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Credo IX

“The third day he rose again from the dead.”

This is the balance point of the Apostles’ Creed, the most difficult tenet to accept intellectually, and the most important part to take on faith. If you believe it, you are a Christian. If you do not, you are not.

No one doubts that Jesus died. The Gospel narratives and the historical commentators agree on that, and we do too. Everyone dies; why not Jesus? But no one comes back from the dead. Not really. That is the stuff of myths, legends, and zombie movie plot lines. There are resuscitations, of course, and what we call “near death” experiences. But these are not resurrections. They give evidence of an afterlife, but the subjects either die or expect to die at some future time.

The Bible gives several accounts of returns from the dead. Lazarus is the best known example, but there is also the son of the widow of Nain. Again, these survivors appear to have gone on to a life on earth and an earthly death. There are also those who may not have experienced earthly death: Enoch who “was no more, because God took him away.” and Elijah who famously was taken to heaven in chariot of fire. But neither of these men ever again walked the Earth and again interacted with living men.

Only Jesus and His followers make the claim of resurrection. Resurrection means return from the dead with no implication of an endpoint to the new life. St. Paul reports five hundred witnesses. Jesus returned to life on earth, walked and talked with other living humans. No figure in history or religion makes the same claim. Out of the estimated 109 billion humans who have ever been born and died, Jesus is the only exception? Could it be true?

I have heard alternative explanations from people who like the ideals of Christianity but can’t believe in the resurrection. One explanation is a “Passover Plot” to substitute a Jesus look-alike for the arrest and crucifixion, then switch the bodies on Easter morning. Or even resuscitate a drugged and injured, but not dead, Jesus in the tomb after the crucifixion for the Easter morning reveal. Or the simplest scam: steal the body and spread rumors of Jesus appearances.

The more modern denial of the resurrection takes the form of a “Virtual Resurrection.” In other words, perhaps Jesus’ followers felt that His ideas were so powerful that they deserved to be formed into a new religion so they invented the Easter resurrection myth.

But if we apply the Occam’s Razor test (all things being equal, the simplest explanation is most likely true), we have more evidence that the resurrection of Jesus is true than any of these other explanations, or, for that matter, any other event in first century history. The Gospels are candid, unpolished reports from four different sources who disagree on many details but all agree on one central fact: Jesus was raised from the dead.

None of the twelve Apostles preached anything except real, physical resurrection, and all of them were martyred for their faith. And this is a good reason to believe the unbelievable. Eleven men gave up their fortunes, families, and professions to tell about the resurrection of Jesus even though they faced imprisonment, beatings, whippings, and eventually death. I might believe one fanatic would live and die to perpetuate a scam, but could these eleven men plus several women, plus other believers all sacrifice their worldly lives for a “virtual” resurrection? I don’t think so. We believe because they believed, and they believed because they saw Jesus.

Of course, that was two thousand years ago and we tend to blur old facts. Did the Trojan War really happen? Was Achilles really shot in the heel by a poison arrow? Did Antony and Cleopatra really make a couple? Did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned? Maybe there was some mistake about a resurrection?

I don’t think so. The resurrected Jesus keeps re-appearing–not just in church policies or as inspirations for generous and righteous living, but also in the everyday life of believers and even non-believers.

God sent me a sign when I asked for proof. He spoke to me at the time of my greatest need. But I am not alone in my experience. I have heard stories from my generation and previous generations, usually told quietly with awe to close family and trusted friends, because they are precious. Some of you reading this have your own resurrection stories and Jesus sightings. They are stories told at campfires and prayer rooms, recounted at funerals and weddings and baptisms. These are the testimonies to the resurrection of the living Christ that have been going on for two thousand years. Because the resurrection of Jesus was a historical event, but it is also eternal–beyond the restriction of time–and intensely personal.

This is one such story, shared by a friend many years ago.

George Harmon, a thirty-year-old ex-con, career criminal, and self-described thief, nearly died one Friday night and came back to consciousness the following Sunday morning. Though usually a simple burglar, he and some associates devised a plan to rob a bar on their busiest night. One man stood lookout on the roof, another blocked the entrance on the street, and three masked men went into the bar to terrorize the patrons and empty the cash register. George, with leg braces from childhood polio, did not have the mobility to be the roof lookout or the bar robbers, so he blocked the entrance on the street.

Of course, the police came. This robbery was not an original thought and the city was prepared to shut down this kind of crime with multiple vehicles and officers ready and waiting only for the silent alarm to be tripped. A gunfight ensued as George and his friends tried to flee. The rooftop observer was killed. George was gravely wounded. He remembers the impact of the bullet, falling to the sidewalk and then, just before losing consciousness, realizing that the dark sticky puddle under his face was his own blood.

He described a deep darkness followed by a tunnel of light, a figure in the light–Jesus, he knew, though he could not see His face. Next to this figure sat his grandmother, the only person who had ever loved and cared for him, her hands out to George, beckoning to him. It was so soft, so warm, so inviting, he wanted to join her in the light. But he knew if he went, he could never come back. Feeling that he had unfinished business, he fought to stay in the darkness and woke handcuffed to a bed in the county hospital Sunday morning, feeling as if he had returned from the dead.

He shared his story with me a few years later after his release from prison. We both lived in a low-rent neighborhood scheduled for demolition by the end of the summer. George worked as a short-order cook at a greasy spoon near skid row, trying hard to turn his hard-scrabble life around. I don’t know all of the rest of George’s story. I know he had some significant setbacks and did another stint in prison, this time federal. I hope and pray that he had another encounter with Jesus and got to a better place in this life and the life to come.

I’m grateful he shared his story, because it underlines something important about the heart of the resurrected Jesus.

After the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene and Peter and John and Thomas and all the other disciples saw the risen Jesus. They were all His friends and followers and had been prepared in some way to receive the good news. But, a few years later, another man who had no such inclination or preparation had his his own encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road. Saul, before he became St. Paul, a stalwart non-believer and enemy of the early church, met Jesus.

George met Him, too.

And this is why we believe. Jesus is still alive, showing up even for the most unrepentant sinner at the time of his greatest need. He showed up for Saul. He showed up for George. He will show up for you and for me.

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