April 12, 2009 by J. Madson
Today is my final post for Holy Week. I have found myself preoccupied daily with reading, searching, and pondering what to post. It has forced me to consider what Jesus means to me and more importantly the nature of God, the world in which I find myself, and the world which could be. The theme today is of course the resurrection. While I personally believe in a physical and literal resurrection and could spend much of this post discussing the historical, rational, and ultimately spiritual reasons for my position, I would rather focus on what the resurrection means in the gospels. How did they understand this event? How are we to understand this event?
Within our churches and our faiths we often hear that the message of Easter is that there is life again, ie life after death. This is certainly a heart-gladdening message but it also fails to capture the depth and fullness of what was occurring with resurrection. NT Wright parodies this view when he suggests that:
This true meaning has remained hidden because the Church has trivialised it and the world has rubbished it. The Church has turned Jesus’s Resurrection into a “happy ending” after the dark and messy story of Good Friday, often scaling it down so that “resurrection” becomes a fancy way of saying “He went to Heaven”. Easter then means: “There really is life after death”. The world shrugs its shoulders.
What I would like to suggest is that Jesus’ work, vocation, or calling was intimately bound up with his crucifixion and resurrection, and that in the context of Easter his resurrection was intimately tied to his crucifixion. Too often the gospel is read in a manner in which “the death and resurrection fall off one end” and then there is left behind all the other “stuff about Jesus healing people and telling parables.”
“[The] message of the kingdom is the thing which resurrection is really all about—and, conversely, … resurrection is what the message of the kingdom is all about. In other words, Jesus came with a job to do, to complete the work to which Israel was called. This work, from the call of Abraham onwards, was to put the human race to rights, and so to put the whole creation to rights…Jesus was addressing the question, “What might it look like if God was running this show?” And answering, “This is what it looks like: just watch.” And then, “just listen.” In what he did, and in the stories he told, Jesus was announcing and inaugurating what he referred to as “the kingdom of God,” the long-awaited hope that the creator God would run the whole show, on earth as in heaven. – NT Wright
As I have argued repeatedly in the previous posts, Jesus was about establishing the kingdom of God: a radical departure from the kingdoms, powers, and rulers that the world had seen. Jesus made claims about what this kingdom would look like and then began establishing it on earth in midst of religious and imperial powers that sought his destruction. It is no surprise then that this kingdom, at odds with those of the world and indeed announcing their end, led inevitably to a conflict with the imperial might of the Roman empire and the irreligious piety of the ruling class in Jerusalem. This is how the crucifixion came to be, it was the inevitable result of Jesus’ challenging the world’s system of rule and domination and both proposing and instituting God’s kingdom on earth. And,
Like any good Jew, he believes that if he faces this, in obedience to the divine plan, he will be vindicated. And the word for that is ‘resurrection’. NT Wright
Resurrection and Vindication
Crossan and Borg describe the vindication thus God has vindicated Jesus.
God has said “yes” and “no” to the powers who executed him. Easter is not about an afterlife or about happy endings. Easter is God’s “yes” to Jesus against the powers that killed him…. The authors of the gospel do not speak about Jesus’s resurrection without speaking about his crucifixion by the collusion between collaborators and imperial power. In the words of the earliest and most widespread post-Easter affirmation about Jesus in the New Testament, Jesus is Lord. And if Jesus is Lord, the lords of this world are not. Easter affirms that the domination systems of this world are not of God and that they do not have the final word.”
But why is this so important in understanding the Easter message of resurrection? By emphasizing both Jesus’ life/vocation/work and his crucifixion and resurrection we can escape the trap of making Jesus into an empty vessel into which we pour more and more pain, more and more sin, more and more agony, while he is crucified time and time again without end. Barbara Ehrenreich once told of her experience and impressions during what could likely be called a typical religious sermon:
Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, not anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.”
