Open our minds to understand the Scriptures.

Open our minds to understand the Scriptures. Far easier to say than to do, regrettably.  Even the most accomplished biblical scholars will – if they’re being honest – not admit to fully ‘understanding’ the scriptures, whatever their definition of ‘understand’ is. As to opening our minds, I wonder if we either consciously or unconsciously resist opening our minds about things like Scripture.  After all, it’s in the Bible, isn’t it. Aren’t we supposed to believe everything that’s in the Bible?  And, yes, that’s meant to be a provocative question! I do have to say that I don’t believe literally in a huge amount that’s in the Bible, and struggle with doubts which are an essential part of faith. Including – resurrection.

When we read and hear scripture, we’re receiving it with our minds in the 21st century.  It’s impossible to rocket backwards into the 1st or 2nd century, when all of the New Testament was written down, to meet it with the mindset of that time – let alone the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament which are far older. We have a totally different developed worldview which conflicts with a lot of what we’re expected to believe as literally ‘true’ when reading the Bible or thinking about religious things. We don’t think heaven is ‘up there’, the world is one flat surface, and hell is ‘down there’ despite what we do when we point upwards or downwards. Even believing in resurrection seems nonsensical, as St Paul found out when talking with people on his travels. Dead people don’t come back to life, it’s simple. Or… do they? 

The resurrection appearances in the New Testament all seem to have Jesus first being thought of as a ghost, or a vision, or as someone unrecognisable. Mary Magdalene, for example – she travelled and more or less lived with Jesus for at least 3 years.  How could she possibly not know it was him in the garden on that morning when she went to the tomb?  The disciples on the road to Emmaus, surely they would have realised that it was Jesus walking along with them? The story we hear this morning comes right after those Emmaus disciples returned to Jerusalem and told the others about seeing Jesus. He’s alive again! Nah…the group says. You’re dreaming, or mistaken, we all knew he died, you’re making it up.  And then – Jesus appears among them.  Almost as though the spoken witness of others wasn’t enough to convince people.

As with Mary Magdalene and the Emmaus group, Jesus has to do something they remember, something human, something ‘real’ before his followers can genuinely believe he’s there and they know who he is.  Jesus calls Mary’s name, in a voice which she knew all too well. He asks Thomas to touch his wounds, something which Thomas needs to do in order to believe that this Jesus is actually there, not a vision.  He breaks bread with the disciples at Emmaus – an action which they probably remembered from meals together with him; and which we recognise as a crucial element of the very last supper where he offers himself as the food of life. He asks the disciples for something to eat, so that they can believe that he’s really alive. Dead people don’t eat fish, do they? 

Perhaps the Gospel writers thought that if stories about Jesus doing something all people do, like eating, is what it takes to believe in the reality of resurrection, then this is what they would provide. As with so many things in the Bible, it isn’t what the words themselves say, in varying translations and versions.  It’s what they mean. For us – the promise Jesus gives us of resurrection is true, but how it comes about and what it actually consists of is – as St Paul says – a mystery. We shall all be raised, but changed into something imperishable. And nobody can explain how. 

Yes – God raised Jesus from the dead. This, along with the belief that God shared our life as a human being in the person of Jesus, is the core of the Christian faith. And so for us he is genuinely alive.   But he was changed, a new and transformed Jesus which isn’t some sort of vision sent from God or hallucination brought about by wishful thinking. Perhaps that’s why the stories describe those first disciples being unable to recognise Jesus until he did something familiar like eating fish.  I wonder if that’s what we need as well, for Jesus to be present to us in our everyday experiences instead of someone exalted far beyond us in a heavenly haze. To be with us in the broken bread we take and eat in the Sacrament as well as the bread we break with our friends. To walk alongside us, constantly reminding us about what God wants us to be, as a guide and mentor we can listen to, complain to, rejoice and suffer with us.

So here’s some things to think about, now in the 21st century. Do we have to open our minds to understand the scriptures? Do we have to understand the scriptures in order to believe? Do we simply have to open our minds and not worry about understanding the scriptures?  Do we need our minds opening for us, and who will do that? 

And the million pound question for which we can’t phone a friend or ask the audience: Do we have to believe in resurrection?  Well, I think we do.  Do we have to believe in a fully functional, restored human body which walked out of the tomb? That’s debatable. It might depend on how we understand the scriptures – or choose not to try to understand, but simply have faith that it happened, in some form.

Something did happen, but we don’t know exactly what. Only that people believed it and were, and still are, willing to die for that belief. Unlike those first disciples we don’t have the option or the privilege of seeing the risen Jesus in person, so he’s not going to somehow appear and eat dinner with us. Can I explain resurrection to anyone and convince them that it’s real, by intellectual or scientific reasoning?  Especially when the only sketchy evidence is an empty tomb. Nah – all the logic says that dead people don’t come back to life.  But… perhaps they do…only not as beings we recognise. I think I do have an open mind. But don’t ask me to understand resurrection.  So, I still wonder…. and question, and somehow believe. Lord, help my unbelief.

©Leslie Spatt 2021