Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The Dawning of Resurrection

by John Shelby Spong

Behind the narratives of Easter contained in the gospel tradition was an experience that was undeniable, powerful and true to the followers of Jesus. That experience exploded upon them in a manner that words could not capture, but it left its mark on them in indelible ways. Because of whatever that experience was their lives were changed from being fearful people in hiding to being heroic people willing to die for the reality of their new vision. That experience transformed the way they envisioned God so dramatically that the person of Jesus was incorporated into their understanding of God. That experience caused them to create a new holy day, the first day of the week, as a time to recall and commemorate the transforming experience they had undergone.

Whatever this experience was it occurred around they year 30 C.E. The gospels were not written for two to three generations after that time or somewhere between 70-100 C.E. By the time the gospels came to be written, the experience had been explained, told and retold, countless numbers of times and it had evolved into a kind of creedal or liturgical formula. The formula had several elements, responding to the inevitable human questions: “who, where, when and how.” The phrase “three days” became part of the liturgy not, I suspect, because it was three days after the crucifixion that they had the experience of resurrection, but because the Christians gathered on the first day of the week to celebrate the meaning of Jesus, and the first day of the week was the third day after the Friday on which the crucifixion was remembered. So three days became the symbol, not the measure of the time between the first Good Friday and the first Easter celebration.

We have to explore the texts of the various gospels that I outlined last week in order to answer these four questions. Who was it who stood in the center of whatever the Easter experience was and who then opened the eyes of the others to see what he had seen? There is no question, but that the gospels portray Simon, who was nicknamed Peter, as the one who was central in this story. That is why he is always listed first among the disciples. He was said to have been the first one to confess that Jesus was the Christ at a place named Caesarea Philippi. He was the one to whom Jesus was quoted as saying, “Peter, when you are converted, strengthen the brethren.” He was the one to whom the Christ of the Fourth Gospel was quoted as saying: “Peter, will you also go away?” and Peter responded, “Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of eternal life!”

In the biblical sources that purport to relate the resurrection tradition, Paul says the risen Christ “appeared first to Cephas,” that is to Peter. Mark has the messenger say to the women at the tomb: “Go tell the disciples and Peter,” that he has been raised. In Luke, the disciples interrupt Cleopas to tell him that the risen Christ has appeared to Peter thus relegating Cleopas’ vision to a secondary position. In the Epilogue to John’s gospel, Peter is the star as he is reconstituted into the band of disciples after being the one who denied and who was then commissioned to feed the sheep of God. Peter appears to be the primary person in whom the resurrection experience dawned; that is, the first one to perceive its meaning.

Where were the disciples when this experience called resurrection occurred? That is, where were they when their lives were transformed? The earliest gospel tradition asserts that it was in Galilee. That was their home. That is where the messenger in Mark asserts that they will see him. Even Paul hints at the originality of the experience of resurrection being located in Galilee. Matthew says that the only time the disciples saw the raised and glorified Jesus was in Galilee on top of a mountain.

In the Epilogue to the Fourth Gospel, a very primitive resurrection tradition is recorded as occurring in Galilee, where they had returned to the fishing trade after Jesus’ crucifixion. On the other hand both Luke and John assert a primary Jerusalem setting for the resurrection experience, denying the Galilean location totally. Everything about these Jerusalem appearances, however, looks contrived and developed, while the Galilee stories look fresh and original. Only in the Jerusalem setting do you have appearances details and physical symbols, while the Galilean stories are vague and less defined, even mysterious. So the consensus of opinion is that Peter stood in the center of whatever the resurrection experience was, and that he opened the eyes of the others to see what he had seen. This occurred when they had returned to Galilee some time after the crucifixion.

These are the details then that force us to answer the “when” question by suggesting that three days was a symbol and not a measure of time. It would have taken the disciples seven to ten days to return to Galilee from Jerusalem after the crucifixion, so nothing could literally have occurred inside the three-day interval that came to separate resurrection from crucifixion. Luke suggests that appearances of the raised Christ continued for 40 days. The main body of John’s gospel relegates the resurrection experience to two special days separated by one week. The Epilogue to the Fourth Gospel seems to indicate that months had passed before the disciples confronted his risen presence by the Sea of Galilee. If we dispense with literalizing the three day symbol, we open the possibility that whatever Easter was, it might have occurred months after the crucifixion – perhaps as long as a year.

So, Peter is the central person, Galilee is the primary place, and the time is perhaps months to a year after the crucifixion before the resurrection dawns as a life-changing experience.  How then did it dawn?  What was the context?

I am convinced that it had nothing to do with a resuscitated body walking out of a tomb. It had to do, rather, with a new vision of life, a new consciousness, a new understanding of reality. It had to do with seeing the death of Jesus as a new freedom, a life no longer bound by the primeval drive to survive, a life free to give itself away and even to love those who took his life from him. That was something new, something transformative, something none of them had ever known before. A life free of the drive to survive is victorious over death. A life free to give itself away, free to love, not to avenge those who were his killers, represented a new dimension of what humanity could become and can be.

It is that definition of “human nature” that gave way in the life of Jesus.  He somehow moved beyond the drive to survive and thus revealed a new kind of human life. He moved from self-consciousness into a universal consciousness where he shed all of the limitations that marked humanity. He had become part of that which we call God, but defined in a multiplicity of ways as we seek to embrace the unlimited reality beyond all the boundaries of humanity. Mortality and death have no power over this dimension of humanity. When one is not bound by the drive to survive, one enters into a new understanding of what it means to be human. One is free to live, free to love, and free to be. That is what people experienced in what they came to call the resurrection. This insight dawned after the crucifixion when they broke bread, which they identified with Jesus’ broken body, and drank wine, which they identified with his shed blood. Thus they “remembered the Lord’s death until he came again.”

The “second coming” was not a return of the human Jesus to the world at the end of time. It was the freeing gift of the spirit that called and invited human beings to step beyond life’s limits and into a new consciousness. So the gospel witness was that the risen Christ “was known to us in the breaking of the bread.”

Human language can only point to the reality of this truth. It cannot capture it. That is why the story of the resurrection of Jesus inevitably got literalized into a grave that was empty, apparitions that appeared, and a body that was resuscitated. Behind these literal images is one over whom death had no power. On that truth Christianity stands today and will live into the future. To understand it, however, we must “think different” and “accept uncertainty.”


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