[Dialogue] 10/22/15, Spong: Creating Easter V: How did Easter Dawn? What was the Context?

Ellie Stock via Dialogue dialogue at lists.wedgeblade.net
Thu Oct 22 13:14:08 PDT 2015



Re-Creating Easter V 
How did Easter Dawn?
What was the Context?
We are told, but only in Luke’s gospel, that when Cleopas and his traveling companion returned from Emmaus to Jerusalem to share their experience of the risen Christ with the disciples, they used these provocative words: “He was made known to us in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). These interpretive words, written some 60-65 years after the crucifixion, nonetheless provide the first overt biblical hint that somehow the experience of the resurrection might have been related to the Eucharist. We now grasp that clue and seek to probe it, even to expand it, by looking for additional clues in all of the feeding stories in the New Testament. Is there a pattern here? Can clues found here shout out new possibilities? My first step is, therefore, to examine all of the feeding stories in the gospels looking for insights.
The earliest mention of the Eucharist in the New Testament comes in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, dated about 54 CE. That would make it some 18 years earlier than the first gospel. This suggests that long before the narrative of the last supper appears in any gospel account, the Eucharist was functioning as part of Christian worship.
In this early first source, Paul introduces it this way: “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread and when he had given thanks (or blessed it), he broke it and said: ‘This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, he took the cup, after supper, saying: ‘This is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.’ Then he summed up the meaning of these words by saying: ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’”

This early passage is worthy of serious study. We need to see exactly what this 6th decade text says without polluting its meaning with last supper references drawn from the much later gospels. How did the pre-gospel, primitive church understand this liturgical act?
First, note that the word that has been translated “betrayed” (in Greek paredidoto) means literally “handed over.” That is the earliest place in the Christian story where the idea that Jesus was betrayed is noted. Paul, however, never mentions Judas and he gives us no sense that this “handing over” was actually done by one of Jesus’ disciples. Those notes would be added later as the tradition developed. We do observe, however, just four chapters later in this same epistle, Paul states, describing Easter, that on the first day of the week Jesus appeared “first to Cephas” and then to “the Twelve.” In Paul’s mind three days after the crucifixion “the Twelve” was still intact. No defection had happened. That detail usually surprises people.
The second thing to note about this earliest reference to the Christian Eucharist was that it was not identified as a Passover meal; that connection also had not yet been made.
The third noteworthy thing is that Paul says that in repeating this Eucharistic act, they would “show forth the Lord’s death until he comes.” The Eucharist was an interpretation of the crucifixion and death of Jesus. No connotation of resurrection was yet associated with it.
The final thing to note is that Paul used a stylized vocabulary to relate this episode. Jesus “takes,” “blesses” (or gives thanks), “breaks” and then distributes or “gives” the bread to the disciples. Paul then stated that this bread was symbolic of Jesus’ body, which was broken in the crucifixion, and that the cup of wine, which was also taken and distributed, was symbolic of the new covenant sealed in his blood. There was clearly something powerful and crucial about this liturgical act, but its focus was on interpreting Jesus’ death, not in pointing to the resurrection.
Next we look at all of the feeding stories in the New Testament. There are six narratives about Jesus feeding a multitude related in the four gospels. It is the only miraculous act, other than the resurrection, to appear in all four of the gospels. Two feeding the multitudes stories are in Mark and in Matthew, but only one is in Luke and John.
In Mark and Matthew, where two distinctly different feeding stories are included, other symbols abound. On the Jewish side of the lake it is with five loaves and two fish that five thousand are fed, after which twelve baskets of fragments are collected. Two chapters later, Jesus repeats this act, but this time on the Gentile side of the lake with seven loaves and a few fish being used to feed four thousand. After this feeding seven baskets of fragments are collected. Surely, these are not literal or random numbers; they are picked for a reason. In both stories the symbolic Eucharistic words are used. Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and gives. This means that these stories reflect the Eucharistic act, an act that pre-dates the gospels by decades. What, therefore, did this primal liturgical act originally mean? What was its significance?
We move next to the biblical narratives of Jesus’ Last Supper. We have that meal described in Mark, Matthew and Luke, but not in John. In each episode the Eucharistic formula is included. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it. He adds some interpretive words according to each gospel. In Mark, he says: “This is my body” as he distributes the bread, and he says: “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many,” when he gives the cup. Then he adds these words, “I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the Kingdom of God.” What does that mean?
In Matthew, Jesus says of the bread: “Take, eat; this is my body,” and as he distributed the cup he says: “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” The words are slightly different, but the meaning is still not clear.
In Luke’s gospel, the words of Jesus vary again. He introduces the Eucharistic act by saying: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.” Then after taking the bread and giving thanks, he says: “Take this and divide it among yourselves for I tell you,” he says, repeating his previous words, “that from now on, I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes.” Then, once again, he repeats the key verbs. He took, blessed, broke and gave, saying: “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
John does not describe the last supper, giving that space to the story of washing Peter’s feet, but in the Epilogue to his gospel, a meal shared between Jesus and his disciples is described. It takes place early in the morning on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The elements in this Eucharist are not bread and wine, but bread and fish, the elements used in the feeding of the multitude stories. The bread, presumably was taken from storage on the boat, and the fish from the miraculous catch just hauled in. Jesus presides over this meal, the familiar verbs are used with one omission. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it and gives it; he does not break it. By the time John was written, Jesus himself has been identified with the bread of life. He even claims to be this bread. In John, the bread of life is broken only once and that was on the cross. So in this post-crucifixion story, the body of Christ is not broken, perhaps cannot be broken again.
What do we make of these facts? The Eucharist is present in every feeding story. They all appear to anticipate, not the resurrection so much as the coming of the Kingdom of God. They point to the reality that something elemental in the Christian experience is connected with the Eucharist. Is it possible that the Eucharist was a liturgical action in which Peter’s eyes were opened to see the meaning of the resurrection? Was the Eucharist designed by the followers of Jesus to reorient the angle of vision in every generation to the context in which the Easter experience was born? Was Easter more about understanding the crucifixion and seeing Jesus’ role in establishing the Kingdom of God, than it was about seeing Jesus raised from the dead?
Those are the conclusions that I am forced to draw and they coincide with the words of Cleopas in Luke’s gospel when he says to the disciples: “He was made known to us in the breaking of the bread.” So we are forced to consider some new possibilities.
Was the resurrection of Jesus an event in history? That is what literal-minded people have argued through the centuries, but the New Testament suggests otherwise. The Eucharist interprets “the death of Jesus until he comes,” said Paul in 54 CE. It was the death of Jesus not the resurrection in which the reality of God was revealed. The death of Jesus was an event in history, but was the resurrection? In I Corinthians, Paul says “Jesus was seen” by a list of witnesses. The Greek word that has been translated “was seen,” however, was ophthe, the word from which we derive our word ophthalmology, but what kind of seeing was being described? Was it physical seeing? Was it insight? Was it second sight? We know that the word ophthe was also the Greek word used to translate Moses’ “seeing” of God at the burning bush in the book of Exodus. Did Moses see God as a physical entity? Could God have been photographed? Is the language of resurrection the kind of language that cannot be literalized, but can only point us to something beyond the power of words to capture? Is the resurrection too profound a reality to be reduced to words? Can resurrection still be real if it is not or was not physical? These are the questions with which we must wrestle if we are to recreate the moment when Easter dawned.
Next week we will begin to draw these clues together into a single, cohesive narrative, so stay tuned.
John Shelby Spong
Read the essay online here.
Question & Answer
John R. Brehmer,  via the Internet, writes:
It may have been 1980 when the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero made headlines that I became interested in liberation theology only to see the concept crushed by Papal orders and brutal military suppression. I had a life to live, however, and a family to support so problems so far away did not occupy much of my thinking then and for the next twenty to thirty years. But during those years I was also dismayed at the retrenchment of the Vatican on so many social needs issues and was shocked that the attitude of the church had trumped piety over social action.

