* Ressurection Blues
As new life bursts forth from the earth all around us, we can clearly see that spring has sprung, and still we have a hard time with myths of bodily resurrection. This Easter, we'll examine the metaphor of resurrection and what a new understanding might mean in our lives and in the life of our community.
It’s not always easy to know what you’re seeing.
There is a story out there that concerns a law professor who was teaching a class about using witnesses in trial situations. The professor hired a person to burst into the classroom unannounced and rob her while she was teaching the class. Of course the students in the class were shook up - it’s an upsetting proposition when your sense of safety and well-being is upended. When the fake robber left, the professor kept up the ruse for a little while and asked the students to help her put in writing what had happened. Of course, as witnesses themselves, they had been stunned by the unexpected, and so it turned out that only some of them could correctly identify some of the characteristics of the robber; most could not report accurately on what was said or the sequence in which things occurred. When they were finally told the robbery was a stunt designed to teach them something about the veracity of witnesses, the students were calmed somewhat. But they were changed by the experience, and they learned firsthand that once you’re shaken up like that, it’s hard to get your bearings again.
Today in Christian churches all over the Western world, the mystery of Easter is being preached and sung and celebrated - the risen Christ, the triumph over the tomb, God’s resurrection of the crucified, dead, and buried body of Jesus.
When I was a child, I suppose I accepted that story without too much question. Whatever my parents told me must be right - they wouldn’t pull my leg, would they?
Then I grew up a little, I learned a little more about life, I learned a little more about science, I had experiences with dead things, and I started to think, “You know, when something’s dead, it’s gone; there’s no coming back. That story about Jesus being resurrected must be hogwash.” So I wrote off everything Christian, and I wrote off many things my parents had tried to teach me since, well, my parents had lied to me and a whole religion had lied to me, I thought.
But then I kept getting older, and I kept seeing things in new ways. And now I wonder about other possibilities.
The whole resurrection mess just seems so foolish, doesn’t it? It’s totally outside our experience of biological life and death. We, or at least I, have never seen anything remotely resembling a revivified body in real life. It’s not logical, it’s not rational, it’s so easy to reject outright on purely scientific grounds. And yet. And yet.
I remember Garrison Keillor saying on Prairie Home Companion one time that those people in the Lake Wobegon Unitarian church were over there on Easter talking about eggs and bunnies and anything they could to keep from mentioning “you-know-who.”
It may seem foolish to you to talk so much about Jesus in a Unitarian Universalist church, particularly this Unitarian Universalist church. You may think there are plenty of other things for us UU’s to talk about on the day of their “Spring Luncheon.” Well, hey, it’s Holy Week for many millions of our neighbors, and a lot of people in the world are discussing the life and death and life again of Jesus today, so maybe we should be prepared to discuss it with them.
So, if you’ll bear with me, we’ll spend a few minutes on the history of the resurrection tradition:
First of all, Jesus lived and died in a time when resurrection was considered normal for the great and the powerful. In the ancient world, great leaders were understood to be resurrected - they were said to be still around in some way, guiding current events after their demise through the greatness of the lives they had already lived.
On the surface, you may think this sounds silly, but on reflection it may be something we can still get a sense of today. Consider, for example, how Martin Luther King, Jr. is still a real presence all these years after his death. We still use his words in church and in civil society, we still hear his voice in our heads, we still honor his legacy in many ways. We still think of him as leading us into a real future where issues of race and class can be overcome - even though he’s been physically gone from this earth for almost fifty years.
Another example: since my mother died, I have sometimes caught myself saying something or behaving in some way and then thinking, “Well, there she is again. That’s her voice coming out of me, that’s her little tic I’m still doing, that’s her legacy that I am living out.” Maybe it’s just a manifestation of her love for me, but I feel like she’s still here in some way, even if I’m the one who is now embodying her and bringing her back to life.
Maybe there are people you feel that way about in your life.
It may sound foolish, of course, to claim that my mother’s been resurrected just because I remember her or feel her presence or act like her sometimes. It would sound foolish to ancient people, too - not because resurrection wasn’t a possible reality but because ancient people would not have considered her great enough to be resurrected, not worthy in the same way as a well-respected person such as, say, Julius Caesar was.
The ancients understood that we, the living, are grounded in and by the lives of important people we’ve known or known about, people who have shown us the way, people who have wielded great power or shown great wisdom or virtue. Those people who are physically gone are still with us in some important ways; they still light our way; they still guide our thoughts and actions; they still exercise great power in the world, even if they have no earthly body to stroll around in.
For the ancients, what was ridiculous about this whole Jesus thing was not that somebody had been resurrected; what was ridiculous was the claim that an unknown itinerant had been resurrected; that a nobody from the backwaters of the Empire, a weakling who had been executed as a criminal, had been raised by something as powerful as a god. Foolish, unheard-of, absurd.
Now let’s take a look at some of the texts people use as a historical record of the events surrounding Jesus’ death. From a literary and historical point of view, the trajectory of writings we have from the early New Testament period runs like this: Paul, who wrote in the 50’s; the Gospel of Mark, written around 70; Matthew and Luke, written about 85, and John from about 95 of the 1st century of the Common Era.
