Thursday, April 30, 2015

Part XLVII Matthew: The Meaning of the Passion opens into the Meaning of Resurrection

by John Shelby Spong

The drama of the cross races towards its conclusion. It is a story that runs counter to the cultural expectations. Shaped by the “Servant” figure, drawn from II Isaiah, the image of messiah portrayed in the story of the cross is not that of a powerful winner and a victorious leader, but of one whose purpose is ultimately revealed in his ability to love his tormentors and to absorb the world’s hostility without returning it in kind. In the fifty-five or so years since the actual crucifixion, that is what the cross has come to mean. His followers now saw the life of Jesus as a life in which God was and is revealed, not in power, as we are so prone to imagine, but in weakness, in defeat and in powerlessness. It was an understanding that challenged all previous messianic thinking.

The story of the cross revealed that the world of our experience had no room within it for the view of God that Jesus lived. This was a God who invited all to “Come unto me.” This was a God who was revealed in the portrait of one who could give his life away while continuing to love those who were killing him. Matthew’s passion story reveals a life in which love can never be conquered by hate. This life was a parable in which we are able to discover a dimension God that challenges all religious ideas and destabilizes all religious institutional claims to possess ultimate power. It is a picture of what happens when a life cannot ultimately be extinguished, when love cannot ultimately be thwarted, when being cannot finally be violated and where darkness cannot finally extinguish light.

It is the story of a grave that cannot contain the life that has been buried inside it, no matter how elaborate the burial or how many soldiers are assigned to guard the tomb. It is a story that challenges all of our uniquely human needs to build security and to make survival our ultimate value. That is what the essence of the Jesus experience meant. That is what the story of the crucifixion was designed to reveal. The prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi captures the meaning best for me: “It is in giving that we receive, in loving that we are loved and in dying that we are born to new life.”

The death of Jesus was real. His life as a person in history was ended in the act of crucifixion imposed upon him by the Roman governor. I suspect there were no witnesses to that crucifixion. I am confident that there were no conversations with the crowd, no thieves crucified on each side of him, no words spoken from the cross, and no burial at the hands of Joseph of Arimathea. I am quite certain that the act of crucifixion was cruel and demeaning. All state-ordered executions are. The victims were stripped of any semblance of human dignity; death was hastened for the convenience of the executors, not for the relief of the victims, and burial was accomplished not in some borrowed tomb as our mythology suggests, but by being heaved unceremoniously into a common grave and quickly covered over with a thin layer of soil to keep the odors of death to a minimum. The fate of the bodies of the executed ones was either their rapid decay in the Middle Eastern heat or to be eaten by packs of wild dogs that knew that a feast awaited them just beneath the surface of the dirt that covered the bodies.

This crucifixion, however, was transformed, says the gospel story, from defeat into victory, from death into life. That transformation came not by some supernatural intervention of miraculous power, but by the dawning realization that this Jesus revealed the meaning of God in ways that people had never entertained before.

The “three days” was surely a symbol, borrowed perhaps from the three days between the time the light of the moon disappeared into darkness and the appearance of the first sliver of the new moon’s light returning to visibility on the third day. It was also a symbol for the time it took the followers of Jesus to process the meaning of his death.

I suggest that the amount of time between the crucifixion and the conviction that “death cannot contain him” was a matter of months, maybe even up to a year. It also was a liturgical symbol, for if the Last Supper was observed on Thursday night and the crucifixion on Friday, then the period of three days meant that the resurrection could occur on the first day of the week, the first day of the new creation, the first day of the reign of light and love, the first day of the Kingdom of God, all of which the words “three days” or “the first day of the week’ came to mean.

Is resurrection then real? Do these symbols point to a truth upon which we can count? If it is not a literal story, can it still be a true story? Of course, it can. Before we can see that, however, we must realize that the truth of God can never be contained, except symbolically, inside human words. The truth of God can never be reduced to the words of scripture, to the conclusions of church councils in Nicaea or Ephesus, to the creeds adopted over the centuries, to the ninety-five theses nailed on a church door in Wittenberg or to the pronouncements of some presumed-to-be infallible ecclesiastical leader. Before we can embrace the truth of resurrection, we must face the fact that there is no such thing as the “one true church” or the “one true religion.” There is no one single way through which all must find their way to God. Crucifixion was real, an event that happened in history, but its meaning could never be captured in literal words.

