What is it that the Christian Church celebrates year by year on Easter Day? Or what is it that the Christian Church celebrates week by week on Sunday? One might go even further to the root of the matter and ask what it was that brought the Christian Church into being as a force to be reckoned with in history, for the answer would still be the same. The resurrection of Christ, which is commemorated every week on Sunday and every year on Easter Day, brought the Christian Church into being; apart from his resurrection, we may be sure, nothing would ever have been heard of the Church.
What do Christians mean when they speak of the resurrection of Christ? For some it is sufficient to hold that although he was put to death, his spirit and power revived and lived on in the life and activity of his followers, as in measure they still do. When, for example, we contemplate the life-work of such a man as Albert Schweitzer, we may say, quite truly, that the spirit of Jesus is not yet dead. From this point of view, the event that the Church celebrates Sunday by Sunday and Easter by Easter is the moment when the dejected followers of Jesus suddenly became aware that their crucified Master was not really dead, because his power had invaded their lives as it had never done before, giving them courage and strength to go out and begin to win the world for him.
All that is true as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth. Our earliest witnesses to the Easter event tell a story that goes far beyond this.
One of our earliest pieces of documentary evidence can be dated less than twenty-five years after the Easter event, at a time when many people were alive who had had first-hand experience of that event. This document is one of the letters ...1
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