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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

The Band of the Bewildered
April 24, 2014

The Lord is risen! So testify the strangers whom the women encounter at Jesus’ tomb, according to Luke. They hurry back home to relay that message to the Eleven, to whom “their words seemed an idle tale.” (Luke 24:11)

In John, the disciples testify to Thomas on Easter evening that they have seen the risen Lord, scars and all – and he refuses to believe them. In Matthew, some of the Eleven are reported still to be dubious about his resurrection at the point of his ascension. The best manuscripts of Mark end with this portrait of the disciples, in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection: “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)

Each of the four Gospels offers a different account of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection – they agree on the core events themselves, but their perspectives on them are unique. Yet one feature is consistent across all four accounts: the resurrection leaves Jesus’ followers bewildered. There is joy, but there is also fear; there is welcome, but there is also dismissal; there is affirmation, but there is also doubt.

The risen Lord appears utterly untroubled by this. In fact, he seems to fuel it by showing up incognito from time to time, or suddenly appearing in locked rooms. Sometimes he is portrayed as seeking to prove his resurrection by eating and drinking with his followers, or by showing them his crucifixion scars; yet at other times he seems intent on withholding his identity from them.

Their bewilderment doesn’t prevent the apostles from proclaiming his resurrection. Indeed, it becomes so central a part of their message that Paul says it’s the linchpin that holds the entire Gospel together – take away Jesus’ resurrection, and everything about the Christian Gospel collapses. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) Yet he immediately follows that bold Easter affirmation with an extended, opaque speculation about what resurrection might actually involve. As certain as they were that Christ was raised up from death, the apostles remained unclear on what exactly his resurrection entailed.

Here is a paradox of apostolic Christianity – we preach with boldness a message that we have barely begun to comprehend. We declare Jesus as the risen Lord, yet know precious little of all that means. We preach not as experts, but as novices in comprehending the mysteries of salvation revealed in Jesus Christ.

Late in life Paul reports that he is on a quest to know this risen Jesus – he hasn’t yet arrived there, he acknowledges, despite all his revelations of the Gospel. (Philippians 3:12-14) But he keeps pressing forward. Hymn writer Eliza Hewitt invites us always to pray, “More about Jesus let me learn.” Paul says elsewhere that when it comes to things that matter most, we can see only dimly. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

The power of the apostles’ Easter proclamation is not impeded by their persisting bewilderment about the precise nature of his resurrection. Indeed, it is exactly in their being yet learners of Christ that their witness becomes truly powerful. They don’t have everything neatly figured out, far from it. That’s why they need each other so much – each of them has something important to teach the other, and together they can proclaim what none could declare on their own. Proclamation of the Christian Gospel is by its very nature a corporate enterprise.

Martin Luther famously declared, O felix culpa! “O blessed sin!” – it is only because of my sin that I know I need a Savior. My sin is what drives me to Jesus. Perhaps in a similar vein, as Easter people we might say, “O blessed bewilderment!” Precisely because we yet know so little of our risen Lord, we are driven to band together so we can learn him from and with each other. The more we know of him, the more we know how much more there is yet to learn – and the more we know we need each other to help us along that way.

The Easter disciples were a “band of the bewildered” from the beginning. Their bewilderment drew them together as they shared stories of their various encounters with Jesus, thus encouraging each other in faith, hope, and love. True humility before the empty tomb presses us the same way today – to band together, to learn Christ from and with each other, so we might all the more powerfully proclaim the miracle of Easter to a world that knows only the narratives of separation and death. We don’t understand it all, by any means, yet we declare with joyous confidence, “The Lord is risen!” He is risen indeed!

Yours in His band,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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