Resurrection was also real, but its reality was found in what happened to real people, who claimed to have had a resurrection experience, but it had nothing to do with the resuscitation of a deceased body. It had nothing to do with returning to the life of flesh and blood in the realm of human history. Resurrection meant rising into the life of God. It meant transcending the limits of time. It meant experiencing birth into a new consciousness. It meant stepping from self-consciousness into the reality of a universal consciousness. It meant entering the oneness of life, which is also the oneness of God. It meant escaping our survival-driven biology and seeing ourselves as part of what the word God means.

It is of interest to me that the first gospel, Mark, devotes one hundred and two verses to tell the story of the last day of Jesus’ life and only eight verses to tell the story of Easter. Matthew expands Mark’s Easter story in two ways. First, he has the risen Christ appear to the women in the garden at dawn on the first day of the week. Mark said the risen Christ appeared to no one. Second, Matthew told the story of the risen Christ appearing to the disciples in Galilee, which was only promised, but never described in Mark. Even with these additions, however, he still devoted 115 verses of his text to the last day of Jesus’ life and only 20 verses to the story of Easter. The emphasis of the gospel writers is clear.

In Mark, since the raised Christ never appears, there are never any words attributed to him. In Matthew, for the first time, the raised Christ is allowed to speak or is heard to speak. He speaks first to the woman in the garden. There he basically repeats message of the angels: “Be not afraid, go tell my brethren, to return to Galilee, there they will see me.”

The second time this transcendent figure speaks in Matthew comes when they do meet in Galilee. The setting is a mountain top. A mountain was as close as human beings could get to God’s heavenly dwelling place just above the skies. Jesus was portrayed as coming out of those skies. He was already one with God, yet no ascension story had yet been written. The disciples, now only eleven in number, have climbed up to the crest of the mountain. The Jesus who appeared “out of the sky” was glorified. He was in possession of “all power in heaven and earth.” He gave them a charge. We call it the “Great Commission.” Go to all the nations. Teach them to observe what I have commanded you (to love one another), baptize them and invite them to enter the life of God. The God they were enjoined to enter was not an external being who lived above the sky, this God was rather the name for the source of life that flows through the universe, but which comes to self-consciousness only in human beings.

We recall that the title given to Jesus by the angel who announced his birth in a dream to Joseph was “You shall call his name ‘Emmanuel,” which means, God with us” (Matt.1:23). Now the raised Christ makes that claim for himself. “Lo, I am with you always” (Matt 28:20).

Ultimately the resurrection is a call to universalism. Go to all the world, go beyond the boundaries of your fears. Go to those you have defined as unclean, unworthy, unsaved, uncircumcised and unbaptized. Go to those you have reduced to being the object of your prejudices. Go to those who are different. Go to the rejected of the world and teach them what I have taught you, namely that God is love and that love embraces all that God has made, that love has no boundaries, that love rejects no one and that love is the essence of the gospel.

The Great Commission was never meant to be a charge to us to convert the heathen, as it has so often been interpreted to be. It was and is a call to see everyone as living inside the love of God. That is why Matthew implies that all will see the risen Christ when all return to their Galilee, that is, when all of us return to our homes. For God is not out there somewhere, God is present in the least of these, our brothers and sisters.

So on this note Matthew brings his gospel to an end and we bring our study of this gospel to an end. Resurrection means that we live in God and participate in God’s oneness. It means no one stands outside the love of God. It means that we are part of God and God is part of us. It means that life in God is eternal because God is eternal. That is the gospel that Matthew proclaims, the gospel that Matthew’s Jesus bids us to preach. It is a gospel to be lived, not just to be repeated, because God is not a noun, that demands to be defined, God is a verb that invites us to live, to love and to be.


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