. In our daily lives we see that many times we wish to see ourselves, we wish to be present during an occasion to verify its truth, the fact that it took place. Without a first-hand observation doubt grows in us. By being able to see a person, an occasion, we are able to believe easier. However, not seeing yet believing, on the other hand, involves more willingness, more decisiveness. The people of this category are called blessed, because they have reached an enhanced spiritual level, simply by following a very demanding path on their way towards faith.
Many Christians ask, what was Christ’s Resurrected Body like? Also how will our bodies be when we are again resurrected, after the Second Coming of Jesus Christ? This is a question many have, when speaking about the future, our future life in the Kingdom of Heaven. However, we can find the answer, when looking at our Lord. How was His human body after the Resurrection? Christos Yannaras, a famous Modern Greek Theologian and Philosopher, gives an interesting answer to the above question:
“The body of the risen Christ is the human nature free from every limitation and every need. It is a human body with flesh and bones, but which does not draw life from its biological functions, but is hypostasized in a real existence thanks to the personal relationship with God which alone constitutes it and gives it life”.
Therefore, we understand that a life in communion with God will give us a new body, a new existence. Theosis, when achieved will give us the opportunity to live with God in a renewed existence.

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