When the Resurrection is reduced to something that happened to one man two millennia ago we miss out. We miss out on the richness that this Resurrection parable can point to – a participatory vision, which embraces all humanity, a vision of a journey from death to life, from violence to peace, from famine to feasting. The Western Church by and large has interpreted the Resurrection as something that God did to the individual called Jesus. The Eastern Church however has interpreted it as something universal, that God has done and is doing for humanity.
Dom and Sarah Crossan, in their new book Resurrecting Easter[ii] begin by asking us to imagine.
Imagine you a learned Jew at the end of the first century and you read the Marken story of the empty tomb we heard this morning. You know that God can exalt very holy individuals to life in Heaven. You know about Enoch[iii], Elijah[iv], and Moses. Unlike Enoch and Elijah who were ‘taken up’, the Moses tradition has him dying[v] [with his burial site unknown] but also taken back to God.[vi] You would recognize that Mark 16 intends to surpass these holy predecessors by escalating from ‘no tomb’ for Enoch and Elijah, to ‘unknown tomb’ for Moses, to ‘empty tomb’ for Jesus. This escalation is saying, and the point of the empty-tomb tradition is saying, that Jesus surpasses Moses, the founder of Judaism.
As a learned Jew in the late first century you would also be aware of the Greco-Roman romance of “Chaereas and Callirhoe”. Part of the plot has Callirhoe, supposedly dead but actually only comatose, placed in a tomb and then abducted by grave robbers. You might imagine that Jesus had similarly, whether dead or comatose, been abducted.
Imagine next that you are a Roman philosopher and you read Matthew 28:1-20, i.e. the two Matthean post-Easter appearance stories. You recognise that Matthew’s themes of mystery, vision, and mandate are very similar to the traditional story about Romulus.[vii] There is mystery about the disappearance of both, and then there is reappearance explained and confirmed by a vision. In Jesus’ case two women saw him ‘fully alive’, and in Romulus’ case a man ‘of noble birth’ saw him. Finally both Jesus and Romulus give their followers a mandate for the world and a reassurance of their continued presence in it.
Like with the learned Jew that hears the Jesus sect proclaiming their founder as greater than Moses, the Roman philosopher hears the Jesus sect proclaiming their founder as the new Romulus – Romulus of course being the hero and founder of the Roman Empire. The common matrix is that a heroic individual disappears mysteriously from Earth and reappears recognizably from Heaven.
There is however one very surprising aspect of the Jesus empty-tomb and risen-vision traditions and that is the word ‘resurrection’. Why not use the word ‘exalted’, or ‘ascended’, or ‘assumed’ into Heaven? There is a clue in the Matthew story. Chapter 27:52: [after Jesus died; ‘the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised’. In this account Resurrection was not just individual and personal for Jesus alone, but communal and corporate.
In pre-Christian Judaism Ascension and Resurrection refer to divergent theological visions; Ascension is for an individual – like Enoch, Elijah and Moses – but Resurrection is for all humanity. Judaism never imagines an individual Resurrection for one, but only a universal Resurrection for all.
Judaism imagined that God would eventually transform war’s violent injustice into peace’s nonviolent justice – and not just for Israel, but for the whole Earth. As the prophets Isaiah[viii] and Micah[ix] in the 700s BCE proclaimed, God would transform the Earth: ‘swords into ploughshares’, a ‘universal feast for all peoples’, and God would ‘swallow up death forever’.
500 years later Jewish thinking broadened to include not only a dream of transformative justice for the now living and those to come, but a dream of justice for those already dead. The entire human race – present, future, and past – would experience transformation by means of a universal Resurrection.
Mainstream Jewish thinking at the time believed that such a transformation would happen by an instant lightning strike of divine intervention, for which the faithful can pray and hope but not actively initiate or participate in.
Enter Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth. He believed this universal transformation [also known as the Kingdom of God] was already present, but only if we accept it, participate in it, and collaborate with it. The now is the future, the future is now. The Kingdom was not a one-off coming event.
