Thursday, July 30, 2015

Resurrection: A Reality Or A Pious Dream, Part IX Luke: Physical, Non-Physical Or Both?

By John Shelby Spong

Today, I want to focus on the ambiguity found in the conflicting aspects of Luke’s two resurrection stories in more detail and in more depth. It will help us to see why Luke had to develop a brand new dimension to his story of the resurrection.

We noted last week that this author, more than any gospel writer in the Bible, had turned the Easter story into a tale of a deceased body being resuscitated and restored to the normal patterns of life.

In Paul, resurrection was far more a rising into the being and the reality of God than it was a restoration back to this world of time and history. In Mark, the resurrected Jesus was not literalized in such a way as to suggest that he had appeared physically to anyone. In Matthew, there was a physical appearance of the risen Christ to the women near the tomb, but it was quickly followed by a non-physical appearance to the disciples on a mountaintop in Galilee. Yet, by the time Luke wrote, (ca. 88-93) the physicality of the risen Christ appears to have preempted all other possibilities.

When Luke’s risen Christ appeared to the disciples in Jerusalem for the first time, he was made to assert his physicality rather dramatically by inviting the disciples to examine his body: “A Spirit does not have flesh and bones,” he said. He asked for food to eat and proceeded to eat it in front of them to demonstrate that he now possessed a restored gastro-intestinal tract. He interpreted scripture to them to demonstrate that he had a functioning brain. He walked to the village of Emmaus to demonstrate that he had a viable skeletal system. This was a resuscitated Jesus, restored from the dead back into a physical presence in total continuity with the Jesus of history. That was Luke’s explanation of the resurrection and it was unique to Luke.

Most of the general “church consensuses” about the meaning of Easter, formed through the centuries, have come directly out of Luke’s minority position.

The liturgical year of the Christian church, which to this day dominates Christian worship patterns, was taken directly from Luke, who suggested a pattern of forty days during which the resurrected Jesus appeared to people, followed by the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, which in turn was followed by the story of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

People are generally unaware that this regular liturgical pattern was only in Luke. Mark had only a messenger on Easter Day, nothing else. Matthew had an Easter Day experience at the tomb followed by a Galilean appearance within two weeks at most. John concluded his Easter story on the first day of two successive weeks making the resurrection season only eight days long. John’s epilogue (chapter 21), which most scholars regard as written by another hand well after the Fourth Gospel was concluded, added a Galilean appearance that could be dated anywhere from weeks after the first Easter up to a full year later.

So, without being conscious of it, the patterns of our liturgical practices, followed by almost all parts of the Christian church, have locked our understanding of the meaning of Easter into the Lucan order. Even a recent nationally televised religious program, involving well-known Christian scholars, was called “The Great Forty Days,” a title that makes sense only by excluding every biblical author’s story of Easter except Luke’s.

Luke, however, tempered his interpretation of the physicality of the resurrection with one unique resurrection story, recorded by no one else and then he drew the logical consequence to a physically understood resurrection by introducing a brand new narrative that we call “the ascension.” Today, we will look at the problem created by making the resurrection an act of resuscitation, namely how does a resuscitated body ever get out of this world?

The unique Lucan resurrection story involved a man named Cleopas and his unnamed traveling companion. The name Cleopas had never before occurred in any Christian writing of which we are aware; yet he starred in this crucial episode. In this narrative these two people were on a journey to a village called Emmaus on the afternoon of the first Easter day. They were said to be depressed by the reality of the crucifixion for they had placed their messianic hopes in Jesus. Now that he was deceased, however, those hopes had been destroyed. They were also said to have been intrigued, perhaps even mystified, by reports that Luke suggested they had heard, that some women had found the tomb empty that morning and furthermore that some “angelic beings” were present claiming that Jesus was alive.

