Thursday, April 12, 2018

Riddles of the Resurrection

This week the Revised Common Lectionary reveals the riddles that remain amid the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection.

In Luke 24:36b-48, Jesus startles the disciples by his abrupt appearance, as if he has walked ghost-like through a solid wall. But Jesus insists he is no ghost, and he demonstrates the solidity of his flesh by eating fish. How does he do it, and what is really going on?

Even for lifelong mystics and dedicated theologians, the resurrection of a dead Jesus is hard to accept. I have known Christian educators who confessed their doubts.

“The resurrection is just not essential to my faith,” whispered one such educator as we sat in a darkened pub drinking beer.

My drinking companion was several years older than me and was seminary educated, which I was not. Otherwise I might have quoted Paul’s admonishment: “If Christ was not raised, your faith has nothing to it and you are still in your old state of sin.” (I Corinthians 15:17, REB). 

But I kept my mouth shut and my learned friend and I sipped our beers in silence. Recently he passed to the other side where eternal truths may have been revealed to him. For me, awkward questions persist. If Christ was not raised, what did happen that Passover week in Jerusalem that got everyone so excited?

Each year my Lenten devotions include readings from Jesus: A Pilgrimage by the Rev. James Martin, S.J. 

I was “gob-smacked” (to use Martin’s phrase) by his reference to a claim by New Testament scholar and archaeologist Jerome Murphy-O’Connor about whether the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the actual burial place of Jesus:
The most important argument for the authenticity of the site is the consistent and uncontested tradition of the Jerusalem community, which held liturgical celebrations at the site until AD 66.
Martin speculates that these celebrations had been taking place since about AD 45, less than 15 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Many of the celebrants witnessed that event and were so profoundly affected by subsequent events that they returned to the site for years to express their awe. What moved them so? Was it a contagion of hope? Mass hysteria? I prefer to believe they actually caught glimpses of a resurrected Jesus. But what exactly did they see?

Even the biblical accounts leave open questions. Immediately after his resurrection, Jesus’ closest friends didn’t recognize him. Mary Magdalene, the first to arrive at his empty tomb, didn’t realize Jesus was the man talking to her until he called her name.

In Luke 24, the resurrected Jesus joins two of his disciples on a walk to Emmaus, but Luke reports “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” (v.16). Mark reports, a bit mysteriously, that Jesus appeared to them “in another form” (Mark 16:12) which, as author Garry Wills writes in What Jesus Meant, is “hard to interpret.”
“Jesus appeared in numinous form (Wills writes) … his body was not the earthly body any more, but one both outside time and space and affecting time and space.” 
The resurrected body of Christ could pass through walls and, ultimately, ascend into heaven, but Jesus could also allow Thomas to touch his wounds of crucifixion. Even more amazing, Jesus could eat with his companions.

From our 21st century vantage point, where digital media create virtual realities on plasma screens, the sensationalism of the resurrection begins to dim. Jesus’ strange post-death appearances, which galvanized his contemporaries into the fiery evangelical movement that transformed the world, no longer excite many modern minds. The figure in the Easter stories makes the media jaundiced think of a benign zombie or, perhaps, an exhilarating Elvis sighting.

Looking back on my unfinished conversation with my Christian educator friend, I wonder if his problem with the resurrection was because he knew beyond doubt that a dead body could spring back to life in the same form as when life dwelled in it. 

Most clergy see dead bodies all too often and have observed they are cast-off, useless shells of the creature that once occupied them. Whether an individual dies in bed or in a violent accident, it is obvious to witnesses that something essential has departed from the body. A young cop viewing a murder victim for the first time never forgets how similar the inert remains look to that of a dead raccoon decaying on a country road. Dead is dead. Funeral directors whose business it is to make the deceased look lifelike know they must act quickly because death is immediately and totally disfiguring. The millions of microbiota that dwell symbiotically within become ravenous foragers of decaying flesh.

The most convincing argument against the resurrection of Jesus is every dead body you see – especially the ones that have lain three days without benefit of the mortuary arts.  

Even so, something extraordinary happened that Passover long ago that kept Jesus’ contemporaries returning worshipfully to the site of his crucifixion and inspired his disciples to risk their lives to keep his story alive.

Whatever happened, Professor Wills’ offers a helpful clue. Jesus’ resurrected body was not precisely the same earthly corpus that was killed on the cross, but a numinous body both outside time and space and affecting time and space.

How closely did that numinous body resemble the body of Jesus his disciples knew and loved? That’s hard to tell. Resurrected Jesus was often not recognized until he did something to call attention to himself. Only on rare occasions could the disciples actually touch him, and Jesus – when he chose to affect time and space – could eat food and – when he chose to be outside time and space – could disappear in front of their eyes.

What is that to us?

According to Paul, the numinous body of Jesus gives us a glimpse of our own numinous bodies when he shed our earthly shells. 
“So it is with the resurrection of the dead; what is sown as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (I Corinthians 15:42-44, REB)
What will our numinous bodies be like?

We hope, of course, that our resurrected bodies will be young, attractive, and – God willing – sexier versions of the husk we carried through life.

But more than that, I think.

My daughter Katie had a dear friend who, like her, was developmentally disabled on the autism spectrum. J was a charming young man who, despite his limitations, was a loving and delightful presence in all our lives. He was a caring and giving person and I have no doubt he walked this earth exactly as God intended him to be.

When J fell ill with leukemia, neither he nor Katie were fully able to understand what was happening. We loved him and when he died, we mourned him deeply.  

Not long after his death, I dreamed I was sitting at a table with a young man I slowly recognized as J. He was relaxed and his eyes twinkled and he engaged in light conversation. It was only after I woke up that I realized J and I were conversing at a level he could not have attained when he was alive, a conversation filled with humor and subtle nuance. He demonstrated insights and understandings that would have been beyond him.

I like to believe I was receiving an important message in that dream. I was introduced to J as he will appear at his resurrection.

I certainly do not suggest that J was incomplete when he lived among us, but there were many things his disability prevented him from understanding. But so it is with all of us: while we live on this earthly plain, there are many mysteries we will never comprehend. 

But the promise of Jesus is that God will restore us to a higher level of understanding when our own numinous live outside time and space but continue to experience the affects of time and space. 

Exactly how that will happen, as Professor Wills acknowledges, is “hard to interpret.” 

But for those who view death as an inevitable result of the time and space in which we are imprisoned, it’s good to be reminded that God transcends our earthly limitations. 

And we cling to this hope: that what has been sown in us in weakness will be raised in power.