15th April, 2018
I was recently speaking with a colleague about different interpretations of the resurrection narratives. There are many ways of thinking about the significance of the resurrection, in fact as many interpretations are there are people. It was during this discussion that my friend said a curious thing. They said, “Of course the most orthodox view has always been that the body of Jesus walked out of the tomb.”
I’ve been thinking about that a great deal ever since. At one level I more or less agree with that assertion. I agree with it in the sense that it’s fair to say that the weight of Christian discourse on this subject over two thousand years has tended to support the idea that it was the body of Jesus that was raised from the dead. As you can probably tell, the way I expressed that point is slightly more nuanced than simply stating what the orthodox position is and I will explain why.
The word orthodox suggests correct belief. But can we ever define what is exactly the right thing for Christians to think on any single matter of faith? At best the word orthodox can only ever be applied to what a majority of people think or believe about a topic.
When we begin to dig down into history we quickly discover that beliefs described at various times as orthodox may not have been upheld by a majority of people, but rather were the conclusions reached by a powerful educated minority within the church. What I mean by this is that at many times in Christian history there has been a gap between the church’s official teaching and what is actually commonly believed by the people. So who is it that defines orthodox, the educated elite or a majority of church membership?
Another common assumption is that when we speak of something as orthodox we delude ourselves into thinking that a particular belief was established within Christianity has endured since the very beginning. This is not remotely true. Orthodoxy has changed and shifted with almost every successive generation of the church. It always amazes me to hear ideas described as orthodox when we know they may have been as recent in church history as last century.
Which really brings me to the nub of my dis ease with the term orthodox. Who is it who really has the right to determine just what correct belief really is? Those who bandy around the term make an assumption that they clearly know and understand what is right belief and what is not and that they possess sufficient knowledge to determine one from the other. Back when I was first ordained, I may have even been so bold myself…but time has a way of humbling many of us.
With that said, we return to the resurrection, hopefully with an open mind about what may or may not have happened. I have been reading a new book called Resurrecting Easter. In this book the writers discuss different understandings of the resurrection, particularly in terms of how the actual resurrection of Jesus has been portrayed in art. The reason for this particular focus is because the actual moment of resurrection is not recorded in the biblical Gospels. This is a curious thing, because there are all sorts of things that are included in the gospels about Jesus despite a lack of witnesses.
The birth narratives for example appear to be creative story telling rather than accurate history. A slightly less contentious example would be the story we begin lent with each year of Jesus fasting in the wilderness. Certainly some of those accounts are very colourful, especially given that they tell us Jesus went out into the wilderness alone. My point here, is that the gospels don’t shy away from filling in patchy parts of the Jesus story and yet across the four biblical gospels not one dares to suggest just what it was like at the precise moment life returned to the crucified Jesus.
Now, a very quick aside. There is a source that does tell us of the moment of resurrection. The Gospel of Peter, and text that did not make it into the canon of scripture, does contain an account of the first Easter morning unlike the ones you are probably familiar with.
“Now in the night when the Lord’s day dawned, as the soldiers were keeping guard two by two, there came a great sound in the heaven, and they saw the heavens opened and two men descend, shining with a great light, and drawing near to the tomb. And that stone which had been set on the door rolled away itself and went back to the side, and the tomb was opened and both of the young men entered in. When the soldiers saw that, they woke up the centurion and the elders. Then they saw again three men come out of the tomb, and two of them carrying the other, and a cross following, after them. And of the two they saw that their heads reached to heaven, but of him that was led by them that it reached beyond the heavens. And they heard a voice out of the heavens saying: Have you preached too those who sleep? And an answer was heard from the cross, saying: Yes.”
Anyway, while there is an account of the resurrection out there, the canon of scripture as we have inherited it is silent on the matter. The so-called orthodox belief that the body of Jesus got up and physically walked out of the tomb is not supported by scripture. In fact it is not mentioned at all. Instead we have two different traditions that begin with the gospels and then two more traditions that began with the church trying to fill in the gap left by the gospel narrative.
The first tradition found in the gospels is that of the empty tomb. These are the stories we are familiar with that refer to the guards at the entrance, women coming to wrap the body of Jesus and the stone rolled away and Jesus gone. We have some version of that story every Easter day.
The second tradition deals with the different visions of the risen Christ. Today’s gospel reading is part of that tradition. It affirms that in some respects the risen Jesus was very different. For example in today’s reading he appears suddenly and startles the disciples. In fact their initial response to his appearance is fear as they believe they are seeing a ghost. So this tradition points towards the risen Christ as being very different to you or I. Then the story suggests that while the appearance of Jesus was strange and spiritual in nature, it also affirms that he was recognisable and tangibly human in some sense as they touch him and he eats. So this second tradition affirms that Jesus was physical in some respects, but transformed and in some other way. It’s all quite mysterious really.
The writers of Resurrecting Easter suggest that there are two other resurrection traditions that are present in Christian tradition but are often overlooked. By the 4th century Christian art begins to fill in the missing part of the gospel narrative by imagining the moment Jesus escaped the tomb in two different ways. The first way imagines Jesus alone emerging from the tomb. In fact we have such an image in this church, in the stained glass window above the choir. That particular image imagines the tomb more like a grave site as we know it today, with the sleeping guards and Jesus rising up out of the earth. This is an understanding of the resurrection that became a dominant understanding in the western church.
But there are other artistic depictions of the resurrection that shaped a very different understanding in the eastern church. In these images Jesus is seen climbing out of the tomb with one foot clearly planted upon the Greek God hades. This symbolism clearly suggests that through the resurrection Jesus conquered death. But there are other figures in this image. With one hand Jesus is reaching down into the underworld and takes the hand of a man and a woman and is clearly lifting them out of the underworld. The man and the woman are Adam and Eve, but more deeply they symbolise all of humanity.
This final tradition can be called the universal resurrection tradition, because it suggests that it is not just Christ who emerges from the tomb into life made new. Rather the moment of resurrection is new life for all of creation. This is the deeper understanding of resurrection that is regarded as orthodox by the eastern church, but not by the western church, even though the ideas resonate positively with many of us.
In our time I think it is helpful for us to think less about what is right and wrong in terms of belief and to reflect more on what aspects of Christianity from across our vast and diverse history ring true for us. What are the stories, ideas, and imaginings that enable us to live more deeply into our experience of God? Orthodoxy, whatever we believe that to be, has never begun with assertions about what is right for everyone. Rather it begins with faithful people seeking to conform themselves to the will of God.
A few moments ago I used the word resonance. I did that intentionally because I think resonating with God is a helpful metaphor. For those of you who are Beatles fans, you may know that George Harrison developed a passion for Indian music. An instrument he particularly loved and became a good player of in his own right was the Sitar. Now sitar’s might not be your cup of tea, but from a musical standpoint they are fascinating. While the musician only ever plays a few strings on a sitar, they possess a number of what are called sympathetic strings. These are strings that are not actually plucked or strummed in any way, but when other notes are played they also begin to vibrate, enhancing the overall sound of the instrument.
I believe that as Christians it is not we who are playing the melody. The melody belongs to God. But we are part of the design. Our job is to become like the sympathetic strings on the sitar, the strings that resonate with the deeper music of God. So maybe we should focus less on being right, and more on being in tune. Amen.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant