[Oe List ...] 6/09/16, Spong: Charting a New Reformation, Part XXV – The Seventh Thesis, The Resurrection (concluded)

Ellie Stock via OE oe at lists.wedgeblade.net
Thu Jun 9 11:24:18 PDT 2016




Charting a New Reformation
Part XXV – The Seventh Thesis, The Resurrection (concluded)
Paul was the first, perhaps he was also the most important, but he was not the only witness to the resurrection of Jesus in the biblical narrative. To complete our story and to validate anew a different concept of resurrection, we turn briefly to the other narratives. Be warned, surprises await us even there.
Mark, the earliest gospel, has no account of the risen Christ appearing to anyone at any time within its pages. This fact surprises many. It also bothered the early Christians, who kept wanting new endings to Mark’s gospel to cover up this rather glaring deficiency. If, however, the denial of a physical resuscitation of the body was not a deficiency in the Easter story, but an insight, as I am convinced it was, then those later editors were revealing only that they did not understand what the original resurrection story was all about. The process of the literalization of the Easter experience had clearly already begun.
Mark portrays some women coming to the tomb of Jesus at dawn on the first day of the week. They are consumed with their worldly fears. We are told that the thing they were discussing on their journey was how they would be able to remove the great stone that had been placed at the mouth of Jesus’ burial cave. Presumably, in their minds, the stone had to be removed to let them in and in the mind of the gospel writer, to allow Jesus to come out. When they arrived, to their relief, they found the stone already removed. A young man was there; he was dressed in a white robe. He was not an angel. Perhaps he was a liturgical functionary. I have worn a white robe on many occasions during my career without being mistaken for an angel. Perhaps this narrative reflected a developed liturgy. The role this young man played in the Easter drama was simply to make an announcement: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee, there you will see him.” The women flee in fear, Mark says, and they say nothing to anyone “for they were afraid.”
That is all there is to Mark’s original story of Easter. How strange a narrative it is if resurrection ever meant the resuscitation of a deceased body, but these words point clearly to the fact that this is not and was not what resurrection originally meant. You will see the meaning of resurrection, the messenger seems to say, when you return to your homes and go about the business of your life. Resurrection, you see, was not just something that happened to Jesus, it was also something that happens to and in each of us. For us it is a subjective understanding, not an objective truth. We will see him, the promise of Mark’s messenger seems to say, when our eyes are open to the meaning of God found in the midst of life, in the expression of love and in the courage to be. That is, we are resurrected when we learn that God is present when we live fully, love wastefully and become all that we are capable of being. Easter thus functions in a number of ways. First, it opens our eyes. Second, it calls us to open the eyes of others and to enable them to live, to love and to be. It is in the authenticity of our humanity that the boundary between life and death is transcended. The first gospel so very clearly does not say what most of us have always thought and been taught that it says.
About a decade after Mark, the second gospel, Matthew, was written. Matthew has Mark in front of him as he writes and he borrows extensively from Mark. He, however, does several other things also. Matthew magnifies the miraculous and closes all of the loopholes that he believes Mark has left open. So Mark’s “young man dressed in a white robe” becomes, in Matthew, a supernatural angel in translucent clothing. The message of this angel has become much more supernatural: “He has risen from the grave. He will go before you to Galilee. There you will see him.” Matthew’s women are faithful, far more than they had been in Mark. They go at once to tell the disciples what they have seen and heard. They are rewarded for that faithfulness by Matthew with an appearance of the risen Christ. This is the first narrative of a resurrected Jesus being seen by anyone in the entire Bible. It is the 9th decade. Some find that fact amazing when they hear it for the first time.
Matthew then relates the details of what had been in Mark only the promise of a Galilean appearance to the disciples. To the surprise of many fundamentalists, however, it is not a vision of a resuscitated body. Examine the text closely. Matthew’s disciples are physical; they are bound to the laws of nature. They have to climb the mountain. Jesus on the other hand is quite unbound, he comes out of the sky. He has been raised into the meaning of God and since God was still thought of as living above the sky, Jesus must come from above. Please note the clear distinction in this narrative. Jesus is not a victim, he is a victor, glorified and already endowed with heavenly power. He speaks. His words would later be called the “Great Commission” – Go into all the world, preach the gospel and Lo, I am with you always. Was this a missionary charge to go convert the heathen? Not a chance! There was no institutional church at that time that felt the need to gain converts! The risen Christ was saying rather, go beyond your boundaries, your fears, your lines of security, learn to give yourselves away and know that you are part of who I am. We cannot now be separated! It is a different message of Easter from the one about which we have previously been told.
Next Luke writes, about a decade later. By this time, literal minds have begun to do their “falsifying of the message” work. The messenger in Mark, who became an angel in Matthew, has now become two angels in Luke. The body of Christ has become unmistakably physical. Luke’s resurrected Jesus eats, he drinks, he walks, he talks and he interprets scripture. Yet he also seems to be able to materialize out of thin air and later to de-materialize into thin air. The symbols are confusing. He becomes so physical that they feel his flesh and bones to make sure he is not a ghost, but then they begin to wonder how he will ever escape the limits of this life. The conclusion begins to grow that if he has been bodily restored from death, back into the physical life of this world, then somehow he must also be able to be bodily removed from the earth since his eternal destiny is to be with God. Those were the assumptions that made the story of a physical ascension necessary. We will examine the details of this ascension narrative when we reach the next thesis.