This reminds us of the silent Jesus portrayed by Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamzov. There Ivan, tells the story of a Jesus appearing somewhere in Spain during the height of the inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor reveals the truth that the church no longer has a need of a speaking, living, breathing Jesus. They have something much better, a dead, crucified, silhouetted figure of Jesus with which they can fill with any teaching and perhaps more important with people’s pain and suffering without any real movement towards changing the world which causes such pain and suffering. In short, Jesus is crucified again and again in a myth wherein the powers can continue with their control, their rule, and their ruthless domination while the people are given an icon to salve their pain. It is this same understanding that led Barbara Ehrenreich to remark:
“I get up to leave, timing my exit for when the preacher’s metronomic head movements have him looking the other way, and walk out to search for my car, half expecting to find Jesus out there in the dark, gagged and tethered to a tent pole.”
Again, I reference Crossan and Borg
“Without an emphasis on Easter as God’s decisive reversal of the authorities’ verdict on Jesus, the cross is simply pain, agony, and horror. It leads to horrific theology: God’s judgment means that we all deserve to suffer like this, but Jesus died in out place. God can spare us because Jesus is the substitution sacrifice for our sins.
Without God’s reversal at Easter, Good Friday also leads to cynical politics. This is the way the world is, the powers are and always will be in control, and those who think it can be otherwise are utopian dreamers. Christianity is about the next world, not this one, and this one belongs to the wealthy and powerful, world without end.
Easter without Good Friday risks sentimentality and vacuity. It becomes an affirmation that spring follows winter, life follows death, flowers will bloom again, and it is time for bonnets and bunnies. But Easter as reversal of Good Friday means God’s vindication of Jesus’s passion for the kingdom of God, for God’s justice, and God’s “no” to the powers that killed him, powers still very much active in out world. Easter is about God even as it is about Jesus. It discloses the character of God. Easter means God’s Great Cleanup of the world has begun – but it will not happen without us.”
The Nature of God
This brings me to what I consider at the heart of Jesus’ work and his ultimate revelation that if you have seen him you have seen the Father. At issue in the New Testament is not just the figure Jesus, his life, his death, and his resurrection but the very question the bible seeks to answer and indeed all religions have sought to understand: who is god? The resurrection is not just a vindication of the person Jesus, not just a vindication that his work and vocation are correct, but a radical redefining or perhaps better put a revelation as to who God truly is, his desires, his passions, and hopes for his creation.
This is what the gospel writers intend to do: they are enquiring after the meaning of the word ‘god’ itself, and simply enquire about what precisely this (known) god wants, has done, intends to do. Who precisely is this god of whom the Jewish scripture had spoken, the god who made himself known to Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets? Which community (of the two in question, at least) is speaking truly, or at least more truly, about this god? – NT Wright
What the gospels, Jesus, and the resurrection are challenging us to do is to read the entire Jewish scriptures in a new way:
It is the contention of [the New testament writers] that with the coming of Jesus the whole situation of mankind has so altered as to change the semantic context of the word ‘God’. They are written, in their different ways, to articulate and invite their hearers to share a new worldview which carries at its heart a new view of ‘god’, and even a proposal for a way of saying ‘God’. – NT Wright.
When Philip encountered the Ethiopian reading from Isaiah’s passage of the suffering servant he was then able to reveal the entire weight and import of the gospel message. This passage from Isaiah coupled with the resurrection reveals once and for all who God is and what he would have us do. The religious and political leaders with their own views of the world and self-delusional righteousness were wrong:
The mob was wrong and its sense of righteousness was a delusion. It is the victim who is the chosen one of God, the agent of God’s self-revelation to the world. – Gil Bailie
This is what Philip explained to the Ethiopian, that the Jesus’ death and crucifixion which could only be interpreted as a defeat, was in fact a victory.
