And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said to them, “Why are you seeking the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen. - Luke 24:5f.
The Christian church was founded on the resurrection—the resurrection not as a doctrine or principle, but as an event that had changed everything. When the eleven apostles looked for someone to replace Judas, the requirement was that “of these men who have associated with us all the time that the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the very day that he was taken up from us, one must be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection” (Acts 1:21ff.). The book of Acts describes the beginning of the apostles’ mission by saying that “With great power, the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (4:33).
Almost two millennia later, it is not easy to gain access to that “great power.” The resurrection is something we read about, something we may try to imagine. Scholars compare the different Gospel accounts and wind up concluding that it is impossible to figure out “what actually happened,” and in a materialist culture that often regards the notion of ordinary life after death as wishful thinking, the resurrection may at best be regarded as a myth.
Of course it is impossible after all these centuries to determine “exactly what happened.” We cannot determine exactly how Julius Caesar was born or exactly how he died. Of course the accounts differ. Try to get two witnesses to what happened last week to agree completely. Still, the one fact that will not go away is that some very ordinary people who had been utterly demoralized by the crucifixion were transformed into men of profound conviction and abundant grace.
It is absolutely essential not to overlook the despair that followed the crucifixion. If the resurrection is one fact that the evidence forces upon us, a second is the depth of love and loyalty the disciples felt toward their Lord. We are dealing with a personality of uncommon power and beauty, with a man who inspired complete trust. His death dealt the disciples a devastating blow: “But we trusted that he was the one who would redeem Israel.”
In retrospect, it is not hard to see that those literal hopes had to die. The disciples were individuals who believed in the promises of the prophets that God would one day restore the kingdom of David. After all, their nation had managed to survive for more than a thousand years, outlasting the great empires of Assyria and Babylon and Egypt and Greece. The faith that was kindled by the resurrection, though, was not in the kingdom of Israel but in the kingdom of heaven. The apostles testified by their deeds to their loyalty to a kingdom that was not of this world. They did not set out to overthrow Rome by military or political means, but to free people from slavery to their own evils.
There is no way we can relive those events on the literal level. The story may move us, but we cannot turn the clock back and live through those days. It may indeed seem that only the apostles, only the first-hand witnesses, could have the kind of transformative faith that founded the Christian church.
This is true, though, only as long as we restrict our understanding to the literal story. As soon as we begin to see the spiritual principles that are embodied in it, we find our own lives being addressed. As soon as we face the fact that our own choices are choices between heaven and hell, between spiritual life and spiritual death, the story begins to be a story about ourselves.
In one way or another, the Lord has called us to follow him. That is why we are together here. In one way or another, we are drawn by the beauty of the Sermon on the Mount, of the qualities of heart and mind summed up in the Two Great Commandments and in the Golden Rule. The vision of the Lord that we see in the Gospels in the light of our theology brings both purpose and joy into our relationships with each other.
On one level, though, we know that the good times, the good relationships, are only part of the picture. The Lord pointed to this when he commanded us to love our enemies and asked what merit there was in loving the people who love us. Anyone can be faithful when things are going well. The test comes when things go wrong. How do we respond when people do not understand us? How do we respond when we ourselves are discouraged?
In the eighth paragraph of Arcana Coelestia, Swedenborg wrote of a distinction being made between the things that are our own and the things that are the Lord’s, and went on to say that “this state rarely occurs nowadays without trial, misfortune, sorrow, which cause physical and worldly concerns (that is, concerns for what belongs to us) to quiesce and seem to die.” That is, right at the very beginning of the first theological work he published, there is an inescapably clear statement of our need for the darker times of life. Just as the materialistic concerns of the disciples had to die, their hopes for the restoration of the kingdom of David, so our own “physical and worldly concerns” have to die if we are to discover what things in our lives are really the Lord’s.
Perhaps the most vivid and moving picture of this is the picture of the women coming to the tomb, bringing spices to embalm the body of Jesus. They came simply to serve him, out of a love for him that rested in their memories. There was nothing he could do for them, no reward for their service. It was this act of service without hope of reward that led to the discovery that he had risen.
Spiritually, these women picture our own affections. Their coming to the tomb with the spices pictures a time in our lives when we have nothing left to live for but go on doing the best we can because nothing else makes any sense at all. Because we cannot find within ourselves any real hope, now we do something good simply for its own sake, and not for our own. It hardly seems like a choice, and we certainly have no sense of merit. If someone were to commend us for doing a good thing, their praise would feel utterly irrelevant. What else could we do?
In a way, this is a process that goes on in little ways whenever we work through a time of doubt or discouragement. Sometimes it seems as though re rely on self-discipline, on our own will power, sometimes it seems to be prayer that brings us through—gradually we discover our limits, our need of each other and our need of the Lord. Isaiah describes the Lord as one who will not break the bruised reed, and Swedenborg points to this as an image of the way the Lord gradually turns us toward heaven.
Eventually, though, if we are to realize the full angelhood for which we have been created, we must discover the completeness of our need. We are not life, but recipients of life, which is a gentle way of saying that in and of ourselves, we are dead. Every experience of discouragement and depression is an experience of what we would be like apart from the constant care of the Lord.
We know this doctrinally; and the doctrines themselves tell us that if doctrinal knowledge is truly to become ours, it must take root in our wills, in our hearts. Unwelcome as it may seem, it looks very much as though we must ultimately feel our deadness. That is the point of reading the eighty-eighth Psalm~—“I am counted when those who go down to the pit, I am a man who has no strength: Free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom you remember no more; and they are cut off from your hand. You have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps.”
This is where the disciples were after the crucifixion. Experience teaches us time and again that the greater the distress, the greater faith we have in the power that rescues us. As long as we have the feeling that we could have rescued ourselves if we had tried a little harder, our trust is incomplete. In Arcana Coelestia terms, we have not really distinguished what is ours from what is the Lord’s, because we are still claiming some power as our own. The depth of Good Friday despair parallels the height of Easter joy.
What is offered to us at Easter is infinite. In the words of Arcana Coelestia (n. 3742e), “. . . the Lord wills to give himself and what is his to everyone; and he actually does give to the extent that they accept . . . .” Easter promises us boundless love and light~—“good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over.” It is no coincidence that when the apostles went out with the message of the resurrection, there was “great grace upon them all.” They went out with good news, glad tidings.
Again, we cannot relive those days in any literal sense. Spiritually, though, that is exactly what we are called to do, and spiritually, the promises are still made that if we are faithful through good times and bad, we will receive a joy of heart that we cannot help sharing. We will be shown a beauty that makes everything else seem pale by comparison.
In fact, if we are truly attentive to what is happening within us even now, we will find signs that this is true. Whenever we let go of our sense of self-importance, even a little, we find our anxieties receding, and feel the stirrings of a lively peace of mind. Whenever we loosen our grasp on life, we feel it flow in more abundantly. Bit by bit, we can discover that “He is not here” in our self-concern, but is risen, and wants to take us with him.