In the early fourth century, already almost three-hundred years removed from the historical events of our Lord’s dispensation, St Athanasius the Great made the startling claim that he could prove the Lord’s resurrection from the dead. We might assume that he followed up this bold assertion with an analysis of the Gospel accounts of the events surrounding the resurrection, laying out the evidence the way a historian might, finally to reach the conclusion that the Gospel accounts are sound and trustworthy. But that is not what he did.
Instead of appealing to historical analysis of documents and events, St Athanasius said boldly to those who questioned the resurrection of Christ from the dead: Look around you! Look at all the churches! Look at the martyrs and the ascetics renouncing the pleasures of this world for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven! Look at how the worship and the power of the demons has been brought to an end and how persons are set free from sin and the fear of death! And how did all of this happen? It’s simple: by the power of Christ. And if Christ is powerful and acting in the world in this way - delivering from evil, making sinners into saints, destroying the work of the demons - then he is clearly alive. Dead men don’t act.
It is a simple, but powerful, argument. Christ is alive, and the reason that we know he is alive is because he is acting right now, doing the same things in and through the Church that he did prior to his death and resurrection.
St Athanasius wasn’t the first to make this argument. In Acts chapter 3 we hear the story of the healing of a man lame from birth. He is begging for alms but the Apostle Peter says, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk” (v6). And he did.
Interestingly, when the Apostles are arrested in the wake of this healing, this is what St Peter states in their defense:
“Rulers of the people and elders of Israel: If we this day are judged for a good deed done to a helpless man, by what means he has been made well, let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole.” (4.8-10)
The logic of the argument is simple: Jesus Christ was crucified and dead, but this lame man was just healed in Jesus’ name, therefore Jesus is obviously no longer dead but is alive and healing and forgiving and saving people from their sins.
And what we dare not miss (it is the whole thrust of St Luke’s argument in the Book of Acts) is that the risen Jesus is doing all of this healing and forgiving and saving in and through the Church, which is his Body. The Church, then, must never be understood as simply an institution which exists to simply carry on an ancient memory of Jesus’ words and deeds, as if she were merely a museum of Christ or, God help us!, a museum of Byzantium or Holy Russia. The Church is Jesus Christ alive and acting in the world now, today, for the salvation and life of the world.
Or, to cite Fr Dumitru Staniloae’s lovely phrase: “The Church is the laboratory of the resurrection.”
Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!
With Love In Christ,