The Resurrection was the Father’s Yes. We may say: the Resurrection settled that the Crucifixion’s sort of God is indeed the one God; the Crucifixion settled what sort of God it is who establishes his Deity by the Resurrection. Or: the crucifixion settled who and what God is; the Resurrection settled that this God is. – Robert Jenson
I would like to take this message even farther and suggest that not only did the resurrection vindicate Jesus’ call to do justice and his kingdom of God message, that not only did it demonstrate God’s passions, desires, and hopes, but that it radically redefined our relationship with deity. What occurred on the cross and in the resurrection could be described as an abyss. There, Jesus faced the full weight of human misery, abandonment (by his disciples), suffering and agony (his rejection by his own, his grisly death), and faced the murderous rage and violence of his contemporaries. How he faced the abyss is not only revelatory about the nature of God but also the nature of his relationship to us. As Anthony Bartlett suggests
Jesus cannot demand a deeper degree of love from his human audience that that which he predicated of the Father, and so love for enemies, taught unconditionally by Jesus, becomes an unconditional quality of God.
This for me, is the meaning of the resurrection. The resurrection reveals who God truly is and what his kingdom looks like. It is a kingdom revealed in Jesus’ teachings and life which are demonstrated dramatically in his death. The resurrection is an invitation symbolized in baptism, sacrament, and all rituals to be born again and become a new creature. It is an invitation to live in and create God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus defines and demonstrates the nature of that kingdom and in his death and resurrection makes clear the means that God is prepared to use in facing the abyss and darkness of this world.
The world changed in 33 ad. The call of the gospel is to live in light of the radical program for social, individual, and spiritual change. This message is just as necessary today as it was when Jesus faced the powers that dominated the world nearly 2000 years ago. Anthony Bartlett described the modern predicament as such:
The world stands at a point of unconditional crisis. All restraining mechanisms are loosening their grip; the containing forces of traditional religion and the sacred are progressively abolished. There are no limits, no boundaries. This is true in terms of the ideology of liberal democracy, in respect of sexual, familial, and social identities and behaviors. But it is in fact most profoundly and systematically true in the relentless global procession of objects of desire; in the media, in information technology, in the superstores of the rich. This is where the crisis most properly manifests itself. The huge discrepancy between the rich and poor, both on the national and international levels, in one way belies the vaunted absence of boundaries, and does so in the most brutal form. And yet at the same time the omnipresence of telecommunication daily taunts every member of the species with an immediate sensation of things to be desired, things that are in fact possible only for the privileged few. The world begins to spin uncontrollably on a carousel of desire. And its spinning faster and faster becomes a vortex in which those thrown to the bottom for whatever reason must inevitably resort to violence, seeking to reverse their destiny. One can imagine scenarios in which such violence is harnessed by reactionary movements, seeking to control the vortex, to slow it, to give it a superficial sense of rhythm, order, and right. This is a solution that can arise itself out of disaster (economic, ecological, or cumulative right-wing frustration), and in turn create catastrophe on a scale that would dwarf all previous exercise in scapegoating and the making of victims. But such a response would never itself be able to dispense with the hyper-market organization, i.e., a global economy based on intensified commodity exchange. Once human history has produced the planetary home as a supermarket of desire, and the supermarket as a planetary home to billions, it is very difficult to see it leaving by means of a rationally willed, disciplinary political program.
This is why Easter matters today. I know of no other way to express this other than echoing the early Christians in their profession of faith, Jesus lives. This statement informs my views of how out of step the world is with the kingdom of God. This statement informs my political, social, communal, ecclesiastical, familial, and personal views. The resurrection is an invitation to participate in atonement. Thus, “every act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit, every work of true creativity – every time justice is done, peace is made, families are healed, temptation is resisted,” is an act of atonement and reconciliation.
My belief is that the kingdom of God is within each of us. Jesus has demonstrated what the kingdom looks like, he has shown us the nature of God, and he has shown that the darkness can never overcome the light even in the abyss. My hope is that we can live in light of the resurrection. As NT Wright expressed:
The bodily resurrection of Jesus is more than a proof that God performs miracles or that the Bible is true. …Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project, not to snatch people away from earth to heaven, but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about….
And in the light of that, according to Jesus himself and his first followers, everything in the world looks different, is different, must be approached differently. With Jesus’ death, the power structures of the world were called to account; with his resurrection, a new life, a new power, was unleashed upon the world. And the question is: How ought this to work out? What should we be doing as a result?