12 April 2009
St Michael’s Kelburn
Last Sunday, after the evening service, Substance, I gave everyone who came a short questionnaire with three questions to answer: 1. Do you think Jesus physically rose from the dead? 2. Why do you think that? 3. What does the resurrection mean? The Substance service is made up of mostly university students and recent graduates. Their answers are flicking through on the slideshow here, between the artworks. I found the responses very interesting, perhaps you will too. Most interesting perhaps is the diversity in the responses to the question of what the resurrection means.
Our Gospel reading, John’s version of the resurrection, is surprisingly mostly silent about what it means – and in fact this is true of all four of the gospel accounts. It’s “just the facts, ma’am”. Little details are included – Peter outrunning the other disciple to the tomb, the facecloth folded up by itself apart from the other cloths – little details that give the account a ring of truth. Elsewhere in the Gospels, there are often explanations given to interpret some action or other of Jesus’ – but not here. Why not? One possibility is that they see the event of Jesus’ resurrection itself as the crucial thing to get across. Maybe the writers were thinking something like “we aren’t going to nail down every single thing that this means, and we’re not yet sure of its every implication, but you must know that it really happened – we saw it”.
A friend of mine once said that “the New Testament is the rubble left after an explosion”. The explosion, of course, is Jesus’ resurrection. The earliest Christians, who were almost all Jews, had to reorganise everything they thought they knew about God, the Law, their history and about the world, in terms of Jesus. As in the responses to my questionnaire, the New Testament writers give a diversity of interpretations of Jesus’ resurrection. Here are some of them: it represents the defeat of death; it is God making Jesus Lord and Messiah; it is a sign to cause people to repent; it is forgiveness of sins and a new freedom that Moses couldn’t offer; it is evidence that Jesus will be a just judge of the world at some future time; it is a pattern for our life, and our own resurrection; it is the beginning of a ‘new creation’; it is something we somehow participate in; it is the enthroning of Jesus over all other authorities, institutions and powers. I’m sure I’ve missed others, but you get the idea.
We can zoom in on one particular strand of interpretation of the resurrection, in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians as Colossae (in modern-day Turkey). In the previous chapter he described the Christians’ lives as intimately tied to Jesus’ life – symbolically joining in his terrible death in their baptism, and being enlivened by God in the same way that God brought Jesus back to life. In our reading Paul is explaining how that ‘mystical union’ should make itself evident: “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth”. It’s unfortunate that the lectionary reading ends where it does, because the impression you get is of a sort of escapist spirituality – ‘so heavenly minded they’re no earthly use’. Is Paul inviting us to the contemplative life? Pondering heavenly scenes and eternal verities? No he isn’t, at least not to what we normally might think of as the contemplative life. As the chapter continues he gives us a specific list of what he’s putting in the two categories ‘earthly things’ and ‘things above’. The earthly things are sexual immorality, greed, anger, maliciousness, slander, abusive language, lying, racial discrimination. On the ‘things above’ list: compassion, kindness, humility, patience, forgiveness, peace, gratitude and, most of all, love. As the Reverend David would say, it’s ‘ethical religion’ – the kind of spirituality that has consequences for how we actually conduct ourselves in the world and with each other.
One of those odd little details in the Gospel of John reading is that Mary Magdalene, when she first sees the risen Jesus, supposes him to be the gardener. I think this is a subtle hint – Jesus is the gardener because this graveyard is a new Garden of Eden. Paul develops this idea elsewhere in his letters: A new creation has begun in Jesus. A creation without meaningless suffering, without violence, without war, oppression, ecological degradation (see Romans 8), terrorism, unpayable debt; that is, a world freed from sin. I think this is Paul’s way of talking about what Jesus was always on about – the Kingdom of God. These two big ideas of Paul’s – the new creation begun in Jesus, and the ‘mystical union’ of Jesus and his followers – make sense of this list of ‘earthy things’ and ‘things above’. It’s like the Lord’s Prayer: “your will be done on earth as in heaven”. Heaven being not so much a place to go when we die, but the realm where God’s will is fully realised. Paul expects a future appearing of Jesus the Messiah, when he will return and the whole earth will be filled with new creation – wiping away every tear. In the meantime, Jesus followers, united with him, are to in their life together prefigure, picture, actively participate in the new creation begun in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Earlier I mentioned the Gospel writers’ ‘just the facts’ style when it came to recording the resurrection, and gave one possible reason for them having avoided interpretive comment in those passages. Another possible reason is that they see Jesus’ whole career – his teaching, healing, casting out demons, feeding multitudes, confrontations with various antagonists, and his eventual violent death as together the sufficient explanation for the significance of the resurrection.
There is a danger of disconnecting the big events of Jesus’ life the Church celebrates from the whole story. Obviously I’m nothing like an art historian, or an historian for that matter, so you ought to take this next point with a grain of salt – and please correct me if I’m wrong. But perhaps you noticed that many of the paintings that have been sliding past on the projector, particularly from fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, show a victorious Jesus brandishing a flag, with terrified soldiers at his feet. The strange thing is that in the one Gospel account that features terrified soldiers – Matthew’s – it is an angel who terrifies the soldiers, not the risen Jesus. Perhaps it is a valid conclusion to draw (or paint) – that soldiers will be terrified by the Prince of Peace, but that departure from the text is interesting. [Of course by the time you get to the nineteenth century it’s all flowers, pale women and flowing robes.] Part of Stanley Hauerwas’ point in the contemplations on the seven words from the Cross some of us read here on Good Friday is that we don’t know what to do with a crucified God, a suffering God. We want a strong-man who will smite anything that gets in our way. It’s as if the resurrection was a reversal of the cross, rather than God’s vindication of it. As if for Jesus the cross was an accident, or a sort of game that he played on the way to being revealed as the all-powerful all-conquering ruler. This seems to be a perpetual temptation for the Christian church: grabbing at the victory represented by the resurrection without following Jesus’ costly, self-giving, non-violent pattern. But as we saw, participation in the new creation entails discipleship: following Jesus, not just believing certain things about him.
Before I finish, I want to go back to something I said earlier – namely my claim that the reading from John had ‘the ring of truth’ to it. But can we really believe, in the age of the Large Hadron Collider, biochemistry and nanotechnology, that Jesus really rose from the dead? Not just as a warm feeling in pious hearts, but as a physical man who ate cooked fish on the beach?
Well, that depends. As Australian historian John Dickson has said, if you start with the ironclad assumption that this sort of thing just can’t happen – that the world is ruled by orderly laws which emerged in the first nanoseconds of the big bang, and those laws are utterly unbreakable – then you will rule any evidence for this sort of thing inadmissible. That’s fine, but that option still leaves the historical problem. As the late historian and Orthodox Jew Pinchas Lapide wrote (and I will end with his quote):
When these peasants, shepherds, and fishermen, who betrayed and denied their master, and then failed him miserably, suddenly could be changed overnight into a confidant mission society, convinced of salvation and able to work with much more success after Easter than before Easter, then no vision or hallucination is sufficient to explain such a revolutionary transformation … If the defeated and depressed group of disciples overnight could change into a victorious movement of faith, based only on autosuggestion or self-deception – without a fundamental faith experience – then this would be a much greater miracle than the resurrection itself. In a purely logical analysis, the resurrection of Jesus is ‘the lesser of two evils’ for all those who seek a rational explanation of the worldwide consequences of that Easter faith. (The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (2002), Wipf & Stock)
If it’s true, then everything is different, and the world has a beautiful future, which we are all invited to begin living in, now.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
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