So now in 2015 under Pope Francis, we have the beatification of Oscar Romero (hopefully soon to be Saint Romero) and the appointment of Gerhard Ludwig Muller to Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the renewed interest in the writings of Gustavo Gutierrez. This is great news for not only Latin America, but for all of us, religious and secular, concerned with preferential treatment for the poor. Would you give us your blessings on this change (philosophy, attitude, imperative) knowing that we will continue to fight for justice regardless of attitudes around us, but we are interested in your opinions?
Dear John,

I remember so well the murder of Archbishop Romero. I recall the thrill of reading the writings of both Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff. At that time in my life I was wrestling with the issue of the repression of people of color in the United States. Segregation had been declared by the Supreme Court as “inherently unequal.” Desegregation had been ordered with “all deliberate speed.” The mainline churches in the United States, Catholic and Protestant, were silent backers of the status quo. Massive resistance to the law of the land was the name of the official response in the state of Virginia. The “liberal” position was articulated by the Episcopal Bishop of North Carolina. It was called “gradualism,” which basically meant that justice for black people was to move at a pace slow enough so as not to offend white people! Archbishop Romero, Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff and their Protestant American counterparts, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy and John Hines, called the church to look at the gospel of Jesus through the eyes of the poor, the victims of prejudice and the oppressed. The religious establishment struck back. Romero was murdered, Boff was “laicized,” King was murdered and Hines had financial support withdrawn and was ultimately rendered so ineffective that he had to resign. God was clearly seen as on the side of the establishment and against the poor. The people chosen to be Pope were more and more conservative and oppressive in thought and action. When John Hines was forced out of the leadership of the Episcopal Church, the Bishop of Mississippi, Hines’ ideological opposite, was chosen to succeed him. When the great progressive Pope John XXIII died prematurely in 1963 after only four years and seven months in the papal office, he was succeeded by ever increasingly retrogressive occupants of the See of Rome: Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Attempts were made by many of these Christian leaders to associate the members of the Civil Rights movement with communism. It was a dark time for Christianity in the world.

A witness to truth, however, is never futile and justice will finally prevail. Pope Francis is a sign of that. His conversations with Gutierrez have helped to fulfill his commitment to make the poor the center of his papacy. The change in the leadership in the Vatican position of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine and Faith of the Church, once called the Office of the Inquisition, is another sign. The election of first, a brilliant woman, Katharine Jefferts-Schori and then a courageous African-American, Michael Curry, to be the presiding bishops of the Episcopal Church is yet another.

What all of these things say to me is not only that a new day is dawning, but also that one’s witness to truth, even at the cost of one’s life, is never in vain. Oppression of truth and justice will never finally succeed. One does not act in fear, but in faith. One puts one’s life on the line and lets the chips fall where they may. The arc of the universe finally tends toward justice.

Thank you for writing.
John Shelby Spong
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