For emergent Christ communities in the first century the universal Resurrection too was a process, a programme, rather than an instantaneous event. For first century Pharisaic Jews the resurrection of the dead ones [anastasis nekron][x] was the first order of business ‘on that day’ [the day of the event] when God would transform the world by changing violence to peace and injustice to justice. For the Christ followers that universal Resurrection as a process had already begun, and in which we followers are called to participate.
Remember the words of St Paul, “If there is no resurrection of the dead [anastasis nekron] then Christ has not been raised”[xi]. Paul as a Christian Jewish Pharisee could never isolate Christ’s Resurrection as a special, individual privilege for him alone, for that would be an Ascension. Christ’s Resurrection is something far, far greater than that. It is the Resurrection of all humanity in, with, by, and through Christ.
The universal Resurrection is a vision with three parts. Firstly, the conquest of death - personified in icons by either a prostrate Hades persona or by the flattened gates of the place called Hades [as in our icon this morning]. Secondly, the deliverance of humanity – personified in icons by Adam and Eve the archetypal parents of all humanity living and dead. Thirdly, the liberation wrought by Jesus – his nonviolent resistance to violence, portrayed in the icons by his cross and wounds.
The crucifixion and resurrection story is a parable against civilisation. The Kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed is an anti-kingdom, which shows an alternative to the peace-through-violence, stability-through-power- and-wealth modus operandi of the kingdoms of human civilisation. Violent revolt against violent injustice is understandable, but even if defensible, it causes the escalatory spiral of violence of human civilisation to continue or even intensify. Nonviolent resistance, planned, organised, controlled and universalised hopes to detour the trajectory of escalatory violence.
The Crucifixion and Resurrection offer us a parable bigger than themselves. When Christ, rising from the dead after being executed for nonviolent resistance grasps the hands of Adam and Eve, a parable of possibility and a metaphor of hope for all humanity is created. The Crucifixion and Resurrection imagery challenges our species to save our world and planet by transcending the violence we perpetuate as civilisation’s norm.
Pete Rollins, an Irish theologian, was asked if his theoretical position led him to denying the Resurrection of Christ. He replied:
“This question allows me the opportunity to communicate clearly and concisely my thoughts on the subject, which I repeat here. Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the Resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think...
I deny the Resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the cause of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the Resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to a violent, unjust and corrupt system.
However there are moments when I affirm that Resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”
Those who want a living, breathing, Galilean-looking Jesus to be back from the grave in order to lead us into God’s Kingdom will be disappointed with Rollins. For he is saying in effect, ‘Yes Jesus is resurrected. He’s alive. But where do you think he’s living? He’s living in each one of us, and is manifested every time we take the side of the downtrodden, treat those poorer or less able than ourselves as equals, and stand up against endemic violence in our world. When we do these things we not only show forth his Resurrection but the universal Resurrection – the journey of humanity from death to life.’
We are the resurrection and the life - just as the Samaritan was to the man beaten and left for dead on the Jericho Road. We are the resurrection and the life – just as the father of the prodigal sons was as he sought to restore those lads to each other and to him. We are the resurrection and the life each time we risk caring for a needy stranger, angering those who maintain the borders of our society’s comfort, or defending/befriending a child who is imprisoned by the dysfunction of family and community. We are the resurrection and the life each and every time we take to the streets, to the blogs and papers, to howl our outrage at the systems of that keep inequality, injustice, and violence as normative ways of operating. We are the resurrection and the life, if only we will take courage to live into our calling.
[i] Note, a significant portion of this sermon is a synthesis of the work of Dom and Sarah Crossan cited below.
[ii] J.D. Crossan & Sarah Sexton Crossan Resurrecting Easter: How the West lost and the East kept the original Easter vision, New York: Harper One, 2018.
[iii] Genesis 5:24.
[iv] 2 Kings 2.
[v] Deuteronomy 34.
[vi] Jewish Antiquities 3.97
[vii] Plutarch, Life of Romulus, 27-28.
[viii] Isaiah 2:2-4.
[ix] Micah 4:3.
[x] Romans 1:4
[xi] 1 Corinthians 15:13.