“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Beginning

Irenaeus, one of the Fathers of the early church, shares this memory in a letter:

“For I distinctly recall the events of that time better than those of recent years (for what we learn in childhood keeps pace with the growing mind and becomes part of it), so that I can tell the very place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit as he discoursed, his goings out and his comings in, the character of his life, his bodily appearance, the discourses he would address to the multitude, how he would tell of his conversations with John and with the others who had seen the Lord, how we would relate their words from memory; and what the things were which he had heard from them concerning the Lord, his mighty works and his teaching, Polycarp, as having received them from the eyewitnesses.”
It is so clear and vivid a memory - there is nothing quite like it. Envision “that very place” where Polycarp shared his memories, smell the salty sea air of the Mediterranean nearby, now observe with Irenaeus “his goings out and his comings in.” What sort of conversations did Polycarp recount? What must it have been like to hear, spoken by a living voice, memories of the apostle John himself? To be that close...

Yet even this is two steps removed from the beginning. What must it have been like to live at that time, when the story of resurrection was first in the air? It was a discovery, groundbreaking, revolutionary, the greatest the world has ever seen. Death itself, “the last enemy,” overturned and destroyed - their Teacher and Lord had gone through, to the other side. “Philosophy’s greatest problem,” the meaning of death, answered in this singular event in history. We might compare it to, say, the discovery of a unified theory of the laws of nature, which is the holy grail of science.

How thrilling, how terribly and wonderfully exciting, to hear it first-hand and for the first time, as Paul did, when he went up to Jerusalem after his conversion and spent “fifteen days” in conversation with Peter (Galatians 1:18). What was it like for Paul after the first of those days? The world was a different place now. The tide of history had turned, and here he was with Peter, at the center of it all.

Repeatedly in the New Testament, we encounter the language of testimony, of bearing witness. For the early Christians, the response to so unique and powerful an experience was: remember. Never forget His words, never forget His acts, never forget His death and victory, but guard and remember the truth of what we have seen and heard. Retell these things to one another. Do not add or take away, but pass on faithfully so that others may find what we have found: bear witness, bear testimony. “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).

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