The earliest written record of what people thought about Jesus’ death and resurrection comes from Paul, who speaks in one of the idioms of his culture - specifically, Jewish apocalypticism. Paul, as a Jewish apocalypticist, claims that the resurrection of Jesus heralded the general resurrection, what people of the time thought of as the coming resurrection of all Jews who had lived great lives. No one at the time thought this was going to be a bodily resurrection – that would be silly. Those raised from the dead would obviously be spiritual beings, not flesh-and-blood people. Paul’s encounter with whatever it was on the road to Damascus – a flash of light that he called the risen Christ - was purely spiritual, and he never made any claims otherwise.
Next on the timeline, in about 70, the writer of Mark takes Paul’s idea of the spiritual resurrection of Jesus one step further. When Mark’s gospel ends, the tomb is empty, meaning the body of Jesus that was there the day before had to have gone somewhere. But this hint of physical resurrection is too wild a claim for even the writer of Mark to do much with, and so he stops far short of claiming a true revivification or reanimation of a known-to-be-dead body.
And then, to continue the trajectory in a chronological fashion, in about 85 the author of Matthew says Jesus made post-resurrection appearances to a few disciples. To do so, Jesus must have had some sort of physical body that the disciples could claim to have seen.
And then the next author of a gospel, Luke, writing in about 85, goes a bit further to say that Jesus appeared to even more people, and that this embodied Jesus even ate fish, which (one supposes) since it didn’t immediately fall to the floor, says something about the realness and physicality of the Jesus who made himself known to so many – at least through the eyes and words of the author of Luke.
Finally, the Gospel of John, written about 95, and even though it has a very spiritualistic tone overall, includes the story of Doubting Thomas, the disciple who says he will not believe unless he can put his fingers into the wounds of the risen body of Jesus. Conveniently, John’s flesh-and-blood post-Easter Jesus invites Thomas to do just that, adding a rather macabre touch to what had already become a challenge to imaginations then and now.
So there’s the trajectory, from the resurrection of the great and powerful, to Paul’s spiritual resurrection of all good Jews, to Mark’s empty tomb, to Matthew’s pseudo-physical presence of Jesus, to Luke’s fish-eating risen Christ, to John’s Jesus - a revivified body with open wounds. That trajectory doesn’t point me forward toward some ever-more-unlikely experience with a dead body; it actually points me backward to the days and weeks and months after Jesus’ death, when some of the people who had encountered Jesus during his life must have realized that they had been changed in some important way by his presence. They had been changed by something he said or by something he did or by the way he behaved with them in their moment of need. It wasn’t that God had brought back to life the broken and bleeding body of Jesus, but that for the people who were closest to him, the memory of Jesus was still alive. As foolish as it seemed, his words still rang true even though he had been a nobody, a bum, a weakling, a criminal. As foolish as it seemed, it was as if the universe were saying, “You know, this guy was right - you should love your neighbors, you should love your enemies, you should love the life you’ve been given, you should notice and be thankful for the gifts you receive.”
Now this is not rocket science; in fact, it’s not science at all. But like my experience of Dr. King and my mother, and like your experience of people you may have known or known of, it’s real.
Now, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I’m only talking here about possibilities. And I am most definitely not trying to say that people (and you may be one of them) who have faith in a risen Christ are wrong. I’m trying to say that this whole thing is a mystery; it’s a mystery that there may not be a good, reasonable, rational, scientific explanation for. It’s possible that someone saw something unusual in the days after Jesus died - a miracle, perhaps. Maybe, like the students in the law classroom who were stunned by the unexpected, those people who saw unusual things back then were so stunned by the unexpected, who were so stunned by grief, who were so stunned by fear or confusion that their explanations of what they saw would not only not solve the mystery but would actually add multiple layers of further mystery to it.
I’m familiar with mystery in my life - there are many questions that come up that I have no answer for. I’ve experienced the mystery of difficult relationships. I’ve experienced the mystery of losing a job. I’ve experienced the mystery of having my family fall apart. I’ve experienced the mystery of friends and loved ones dying.
Haven’t most of us experienced at least some of those things? And haven’t we come back from those things, if not quickly, if not totally whole, at least ready to meet a new day?
If you wouldn’t call that a real resurrection, then tell me how it’s not a miracle to be able to get out of bed each morning after all the trials and the tumult of being alive the day before.
It’s springtime, and there are many explanations of how and why such a thing happens. Botanists might say it’s due to the increase in warmth coming from the sun. Astronomers might say that spring comes because of the anomalies of the earth’s orbit around the sun. Neo-pagans might say that spring comes out of the goodness of Gaia, the spirit of the organism we call Planet Earth. New-age philosophers might say that spring is simply life striving for itself.
We can try to explain it in many ways, but I’ll tell you what spring remains for me: a mystery and a miracle.
It’s a mystery how, after the deadness of winter, so much new life arises all at once - in a rainbow of leaf and flower and birdsong.
And it’s a miracle that, after all the troubles of life, any of us are here again to see it and smell it and hear it.
It is a new day. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.