As they journeyed, a third person was said to have joined them. Luke told his readers that this stranger was Jesus, but he was hidden from the eyes of these travelers. From where did this third person come? That question was left unanswered, but it was suggested that perhaps he had materialized out of thin air. Later he would be said to have disappeared into thin air. This stranger opened the dialogue by inquiring as to the subject of their conversation and was then brought up to date by them on the events of the past weekend, the fact of crucifixion and the rumor of resurrection.

The stranger then said to Cleopas and his friend: “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken. Was it not necessary that the messiah (Christ) should suffer these things and to enter into his glory?” Then Luke said that this stranger proceeded, beginning with “Moses and all the prophets” to interpret to them in all the scriptures, the things concerning “himself.” Cleopas and his companion did not yet know who this stranger was. The long explanatory process had, however, filled up all of the time of their journey. It was only a six-mile trip, perhaps four hours by foot.

As they drew near to the village, the stranger, we are told, acted as if he would continue alone. Cleopas and his companion constrained him, however, with an invitation to “stay with us.” He agreed and in this setting Luke narrated his first resurrection appearance story. It was at a meal, he said, with the three of them around the table. Strangely enough, the invited guest, not Cleopas, served as the host and presided over the meal, which was filled with Eucharistic symbols and language. In his ceremonial blessing, the stranger employed four well-known Eucharistic verbs, the same verbs used at the Last Supper in Mark, Matthew and Luke, the same verbs used by all the gospel writers when they related the story of the feeding of the multitudes and the same verbs used today by most Christian churches in the Eucharistic act. He took bread, blessed it, broke the bread and gave it to them.” In that Eucharistic action, it was as if the eyes of Cleopas and his companion were opened and they suddenly recognized that this stranger was Jesus, the crucified one. At that moment, the stranger vanished! Cleopas and his friend rushed back to Jerusalem to tell their story to the disciples, which concluded with the words, “He was made known to us in the breaking of the bread.”

This story is filled with symbolic language. It is also a portrayal of a non-physical resurrected Jesus, one who could appear and disappear at will and as such it offered a counterpoint to all of the other Lucan Easter narratives. The place where this meal was shared seemed to be in what might be called a “temporary dwelling,” a kind of tabernacle used by the Jews in the harvest festival known as Sukkoth. Perhaps it is also symbolic of the tomb of Jesus that was perceived as a temporary dwelling. The meal was clearly a Christian Eucharist, but it might also be representative of that symbolic meal that Jews had to consume inside those temporary shelters erected at Sukkoth. Finally, it suggested that the Eucharist might well be the original context of whatever the resurrection experience was.

In reenacting the words of Jesus at the Last Supper to “do this in remembrance of me,” their eyes were opened to see who he was. The opening of the scriptures from Moses to the prophets was surely part of the process through which the followers of Jesus had to go before their own eyes could “see messiah in Jesus.” That is why there had to be more than three days between the crucifixion and the proclamation that “Jesus lives.” Only then do all of the interpretive words about Easter make sense. The resurrected Jesus “was made known to us in the breaking of the bread.” The process that led them to these conclusions took time, perhaps months, calling into question the literal accuracy of the three day symbol, but this will be a factor we will examine in greater detail later.

Why did Luke tell this story? Why was this story not told anywhere else in the New Testament? Does it reflect an earlier memory? Does it relate the Last Supper to the crucifixion more closely than we had heretofore imagined? Does it offer Luke’s own counterpoint to the physical dimensions of his later story of the resurrection? Was it a clue to the reality of Easter in the experience of the disciples, which suggested that physicality must be transcended before resurrection would ever be understood? In some sense, this story is the one saving grace to the literalistic way in which resurrection was understood everywhere else in Luke’s gospel. It hangs inside that gospel like a glowing pearl, suggesting a proper way, even if a contradictory way, to understand Luke’s deeper meaning.

With the single exception of this simple story Luke had trapped himself inside the prison of fundamentalism. If Jesus had been raised back into the life of the physical world, then how would he return to God from whom he had come? Since it was a problem of Luke’s sole creation it had to be a problem that Luke himself would have to solve. Next week, we will see exactly how he did that and also just how it is that religious tradition grows and develops.


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