Finally, to complete our sweep of the four gospels, we move on to John. The Fourth Gospel, as it is called, has four resurrection stories, framed in two pairs. The first pair begins with Magdalene’s discovery of the empty tomb. She goes at once to report this to the disciples, who apparently are close by. Their concern is not with the possibility of resurrection, but with the suspicion of grave robbery. Peter, we are told, together with the one called only “the disciple whom Jesus loved” ran to the tomb. They entered it. It was quite empty, only the grave clothes remained. No body appears to anyone. Peter is perplexed, but we are told that the “Beloved Disciple” believes. Belief in the resurrection is thus born in the Fourth Gospel, not in the vision of s resurrected body, but in the realization that the boundaries of death have been broken. These two disciples then return to their place of hiding.
Magdalene lingers at the tomb weeping. Jesus, now we are told, appears to her alone. She does not recognize him, thinking him to be the gardener. He speaks her name. Her eyes open with new understanding. She sees. She rushes to embrace him. “Do not hold me,” Jesus is quoted as saying. Do not cling to this body. That is not what resurrection is about. “I have seen the Lord,” Magdalene is quoted as saying. John’s first pair of resurrection stories is complete.
The scene then shifts to the other disciples. Two almost identical stories are now told, covering a period of eight days. In the first of these stories, Thomas is absent. In the second Thomas is present. The disciples see at once, but the absent Thomas does not see and remains apart from their faith. Jesus then appears eight days later. This time Thomas is present and he too sees. In response he makes the ultimate confession of faith. You, Jesus, are “my Lord and my God.” Jesus responds with what was surely the reason those two stories were included. “Thomas, have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
The Easter experience in the New Testament, contrary to what we have traditionally been taught over the years, is not about bodies walking out of graves. It is far more profound than that. It is about God being seen in human life. By “God” I do not mean a supernatural, invasive God, who violates the laws of nature in order to invade time and space. I mean a transcendent dimension of life appears into which all can enter, an experience in which life is expanded, love is unlimited and in which being is enhanced. I mean the God whose presence and power calls us all into our essential oneness, our universal consciousness, our interconnectedness. We are part of who and what God is. God is not a noun we are compelled to define, God is a verb that we are invited to live. There is a difference and it is in that difference that resurrection is both experienced and entered. That in the last analysis is what resurrection is all about.
John Shelby Spong
Read the essay online here.
Question & Answer
Mike McConnell Mike McConnell from Port Elizabeth, South Africa, writes:
Having been a “seeker” for most of my life and enrolling full time for a theology degree once (thankfully stopped after six months), your books in particular (and those by Marcus Borg) have finally enabled me to decide where I stand. Thank you most sincerely for your courage and insight.
I have two questions – perhaps the first is more of a comment. I am happy that people may choose to believe whatever they wish. I’m aware, however, of a “restrained anger,” perhaps more of a frustration, within me about the role of the organized Christian Church, past and present and with those who simply “follow like sheep.” I seldom show this and am sensitive to people’s right to do and be whatever they wish. It has to do, of course, with what I see as the tragic “misdirection” that was adopted, though often/sometimes in “good faith.” I’d hate to become a “nouveau fundamentalist.”
Second, I have been working on calling God “something else” because I want to try and escape the traditional “baggage” that goes with the name. This is quite hard being close to my 70th year now and brought up, until a few years ago, as a “traditional Christian,” but it seems important to me. I understand God to be “divine” or “the essence” of everything; to be the “connectedness” of all things; to be the power and influence that we cannot and should not fully understand. I see that God is in me and all things and must rather be “let out” than “let in,” as I was brought up to believe. I’m not sure that I qualify to be called “Christian” any more (which does not concern me). I attend a Sunday gathering that acknowledges and respects all faiths and we use Jesus, amongst others, as an important source for furthering the “Kingdom of God,” the “here and now.”
I’d really appreciate any comment on this – perhaps I’ve “gone overboard,” but it seems just right to me!
Dear Mike,
Thank you for your letter. The deeper we go into the meaning of faith, the more questions we have and the less pleased we are with the performance of the Christian Church of yesterday. Of course, the Christian Church has abused its primary message. Anti-Semitism, the Muslim-hating series of Crusades, the endorsement of slavery, segregation and apartheid as legitimate behavior for Christians, the legitimization of wars of conquest and the denigration of women have all infected our world with the approval of the church. We could say the same thing about other religions, political movements and even the practice of medicine. All of us walk through and live in history and are compromised by it. The fact is, however, that the journey continues and consciousness rises.
In regard to your second concern, how to understand the word “God.” I share with you the difficulty. I see myself as a committed believer – even a “God-intoxicated” person, but every attempt I make to define God ends in failure. I now no longer try. I experience God, I do not define God. This means that even when I try to define or explain my experience, I wind up failing. Those regular readers of this column, who are walking with me through the series entitled “Charting a New Reformation,” surely know this by now.
I do not think that the pathway into faith for me comes by finding the lowest common denominator and seeking to be inclusive of all faiths and committed to none. I very specifically identify myself with the Christ path and seek to walk deeper into the Christ experience. I literalize no part of that story, but believe that if I go into it deeply enough, I will find the universal truth buried within it. I can respect the place to which you have arrived, but I cannot share it. I will continue to walk the Christ path. I hope those committed to other faith traditions will continue to walk their paths until all of us transcend our limits and come into a new unity at the depth not the surface of our faith. Then the real religious conversation can begin.
Thank you for writing.
John Shelby Spong

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